Reviews

The glass house by Anne Buist and Graeme Simsion

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Despite the image on the front cover, the glass house in Buist and Simsion’s book is the nurses’ station in a hospital’s Mental Health Service’s Acute Unit, but the image is very apt as the patients that go through the service are like exotic plants that may live or die according to the conditions they encounter. Hannah Wright is the new intern in the psychiatric ward, and she must make the decisions that could drastically impact people’s lives, comparable to the confronting edge-of-the-knife scenarios of the recent British medical comedy-drama television miniseries ‘This is going to hurt’.

We encounter the whole range of psychiatric cases - postpartum psychosis, suicide ideation, PTSD, morbid anorexia nervosa, schizophrenia, depression, histrionic personality disorder. It’s like reading short stories but they all link up and the reading becomes addictive as we go from one case to another. All of this is within the framework of a high pressure, underfunded medical service that has its own issues of bullying and unresolved trauma among the staff. And to keep us engaged there is also the subtle thread of a possible romance, if that’s possible between people working in the same pressure-cooker environment.

I really liked the way the authors give insight into the personal doubts and dilemmas of the main protagonist, Hannah, but at the same time we are shown how she steps up time and again to say and do the tough things required. She is a strong personality despite her misgivings, and all readers will wish her success in the career she has chosen. No doubt the authenticity comes from the lived experience of the author psychiatrist Anne Buist.

I found the book a little hard to get into at first; there seemed so many people to keep track of, but as I read on I became more and more engaged, as the evidence behind the cases is built up and the discussions between the young professionals and their personal experiences are elaborated. The patient scenarios are dramatic and one can’t help wondering how they will be resolved. It’s a book for the general reader but would also be of especial interest to anyone considering a career in psychiatry or related field.

One thing I have overlooked mentioning is the humour. Despite the serious issues, it is actually very funny, a modern tragicomedy. Buist and Simsion know how to toss in the humorous remark that undercuts the tension, the secret thoughts that belie the spoken words, and the mad-cap scenarios that escalate in the psychiatric communal areas. So there is much laughter amid the tears.

Themes Psychiatry, Mental health, Counselling, Trauma, Suicide, Anorexia Nervosa, Careers.

Helen Eddy

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Dinosaur in my pocket by Ashleigh Barton and Blithe Fielden

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When James went to the museum with his class, he spied a triceratops on the shelf in the museum shop. James loved dinosaurs and he loved miniatures, so this little dinosaur was just what he wanted to fill a space on his shelf. But he had no money, so when no-one was looking, he put the little model into his pocket. At lunchtime, he found he could not eat his sandwich and on the bus going home, the dinosaur in his pocket seemed to get bigger.

He had to put it into his back pack, and run to his room when he arrived home to hide it in his wardrobe.

But when the family were together they heard a loud noise coming from the bedroom and opening the door found a triceratops as big as the adults. James had to explain. Hie parents did not shout or yell, but instead were very disappointed and they decided that the next day the little toy would be returned to the museum. Overnight it grew even bigger and it just fitted into dad’s truck ready to be take back to the museum.

James had to tell the assistant what he had done, and the dinosaur became smaller.  And James’ guilt was diminished.

This lovely story of problem solving will be taken to heart by the readers. James’ guilt grows just like the dinosaur that he stole, making his guilt feel overwhelming. The solution, to return the stolen toy, cost him his pride, but his guilt was lifted from his shoulders, as the dinosaur shrank.

The story underlines the idea of owning up to things you have done, reassuring the reader that people will not be angry but supportive in solving the problem. Problems that seem overwhelming can be solved when working together, to find a simple solution. Readers will be enchanted by James’ miniature collection, perusing all the detail in the illustrations, poring over the endpapers, and saying the names of his collection out loud, following the words in the book. The problem presented is one which most children will recognise, as they all will have wanted their parents to buy something for them and been disappointed. They will not all have followed James’ example but they will see that his guilt at doing something wrong is palpable and encourage them to see what the right course of actions should have been. Teacher's notes are available.

Themes Shop lifting, Dishonesty, Miniatures, Parents.

