Reviews

Nothing special by Nicole Flattery

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1966 New York, and 16-year-old Mae is looking for escape from her alcoholic mother and school bullies. She finds this in the invitation to become a typist for the eccentric Drella, where she has to transcribe the tapes of strange, disjointed conversations and interviews and that will comprise his book. Over time we realise that these are the tapes that became Warhol’s 1968 novel,  A Novel and that Mae is one of the four impressionable young typists privy to the events and personalities of 1965 that Warhol surrounded himself with. However, like Mae, we barely meet Warhol himself, but Flattery has vividly conjured up the gritty atmosphere of abandon and hedonism that he created, often to the detriment of his followers.

Mae begins to identify more with the contents of the tapes than with her own unsatisfying life, and although unacknowledged, sees herself as part-author of the book. She becomes an uneasy voyeur and sometime participant of the bizarre, often degrading activities in Warhol’s The Factory, which compounds the disillusionment she experiences with her own life.

In several short chapters, we also see Mae, aged 35 and 60, reflecting back on that time, and particularly her relationship with her mother, recalled with more perception, but possibly no greater sense of fulfilment or contentment.

In some regards, nothing special happens in the book, and Mae sees herself as nothing special, but set as it is, in a period of rapid and unprecedented social change, she makes many insightful observations about the process of making and consuming art, and the need to belong, achieve, make a statement and rebel.

Nothing Special would be best appreciated if the reader has some knowledge of Warhol and his world, in order to place the characters, and not be surprised by the numerous descriptions of sex scenes, drug use and situations of coercive, emotional abuse, voyeurism and obsessions.

Themes Warhol, 1960s, New York, Coming of age, Relationships.

Margaret Crohn

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Secrets of the Saltmarsh by Claire Saxby. Illus. by Alicia Rogerson

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Where the land meets the sea is a fringe that is sometimes sea and sometimes land - depending on the tides - one of the most unique environments of the planet. For thousands of years First Nations people have harvested the rich seasonal food resources they offer and they support countless life cycles from that of tiny bacteria to large migratory birds, each dependent on each other and the land, ocean, water, wind, sunlight and seasons, at the same time as they store up to four time more carbon than ordinary forests.

While they have often been drained to provide more room for human housing, slowly we are learning more about how critical they are to the planet's health and this new book for younger readers by a master pf narrative non fiction starts to raise awareness from an early age. From the front endpaper featuring just some of the birds that can be found to the final one featuring fingerling fish, the book is a masterpiece of introducing this special, little-known environment. Written in the first person, each double page spread focus on either one of the elements that is so crucial to the saltmarsh or the creatures that live within it and how they contribute to wellbeing, and, like the inhabitants of the marsh, there is a symbiotic relationship between Saxby's lyrical text and Rogerson's illustrations.

Perhaps I was drawn to this book because I have just finished Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, a novel in which the environment plays such a significant part in the story, and, to my knowledge, there have been few books on this biome for young readers despite its diversity and importance. Nevertheless, like The Great Southern Reef, this is an environmental phenomenon that is accessible to so many of our students and thus one that greater awareness will build an appreciation for.

A must-have in any collection focusing on environmental biodiversity.  Teachers' Notes and a book trailer are available.

Themes Wetlands, Coastal ecology, Birds.

Barbara Braxton

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Under the red shawl by Vikki Conley. Illus. by Martina Heiduczek

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This endearing look at the life of a woman and her baby son, trying to find a place of safety parallels the story of the shawl, first used as a baby blanket and carry scarf, a tent and a rug, then as a bed cover but finally after finding a hone, the shawl is now too small to cover them. In this way the author shows the longevity of many refugees’ search for a safe haven. Without showing the horror from which they are running, the illustrator instead shows them as part of a stream of refugees leaving their city, while on the road the loneliness and contrasting blazing sun and sleeting snow shows the distance they are covering to reach their goal.

In a spare text, Coney depicts the plight of the refugee, with little or no possessions, the shawl is a baby blanket, a cover to keep out the sun and wind, a carry scarf for the baby, a rug to put on the dry earth to sit on, a blanket to keep them both warm, a tent to shelter under and finally a template for more scarves to sew and sell.

It is a warm, thought provoking story of loss and privation, or people searching for a new place of shelter, of the power of stories to keep imagination alive.

