Reviews

Questions and answers about refugees by Katie Daynes. Illus. by Oksana Dkachkovska

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Who are refugees?
Why do people become refugees?
Can anyone become a refugee?
What do 'asylum seeker', 'migrant' and 'internally displaced person' mean?

These are some of the questions asked and answered in this new release Q&A from Usborne, the masters of making the complex simple. With its lift-the-flap format, all the big questions like 'Why do wars start?' are explained in short, easy-to-understand paragraphs so that students can have a basic understanding of what some of their classmates may have faced in a previous life and time. And with current and potential conflicts creating an even greater problem than previously, there are many who will be seeking answers.

Written with advice from the Refugee Council and drawing on conversations with refugees and aid workers from around the world, the questions cover all stages of a refugee's journey, from fleeing danger and embarking on hazardous journeys, to seeking asylum and struggling to find a new place to call home. The language and scenes have been carefully considered to be appropriate for younger children, providing an extremely useful educational tool for families and schools. And for those wanting to know more, there are the usual Quicklinks to carefully selected and vetted online resources.

Themes Refugees.

Barbara Braxton

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Andromache between worlds by Gabriel Bergmoser

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Andromache Between Worlds by Gabriel Bergmoser takes readers on a thrilling journey through parallel universes filled with adventure, action, and suspense. The novel follows protagonist, Andromache, who comes from a family of heroes yet is struggling to find her own identity. Her life takes a very dramatic turn when she learns that her father, whom she believed to be dead, is actually alive but trapped in another world after being accidently sucked into a portal.

Joined by her newfound companions Tobias and Rylee, Andromache embarks on a daring quest to rescue her father. Armed with a locksmith device capable of traversing between dimensions, the trio explores a multitude of worlds, each more fantastical than the last. From encountering dinosaurs to navigating futuristic landscapes and facing off against pirates, the group encounters a myriad of challenges that test their courage and resilience. Can Andromache and her friends successfully navigate numerous worlds to find her father, or will the domains prove too challenging?

Bergmoser's storytelling captivates from the outset; weaving a narrative rich in detail and imagination. The dynamic between the characters is engaging, with Andromache's journey of self-discovery and family bonds at the forefront. Filled with vivid descriptions, each world is brought to life and readers are immersed in a series of settings that ignite the imagination. From prehistoric landscape to mind blowing futuristic cities, each diverse world brings intrigue to the narrative.

Andromache Between Worlds is a thrilling adventure that moves at a brisk pace and is filled with plenty of twists and turns to keep readers eagerly turning the pages. Jam-packed with adventure, fantasy and mystery it also carries themes of friendship, loyalty, and the power of self-discovery. As Andromache and her companions navigate the perils of parallel universes, they learn valuable lessons about resilience, determination, and the importance of forging their own destinies. Readers will certainly enjoy the ride!

Themes Portals, History, Friendship, Adventure, Teamwork, Problem solving, Family.

Michelle O'Connell

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Meet the dinosaurs by Caryl Hart. Illus. by Bethan Woollvin

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A young girl and her companion travel through the past ages from Jurassic to Cretaceous showcasing several dinosaurs from these eras. Starting with the Jurassic, we see a number of large animals, including Diplodocus, Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus before heading into the Cretaceous period. Each page has rhyming verses about the animal encouraging readers to predict the rhyming word and read along with the reader. Each page also shows characteristics of the animal in question, what it may look like, its size and its traits, including what it eats, how it survives and its interaction with other animals. Readers will be enthralled, seeing the animals on each page, the book covering ten different dinosaurs over nearly 200 million years until extinction 60 million years ago. Each double page shows the animal and the environment in which it lives. Children will be intrigued at the range of environments shown. 

I loved the book, as it shows the usual range but also shows that there were some that flew and survived in the sea. Hints about dinosaurs are given, allowing children to ask questions and think about questions like why did they die out, or how they lived for so long, or what are the skeletons seen in many museums.

Bright colourful illustrations cover each page, showing the girl and her companion in a jeep, rather like the film, Jurassic Park, but without the scary bits.  I loved the time line given at the end of the book, reinstating the facts learnt in the book, and showing a simple overview easily decipherable by eager young readers.

Themes Dinosaurs, Jurassic, Museums, STEM, Science, Palaeontology.

