Reviews

The wild dead by Carrie Vaughn

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Fans of the Philip K. Dick Award–winning Bannerless will be pleased to see Investigator Enid once again, this time trying to solve a mystery in a remote community. Set in a dystopian future where society has collapsed, small towns have sprung up along the Coast Road.  Resources are strictly rationed and birth control tightly managed. Enid of Haven sets out with trainee Teeg, to mediate a dispute about the preservation of an old building in a distant settlement. When they arrive, they are confronted not just with the case they were sent to fix, but the body of a young woman has been found on the shore. She is an outsider, living in the wild, and has been murdered. Enid is determined to discover the truth even though Teeg argues that it is not their business.

In many ways discovering who murdered the young woman is secondary to the philosophical questions of ensuring that the truth be told, and that people are treated with kindness. Enid is not a woman who takes the easy way out. Her conscience demands that she is utterly sure of what has happened. She is not prepared to pin the murder on the most obvious suspect and travels inland through dangerous country seeking the murdered woman’s tribe. This leads to dissension between her and her partner Teeg.

The issue of ensuring that societies can provide for themselves by minimising population growth is also explored. A family unit must prove themselves capable of contributing to the greater of their community good as well as look after a child before being given a banner that allows them to have a baby. Enid finds that in the settlement where the young woman has been murdered, old hurts about birth control must be investigated, while in the wild she finds a society with no birth control just managing to hold itself together.

This is thoughtful dystopian fiction that will be enjoyed by readers who enjoy thinking about what society would look like if everything had broken down. The wild dead could be read as a standalone, but readers will enjoy the growth of Enid as a mentor and leader if they have followed her coming of age in Bannerless. I look forward to another novel in this series.

Themes Dystopian fiction, Science fiction, Murder, Birth control.

Pat Pledger

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When days tilt by Karen Ginnane

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When Days Tilt is a young adult fantasy novel from Australian children’s author, Karen Ginnane. The book is split between two worlds, two characters and two realities. In 1850s London, Ava is an apprentice to her watchmaker father. Bored and unfulfilled by the future set out for her, she dreams of adventure but is shocked when she finds it.

Meanwhile, in the mirror version city of Donlon, Jack is an orphan learning to be a blacksmith. What begins as a normal day ends in horror when one good deed catapults him into unexpected danger. When Ava and Jack meet they feel an instant connection; as if they have known each other all their lives. As they endeavour to untangle the secrets of their pasts and families, they must race against time to stop a mysterious villain who threatens the people of both of their worlds.

When Days Tilt is a unique story. The novel revolves around the themes of time and space with both historical and futuristic elements used, due to its dual settings. Ava and Jack are sympathetic and believable characters. Their clear motivations explain the choices they make throughout the book.

Unfortunately however, the last act of the novel feels rushed and confused, as Ginnane introduces new characters, events and plot lines with far too little of the story left to play out. When Days Tilt is intended to be the first in a series so while the author can be excused for laying the groundwork for the next installation, it is clumsily done.

Nevertheless, When Days Tilt is an engaging historical fantasy that will be enjoyed by children and young adults.

Themes Family, Time, Adventure, Fantasy, Historical, London.

Rose Tabeni

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My first book of Aussie animals by Gordon Winch. Illus. by Stephen Pym

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Very young children will be fascinated by this lift-the-flap book that features well known Australian animals, the kangaroo, koala, platypus, echidna, and possum. The refrain 'Look at me. What do you see?' will be one that children will want to repeat with the reader and then they will have fun lifting the flap to discover what is underneath. The text describing each animal is simple – four lines of information that is easy to understand but which points out the main features of each animal. Emerging readers will also have fun repeating the refrain and reading the details about each animal, all of which is printed in clear print.

The illustrations are ones that children will like. The kangaroo and its joey have smiles on their faces, while the night sky and dark trees that form a background for the ring-tailed possum, clinging to a fence, are gorgeous. Children will be fascinated by the little details that are on each double page spread. There are pictures of butterflies, flowers, birds and lizards on every page, and these will provide lots of opportunity for young children to learn about the environment where the animals live. And the last page features all the animals for the child to find and has a bonus mirror which will provide lots of fun.

Not only will young children learn about five iconic Australian animals but will learn about plants, birds and other animals from the cute illustrations in this sturdy board book.

