Reviews

Circus of wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

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1865, southern England. Nell lives a quiet life, attempting to blend in despite having birthmarks that set her apart. Jasper Jupiter's Circus of Wonders comes to town, but Nell has no interest. The same cannot be said for everyone else, including her father, who sells her to Jasper. Betrayed and hurt, Nell cannot believe what has happened. But when Jasper tells her he can make her grand, she wonders if maybe she can be someone. Jasper's brother, Toby, is always by his side - through childhood, through the Crimean War (Jasper a soldier, Toby a photographer), and feels indebted to Jasper. But Nell has caught his eye, and things may be about to change.

Circus of Wonders is a different kind of historical fiction, where power is up for grabs, women are featured prominently and the circus is the centre of it all. Fans of the movie, The Greatest Showman, will enjoy this in depth exploration of the lives of the troupe who perform in the Circus of Wonders, with the story being shown from the points of view of Nell, Jasper and Toby. Macneal has created a realistic historical circus, complete with performing animals, spectacular acts and 'wonders of nature'. With flashbacks to the Crimean War, readers will be immersed in the past and 'present' of England in the 1800s and the Crimean war. Throughout the book, the underlying current of 'who owns/runs my life' is present for all the characters, something that many readers will find relatable.

Themes Historical Fiction; Circus; Romance; Ownership; Power; Beauty Perception; War.

Melanie Phillips

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The treehouse joke book 2 by Andy Griffiths. Illus. by Terry Denton

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The Treehouse funsters have collated and illustrated a collection of jokes and riddles designed to tickle the fancies of their young readers. Most of these jokes are 'oldies, but goodies' that new generations of children will discover and share. I can see this book flying off the shelf and giggles being shared! With an array of knock, knock jokes and word play as well as slightly longer jokes this is not a reading challenge, but it will be enjoyed by readers aged 6-10. Terry Denton's cartoon illustrations are again a quirky delight.

Themes Jokes, Humour.

Carolyn Hull

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Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk

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I loved Beyond the bright sea by Lauren Wolk and when I saw that her latest book Echo Mountain had been shortlisted for the 2021 Carnegie Medal, I immediately grabbed it from my local library. Lovers of historical fiction will be immediately engaged by the story of Ellie and her family, who after losing everything in the Great Depression, flee to Echo Mountain and begin a new life, building a log cabin, growing vegetables, and bartering for goods. Ellie loves the life and is intrigued by the beautifully little wooden animals and flowers made by an unknown carver that she finds around the countryside. When her father lies in a coma after a terrible accident, she is left to take over many of her father's jobs like hunting and chopping wood. She loves roaming in the woods and one day she is led by a large hound to an isolated part of the mountain where she finds the hag, Cate, and a wild boy named Larkin.

Life in 1934 Maine is vividly brought to life. Ellie has an affinity for the feelings of animals and other living things and finds it difficult to kill for food, but this is the only way that her family can survive. She is determined to find a way to bring her father out of his coma and her problem solving is most unusual. However, she is a determined girl who takes risks and is prepared to learn by doing, learning from her mistakes and she seems to have an innate ability to heal. It is fascinating to read of the remedies that were used to help the healing process, including putting maggots on wounds and potato poultices on sores.

The author describes in lyrical prose the natural beauty and dangers of the mountainside and brings Ellie's family to life. Her mother is burdened by poverty and feels unable to play her mandolin or bring any music into their lives, while her sister Esther longs for her old life. Little brother Samuel's outlook on life and quaint sayings add some humour to the story and the dogs, Captan, Maisie and Quiet are all important characters.

Readers will learn that first impressions are not necessarily the right ones and will celebrate the resilience of the mountain folk and the determination of Ellie. This would be an interesting book for a class novel and readers who enjoy a survival story may enjoy Nowhere on earth by Nick Lake.

Pat Pledger

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Perfect on paper by Sophie Gonzales

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Darcy Phillips has a complex life and family. Her parents are separated, her older sister is a creative transgender and Darcy is actively involved in the Queer and Questioning Club at her USA school, identifying as queer. Darcy has had a long-term crush on her best friend Brooke, but it has never been realised as a romance, but the friendship is warm and close. Because her mother is a teacher at her school Darcy has regularly waited on campus after school and this provided the opportunity to take 'ownership' of a locker which has become her mailbox for her 'Relationship advice service'. Despite her youth, she has become remarkably knowledgeable and wise with her advice which is well-researched and psychologically balanced, as well as being quite lucrative and she has managed to keep her identity very secret. When Alexander Brougham, a wealthy and good-looking former South Aussie, who has his own relationship and family predicaments, discovers her identity as the 'Agony Aunt' he pays well for good advice. The secrecy her service demands and the lies she once told to keep Brooke unattached will one day come back to haunt her, but along the way she also swings in her affections and discovers that Alexander Brougham is more than just a client to her. The complexities of life and romance for the coterie of teens is quite charming.