Martina’s illustrations are full of colour and life, as the boy grows from a baby to a toddler, to a young boy singing the new song of his life with his mother. Martina likes to have readers think about what they are seeing; she likes to provoke readers to see beyond the pages asking questions about their background, her husband, the trip they are taking and where they end up. All sorts of questions will emanate from inquisitive children, looking for clues on the pages but also bringing in stories they have heard.

Find out more about Martina here.

Themes Refugees, Journey, Scarf, Loss, Imagination, Stories.

Fran Knight

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Like a charm by Elle McNicoll

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London based, Scottish, bestselling, award-winning children's writer, Elle McNicholl has in Like a charm, a third novel that follows in the path of A kind of spark in its theme and atmospherics. Her books have been aptly described as "bewitching" and Like a charm certainly fits that bill. 

Travelling with the first person perspective of 12-year-old Ramya, the reader is immersed in a magical world that is powerfully set in Edinburgh, both in the dark corners and bookshops of the city, underground and across the River Forth to the isle of Inchkeith. A magical atmosphere of foreboding - of dark, swirling mists, statues that come to life and dangerous supernatural beings is conjured. Through this moody place stumbles Ramya, a lonely, neglected girl with dyspraxia. She slowly learns that she can see through glamour (a magical shield that supernatural beings use to hide themselves). This very special power grows as her courage is tested and as she negotiates challenges in both the human and supernatural world.

In Like a charm, the magical world exists in parallel to the human world and both worlds are subject to increasing division and upset. In a way, the book reads as a political allegorical story describing what goes wrong when humans don't work together in harmony. When there is division, evil escapes through the cracks. Ramya is a brave and feisty character. The reader can't help but cheer her on through all the danger and suspense.

McNicoll is autistic herself and a great champion of the representation of neurodivergence in literature. It is of no surprise that she has teamed with Knights Of, a multi award-winning inclusive publisher that focuses on "bringing underrepresented voices to the forefront of commercial children's publishing."

Like a charm is a touching, inspiring and cerebral book. It is for advanced readers who can understand multi-layered, complex and unpredictable storylines featuring a cast of characters. It is also for readers who might catch a glimpse of themselves in a character like Ramya and who need to learn that everybody is special and everyone can find a friend. It's for those who need to learn something about themselves - that if you do a good thing for the right reason, you can be light and free and beloved and stylish and glamorous! 

Highly recommended.

Themes Family, Dyspraxia, Neurodivergence, Magic, Community,.

Wendy Jeffrey

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Diary of a wimpy kid: No brainer by Jeff Kinney

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Even though this is the eighteenth book in the Diary of a Wimpy kid series Kinney has managed to bring us another great story about Greg Heffley and his experiences in Middle school.  This time Greg faces the fact that his crumbling school may be closing because the school has had the lowest scores in the state for the standardised tests.  Inside the diary Greg takes us on a journey that the school takes to cut costs and raise money to keep the school open.  He complains about a Latin teacher who doesn't even speak Latin, the problems with Hall passes, the lack of stationary and the reasons behind the empty Library shelves, as well as the invention of the highly prized Fudgedogs from the canteen. On a serious note, the book does attempt to cover many of the real difficulties schools are facing today, especially budget cuts, sponsorship by companies outside the school system and poor student engagement. Cartoon-style illustrations throughout the book are so entertaining, giving the reader more insights into what is happening to Greg and his friends at school.  The authenticity of Greg's voice throughout keeps a smile on your face as you read and there are many genuine laugh out loud moments that will be enjoyed by young readers and adults alike.

Themes Diaries, Friendship, Middle-schooling, Protests.

Gabrielle Anderson

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Iron flame by Rebecca Yarros

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The second in the series following The fourth wing and a massive 623 pages, Iron flame continues the saga of Violet Sorrengail and her trials as a cadet at Basgiath War College. She is now in her second year and faces brutal training with a commandant who makes her life hell. She must use all her wits to stay alive and at the same time research ways to increase the wards and keep her country safe.

Violet may be physically frail, but she is strong and determined, and knows that dragon riders make their own rules. She uses her intelligence instead of brute strength to overcome obstacles and her training as a scribe becomes very useful as she researches the secrets that the leaders of the country have been keeping.

The story is not as action packed as The fourth wing, with Violet spending much of her time trying to work out whether she can trust Xaden and wondering why he will not confide in her. This made it a less exciting read than the first book, although the romance does heat up with some very explicit sex scenes between the two.

The dialogue in the book is very modern and detracts from the fantasy setting but is sure to appeal to its intended  audience.