Fran Knight

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Murray the Viking by Adam Stower

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Murray the cat enjoys living the good life with Fumblethumb the wizard, a life made even better when Fumblethumb accidentally turns one of Murray's favourite buns into a bunny, complete with a cherry for a tail. But when he messes up again and turns the cat flap into a gateway to adventure, instead of just the garden, then the fun really starts...

In this new series for newly independent readers consolidating their skills, the cat flap takes Murray and Bun back to the times of the Vikings where they are given an important mission to travel to Troll Island to rescue Eggrik the Viking. if he hasn't already been gobbled up by the trolls, that is.

Simple text, humour and full of illustrations that carry the story along at a rapid pace, this is a great stepping stone between everyday readers and novels that will have wide appeal because of its outlandish characters and original adventures, as well as introducing them to historical fiction, perhaps sparking an interest in the time period. Something new to offer those moving forward on their reading journey as they go through their own cat flap of adventure to the world of stories.

Themes Cats, Magic, Rabbits, Vikings, Trolls.

Barbara Braxton

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Two rabbits by Larissa Ferenchuk. Illus. by Prue Pittock

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On a dark rainy night, in a cold wet field, Little Grey Rabbit and Little Brown Rabbit had an argument, their words carried away on the wind. And as you do when you have had an argument, each stormed off - Little Grey Rabbit into the street towards her home, and Little Brown Rabbit into the lane towards hers... Will they be able to come back together and find a way to save their friendship?

Using a clever textual technique where the actions and thoughts of each are mirrored in the text, this is a charming story for little ones who are still feeling their way with forming friendships beyond the family and learning that you can still be friends even if you disagree on some things. Yes, there is anger and sadness and even loneliness, but these become reasons to mend the friendship rather than destroying it. Apologising is being smart and grown up, not a weakness, and with the reason for the original argument not disclosed, the focus is on those feelings and the coming together again.

The endpapers are interesting - see if the child can spot the difference - and they will have fun spotting places and tracing journeys of the map.

One that is perfect to add to the collection exploring how to make and maintain friendships, particularly in those early months of school.

Themes Anger, Rabbits, Friendship.

Barbara Braxton

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Return to blood by Michael Bennett

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From the author of Better the Blood, comes a thrilling second novel featuring Maori detective Hana Westerman, who has turned in her badge and is living in her hometown of Tata Bay with her father Eru. When her daughter Addison uncovers the skeleton of a young woman buried in the dunes where another young woman had been buried twenty years previously, Hana is convinced that the Maori man who was convicted of the earlier crime may have been innocent. She cannot stop herself from investigating the murders even though she is not currently a member of the police force and has no official capacity.

Return to blood is told from multiple viewpoints that keep the reader glued to the page. There is the haunting voice of Kira, a young woman who is a drug addict, told in separate chapters and different print. She had disappeared four years earlier and is believed to have been found in the dunes. The ongoing investigation is told from Hana’s perspective, while Addison who found the body is having dreams of a young woman who cannot let go.

Maori culture features strongly in the story with words being explained in footnotes. The title Return to blood is evocative of Hana’s need to return to her Maori roots, but she is unable to discard her skills as a police officer. Can she blend the two? And can Addison discover why she is having vivid dreams about the victim?

The police procedures and the investigative skills that Hana displays will keep any lover of mysteries satisfied with an unexpected denouement while the relationships in the book between the strong women and Hana and her father Eru, will add emotional depth. Readers would gain a deeper insight into the characters if Better the blood is read first and those who enjoyed The lovely bones by Alice Sebold may find Kira’s narrative compelling.

Themes Murder, Detectives, Maori culture.

Pat Pledger

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My Young Readers Library

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This brightly coloured and visually appealing set of 20 readers for young children will provide home and/or individual support for children who are continuing to master the skills of reading. With a range of diverse characters and settings as well as a variety of entertaining storylines, these readers will support and meet many of the needs of young readers.

The 20 readers are coded into five levelled colours with the earlier levels having five readers each and the final two levels having three readers. Each band gives a description of the ability level:

1.       Turquoise Book band – Engaging, phonically-decodable stories
2.       Purple Book Band – More complex stories for understanding
3.       Gold Book band – Longer stories for reading stamina
4.       White Book Band – Challenging stories for reading confidence
5.       Lime Book Band – Stepping stones to longer chapter book

The stories and their accompanying vibrant illustrations include themes about everyday life, animals, friendship, families and problems. Each book begins with Tips for Grown Ups, Word Explorers which lists new, unfamiliar or groups of words plus a Thinking Ahead question. There is also QR code where you can listen to the audio of the story and teaching notes. On the back cover is some Fun Time activities which will support comprehension of the text.