Because this book is openly written as a Queer Rom-Com, it could have been quite opinionated, but the author (who has a psychology role as well as being an author) has just created a well-written romance story with a plethora of LGBTIQ teens populating the very normal dramas of teenage life and romance. The advice to problems of the mostly heterosexual clientele is given as email responses scattered amongst the narrative and is extraordinarily rich in its wisdom.  There is a light touch in the way relationships are discussed, balanced insights into relationship complexities and an almost comedic deftness in dealing with Darcy's own ironies as she struggles to work out her own relationship dramas while successfully solving the problems of others with ease. Maturity will be needed for readers, but LGBTIQ young people will appreciate seeing themselves in YA literature.

Recommended for LGBTIQ readers. Aged 15+

Themes LGBTIQ, Romance, Relationships, Lies and secrets, USA schools.

Carolyn Hull

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Spot visits his grandparents by Eric Hill

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Another book in the favourite Spot the Dog series will be welcomed by small children who delight in the cute spotted dog and his adventures. This time Spot is visiting his grandparents and children will love the front cover showing Spot, with a happy grin on his face, carrying a gift basket and flowers on his way their house. This is a study board book, with the familiar drawings of lovely spotted dogs. It is not difficult to distinguish Grandma and Grandma just from the size of their noses and their expressions show how happy they are to see Spot.

The lift-the-flaps are lots of fun. Spot gets into a cupboard that has cookies; another flap reveals Spot ready to garden with a spade and fork, and children will giggle when another flap reveals poor Grandpa being hosed by Spot. Each double page spread has one sentence or question in big bold print and the other page contains the lift the flap that complements the text. Older children will find that this is an easy book to memorise and may begin the road to recognising words on a page.

Spot also has fun finding things like a ball that his mother played with as a young pup and children will relate to this and may be able to tell of toys that they have found at their grandparents' home. This would make a lovely gift for a child before they go on a trip to their grandparents, or a book for grandparents to keep and read when their grandchildren visit.

Themes Dogs, Lift-the-flaps book, Grandparents.

Pat Pledger

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House of earth and blood by Sarah J. Maas

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House of Earth and Blood, by prolific fantasy romance writer Sarah J. Maas, is another entertaining offering for fans and new readers alike. House of Earth and Blood is the first in a new series titled Crescent City, set in the world of Midgard where humans, Fae, angels, demons and other magical creatures coexist. The novel follows half-human, half-Fae Bryce Quinlan, a carefree young adult living her best life until a tragedy changes her world forever. Two years after her best friend is brutally and inexplicably killed, Bryce finds herself at the centre of a murder investigation that will have far-reaching consequences for both herself and her community.

Unsurprisingly for a Maas story, there are plenty of characters with painful and tragic pasts; every protagonist is damaged and traumatised in their own way. However, unlike Maas' other recent release, A Court of Silver Flames, Crescent City is saved from being a tedious cliche by Bryce's characterisation. Bryce is a strong, determined and sassy leading lady. She is less helpless, less forgiving of misogyny and prejudice and more assertive than many of Maas' other female protagonists. Maas appears to be more self-aware as an author in House of Earth and Blood, seeming to poke fun at some of the romance genre tropes she has heavily relied upon in the past.

Maas' worldbuilding has also improved in this novel. The world of Midgard is an intriguing mix of Ancient Roman and Celtic architecture and mythology and modern technology and culture. Woven throughout are the magical elements that anchor the book to the fantasy genre.

Like all Maas novels, House of Earth and Blood has a long, bloody and sexy narrative that, at times, can veer into the overdramatic. Overall, however, it is an entertaining and enjoyable read which bodes well for this new series.

Themes Friends, Family, Death, Grief, Crime, Fae, Angels, Demons, Magical Creatures.

Rose Tabeni

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The rock from the sky by Jon Klassen

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If the title isn’t clear enough, the first image you see when opening the book is a rock falling from the sky. Prediction skills are on high alert when the next illustration is turtle standing alone and unprotected in an open space - with lots of visual emphasis and space given to the sky.