Fran Knight

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The Atlas complex by Olivie Blake

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The six initiates of the Alexandrian Society, whose sentient library archive is closed to outsiders, have grown into their magical powers but still seem to be rudderless, angst ridden and craving for a different world. Options include opening a portal to the multiverse or other even more destructive scenarios, though Reina, with the help of Callum, has decided to try and influence current world political outcomes piece by piece in the hope of empowering those with a more sustainable vision. It is becoming increasingly clear that the six were chosen by caretaker Atlas Blakely to be tools in his destructive aim of remaking the world, something the Forum is aware of so they are all being hunted by asassins who want to prevent the six carrying out Atlas’ plan and at the same time gain unlimited access to the archives. But like the other books, this is fundamentally about the six and their relationships. Opening bios are helpful in reacquainting the reader with the key points from the previous two books. Libby is back, completing the duo with Nico ‘without you I am push with no pull” p266, the intensity of their friendship is complex and well written, as are the shifting alliances of the other characters. I was glad of the “Interlude” on p 226 explaining “Atlas Blakely’s rise to power” as I had rather lost sight of him, but I was less happy with the scenarios towards the end, seeming to avoid difficult plot decisions. Much better than the previous Atlas Paradox, The Atlas Complex is more able to maintain a forward momentum and offers an insight into our anxieties about the state of the world and where it is heading. Olivie Blake’s acknowledgements at the end are well worth close reading and would make a good discussion starter with senior students.

Themes Fantasy, Magic, Relationships, Power.

Sue Speck

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The Atlas paradox by Olivie Blake

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Following on from The Atlas Six, the five remaining candidates with extraordinary magical powers are into their second year at the Alexandrian Library Archives, the repository of arcane reference material denied to all but initiates. There is a “Persons of Interest” introduction to the characters at the beginning of the book and the narrative is awkward at first, re-establishing the world where those with magical powers can see and alter the world and the people in it depending on a raft of talents like empathy, telepathy, naturism and physics. Now the candidates must choose an area of study but first must undergo an initiation ritual where they take turns projecting about one of the others in the group, a gruelling experience which leaves some wondering if the Archives is somehow sentient, feeding off the emotional energy they generate. There are unresolved tensions about the fact that they all accepted the requirement of the Alexandrian Society that they kill one of their number, had decided as a group that it should be Callum, failed to make that happen and instead Libby Rhodes is missing. But essentially we spend a lot of time inside the characters’ heads, pondering big life questions and intensely felt relationships. After proving that it is possible to open a wormhole using magic, and to travel backwards through time once armed with the information from the archives, the question now is whether it would be possible to open pathways to parallel universes. This seems to require a lot of scientific theorizing which did not add to the strengths of the book. In spite of their magical powers these are emotionally dependent, traumatized young adults trying to find their place in this or another version of the world where the possibilities might seem to be endless but it seems to come back to feelings of self-worth. If I hadn’t read the first part of this trilogy I don’t think I would have stuck with this sequel, the characters did not develop, Callum reduced to drinking, Tristan consumed with angst, Nico childlike, Parisa influencing and Reina aligning with the gods. I missed the presence of Libby in the house and developments in the plot but the style is so original I stuck with it for those unpredictable moments of insight.

Themes Fantasy, Magic, Relationships, Power.

Sue Speck

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The serpent & the wings of night by Carissa Broadbent

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In the realms of a world under the authority of the Goddess Nyaxia and under the rule of the Vampire Vincent,  lives a human girl - Oraya, his adopted daughter. Her survival is vexed because the scent of her blood causes every vampire in Vincent’s realm to salivate in hunger and to crave an attack on this powerless but protected ‘innocent’. Vincent though has prepared her almost lovingly and yet ruthlessly for an epic contest, honing her attack skills, so that she might conquer in the contest, even though all assume she will fail. Within this goddess-sanctioned fight to the death she meets the formidable adversary Raihn from an opposing Vampire house.  Although they are destined to kill one another in the contest, they find connection and mutual respect, and attraction. But if death finds either of them … it is likely to be because they have abandoned their personal ambitions and histories for the sake of the other. Will love be enough, can they defy the route to death, and can Oraya abandon her adopted father’s interests for the sake of a vampire from another house?

This book is an epic fantasy saga with vampires and violence and a contest that rivals The Hunger Games for an intense and brutal ‘fight-to-the-death’ competition  in an attempt to seize power. This will delight lovers of complex fantasy, provided they can get past the bloodthirsty savagery of the vampires and all in the realm, and the inherent ‘political’ fights between the ruling houses of vampires. Humans are reduced to food status, virtual ‘farmed’ animals to provide nourishment from time to time. But note, there is also an erotic element to the romance element in the story that means that this is definitely an adult novel, and aspects of the relationship go beyond sensual angst to sexual expression … so not for those under 18.  This is not Twilight. But there are also moments of tragedy and emotional torment for those who are powerless that make for intriguing reflection for readers. I must admit I have never really been a vampire fan, but the epic nature of this first book of a series will certainly appeal to mature fantasy addicts. This book can stand alone, but there is a world to be explored that will follow in future books in the series, so I am sure there will be many who lose themselves in the epic and complex world.

