Reviews

Where the world ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

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This extraordinary novel, based on a true story about a group of men and boys stranded on a rocky outcrop (a Stac) in the North Sea for nine months, is riveting as McCaughrean ponders their survival. She gives each of the nine boys and three men a name and a back story, making sure each is recognisable and memorable.

The group is dropped off each summer to collect, kill and dry some of the birds which roost there, raising their chicks through the spring. The work is perilous and stories are handed down of some of their predecessors falling to their deaths as they scale the vertical cliffs. They must climb the rocks to the nests, using rope made by the islanders and handed down from one family to the next. They dry the dead birds, first taking their feathers to take back for bedding, and sharpening the quills for needles, an extra source of income for this isolated community.

Even getting to the island is breathtaking: each having to leap from the boat to the rocky edge as the boat rises with the waves.

These people are from the island of Hirta, the westernmost island in the St Kilda Archipelago, on the west coast of Scotland. The last inhabitants unsurprisingly opted to leave in 1930, settling on the mainland.

But this story takes place two hundred years before. In this tale, the men are in awe of one who calls himself minister, imposing the more objectionable traits of Christianity upon them, causing the younger ones to blanche with fear, but Quilliam a little older than these, offers a safe haven. Outcast, he finds a ledge where he can shelter, and it is to his cave that they come for a rest from the tyrant. Eventually the man leaves, commandeering the raft and sailing off for an island nearby from which he can signal their community.

But why they have been abandoned is a question they all ask, the minister saying that it is the end of the world and they have been forgotten by God. They dream of their families in Heaven and long to be with them.

The cold and wet is a constant throughout this long story, documenting their mental state as they cope with each other, the hunger and isolation. It was said that boys going fowling came back men, and this experience in 1727 made sure of that.

Themes Isolation, Survival, Scotland, Fishing, Historical novel, Abandonment, Religion, Birds.

Fran Knight

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Scoop McLaren : Waves of mystery by Helen Castles

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Scoop McLaren, a  feisty, thirteen year old journalist/detective is the main character in Scoop McLaren : Waves of mystery. This is a second book starring Scoop. This time she stumbles across a crime involving bribery, corruption and sabotage.

Scoop and her friends live in a coastal town probably on the Australian east coast. A surfing competition is being staged and the prize money is considerable. Scoop's friend Fletch is a champion surfer. Inexplicable and dangerous  things start to happen to him. Surfing events are rigged, people go missing and strange things happen but Scoop and her friend Evie are ever watchful and resourceful. The reader must attend to detail because it is in remembered conversations and tiny, inconsequential events that the mystery is solved. The attentive reader might remember clues along the way and come to their own conclusions. 

The book is narrated in first person by Scoop. Regularly inserted within and between the chapters are news scoops by Scoop as appearing in her online newspaper. 

Helen Castles, the author,  herself a roving news reporter, is  an excellent position to authentically create and describe the action-packed, problem solving approach that characterises Scoop as she pursues crime busting answers and news worthy information.

It is pleasing to see crime/mystery/detective books reemerge onto the children's literature scene. Crime books demand a high level of engagement with text. The motivation for attention to detail and plot for the reader is to try to successfully solve the crime themselves. Reading crime has to develop excellent reading strategies!

This is a light and humorous novel that showcases friendship, loyalty and  intelligent thinking and action on the part of young adolescent protagonists.  It is a very enjoyable read with just the right amount of challenge for would-be crime solvers! Teacher's notes are available.

Themes Detectives, Mystery, Crime, Surfing, Journalism.

Wendy Jeffrey

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Bears don't wear shoes by Sharon Davey

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Suzie and her family have moved house, but everyone is so busy unpacking and moving things into various rooms that no one has time for Suzie.  She asks Mum for a biscuit, asks Dad for some time to play with her and asks Grandma if she will play dress ups, but everyone brushes her aside, carrying their load of things to put away. 