Turtle states,
“I like standing in this spot. It is my favourite spot to stand. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

When you read this story aloud to children they immediately guess what is being foreshadowed, and are squealing and laughing at Jon Klassen’s deadpan style of humour. Of course, adults enjoy this story for exactly the same reasons.

Turtle does escape his deadly fate with the help of Armadillo, who with the reader, just senses something bad is going to happen.

Like all good comedy there is perfect timing and the wonderful anticipation about what is going to happen next.

Snake joins Turtle and Armadillo and gets involved in the crazy and at time surreal situations, such as Turtle denying he has fallen on his back due to falling off the rock, while he is on his back because of falling off the rock, a shared imaginary future between Turtle and Armadillo and the perfect funny ending that combines all the crazy antics - which I will not divulge, so there are no spoilers.

The story is divided in to 5 chapters and different coloured text makes it is easy to understand which character is speaking.

I highly recommend this book, in fact I insist everyone read the story to ensure they have at least one wonderful moment in their day.

Recommended for primary school students and everyone else!

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Not all heroes wear capes by Ben Brooks. Illus. by Nigel Baines

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Ben Brooks, author of the very popular book, Stories for Boys Who Dare To Be Different, has written another very comprehensive and thought provoking book about everyday ordinary humans, both young and old, who do heroic things. Not All Heroes Wear Capes presents a myriad of people from all over the world who have made a difference to others around them. These people did not set out to be text book, motion picture stereotypes of heroes, and did not look for recognition as heroes but quietly went about their business. The number of heroes mentioned throughout the book is vast and one in particular stands out as he brought a ray of light and hope to the world crushing COVID pandemic. At 100 years of age, Captain Tom Roberts, chose to do something small and achievable to help raise funds for the frontline health care staff who were putting themselves at risk. His incredible efforts raised millions of pounds just by walking laps of his garden. Another much younger hero was ten-year old Tilly Smith who was holidaying in Phuket, Thailand in 2004. While on the beach she noticed the water was receding from the shore and remembered a geography lesson from school where her teacher had talked about tsunamis. She was able to alert everyone on the beach and they were able to run to safety.

The book opens with a discussion about what is a superhero and then is divided into ten chapters. Each chapter discusses a different aspect such as Dare to Dream, Look For Those Who Need Your Help and Share What You Know. Within the chapters are brief graphic style storyboards portraying the heroes and their story, more detailed text giving thoughtful and relevant information, clever images and large print headings to capture the reader's attention. The author's anecdotal and humorous style of writing engages the reader and may encourage further research and discussion. This book would be perfect for upper primary and secondary students.

Themes Heroes, Ordinary People, Kindness, Courage, Caring for Others.

Kathryn Beilby

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Love is for losers by Wibke Bruggemann

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In present day London we find Phoebe Davis - opinionated, out spoken and not too fond of people. She is 15 and preparing for the GCSEs. GCSE is the qualification taken by 15 and 16 year olds in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Phoebe's best friend Polly is enthralled in first love and their friendship has altered. Phoebe has some very definite ideas about love and can't imagine any circumstances where she would be as cliche, stupid and foolhardy as those around her. Told in diary format, Phoebe's observations and reflections on life have the reader laughing out loud or crying in solidarity. When Phoebe can't understand something, she googles it. The book is peppered with facts, and the knowledge that Phoebe is struggling with being socially awkward, and being caustic with her judgements.

Phoebe's Mum is a doctor working for a humanitarian agency. She regularly leaves Phoebe with her best friend, Kate, while away for months at a time in war torn countries. Phoebe's Dad died before she was born. While he has never been a presence in her life, she is now discovering more about him and has questions.

Kate, having previously worked with Phoebe's Mum, now manages a thrift shop. Phoebe agrees to volunteer in the shop following a designer kitten debacle. This close knit group (crotchety Pat, considerate Alex and perfect Emma) is richly drawn, endearing and, despite her best efforts, wind their way into Phoebe's life.  

The relationship between Kate and Phoebe is nurturing and life affirming. Kate's character is well grounded and their relationship developed positively throughout the book. Kate's down to earth approach subtly delivered guidance, empathy and hope for all (including Phoebe) when the storyline explored some difficult themes. The diary format worked well for this story and enabled the reader a front seat in the confessions of a flawed individual who learns from her mistakes.

Themes Relationships (family, friends, romantic), LGBTIQ+, Sexuality, Identity, Death, Trauma, Disability, Exam stress.