Themes Australian animals.

Pat Pledger

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I am angry by Michael Rosen. Illus. by Robert Starling

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Anyone seeing a child stomp around a room, classroom or play area will immediately sympathise with the character in this book.  The kitten is angry. So angry they jump up and down, roll around and around, make a din and throw the mouse into the bin. So angry that they tear down trees and bully the bees, scare tigers, even quietening a tree full of birds.

In rhyming lines inviting the reader to predict the rhyming word, even offering some of their own, the reader will see just how angry the kitten is, seeing all in its path disposed of in some way.

Games are destroyed, words boiled, balloons busted, even things in space are not immune. The moon is squashed, the kitten terrifies the sun and after scaring off the giant paints the whole sky red and all that effort makes the kitten so tired, there is only one place to be.

A very funny, laugh out loud look at anger and its various guises, readers will recognise many of the antics, seen both in themselves and displayed by those around them.

Rosen developed the idea after seeing one of his children develop a rage, anger at being small.  Readers will compare their mood with those seen on the page, laugh at the way the kitten resolves its anger and consequently laugh at themselves. The resolution of the story will bring sighs of recognition and empathy, especially so with the wonderful illustrations, showing a ferocious cat with the angriest look on its face, shown on the wonderful  first endpapers with just the eyes, mouth and eyebrows, then the last endpapers showing a kitten at rest. Readers will enjoy looking closely at the illustrations, seeing how so much is told through a few well placed strokes, and how the anger is displayed so well, while the background is detailed and funny.

Themes Anger, Verse, Family, Kitten.

Fran Knight

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Gold diggers by Sanjena Sathian

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Neil is captivated by Anita, his childhood friend, who seems to have become so self-contained, aloof in a way, and unreachable. The relationship reminded me of Pip and Estella in Dicken’s Great Expectations, but Anita is not quite so unattainable and cold. She has a secret, and when Neil discovers it, he wants it too. Gold. Drinking a special lemonade concoction that includes melted gold, treasured gold embodying the former owner’s wishes and dreams, brings to the drinker the strength and drive to achieve the best; an ambition and determination that Neil is sadly lacking in, according to his aspiring Indian American family.

Gold is a fascinating element. History is full of stories of gold fever, mass migrations to seek out the treasure that might change fortunes. A secondary narrative thread in Gold diggers is Neil’s obsession, as an historian, to research early Indian migration to America, and the story of the Hindu gold digger that continually seems to elude him. The story of the Bombayan becomes a symbol of the unrecognised identity, the sense of belonging he seeks. Neil is not a migrant, he was born in America, and perhaps there are hidden roots to his identity that go back further than his migrant family’s story.

But the main concern is that for Neil, gold becomes a drug, an addiction that leads him to cruelly hurt a gullible young woman. His actions become a shame that he carries with him always. This sets the groundwork for Sathian’s novel, a story that is mysterious and intriguing, but also incredibly comic in some of the situations that are described. At times Neil seems one of those figures like Nick in The Great Gatsby, the observer, the drifter, the person on the outside of the action, never able to be the hero. But he becomes enmeshed in a plot that goes crazily in unexpected directions and he has to finally take action.

Gold diggers is an original adventure, combining history, fantasy and issues of identity and belonging. It is complex, entertaining and rewarding on an intellectual level as well.

Themes Gold, Gold fever, Ambition, Identity, Migrant experience.

Helen Eddy

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A dog's courage by W. Bruce Cameron

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This is an awesome story! Although I am usually not attracted to animal stories, this book won me over and I can see why previous books by this author have been made into movies. In this story the central canine character - Bella, and her humans - Lucas and Olivia, are confronted by a traumatic forest fire experience. The tension of escape and survival is communicated so ably by Bella as first they catapult their vehicle into a forest lake and then work with a small team to rescue abandoned animals in a small-town animal shelter which is right in the path of the devastating fire front. Later, Bella is reacquainted with an old friend named Big Kitten, a cougar that Bella had befriended in a previous adventure. In this book Bella and Big Kitten are joined by Big Kitten’s own offspring in escaping multiple threats in the changed environment. There is action aplenty as the post-fire world presents all manner of difficulties and yet Bella always is drawn to her inner call of the love of her humans and the desire to “come home”.