Themes Levelled Readers, Oxford Levels 7-11.

Kathryn Beilby

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The cryptic clue: A tea ladies mystery by Amanda Hampson

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The tea ladies are back in another cosy mystery set in Sydney in the mid 1960’s. Hazel, Betty and Irene are again plunged into danger and need all their wits to solve the cryptic clue that Irene’s husband has left her and to avert a disaster that involves national security. Will Irene and Co find the proceeds of the robbery before a crooked police detective? Will young Maude survive working as a housekeeper for Father Kelly and two unlikely Catholic brothers? And what is going on with the building of the new Sydney Opera House? And how long will the tea ladies survive with the threat of a CafeBar replacing them hanging over their heads?

Amanda Hampson immerses the reader in the 1960’s, a time of great social change. The mini dress is revolutionising the fashion industry, there are crooked coppers and the soaring sails of the Sydney Opera House are beginning to show up over the Harbour. It was fascinating to read about Utzon and his wonderful design, and fun to see Hazel having a little romance with a sound designer from Denmark, who is working on the acoustics for the Opera House. The plight of the tea ladies and the threat that the CafeBar was to their livelihoods also provided a fascinating view into the changing workplace of the 60’s. I held my breath as I wondered what would happen to Maude, only 18 years old, housekeeping at the Catholic Presbytery, something that would never happen in modern times.

There were many twists and turns to keep the interest alive and the descriptions of the differing characters of the tea ladies was delightful. Irene’s capers and dialogue kept a smile on my face while Betty proved that she could help the investigation. Hazel with her commonsense and calm was the glue that kept the teamwork of the tea ladies on task and it was great to see her recover from her disappointment with Bob.

The final denouement was unexpected and thrilling. Fans of the first book The tea ladies will not be disappointed and readers who fondly remember the 1960’s and enjoy a cosy mystery will be charmed by The cryptic clue.

Themes Cosy mystery, Murder, Tea ladies, 1960's, Fashion, Sydney Opera House.

Pat Pledger

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Lilliput the kangaroo by Sarah Bellman. Illus. by Krista Brennan

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There is a definite echo of Alice in Wonderland in Lillipit. The main character Alyce has long blonde hair, is wearing a blue dress with a white collar and ventures into a rather magical world in her own backyard. There is even a tea party. While this is a sweet story, the writing is quite prescriptive and straightforward, lacking the magic or spark that this sort of tale deserves. Five-year-old Alyce and her younger brother have just moved to a new house on a farm in the Macedon Ranges. Alyce is worried about starting school and finding friends but she has no trouble making friends with the local kangaroos. One day while playing she reaches out to pat a friendly kangaroo and is surprised to find it talking to her: "'My name is Lillipit. It is lovely to meet you, Alyce,' said the kangaroo." A pouch tour of the farm and meeting all the resident animals is followed by a tulip tea party in the forest with Cherry the white echidna. The setting is quintessentially Australian and the watercolour illustrations are sweet. Lillipit the kangaroo delivers Alyce safely back to her house and tells her how to contact her if she needs her. "You are very special, Alyce, and I am here for you if you need me." There is a slightly worrying tone of secrets and talking to and going off with strangers, but this is alleviated at the end of the story by the following line: "Alyce ran inside to tell her mum and dad all about Lillipit and her home". This is definitely something to clarify with young children after reading this though - that we wouldn't just tell people we have just met outside our house about our lives or go off with them on an adventure. A nice story about new adventures and the magic of the Aussie environment.

Themes Adventure stories, Australian stories.

Nicole Nelson

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Wurrtoo: The wombat who fell in love with the sky by Tylissa Elisara. Illus. by Dylan Finney

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This beautifully written debut novel by First Nations author Tylissa Elisara is an engaging read full of humour, friendship, courage, and important teaching and learning traditions of our oldest culture. Set in the stunning environment of Kangaroo Island located off the South Australian coast, the story is about the adventures of Wurrtoo, a lonely hairy nosed wombat and Kuula, a bubbly adventurous koala.