Linda Guthrie

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A Court of Silver Flames by Sarah J. Maas

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Sarah J. Maas is back with another sexy, action-packed instalment of her hugely popular A Court of Thorns and Roses series. For the first time, we do not see the story from the viewpoint of Feyre and her High Lord of the Fae husband, Rhysand. A Court of Silver Flames breaks from the previous books in the series to focus on Feyre’s older sister, Nesta.

Nesta is damaged. She lashes out at those she cares about in cruel and unforgivable ways. Yet, like Feyre, Nesta is beautiful, powerful and immortal. She has devoted sisters, a safe home and a budding romance with an alluring Fae warrior. For fans of Maas, this all might sound familiar and welcoming. It should be easy to slip into this story and enjoy the romances, friendships and battles. However, there is one major issue.

Nesta is, and always has been, a thoroughly unlikeable and unsympathetic character. And she does not do much in this book to negate that image. It is difficult to empathise with a protagonist who has been deeply and cruelly unpleasant towards almost every other character in four previous novels. There is little to connect most readers to Nesta. Her personal growth and the progression of her story is at the core of A Court of Silver Flames, but this 700+ page interlude only serves as a distraction from other, more beloved characters.

Maas has clearly intended this to be a redemption story, with Nesta presumably joining the cadre of heroes we already know, in future books. But for many readers, it will be too little, too late. A Court of Silver Flames reads as the sexy romance Maas wanted to write, rather than a novel that advances the world of Feyre and Rhysand in any meaningful way. A Court of Silver Flames could function easily as a standalone romance novel rather than the middle book of an expansive fantasy series. Fans of Maas will always read and enjoy another offering of her hugely popular writing. Just don't expect much in the way of plot or story progression.

Themes Family, Sisters, Romance, Trauma, Grief, Warriors, Fae.

Rose Tabeni

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Dragon world by Tamara Macfarlane. Illus. by Alessandra Fusi

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In this beautiful book, Dragon World written by Tamara Macfarlane, readers are taken on a journey to meet the fire breathing beasts of mythology. The stunning illustrations by Alessandra Fusi capture the reader's interest immediately and provide visually appealing images to complement the text. The book begins with a contents page where the information is divided into four headings: Asian Dragons, European Dragons, Dragons of the World and Dragon Discoveries. A short description of the world of dragons piques the reader's interest and is a perfect introduction. There are maps to show where the dragons being discussed originated from, stories about the dragons, and each dragon is described under the headings of appearance, dwelling, powers and traits. There is even a dragon from Australia mentioned. It is known as the Marsupial dragon and had a body similar to a kangaroo, dwelled in rocky areas, breathed fire or blue smoke and used strong legs to strike enemies. In the section titled Living Dragons the Australian Leafy Sea Dragon is mentioned alongside other well-known dragon named species of plants and animals alive today. The book also has pages on how to draw a dragon and design a dragon as well as a detailed glossary and index.

Dragon World would be a wonderful gift for any child who is fascinated by these creatures or as an introduction to dragons and mythology. A very welcome addition to a home, school or public library.

Themes Fantasy, Dragons, Mythology, Legends.

Kathryn Beilby

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Skywake invasion by Jamie Russell

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Skywake invasion by BBC film critic, screenwriter and gamer Jamie Russell is the first book of a trilogy, kicking off what is sure to be an action packed scifi series for readers aged 9+. This is not the usual story of a portal out of the real world to somewhere else; this is a frightening conflation of real life world and the arrival of an alien world which, it was thought, had previously only existed in the artificial world of gaming.

Casey is the leader of a high ranking gaming team, the Ghost Reapers. She and her team meet for the first time in real life (IRL) at a live SkyWake tournament at a large shopping mall. Simultaneously around the world in other major cities, other top level gamers are meeting to compete at this international level. However Casey sees a sinister shimmer above the mall and there are sinister 'cosplayers' who seem to be overplaying their roles with what looks to be real weaponry. By chapter three the stage is set. Casey, her family and her gaming team have been introduced. Developing the plot rapidly, Russell builds an atmosphere of foreboding with flashes and shimmers of possible illusions that are inexplicable. Interwoven is the team's relationship which has to be built on trust IRL before they can possibly effectively work together to prevail against the massive power of the evil alien forces which is suddenly unleashed upon not only the gamers but on all the human beings at the shopping malls around the world.

The action is savage and lethal. Abductions of the smartest of the gamers are happening and the police forces with all their strongest equipment are rendered powerless against the aliens. Casey and her team  have to use their gaming skills and trust each other to stop the aliens. But in book one, after riveting, page- turning, heart in the mouth action and adventure, they haven't succeeded. In fact . . . where is the next book? We need it NOW!