Themes Vampires, Power and powerlessness, Contest, Fantasy, Magic, Love, Romance.

Carolyn Hull

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Hatch and match by Ruth Paul

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An array of different coloured chickens will enthuse younger readers as they look over each exciting, colourful page full of things to find. In so doing they will come across the words and image for a variety of things, like egg, zig zag, spots, stars and stripes, as they try to find the egg owned by the particular chook.

Rhyming lines will be easily read by the adult or older child as the audience will eagerly predict the rhyming words and get into the rhythm of the lines.  Of course stopping at each page is a given as pairs of excited eyes and fingers devour each page to look for the eggs. 

The eggs are depicted on the first endpaper, and on the last are the chickens with their distinctive emblems. 

The book opens with a picture of the chickens all roosting in one tree. They are the same but different and the reader is asked to note the differences. Each morning the rooster crows and the chickens all come down from the tree to scratch and scratch. They then look for their eggs, the reader being asked to spot the eggs that have the same pattern  as one of the chickens. They can be found anywhere: under the tree, in a shoe or in the haystack. The whole purpose becomes clear when the eggs are sat upon, eventually hatching to become fluffy yellow chicks. Each has a distinctive emblem which the readers are asked to match the chicks with the hens. 

This colourful interactive story leads children to see the similarities and differences between the animals, leading to the last page, ‘just the same as you and me’.

Themes Similarity, Difference, Farmyard, Chickens.

Fran Knight

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Wildfire by Hannah Grace

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Following a college party hook-up and a series of miscommunications, 20-year-olds Aurora and Russ are embarrassed to meet again as camp counsellors at Honey Acres summer camp. Here they will spend 10 weeks together over their summer break with plenty of time to get to the point where they have to decide if they will obey the ‘no staff fraternising’ rule.

The story is told from both Russ and Aurora’s points of view, who are both dogged by their less-than-perfect relationships with their families, particularly their fathers. This is a reoccurring (if over-worked) theme, and informs their personalities and need for constant reassurances, and limited ability to trust others.

Russ, embarrassed about his father’s gambling addiction, tries to remain inconspicuous. He comes across as shy and insecure and is a stickler for the rules. Aurora, in contrast, has a history of acting out to try to gain her father’s attention and is used to the paparazzi. She regularly describes herself as ‘needing to be needed’, but has vowed to ‘work on herself’ while out of the limelight at summer camp.

Although they do border on the extreme, and Aurora is not a strong female role-model, Russ and Aurora’s personalities and issues would be relatable to many readers. Their desire to help solve each other’s problems and heal their emotional hurts are enviable examples of a successful relationship. However, much of the plot and minor characters seem superfluous and add little to the overall story.

Wildfire is the second of three books that follow different college friends at Maple Hills. The first, Icebreaker, follows Stassi and Nate, and in the third, Daydream, Henry shines. These are stand-alone titles, but the interwoven stories give extra insights as supporting characters in one book become the main protagonists in another.

Grace self-describes as a 'fluffy comfort book' author, and the Wildfire cover suggests cute, light romance. However, given the main characters’ ages, numerous sex scenes (even though the sex is safe and consensual) and associated language, Wildfire is explicit enough to be an adult-only read.

Warnings sex, language, gambling, addictions.

Themes Families, Friendship, Summer camp, Relationships.

Margaret Crohn

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Clarity Jones and the Magical Detective Agency by Chris Smith

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Chris Smith is a master of the quirky! In this slightly eccentric and magical tale there is an ex-princess (aka Clarity Jones) who desperately desires a life beyond castle walls (and also desires pockets) and has sought out mysterious magical items and an opportunity to create her own magical detective agency. Working alongside her are a large monster (a snow gnoblin - and yes, that is how you spell it!) and a semi-retired assassin named Nissassa, and eventually a new apprentice - the poor orphaned boy, nick-named Mutt.  Together they solve a plot that leads them back inside castle walls, using magical skills and the power of the impossible, and their impressive logic skills to unravel some strange mysteries and reveal their worth.

Written with a liberal dose of humour and eccentricity this is just fun from beginning to end. Telling the narrative in nibbles and bites, and with sideways excursions to describe background history or details about magical creatures, this is a rambling and entertaining narrative to appeal to younger readers who love humour with a bit of mystery.  In some places the author takes opportunity to speak directly to the reader to explain little oddities and farcical moments. Chris Smith is the author of the Kid Normal series, so those who have been entertained by his previous funny stories will be delighted with a new offering.  I loved the light-hearted mayhem and frivolous antics of all the characters and would happily recommend this to readers aged 8-12.