This is not a children’s story, it is powerfully written and with great tension, despite the naive perspective of Bella as the narrative voice. With adult human participants and life-threatening dangers communicated with profound skill, the audience for this book should be at least 13+, but adults will also enjoy the tale. This is a book that you cannot put down, from the prologue that reveals a horrific backstory to the awful wildfire, all the way through the interactions between humans under stress and wild animal attacks. There are many moments of tension in the book, but the voice of Bella also reveals some humorous insights into a dog’s life. Overall, underlying this dramatic tale is a simple story of the love of a dog for his human companions (and his Cougar friends) and the lengths that each will go to in order to be reacquainted.

Themes Animal story, Survival, Forest fire, Animal-Human relationship.

Carolyn Hull

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Baby's first train robbery by Jim Whalley & Stephen Collins

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The words just rattle along in this lovely, nonsensical rhyming tale of Baby Frank and his attempts to go back home. He and his parents are on holiday by the sea. But all he can think about are his animals left back home with only his Grandma to look after them. She may be good at walking and knitting, but he is most concerned that she will not be able to tiger-sit or look after the apes. He decides that there is only one thing to do; he must go back home. He leaves a note on the sand for his parents, and rushes off to the train station. After waiting in the train cab with nothing happening, he moves a lever and the train sets off. This results in panic by one and all; his parents read the note and take flight, the emergency services are all alerted, the TV cameramen, journalists and on-lookers all arrive to point and stare. And what do they see? The train is headed for a ravine, and Frank is too small to reach the brake.

Kids will love the excitement and humour of this tale, as they worry with Frank about his animals, then are concerned that the train will go over the ravine, then breath a sigh of relief as Grandma and the animals save the day, and Frank.

Readers will love predicting the rhyming words, love repeating the lines with the reader, enjoy learning some of the lines to reiterate when the story is read again, and above all love following Frank and his exploits.

The neat ending will appeal, giving readers the opportunity to contribute some of their own resolutions to the problem.

All of this is wrapped around some very intriguing illustrations, showing Frank in his striped suit, having a great time as he heads the train for home. Kids will love spotting all the animals that dot the pages, and thrill with the hapless parents as they try to help Frank in his predicament.

A fitting sequel to Baby’s first bank heist (2018) and Baby’s first jailbreak (2020).

Themes Family, Trains, Holidays, Zoos, Grandparents, Verse.

Fran Knight

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You love me by Carolyn Kepnes

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Before attempting this book readers should have read the previous books in the series, You and Hidden Bodies or at least be familiar with them through Netflix. The protagonist, Joe Goldberg has moved to a small town 35 minutes from Seattle for a quiet life, volunteering at the local library. We soon learn that he has been paid off by the rich family of the mother of his child, Love Quinn, on the understanding he never contacts her or attempts to see the child; he is bitter and angry about the arrangement. Joe has made a donation of $100,000 to the library and to avoid the background check which would have revealed his prison record and in the first person narration we are soon immersed in his inner dialogue. “I moved here because I thought it would be easier to be a good person around other good people, I moved here because the murder rate is low, as in not a single f.... murder in over twenty years” p12, but he has brought something dark into the community. Joe is instantly attracted to Mary Kay DiMarco, the librarian and he fantasises about their developing relationship, carefully cultivating her attention through shared lunches and Instagram posts. He keeps himself under control when he is introduced to her friends whose descriptions would rival some of the most distasteful social media posts by jealous “friends”. He has nasty nicknames for some of the people he meets, people at the library are "mothballs” and his neighbours are “fecal eyes", Mary Kay’s daughter is "Meercat” and they are repeated too many times. I haven’t read the previous books or seen the Netflix adaptations and wasn’t able to complete this book. The plot is tediously thin, filled with unattractive characters I could not care about and the denouement  is unconvincing.

Themes Obsession, Psychopath.

Sue Speck

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The Warsaw orphan by Kelly Rimmer

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Each of Kelly Rimmer’s novels has performed well on the best seller lists; her subjects are well-researched and characters and settings presented in a readable, engaging form.

She has written about post natal depression, adoption and addiction and the Holocaust.