The pace and interest picks up once the action gets going towards the last third of the book, with some scenes leaving the reader with heart in mouth and the final twist will ensure that the next in the series is picked up. The explicit sex and torture scenes make it unsuitable for younger teens, who may find the Prison healer trilogy by Lynette Noni more suitable.

Themes Fantasy, Adventure, Dragons, Secrets, Magic, Conspiracies.

Pat Pledger

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Jawsome by R.J. Timmis

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Shark school friends by day; secret rock band by night!

Jawsome is a new series, cleverly created by Australian author - illustrator R J Timmis. Containing two stories within the one book, the reader enters the world of ocean life and rock and roll.

Finley, the band’s lead guitarist and main character, and his friendly shark friends attend Chumville School for sharks. They encounter everyday ocean life, all while keeping their band’s identity a secret. Pretty cool and 'chomptastic’, right!

The first story, 'Stage Bite', sees the band’s lead singer unexpectedly leave the band. With a show in a few days, what will the band do to not disappoint their fans? Finley has a great voice but suffers from severe stage fright. Can they find a new lead from the auditions or will Finley need to face his fears to get the band back on stage?

The second story, 'Finvestigated', has the band being scrutinised by newcomer, Squidley Whistleblower. The band members are desperate to keep their identity a secret and not be exposed. Can they hide their band's secrets from Squidley, or will their true identities be discovered?

Filled with wit, humour and adventure, this story will keep its audience captivated throughout. With every ocean word play you can imagine, from ‘Shell-ebrity’ to ‘sea-spicious’, every reader will be laughing or groaning till the very end.

A fun, short fiction novel that is extremely fast paced with a highly energetic and engaging storyline. Containing short chapters, large print and loads of cool black and white cartoon pictures, Jawsome will be great for readers who are gaining reading independence. It could even be the one that gets those reluctant readers hooked! 

If you love a little bit of silly humour, and loads of play on words, then you won’t be able to resist sinking your teeth into this one!

Themes Sharks, Friendship, Humour, Ocean life, Music.

Michelle O'Connell

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How it works: Light by Sarah Hull. Illus. by Kaley McKean

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One in a series of STEM books being produced by Usborne, this one about light shows how much light there is even when it is dark. The endpapers pose questions younger readers will love thinking about and opening the flaps to find the answers. With more than 60 flaps to unlock, any reader will have a great deal of fun with this book. The bright, informative book has diagrams maps, lists, and engaging illustrations all designed to engage younger readers. Each double page covers one topic. The first is generally about light, then over the page, we find a double page on how light works, then light and colour, followed by what is light, and the sun, seeing light, powerful light, light and the universe and ends up with amazing light. Each chapter delves into the science of light, explaining in layman’s terms the necessary information., without watering it down or being condescending.

Great fun to read and test your knowledge, this book will find eager hands to look things up and test each other, find funny little facts to bedazzle friends with and generally have a good laugh. Quicklinks are also available for those who want to know more.

English non fiction writer, Sarah Hull has also written books about art, germs and your body.

Themes Light, Sun, Humour, Lift the flap.

Fran Knight

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Here and only here by Christine Dabos

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As I read French author Christelle Dabos’ story of a harsh school environment dominated by the ‘prince’, the boy who makes all the rules and metes out punishments, I was reminded of a similarly harsh and cruel world, that of Heaven by Japanese author Mieko Kawakami. In both books the bullies dominate and the depiction of bullying is violent and sadistic. In Dabos’ school, ‘Here’, the learning is about how to survive in an environment that has its own rules, separate from parents and from anything the students have known before.

The narrative alternates between four students, Iris, Pierre, Madeleine and Guy. Iris knows from the first day, as her hand is discarded by her older sister as they enter the school gate, that she is on her own, and the only way to survive is to stay as invisible as possible. Pierre is a victim, ‘the odd number, the jack of spades, the lousy kid’ and he has to stay that way, even if it means entering the ‘bogs from hell’. Madeleine, caught in a continual competition with a former friend, tries to assert her own power. And Guy is another ‘odd one out’ learning to be a bully until he is challenged by a strange new foreign girl who doesn’t comply.

We also hear about a secret club that might bring about the end of the world. And there is a substitute teacher, a former student who has been through it all before, who knows that they are all ‘Lynchers. Liars. Abusers. Torturers, the lot of them, even the victims’.