Themes Detectives, Fantasy, Monsters, Magic, Orphans, Royalty.

Carolyn Hull

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The Grimmelings by Rachael King

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Set in the New Zealand countryside, a self-reliant family of women deeply connected to the natural world, has drawn rumours of witchcraft for three generations. Ella‘s mother, Morag, runs a Horse Trekking experience business on their property, which borders a vast lake. The lake took both Morag’s father and her husband.

But the simmering fear in the town is brought to a head the day after the school bully is cursed by Ella for taunting the sisters on the way home from school. Josh doesn’t come home that day and the townsfolk search for him in vain for several days. Josh’s mother suspects his victims have harmed him, though Morag, Ella and Fiona all help search for him - if only because they identify with sudden loss.

Meanwhile the Horse Trekking is their livelihood and the whole family are involved. Mishaps and strange happenings increase.  Ella’s horse Magpie can only be ridden by her and she suspects was sired by a oft glimpsed Black Stallion. Magpie is particularly troubled by the appearance of a powerful Stallion and more than once defends her mistress.

A little too obvious is the coincidental appearance of a smarmy Scottish boy, Gus, who starts showing up at the stables every time there’s trouble. But readers must be first to connect the two strangers, because all the characters are glamoured or ‘brainwashed’ by the malevolent Kelpie who has slipped through time and space to seek out his love interest who fled Scotland as a girl. Morag is the last to work it out, not wanting to believe her own husband met with foul play. If Grizzly hadn’t been terminally ill and confined to the house, she might have been the first to sense the presence of the Kelpie, Aonghas Donn. Indeed, she alone can stop him from harming her family and her community.

Grizzly’s Gaelic glossary includes words like; Undersong (sounds of a landscape) or Grumma (a mist mirage) and make compelling chapter titles melding English, Moari and Gaelic cultures and myths into a suspenseful mystery. Indeed New Zealand has historically been home to many Scottish expatriots. The myth of the Kelpie may have been created to keep young children away from dangerous bodies of water in the old country, but this lyrical and masterfully gripping narrative is moreso a cautionary tale of a scorned and otherworldly suitor. Readers will find it not only an allegory for domestic violence but for bullying, environmental damage, sexism, and in  general our intolerance and fear of those of different heritage or appearance.  

The author Rachel King is also a human rights activist who championed the release of exiled Kurdish writer Behrouz Boochani from Manus Island. Her books have been translated into several different languages.

Themes Supernatural, Mystery, Family, Myth, Gaelic.

Deborah Robins

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House of roots and ruin by Erin A. Craig

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Early on in this Gothic fantasy world, we discover that 18 year-old Verity has a special gift; she can see and converse with ghosts, not necessarily distinguishing them from real flesh and blood. This sets the scene for a story where the reader holds back a little from investing fully in Verity’s account of her experiences, never quite sure whether what she is describing can be completely trusted. It makes for an intriguing twist-turning mystery.

Wanting to free herself from her older sister’s over-protective hold on her, Verity flees her home at Highmoor to pursue a position as portrait painter to a distinguished Bloem family; her subject the handsome wheelchair-bound Alexander, heir to the estate. But perhaps not everything is as it seems. Alex’s father, Gerard, seems obsessed with his genetic manipulation of plants, including plant poisons, while Alex’s mother Dauphine, though welcoming Verity, is the absolute mistress of polite decorum that might mask a dangerous will of her own. The mansion is full of mysterious dark passages, the night is pierced by shrieking cries, shadowy figures pass in the hallways, and there even seems to be another figure very much sharing a likeness to Alex, but free of his chair.

I could not put this book down, not because of the usual author’s artifice of short chapters with cliff-hanging endings, but because the whole premise was so intriguing: I was drawn to the mystery of determining what was real and what was not. The pace quickens towards the end, as the danger mounts, and Verity starts to work out who the evil actors really are. No spoilers, but the spine-chilling ending is absolutely brilliant! I loved it! I can highly recommend this book for readers of Gothic fantasy, and look forward to reading anything else Craig goes on to write.

Themes Gothic thriller, Mystery, Ghosts, Botany, Genetic modification, Deception.