Wurrtoo is desperate to travel to the Forest of Dreaming on the mainland to marry his one true love, the Sky. Kuula and the other animals encountered along the way are amused and sceptical of this but offer support in all sorts of ways, both helpful and unhelpful. The two friends face danger from other animals and deadly natural disasters but does Wurrtoo eventually achieve what he set out to do?

The animals in the story take on human characteristics and the black and white illustrations of the main characters in familiar items of clothing, as well as drawings of moments on their adventure, adds visual appeal that complements the narrative perfectly. As part of their journey Wurrtoo and Kuula share meals showing the interesting use of traditional foods, and visit various places on Kangaroo Island, all wonderfully described in rich expressive language.

Wurrtoo: The Wombat Who Fell in Love with the Sky would make a wonderful class novel for Year 3 or 4 students. The thoughtful wisdom shared about caring for Country and the growing friendship and trust between Wurrtoo and Kuula enable this book to offer so much deep learning for the classroom. Teacher's notes are available.

Themes First Nations, Kangaroo Island, Australian Animals, Courage, Dreaming Stories, Humour, Friendship, Adventure, Environmental Issues.

Kathryn Beilby

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The perfect guy doesn't exist by Sophie Gonzales

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Sophie Gonzales has described her latest novel as a fun love letter to ‘fanfic’ and romance stories. The central premise is that due to some strange circumstance, a thunderstorm, a dream, we’re not sure, Ivy’s heartthrob from the show ‘Hot, Magical and Deadly’ (H-MAD), has amazingly come to life, in her bedroom, while her parents are away. It is Weston, the gorgeous guy depicted on the book cover, flexing his muscles in that typical crossed arms stance so many teenage guys like to emulate. Weston is the hero that loves Ivy absolutely and enduringly in all the romantic fanfiction stories she uploads to the net. The only problem is that as he starts to re-enact all the romantic tropes she has created, it begins to feel like maybe the perfect guy might not be that great to have around after all.

The fantasy element is the platform for a lot of comic situations that Ivy and her best friend Henry, and her former crush and not-so-best friend Mack, struggle to handle in the real world. While Ivy has been writing her fan fiction, her own life has become another hate to love story. It is only when she starts to view her conversations and her actions from the perspective of another, that she begins to realise that not everything centres around herself, and that other people have been struggling to deal with their own problems alongside her. Gonzales has incorporated good lessons about better communication and consideration of others amidst all the comic capers.

As with Gonzales' other novels this is another lighthearted LGBQTI+ story for young adult readers. Ivy realises that she is bisexual, Mack is lesbian, and Henry is aroace, meaning someone who is both aromantic and asexual. The three become true friends, united by the problem of what to do about the fantastical but increasingly disturbing Weston.

Gonzales excels in the argumentative dialogue that escalates from first off-the-cuff retort to mean things each speaker regrets afterwards. The sarcastic remarks tossed out by Henry are also very funny. It is easy to be drawn into the very realistic conflicts between the teenage characters, and this is part of what keeps the reader engaged. That, and the really very funny scenarios. Just how did Weston become real, and how are they going to send him back where he came from?

For me, the only drawback to the novel is the setting in America, and the American language that is included. Gonzales is an Australian writer, and while I understand the drive to reach an international audience, I think it is a shame that she has to Americanise her stories. But, that said, I admit that once I got into the novel, any awkwardness just fell away and I really enjoyed the ride. This is another great rom-com for Young Adult readers, probably for a slightly younger audience than ‘Never ever getting back together’ (2022) which was also a lot of fun.

Themes LGBQTI+, Humour, Romance, Fan fiction, Fantasy.

Helen Eddy

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Little horses by Deborah Kelly. Illus. by Jenni Goodman

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Out in the bay, where sailboats glide
Little horses drift and glide
Changing colours so predators pass
In gardens of sponge and coral and grass

In the calm peaceful waters, disturbed only by the rise and fall of the tide, little seahorses spend their lives swaying with the movement of the water, occasionally spotted by sharp-eyed scuba divers who are lucky to see them amongst the seaweed. They give birth and raise their young in a way that only seahorses do, continuing a cycle that is generations old.