Suzie decides to do something about this and advertises for a friend. Initially no one applies for the job, but one morning a bear appears. She takes him inside and interviews him to see if he is suitable. She asks him if he likes biscuits and he gobbles down the whole plateful. She asks if he likes to paint and judging by the mess of paint over that page, yes he does! She puts Grandpa’s hat on his head to see if he likes dress ups and then hands him a pair of shoes. At this he baulks and roars at her that bears do not wear shoes. No matter what she does, he is adamant that he does not wear shoes. She has a problem to solve.

A wonderful solution will greet the reader already intrigued with the warmly funny laugh out loud illustrations, showing the two trying to overcome their problem.  And the lovely family oriented resolution at the end will be another tick for an audience already smiling with loads of good humour. The endpapers too will delight readers as they see another layer of story with the first endpaper revealing a house with little adornment contrasting with the last endpaper showing the detritus of a family having moved in.

And visual jokes abound, allowing readers to peruse the detail on each page, happily pointing out what they have found, sharing their finds with others.

Concentrating on problem solving, friendship and family, this book will have wide appeal.

A book trailer is available as well as teacher's notes

Themes Bears, Family, Friendship, Problem solving.

Fran Knight

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The time-travelling caveman by Terry Pratchett

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This is a mixed-up collection of weird, zany, funny stories by the amazing Terry Pratchett. Terry died in 2015 but these stories were published in newspapers, Bucks Free Press and Western Daily Press when he was a young 17-year-old. This is the last publication of his work, with some of his earliest stories. The book is thoughtfully dedicated to 17-year-old Terry himself.

There are 17 different short stories and they cover such crazy topics as “The Time-Travelling Caveman”, the title of this collection to “Lemonade on the Moon” about a group of children who have invented a machine to travel in space and must return to the moon to retrieve a discarded lemonade bottle before the first astronaut is to step onto the moon’s surface and discover its existence. As the reader, you can never really predict where any of the stories are going to take you and the wonderful illustrations by Mark Beech just add to the craziness. They do reflect their time and place with several references to Great Britain, but this does not detract from the stories in anyway. I particularly enjoyed “The Mark One Computer” story where an out-of-date computer finds a happy ending. A lot of the stories end abruptly and some are very short but they would make a great quick read aloud when you have 5 or 10 minutes to spare.

The appealing dust jacket, with the time travelling caveman cheerfully spinning in time, covers another wonderful vivid illustration of “Mr Trapcheese and his Ark”.  Mark Beech’s illustrations remind me of Quentin Blake, for they have a similar quirky, energetic feel about them.

This book would be a great read for students aged 7 to 11 years old. A book trailer can be found here.

Jane Moore

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Positively Izzy by Terri Libenson

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Positively Izzy by Terri Libensonis a hybrid book - a combination of graphic novel and illustrated diary.

The story follows two middle school aged girls (Brianna - the brain and Izzy - the dreamer) who are both navigating complex family dynamics, shifting friendship groups, boys, school and other concerns of tween/teenage life.Their lives converge on one day.

Each girl narrates their story in alternating chapters so it would be possible to read each continuous story by skipping alternate chapters. Brinna's story is comic book style; Izzy's is diary style text accompanied by illustrations and occasional speech bubbles. The pictures are delightful and convey humour and warmth.

Positively Izzy is the second book in the world of Emmie and Friends but both books can stand alone. Libenson has managed to capture the concerns and angst of young people in an engaging, humorous manner. The story is light but larger social themes stand behind it in an almost sub liminal way - sometimes as background illustrations eg. a poster on a wall, dress or skin colour detail. Izzy and Brianna are white girls but they are surrounded by a multi-racial cast of characters.The dominant theme is of searching, finding and accepting one's own identity and of the understanding that all people are multi faceted and can't be pigeon-holed.

Positively Izzie is sure to be enjoyed by young people especially those who have already discovered Raina Telgemeier, Jennifer Holm and Victoria Jamieson.

Themes Identity, Labels, Middle School issues, Shifting friendship groups, Family dynamics.