The Things we Cannot Say tells of family secrets when a Polish family is caught up in the ravages of World War 1.  The Warsaw Orphan was inspired by a real life heroine who smuggled many Jewish children to safety, again, set in Poland.  The revelations of life in the Warsaw Ghetto are frightening to read but this story goes some way to ensuring that the memories of these times and places are not forgotten. The author tackles a heart wrenching and challenging situation, but by focussing on two teenagers this story is suitable for both YA and adult readers. In 1942, Elzbieta (her real name, Emilia) is living in Warsaw as normally as possible but she soon becomes aware of the injustices of life in the Ghetto, when she makes contact with the Gorka family living there, through a friendship she has made with a nurse who lives in her apartment building. Alternate narratives of Emilia and Roman Gorka carry us through this story of love, courage and inspiration, as they become deeply involved with Sara’s dangerous mission.

Themes Jews in Poland, Survival, World War, 1939-1945.

Julie Wells

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The elephant in the room by Holly Goldberg Sloan

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What a gem of a book!  Sila’s family are Turkish migrants to the USA, and an unfortunate work-related conflict causes Sila’s mother to have to return to Turkey to iron out a migration issue. Unfortunately, this proves to be a more complex issue than anyone would want and Sila discovers the grief of separation and the pain of isolation. Her wonderful father takes her with him to a mechanical job on a farming property and there Sila meets a delightful rich older widower named Gio, a man whose grief lingers following the death of his wife (who was coincidentally one of Sila’s former teachers). A journey of friendship begins that includes the generous old man, an elephant, flamingos and a classmate on the Autism spectrum. Everything combines to provide joy where it had not been, reconciliation and the possibility of new things despite obstacles and grief from the past. And all of this revolves around the ex-circus elephant.

This is a heart-warming story by the author of Counting by 7s that deals with a variety of issues in a child-friendly way. Sila’s experience of overcoming her personal heartaches through new friendship possibilities and the acquisition of an elephant are uplifting. The young autistic boy has character and value and his concerns are dealt with in a life-affirming way. This is a delightful story and one that I will be recommending to students aged 9-14. It is certainly a different scenario for Australian students, but it will appeal to animal lovers and those who are prepared to step inside of the shoes of other children who are not exactly like themselves.

Themes Elephants, Circus, Friendship, Immigration issues, Autism.

Carolyn Hull

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Namesake by Adrienne Young

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After reading Fable in virtually one sitting, I immediately turned to Namesake, desperate to continue reading about the adventures of Fable and her companions from the Marigold. Once again I was swept into a world of intrigue, sailing ships, diving and dangerous men. Namesake continues on immediately after the cliff-hanger that concluded Fable, with Fable a pawn in Zoya’s evil plans. As she desperately tries to get away, she finds herself immersed in a world where secrets about her father Saint and mother are uncovered and the crew of the Marigold are put into danger.

It is difficult to write too much without giving away the plot, but needless to say, there is adventure galore, gems to trade with, exciting underwater caves to explore and family dynamics to contend with. Descriptions of the simmering romance between Fable and West, make Namesake more suitable for an older audience that Fable, but romance lovers will delight in their relationship. The themes of finding a family and loyalty to friends are also explored as Fable has to work out who she can trust and how she can protect the crew of the Marigold.

Young wraps up the duology in a most satisfying conclusion and readers will be eagerly waiting for the next book that she writes. In the meantime, if they haven’t read her earlier book, Sky in the deep, they will want to pick that up, and may want to read books by Leigh Bardugo, especially Six of Crows.

Themes Ships, Sailing, Diving, Political intrigue, Families, Adventure.

Pat Pledger

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An alien in the jam factory by Chrissie Sains. Illus. by Jenny Taylor

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Chrissie Sain's debut novel An alien in the jam is a highly inventive, humorous romp of a first chapter book. It is a very busy book both in the plans and inventions of the central character young Scooter and the pace of the plot. Interesting, detailed illustrations and labelled diagrams complement the text and appear on every page to delight the young reader. The busyness extends to the interior of the jam factory which is the setting of the book. An alien in the jam could be described as a book form of the game of Mousetrap with the addition of goodies, likeable, klutzy baddies and secret patents for inventions.

Scooter's life is entirely about creativity with the intent being to invent and protect the patents on wonderful jams for the family jam factory. Scooter has Cerebral Palsy but he has marvellous adaptive aids, handbot 1 and 2, to help him with the physical side of his condition. Scooter was born with a super-creative brain and being more intelligent than his parents, is responsible for the creation of the marvellous secret jam recipes and the success of the family factory. Ofcourse there is a villain who wants the secret recipes. Her name is Daffy Dodgy. She and Boris, her guineapig sidekick, devise a break-in and find that Scooter and his new friend, an alien called Fizzbee, are more than a match for them. 