But then a storm hits the bay and the seahorses are swept away from their home by the tumbling, crashing waves to a barren place where there are no sponges, coral and grass until...

Inspired by true events when severe storms hit Port Stephens, NSW between 2010 and 2013 and almost wiped out the fragile population of White's Seahorses (hippocampus whitei) - so much so that it was declared endangered on the IUCN list - this story tells the story of how scuba diver David Haraski spotted two seahorses beginning to build a new home on an old lobster pot that had also been swept away but which was starting to sprout new corals and sponges. With the adage, "If we build it, they will come" in mind, in 2018 Haraski built and placed the first seahorse hotel onto the Port Stephens seabed - and it worked. Haraski the tried his concept in Sydney Harbour where there were other endangered populations and now these seahorses hotels are springing up around the world, including a dedicated breeding program at Sydney Sea Life

This is such a positive spin on how humans are working to save the environment and its creatures that it deserves a place in any library collection to support the environment and sustainability curriculum. The gentle rhyme has a rhythm that mimics the wave movement, building to a crescendo when the storm hits, and all set against eye-catching artwork that is so lifelike. There are notes about both the seahorses themselves and the seahorse hotels to add context and whet the appetite to know more and explore further.

With summer beach holiday memories still fresh in the mind, this is the ideal time to encourage students to think what lies below the yellow sands, beneath the rockpool calm and beyond the sparkling waters and used together with Beach Song and Voice of the Sea, there is the trifecta of storybooks to form the basis of the investigation.

Barbara Braxton

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How to find a rainbow by Alom Shaha. Illus. by Sarthak Sinha

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Reena and Rekha may be sisters, but when it comes to the weather, they couldn't be more different. Reena hates rainy days because she sees them as grey and gloomy, depriving her of being outside painting all the bright and beautiful things. Whereas Rekha loves the smell of wet earth and the solitude of being outside when everyone else is in.

As she splashes in the puddles she sees a rainbow, and knows immediately that it is something Reena will want to see. But by the time Reena joins her, the rainbow has disappeared. Where can it be? Will they find it again?

There is a saying, "Without rain, there can be no rainbows", and this charming story can be read on two levels - that of two sisters in search of a physical rainbow and that of emerging from a gloomy emotional episode and beginning to find joy again. It offers scope for investigating the science of rainbows (as well as instructions for creating one), but also helps young readers understand that even if siblings or friends don't like the same things, there are still ways to come together. With much of the story carried in the dialogue which is assigned directly to each character, and an original style of artwork, this is a story of two squirrels that offers much to young readers learning to explore the world around them so that they will be looking forward to the next rainy day to explore for themselves. You could even teach them the word "petrichor" which is the grown-up word for the smell of dry earth as rain hits it, and watch them impress others with their knowledge! Teacher's notes are available.

Themes Rainbows, Sisters, Colours.

Barbara Braxton

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Last violent call by Chloe Gong

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Two former assassins from opposing gangs, Roma and Juliette, are a couple in love, with new identities, living under the radar in the Chinese town of Zhouzhuang. They have established an underground weapons ring, something I initially thought to mean guns, but could actually also be knives as both are highly skilled in knife martial arts. It sounds like a crime thriller, but actually reads like a light comedy full of flirtatious banter between the two. It is just so much fun to read.

Last violent call is in fact two short novellas. The first ‘A foul thing’ is the story of Roma and Juliette drawn back into danger when their aid is sought by a young man desperate to save the life of his fiancee sought by killers after escaping from a suspicious drug trial.

The second novella ‘This foul murder’ is connected to the first, but features two Russian agents, a homosexual couple, aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, on a mission for Roma and Juliette. When a murder occurs on the train, rather than have their schedule delayed by a police investigation, the two men pose as detectives bent on solving the crime. It becomes much like a comedic Russian/Chinese version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, with the two pseudo-detectives also engaging in much light-hearted banter.

I have not read Gong’s books in the ‘Secret Shanghai’ series, (for example, Foul Lady Fortune) apparently with a familiar cast of characters, and while there are references to past events, the two novellas in 'Last violent call' can be read as stand-alone, and have been described by the author as ‘domestic fluff’. With captivating characters and funny situations they are really enjoyable ‘fluff’, and perhaps provide a light-hearted entree to her other books, albeit with some spoilers.