Wendy Jeffrey

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Invisible Emmie by Terri Libenson

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“My name is Emmie Douglas I’m thirteen and in seventh grade” p. 6. Emmie describes herself as 'pretty quiet'. While she claims to be just invisible, not like outcast characters in other books who are bullied, she is subject to occasional bullying at school which makes her anxious. Emmie is good at drawing and finds it helps her to relax, her cartoon self is small, in shades of pastel, documenting embarrassing moments in her life. Emmie’s best friend is Brianna, an outgoing ‘gifted’ student, good at making friends.  Then we meet Katie, big, colourful illustrations reflect her personality,   “How my friends describe me: smiley, friendly, athletic (I’d go on but I’d start blushing)” p. 14. Everything about Katie is larger than life, she is everything Emmie is not, school is her element and she sails through each day that to Emmie seems like an eternity. Alternating colourful Katie and pastel Emmie panels emphasise the girls’ differing perspectives.  Brianna and Emmie have long had crushes on friends Anthony Randell and Tyler Ross and one day “Brianna suggests we write really gushy, sappy love notes to our crushes. Not that we would give the notes to them or anything.” p. 78. But when one of the notes goes astray Emmie feels she has become the laughing stock of the school and in danger of losing her best friend. Help comes from an unexpected quarter and things work out in the end.

I was put off at the prologue about weird kids and found the inclusion of the fat kid and the smelly kid unpleasant and unnecessary but on the whole the observations of daily life of an introverted middle schooler hit the spot and the story was funny and engaging. The mix of graphics and text make it an easy read. It captures the courage needed to face stressful social situations and the rewards for doing so.

Themes Middle school, Friendship, Bullying, Graphic novel.

Sue Speck

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The Wanderer by Peter Van Den Ende

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The Wanderer illustrated by Peter Van Den Ende is a wordless picture book with dramatic and complex black and white illustrations. In this incredibly detailed visual narrative the story begins with the simple construction of a paper boat by two characters who will appear and reappear along the way. The fragile boat takes a path around the world and travels into places and lands not always familiar to the reader. The reader is offered the chance to let one’s imagination run wild and bask in the joy of creating one’s own story to fit the page. There is danger throughout the journey but the paper boat manages to gently meander along its path.

Van Den Ende has been able to capture the essence of worldly environments and at times alludes to the damage done by humankind. Some of the images appear Escher-like in their construction especially the white birds against a black background. The front end papers show the little paper construction against a tall fortress-like ship. The back endpapers clearly map the journey of the paper boat and the sights and perils encountered along the way.

It is simply quite stunning in its presentation and is a book that readers of all ages will pore over time and time again.

Themes Art, Oceans, Lands, Danger, Mythical Creatures, Journeys.

Kathryn Beilby

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Cat Kid comic club by Dav Pilkey

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Cat Kid Comic Club is the new and latest creation of master graphic novel series writer and illustrator Dav Pilkey. Even in the hands of a graphic novel sceptic it is obvious that consummate skill and command of the genre stands behind this book and every book that Pilkey writes.

Cat Kid is a spin off from the ever popular Dogman series that every librarian, parent and teacher knows about. Dog man follows Captain Underpants and who doesn't know of Captain Underpants?

These books are beloved by many children and reluctant readers have learned to love reading with these heavily illustrated series.There is no reason to think that Cat Kid will be any less popular than its predecessors.

There is a good plot, there is good art and there is good action. And there is discussion and inclusion of values like integrity and virtue, of concern for audience, of coping with failure, embracing it and moving on. This book could act as a basis for teaching comic making in school and/or even setting up a Comic Club. A variety of styles, topics and approaches are presented. Even Haiku is presented in a beautifully integrated way. Notes and fun facts at the back explain and make suggestions about how some of the comic creations in Cat Kid Comic Club were made. 

Cat Kid Comic Club encourages and supports students and teachers to think about creating their own graphic novels. Cat Kid Comic Club is light and humorous but there is considerable depth. It is a book that can be simply enjoyed on one level or one that might inspire future graphic novelists or at least provide ideas for alternative student presentation responses across the curriculum.

Inspirational, international and sure to be bestselling.

Themes Comic book instruction, Resilience, Integrity.

Wendy Jeffrey

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Roald Dahl, how to avoid witches by Roald Dahl. Illus. by Quentin Blake

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Roald Dahl, How to Avoid Witches is a perfect companion guide book to be read/presented alongside Roald Dahl's The Witches. What a lot of fun for the parent, teacher or librarian to capture student imagination with the host of possible spin off activities this book presents.