Scooter was a lonely child but he finds friendship with Fizzbee. The silliness in An alien in the jam is quite natural and unforced. Read aloud with attention to varying the different character's voices would be amusing for young children as the dialogue lends itself to performance. It's a fun book.

Through identifying with the thoroughly likeable Scooter, children might be provoked to delve without restriction into the creative, inventive worlds of their own imaginations.

Themes Inventions, Creativity, Friendship.

Wendy Jeffrey

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Heartstopper volume 4 by Alice Oseman

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This volume of the Heartstopper graphic novel contains chapters five and six of the ongoing story of Nick and Charlie’s developing relationship. The boyfriends have come out to their school friends and are moving into their final school years but Charlie’s anxiety is ramping up as he worries about declaring his love for Nick. He is also having problems eating which is worrying Nick who doesn’t know how to help his friend. At the same time Nick’s mostly absent father doesn’t know about his son’s gender preference and a family event is looming.

Navigating this difficult time of life with all its complications is delicately and authentically depicted. Helped by family and a close group of friends, who are not afraid to ask difficult questions when they see the boys struggling, Charlie acknowledges his friend’s mental illness and that he can’t cure him but he and their group are able to help. ‘Love can’t cure mental illness” p. 1073, but the following pages show just how supportive they can be. “Sometimes people need more support than just one person can give” p. 1087,  and it is not only Nick and Charlie who need friends but others who don’t fit in to mainstream gender roles including teachers. Eventually Charlie gets the help he needs and his long journey towards recovery begins.

Well-paced with just the right amount of important information inserted at the right moment, Charlie and Nick’s story is full of affection and fun in black and white comic graphics presented in varied frames with handwritten text making it very accessible even without reading the previous volumes. There are mental health resources at the end though these are mainly UK based. According to the author illustrator’s website the series began in 2016 as a serialised ongoing webcomic and there is a wealth of extra content online all of which will be of interest to young adults especially from the LGBTQ community or their friends and family.

Themes LGBTQ issues, Anorexia, mental illness, friendship.

Sue Speck

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Twitch by M.G. Leonard

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Twitch (real name Corvus) is a young lad who has become an expert in birdwatching in his local area. Unfortunately, although birds are fond of him, he is often bullied at school. Being a birder is not always cool amongst his peers. Fortunately, he is rescued from being made to eat a worm at the hand of the bully, Jack, by a newcomer to the district, at the same time that a convicted robber has escaped and everyone is on alert. Twitch’s great observation skills and his attempts to train his homing pigeons lead him to becoming embroiled in solving the mystery of the missing robber and uncovering the truth about a past injustice. Along the way he must learn who to trust and who are his friends.

This is a charming story, with action aplenty and respect for the quiet pursuit of birdwatching. It also reveals the transformation of the young birder, Twitch, from loner to friend; and the change in Jack from bully and then victim, to understanding friend. Written in a charming way we see the ingenious Twitch show environmental care and inventiveness and also great ingenuity in solving a crime, but first he has to work out how to trust. This will be enjoyed by young readers aged 8-12.

Themes Birdwatching, Bullying, Crime, Lies and truth, Friendship.

Carolyn Hull

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Found you, little wombat by Angela McAllister and Charles Fuge

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Little Wombat loves to play hide and seek with his friends Koala and Rabbit but he gets distracted when it is his time to count to ten and find his hidden friends. Unfortunately, when the weather changes, he becomes lost in the rain by himself. Feeling sad and alone Little Wombat is happily discovered by his Mum and friends.

This story will appeal to young children who love to play and wander but get concerned when they stray too far from Mum and Dad. Most children have experienced that “getting lost” feeling at some time. Children will enjoy Koala and Rabbit asking Little Wombat to count to ten and he counts “two, ten.”

There are lots of close-up illustrations of Little Wombat as he is at the centre of the story. His feelings are very clearly on display from his wonder at looking at the flowers to his sadness sitting in the rain.

There are several other Little Wombat stories that can be enjoyed.

This is an endearing picture book for pre-schoolers and junior primary students.

Themes Wombats.

Jane Moore

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