Themes Crime, Gangs, Comedy, Mystery.

Helen Eddy

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Super snake by Gregg Dreise

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Award-winning childrens author Gregg Dreise presents the first in a new series, Scales and Tails, with a new  square format. He read the Roughsey version of the Rainbow Serpent at school, and very proud of his Kamilaroi and Euahlayi heritage he wanted to write a tale of the serpent particular to his own culture.

He tells the tale of the creation of the Darling/Barka River by the Rainbow Serpent after a drought. The drought ends with a great storm and after the storm a rainbow appears with the snake making its way down to the earth along the rainbow. He promises the Elders he will help them find water. And so he does, creating the Darling/Barka River in south west Queensland.

More than a picture book, the wonderful text will be read by those who feel confident trying to read something for themselves, or who love having a story read to them. And what a story, as with myths from the past, the moral of the story is one we should live by today. Sharing water is at the heart of much that is happening in Australia, and the Rainbow Serpent reminds us that we can’t have a rainbow without water.

He asks the elders to climb on his back as he takes them to where the river starts, the sea. He uses his body to carve a river from the sea to the Southern Ocean, in South Australia. He makes lakes and tributaries, resting sometimes to gather his own strength. But he keeps going, telling the Elders that water is there to share. He dives beneath the earth creating the underground basin where the water is stored. So there is enough water for us all, and we must share and protect it.

Everyone hearing the story will know about the importance of water to Australia. And think about their own area and what stories there may be about water. Gregg’s vibrant and strong illustrations depict Aboriginal motifs that kids are familiar with, drawing them into the story as they read.

The map of Australia shows the number of Aboriginal culture groups across the land, and more information is given at the end of the book about Gregg and his story of the Rainbow Serpent.

I loved the images of the land before and after water is given, reminding us all of the importance of water, as he ends his tory with: Come together, rise up, share.

A wonderful addition to the library, I look forward to the next in the series. More about Gregg Dreise can be found here. 

Themes Aboriginal themes, Australia, Water, Sharing.

Fran Knight

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The weaver by Melanie Kanicky

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Shortlisted for the 2023 Aurealis Awards for Best Young Adult Novel, The weaver is an engaging story that is sure to appeal to readers who enjoy fantasy. Saatcha is a young woman who has taken over her father’s blacksmith forge when he falls ill. Because of the severe weather she sleeps in the attic of the shop as it is too cold to walk back to her house. When two thieves break into the forge they force her to leave her home behind and the unknown magic that has surrounded her begins to break down. Her eyes are opened to the deserted village, the grimy forge and the mouldy food that she has been eating. Her kidnappers are not ordinary thieves and she gradually learns that she has a vital role to play in the safety of the kingdom.

Told in the third person, the story smoothly brings the reader into the lives and thoughts of Saatcha, Kavarin and Ren. Saatcha is amazed at what her life was like, once the magic threads that bind her begin to disappear. Lovers of stories that feature magic libraries, a Librarian, and a sorcerous book will enjoy  Kanicky’s portrayal of the place that books and storytelling hold in Saatcha’s life. She is taken under the wing of the Librarian at Kavarin’s castle and gradually begins to learn to read and to uncover what is happening in the kingdom. She is adaptable and calm and readers, like me, will be keen to see her come into her powers. Kavarin and Ren’s personalities are multi-faceted and the romantic triangle between Saatcha, Kavarin and Ren will appeal to teen readers. The magic of weaving is unusual and the cold, dark sorcery of the king will bring shivers as he manipulates his people.

A couple of swear words (the ‘f’ word) appear and a jarring note (for me) was some modern phrases that did not fit into the fantasy setting but are likely to appeal to teen readers.

The weaver is a well written page turner with a beguiling cover that will grab its readers. The conclusion is open ended so hopefully there could be a sequel. Readers who enjoy books by Lynette Noni (The prison healer) and Brigid Kemmerer (Defy the night) are sure to enjoy this, while older readers may wish to look at some of Naomi Novik’s books like Uprooted and Spinning silver.

Themes Fantasy, Magic, Friendship, Blacksmiths.

Pat Pledger

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