The original book, The Witches was first published in 1983. In Roald Dahl, How to Avoid Witches, Quentin Blake's illustrations appear again but this book is written by Kay Woodward, published in 2020 and the copyright is held by The Roald Dahl Story Company Ltd. This book is a guide, speaking directly and instructively to children, about how to save their lives if they ever meet a witch! 

It is such a FUN book. It's funny - HIGHLY engaging! Font, illustrations, diagrams and typesetting is varied throughout. There are multiple activities including choice quizzes, motto-making guides, "witchograms", bad witch jokes, word searches, witch world flight paths, witchy recipes, fact files, mazes, ratings, flip book guides and much more.

Extracts from The Witches and Boy are included in just such a way that children may well be enticed to go and find the original stories and read more. Bonus material including links to apps and audiobooks read by some..." very FAMOUS voices" are included at the end with the reminder that Roald Dahl Day is every year on the 13th September.

Teachers, Librarians, if you want to mystify the children - keep them guessing - this book is an instruction book that will tell you how.  A must for the school library if librarians are able to part with it to share with teachers and children.

Themes Witches, childhood initiative and resilience.

Wendy Jeffrey

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Channel kindness by Born This Way Foundation

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This non-fiction book is full of (mostly) positive stories and starts out with an introduction by Lady Gaga. Each story is from someone new, with different themes in each story. They include anything from heartbreak to poverty, harassment to art or self discovery to love. And each story has a form of kindness – such as inclusivity, protection or self kindness. The individual story tellers have either experienced great kindness that inspired them, or saw a need and filled it with their own kindness. There are some truly sad and rough stories in the book, but the overall message is of hope and kindness.

While the stories are universal in their message of hope and kindness, it’s worth noting that the book is American and the listed suggestions for helpful groups are American groups. That’s not to say there aren’t Australian equivalents, or even that readers in Australia might see a need for a particular group in their own hometown, and be challenged to create one. There are calls to action throughout the book and comments on each story by Lady Gaga. While reading this book, you’ll laugh, cry, be inspired and challenged.

Themes Mental health, Advocacy, Positivity, Kindness, Humanity, LGBTQIA+.

Melanie Phillips

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Serpentine by Philip Pullman

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The reader needs to be familiar with Pullmans’ fantasy series, The Dark Materials and The Book of Dust, in order to read Serpentine. This is set in a short period of time when Lyra is working in the Northern Lands. Prior to this story, in The Amber Spyglass, Lyra was on the shores of the World of the Dead and she had to separate from her Daemon, Pantalaimon. This was highly traumatic and since then they have mistrusted each other and been unhappy. During her time up north Lyra goes to get advice from Dr Lanselius who is Consul to the Witches. She wants to know how the witches and their daemons cope with separation. This leads to a better relationship between Lyra and Pantalaimon, but not directly as a result of Lanselius’ advice.

This is a handsome novella and Duxbury’s lino cuts add to the feel and design of the book beautifully. There is a lot of conversation which engages your attention. However, you really need to be familiar with the characters and events for the story to make sense.  If you are a fan of Pullman’s series then Serpentine is a short read and effectively transports you back to his wonderful, deeply intelligent and creative series.

Themes Fantasy, Relationships, Trust.

Jo Marshall

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Into the wild by Robert Vescio and Mel Armstrong

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Into the Wild is a thoughtfully written story that will bring a sense of a calmness and peace to its reader. With stunning illustrations, this picture book shares the story of Roman who wanders alone enjoying and discovering amazing things among nature. At times he would love to share his findings with someone special and one day comes across a surprise. He investigates and follows, and then stumbles upon something that will change his way of looking at things.  He realises that he does not have to be alone to enjoy his nature wandering and wonder of the world.

This is a perfect book to encourage both children and adults to observe the natural environment around them and see how the simple things in life can bring great joy and contentment.

Themes Nature, Being Alone, Friendship.