In an interview with The Fantasy Hive, Dabos says she doesn’t remember a single lesson from her years at school. What she learnt was outside of the classroom, about herself, her body, and her relationships with others. It was a time of leaving behind childhood and working out what’s happening.

The setting of Here and only here is surreal, the bullying experiences magnified, the teachers ineffectual, but in the depictions of students’ personal struggles there are elements of truth that every reader will recognise. There are ultimately moments of hope in each story but most especially with the story of Guy there is an uplift in the overall mood, as he gradually meets the challenge that Sofie offers him and discovers his better qualities.

It’s a well-written, confronting and thought-provoking book, but like Kawakami’s Heaven I don’t think this book is for the age group it describes but for more mature YA readers.

Themes School, Bullying, Victims, Identity.

Helen Eddy

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A first book of dinosaurs by Simon Mole. Illus. by Matt Hunt

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It was an era that lasted about 180 million years over 66 million years ago and yet it still fascinates old and young alike, so much so that books about dinosaurs - fact or fiction - are regularly published for an eager audience. This one, written for an adult to share with a younger reader, is one of the latest.

Bold, contemporary illustrations and short poems with vivid language introduce young readers to this world of "eat or be eaten" . Divided into the chapters of 'Meet the Dinosaurs, Eat or be Eaten, Dinosaur Families and The End. OR is it?', each dinosaur or theme has its own double page spread with lively, unique graphics and a short poem, often in the voice of the dinosaur itself. Some like brachiosaurus and tyrannosaurus rex will be familiar but others such as halszkaraptor and therizinosaurus will be new so the pronunciation guide is handy, and although the descriptions - using a variety of poetry styles - are brief, there is enough information to inspire further research for those who want to know more, as well as offering an opportunity for older students to compare Mole's style with the more traditional fact-and-figures books.

Something new and unique to share about something old and common.

Themes Dinosaurs.

Barbara Braxton

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Smarty Pup: Pawsome genius : To the rescue by Anh Do

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The ability to communicate with your pet dog is something every child has dreamed of and by creating JJ the super intelligent pup Anh Do has produced another winning series for reluctant readers.  This is the third book in the series which began with Friends Fur-ever, and was followed by JJ and the giant panther.  Each story centres around JJ the rescue dog, his owner Lily and the things they get up to in their exciting day to day lives.  Because he is super-smart JJ often ends up saving the day when problems arise and a rescue is needed.  In this book the topic at school is careers and because the visit from the local Firefighters, Mr Do and Weir Do, impresses JJ so much he decides that a firedog will be his chosen profession. He even gets a mini fire suit that Weir found for him after it shrunk in the wash!  JJ builds a mini-copter for his Science week project that weekend, which ends up being a very useful tool when some pugs get caught in a burning building.  There is lots of action and minimal text in these highly colourful, illustrated pages.  The use of different sized fonts and speech bubbles make these stories easy to read and the lenticular animated front cover attracts readers from the start. At the back of each book there is also a page of stickers related to the story.

Themes Dogs, Fire-fighting, Friendship, Inventions.

Gabrielle Anderson

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The very hungry caterpillar explores Australia by Eric Carle

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A strong board book with bright colours and lift the flaps will appeal to all toddlers and younger readers who can get their hands on it. Perhaps a little larger than most board books, it nevertheless fills a gap for younger readers to get to know some Australian animals. Through the auspices of the very hungry caterpillar, which is seen on every page, kids will love seeing what is under the flap on each page. On the beach gives way to Under the ocean, then On the outback plains, Around the creek and finally Up in the treetops. Each double page has an introductory two rhyming lines which tell the readers what time of day in the environment they are in. Small pieces of information, but necessary to ground the animals on the page.

Kids will love seeing all the animals, and keep their eyes open for the caterpillar.

This is another in the series, World of Eric Carle, sure to please younger readers and teach them about Australian animals and their habitats.

Themes Australian animals, Verse, Very hungry caterpillar (series).

Fran Knight

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Toodle the cavoodle: Crunchy munchy by Richard Tulloch. Illus. by Heidi Cooper Smith

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Toodle is the cutest caboodle around and is always in trouble for doing silly things. He loves treats and knows just where to get them. The odd socks man always has a pocketful of Puppy Pals for him, the girl with sparkly hair sometimes lets him share her lunch and the baby in the pram has no choice but to let him lick his ice cream. Each time a treat is consumed the text gives a wonderful set of words designed to get the kids listening. They will  join in with the noisy onomatopoeic words, that display eating with gusto: for example, crunchy munchy, slirpity licket slurp as well as  those words that emulate a dog’s voice and what it means.