Themes Sci fi, Gaming, Adventure, Teams, Loyalty.

Wendy Jeffrey

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Shu Lin's grandpa by Matt Goodfellow and Yu Rong

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Shu Lin arrives at her new school and she looks different, does not speak English very well and eats different food at lunchtime. This story is told from the point of view of one of the children in the class and clearly shows how not knowing about someone's culture can make it difficult for some children to accept a new arrival who is vastly different from them. 

One day the teacher arranges for Shu Lin's Grandpa to come into her class to show them his traditional Chinese paintings. He doesn't speak but just shows his wonderful paintings. This event becomes the key to unlock the empathy and understanding in the other children as Shu Lin eagerly helps them to master this special artform. 

Inside the book is a double gatefold spread revealing a magnificent Chinese painting which creates the opportunity for exploration of this wonderful style of art.  This highly acclaimed Chinese-British illustrator, who studied under Quentin Blake, has used a mixture of pencil, paper cut and coloured pencil to bring the story to us.  She shows us the wide variety of cultures across this school through her illustrations which could provide a discussion starter in classes who read it. 

Themes Friendship, Painting-Chinese, Cultural awareness, Empathy.

Gabrielle Anderson

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All our hidden gifts by Caroline O'Donoghue

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When Maeve finds a pack of old tarot cards whilst cleaning out a closet during school detention, she quickly discovers her talent for reading people. Soon, she becomes the most sought-after diviner in her school, everyone wants to know what the cards will say about them. But when Maeve's ex-best friend Lily is forced into a reading, an unsettling card named The Housekeeper appears, one that Maeve has never seen before. When Lily does not come to school the next Monday, they soon discover she has disappeared without a trace. Shunned by her schoolmates and struggling to fully comprehend her newfound romance with Lily's non-binary sibling, Roe, Maeve must dig deeper into her connection with the tarot cards to help find clues as to where Lily may be.

This book has everything you need. A gripping mystery, supernatural elements, romance etc. And as far as inclusivity goes, this story covers it beautifully. Lily is hearing impaired and wears a hearing aid, Maeve's sister is gay, and we explore her relationship and the discrimination shown towards her, Roe is exploring their gender identity, Fiona is mixed race and often calls out and educates Maeve on her behaviour. The supernatural, witchcraft elements of this book are well thought out and bring a unique and different twist to the disappearance of Lily. It is so nice to see Maeve find her feet and discover her talents as at the beginning of the novel we hear a lot about how she is not gifted, smart or talented and will never live up to the expectations of her family. When she finds her niche, you really start to see her grow as a character.

There are so many layers to this story and would highly recommend to anyone who loves a good mystery with a magical twist whilst also covering modern day social justice issues such a race, gender and LGBTQI+ discrimination.

Themes Supernatural, Witchcraft, Gender identity, Homosexuality, LGBTQI+ people.

Emily Feetham

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Can you whistle, Johanna? by Ulf Stak and Anna Hoglun

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An enchanting and thought-provoking story that challenges you to reflect and ponder the importance of the relationships that we create and foster. First written in 1992 by Swedish author Ulf Stark, this story was later translated into English. Can you whistle, Johanna? is a story about a young boy, Berra and his friend Ulf. Berra seeks to find a grandfather of his own, after hearing how exciting they are to have from Ulf's own experience. He questions why he doesn't have one already, as they sound really cool. The next day they come up with a plan to find a grandfather and what a better place to start, than the retirement home. On arrival at the home, Berra and Ulf find Ned and it seems that both Ned and Berra are made for each other.  Both are unknowingly seeking a human connection and are happy to have someone special to share their life with. Touching moments throughout the story make the reader question the importance and significance of relationships. Both Ned, Berra and Ulf build a respectful and loving relationship as they listen, share and forge a caring and thoughtful connection. 

Delightful illustrations throughout the book by Anna Hoglund compliment the storyline and bring further enjoyment to the story. As Berra, Ulf and Grandpa Ned spend time together, there is a sense of warmth and kind-heartedness in their generational bonding. Ned shares elements of his past including his whistling skills with the song, 'Can you whistle Johanna?'. Berra fervently attempts to master the whistling skills that Ned shows him, however, can't quite master them yet. A poignant conclusion leaves the reader with a sense of how sharing special moments, can bring pleasure to people's lives that they will never forget.

Themes Empathy, Friendship, Family, Kindness, Reflection.

Michelle O'Connell

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