Kathryn Beilby

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The morning flower by Amanda Hocking

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Continuing on from the end of the first book, Ulla and Pan set out on a journey to find the kidnapped Eliana, as well as continue the quest for Ulla’s birth parents. Their expedition reveals a possible long-lost father for Ulla, and a Troll secret society. Joined by their colleagues, Dagny and Elof, they continue their journey to learn more about this secret society, Eliana’s kidnapping and Ulla’s heritage.

The Morning Flower is the second 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 the Harry Potter series). This novel is filled with descriptive writing and delves deeper into Troll society, which was detailed thoroughly in the first book. Following Ulla’s lifelong quest to learn more about her heritage after being abandoned as a baby, readers will enjoy a few twists and turns as she learns more about herself along the way, and develops connections with new friends and even a possible romance. Several mysteries emerge through the book, which may be connected to the secret society, or Ulla's heritage. While learning more about her past, more questions arise, leaving readers wanting to know more. At the end of the book, there is an extensive glossary for Troll terms used in the book.

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

Melanie Phillips

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Mind the gap, Dash & Lily by Rachel Cohn

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New Yorkers Dash and Lily are looking forward to pursuing their individual goals while maintaining a healthy relationship. For Dash, this means becoming a student at Oxford University while 18 year old Lily is not so sure of her pathway. She has a successful dog walking business which has expanded to include online sales of dog merchandise but there is family pressure for her to take up the offer of a position at a prestigious university. While the couple are prepared for a long distance relationship, after six months apart Lily is upset to learn that Dash is not coming home for Christmas. She decides to surprise him by flying to London where she hopes to sort out her future and reassure herself that Dash is ok. This is the third in the series and reprises the theme of puzzles and books in an Advent calendar Lily has made for Dash and some great literary references. The characters are relatable, but the plot is contrived and stilted, relying on a series of unlikely coincidences as the characters’ internal struggles take centre stage in the alternating first person narratives. The London setting is explained for a US audience; Barbican, 'an arts place like Lincoln Centre' p. 126, and a Twickenham thatched house is 'an ordinary English house' p. 91. There is the feel of a film script which suggests it might follow the recent Netflix series adaptation of the first book.   

It might have been helpful to have read the previous books, Dash and Lily's book of dares and The twelve days of Dash and Lily but while Dash and Lily say they are a couple, there is little sense of it in this story. They are both wrestling with issues of identity and the conflict arising from making personal choices while maintaining important connections. These characters come from privileged backgrounds and their affluence makes the whole angst seem self-indulgent but young adults who have seen the Netflix series or read the previous books and Sam and Ilsa’s Last Hurrah by the same authors will hopefully find that 'what a great book does, right? It traps you into feeling something important. Whether it’s about yourself, or society or ideally both' p. 222, and that has to be a good thing.

Themes Identity, Relationships.

Sue Speck

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The last word by Samantha Hastings

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A delightful read set in Victorian London, this historical romance stars a smart heroine and a swoon-worthy hero. It is 1861 and Lucinda Leavitt has just come home from finishing school. Her father does not want her to use her outstanding mathematical ability in his counting house and her only solace had been a novel serialised in Wheathill’s Magazine. When it is announced that the author has died with no conclusion to the story, she is determined to find out what happened to her.

Lucy has little to do and it is not until David, her father’s young business partner, overwhelmed by the amount of work he has, gives her some of his mathematical work to complete that she able to use her ability with numbers. In return she engages his help in seeking out the unknown author and the reader will have fun following the pair as they travel around the country going to Bath, country estates and churches.

The setting feels very authentic and readers will learn much about life in Victorian England. It is a time of great class divides, and Lucy must withstand being ostracised from London society because her mother was a maid and her father a self-made man. At the same time many of the aristocracy are suffering from loss of income, and American heiresses are flocking to London in search of a title in exchange for their fortune. A note by the author at the end gives additional information about novels published at the time, the Tooley Street Fire of 1861, and the fire hazards of crinolines and dress reform by Amelia Jenks Bloomer

The last word is a fascinating introduction to historical romance for teens, with a feisty heroine who loves maths, an interesting mystery to solve as well as an authentic background to Victorian times, all written in an easy to read and witty style.

Pat Pledger

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