The clip clop lady always leaves out a bowl of treats for Toodle, but today the bowl is empty.  She gets herself through the cat door and hears hissing from the cat, horrified that a dog is in the house. But fearless Toodle soldiers on and finds the clippy cloppy lady on the floor. She has fallen over and cannot get up. But what can Toodle do?

This charming story will delight young readers as they will all know a dog as hungry as Toodle, and as fearless and helpful. They will have fun predicting how Toodle will be able to save the clip clop lady and cheer when all is resolved. This warm hearted story will reinforce the idea of neighbourhood and community, where everyone knows the local dog and the children and help each other.

Lovely illustrations add to the warm hearted feeling of the text, with Toodle’s big brown eyes staring out at the reader. Lots of movement is shown as Toodle jumps around, making sure he grazes at his many food stops.

The feeling of community sings through the story with people aware of the neighbourhood dog and giving her treats, while the incident of the fall, reinforces the notion of responsibility amongst neighbours and friends.  The curly poodle hair is very real, contrasting with the fur of the coat. There are many details young readers will love finding on each page adding to the fun of Toodle’s rescue plan.

This book could be a stepping stone to talking about their older relatives and falls and how to keep them safe, as well as first aid and ambulances.

Themes Dogs, Ambulance, Accidents, Neighbourhood, Networking, Family, Community, Responsibility.

Fran Knight

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Remnant population by Elizabeth Moon

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Ofelia has lived on Colony 3245.12 for forty years, outliving her husband and bringing up her son. Now she lives with him and his wife, looking after her garden, and expecting to see out her life on this isolated colony. When the Company decides to shut it down and send all the inhabitants off to a strange place, she decides to stay unbeknownst to the authorities. Alone she uses her skills to maintain what she needs to live a peaceful life, without the interference and criticism of anyone. Then a reconnaissance ship arrives, its inhabitants are killed and she discovers that she is not the only person living in her paradise.

The following from the publisher blurb says it all: “Finalist for the Hugo Award. "Ofelia - tough, kind, wise and unwise, fond of food, tired of foolish people - is one of the most probable heroines science fiction has ever known."- Ursula K. Le Guin.”

This is a novel that celebrates the wisdom, usefulness and intelligence of older people. Ofelia has been denigrated by her son and daughter-in-law and cast into a minor role in the colony. Left to herself, she shows ingenuity in surviving, and calm in her isolation. When the first contact people arrive, she can communicate easily and eventually comes into her own, regardless of her age.

Older readers will revel in the story of Ofelia, an older protagonist, the descriptions of her life and skills and the strange aliens who live on the planet. Self-educated, her growing confidence in herself as a diplomat and the way she manages the first contact with an alien species is a joy to read. Although first published in 1996, it is relevant today. As an older person, I enjoyed the way Moon critiqued ageism and sexism, and will certainly pick up more books written by her.

Themes Science fiction, Aging, Ageism, Aliens, Feminism.

Pat Pledger

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Pugnacious & Scuttlebutt: S.M. Ellybutt strikes back by Adam Wallace and Wayne Bryant

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This is the follow up to Ready...Steady...Itch and the third in the series is flagged as coming soon. Lovers of Smarty Pup and Fart Boy will enjoy this hillarious, quick romp alongside Scuttlebutt the greyhound and Pugnacious the pug. There is a brief recap in the start of the book about the origins of the pair. Scuttlebutt was once a super fast greyhound but stopped because everyone laughed when he had an itchy bum and had to bum shuffle to the end. Pugnacious was once the meanest pug but he saved Scuttlebutt from the pound and now they are firm friends, roaming the streets and looking for a place to call home. Of course the dog catcher, S. M. Ellybutt is out for revenge. Bold, black and white pencil illustrations accompany short, simple tracts of text. The banter between the two dogs is funny: 'I never said I wanted a home with people who love us and care for us. I want a family with little people I can headbutt.', 'Okay, fine, tush scraper, but this better work.'

Children will especially love the horrible names the duo call each other and the ubiquitous toilet humour and harmless physical violence. The visual humour is particularly strong and the text is fast-flowing and witty. A quick read that will be enjoyed by humour-loving graphic novel fans. 

Themes Humorous Stories, Dogs.

Nicole Nelson

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