Helen Eddy

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Ruthless vows by Rebecca Ross

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Rebecca ross’ duology  that started with Divine Rivals comes to a stunning conclusion in Ruthless vows. It continues directly on from the cliff-hanger in Divine Rivals, with Iris Winnow back in the city of Oath and desperately wanting to know what has happened to Roman, who she last saw in the battle with the god Dacre. With the help of her friend Attie, she manages to steal another magic typewriter from the Museum and begins to write letters to Roman, hoping that they will appear under a wardrobe door, if he is alive. When she and Attie can go to the front to report on Dacre’s activities, she grabs the chance to find out what is happening and to write the truth.

Told in alternating chapters by Iris and Roman, I was swept along by the traumatic events that the pair were facing, with Roman trying to send information about Dacre’s ley lines and troop movements, and Iris evading followers and facing the front line. The suspense especially in the last half of the book kept me reading avidly to discover what was going to happen. Would Roman regain his memory and stay safe? Would the pair ever be reunited? Could Dacre be overcome and Enva triumph?

This duology was original, with the use of magic typewriters and set in a fantasy world like Europe in World War 1. The romance is sweet and sexual relationships are hinted at, but only after the pair marry. This is a beautifully crafted duology for readers who love letters, romance and danger.

Themes Journalists, Letters, Magic, War, Romance.

Pat Pledger

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Thornhedge by T. Kingfisher

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T. Kingfisher has brought readers a novella that retells a version of Sleeping beauty, and what an unexpected retelling this is! Readers are introduced to Toadling, who had been stolen from her cradle when she was born and substituted with a changeling by the fae. Brought up by the greenteeth in a swampy area, she is happy and loved and can change from human form to that of a toad. When the hare goddess comes for her and tells her that she must offer a blessing of protection to a child, she travels back to the castle where she was born. Unfortunately, she does not utter the right words over the cradle and the child grows without the protection she needs. Centuries later, when the tower is hidden by a thick thorn hedge, a knight appears wanting to break the curse on the sleeping princess. When he meets Toadling he gradually learns what has happened.

In 119 well-crafted pages, Kingfisher turns the classic fairy tale on its head. Sleeping Beauty, the wicked fairy godmother and the brave knight are certainly not what one expects. I loved the character of Toadling, one moment a woman and another moment in toad form and who is desperate to keep the curse surrounding the princess. Halim, the knight, loves his mother and is gentle and compassionate. There are all the delightful, whimsical and thoughtful ideas and wonderful setting that Kingfisher is renowned for in her retellings. Readers may like to follow this with another, The seventh bride or stories by Shannon Hale and Juliet Marilllier.

Themes Fairy tale retelling, Princesses, Folklore, Toads.

Pat Pledger

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Bookshops & Bonedust by Travis Baldree

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When longtime audiobook narrator and first-time author Travis Baldree published his debut novel Legends & Lattes in 2022, he probably had no idea that he was about to popularise the relatively niche genre of cosy fantasy. At its core, cosy fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that focuses on low stakes adventures and the daily life of its magical characters as they build friendships and relationships. There is little to no violence, the good guys always win and the reader should, ideally, experience a feeling of warm satisfaction every time they open the book.

Legends & Lattes, a novel about an orc who lays down her sword and opens a coffee shop, did so well that Baldree almost immediately began writing another book, the prequel story Bookshops & Bonedust. Rather than the mature and battle-weary Viv of the first novel, this Viv is twenty years younger and eager for bloodshed and adventure. Unfortunately for her, a silly mistake in battle has left her with a serious leg injury. She is left behind by her crew in the small and seemingly boring town of Murk to rest and recover, much to her chagrin. With nothing else to occupy her time, Viv visits the town bookshop and discovers a love for reading that grows along with her friendship with the bookshop’s owner, Fern. What follows is a charming story of food, friends, romance and enough adventure to keep things interesting.

Baldree has grown as an author in the time between the publication of the two novels and in Bookshops & Bonedust the characters are more rounded, the world is more fleshed out and the story is more engaging. Fans of the series can only hope that Baldree has plans to add to it soon.

Themes Fantasy, Cosy Fantasy, Adventure, Friendship, Romance, LGBT, Magical Creatures, Books.

Rose Tabeni

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Chico the schnauzer by Taryn Brumfitt and Levi George

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A very eager Chico is waiting on the cover for kids to open the book and find out about him. His tail is almost wagging as the book is opened and readers are introduced to Chico and his characteristics. When his family leaves for school and work he greets all of the other dogs in the neighbourhood with welcoming barks, but one day his gate is left open and out he walks. He plays chase with Susie the Sausage Dog, Gary the Greyhound is at the beach and the two run very fast along the shore, Banjo the Border Collie asks Chico for help rounding up the sheep with some unexpected outcomes, Penelope the poodle dresses him up to be ready for the next show where she had already won a prize, but he doesn’t quite fit the image, then Ginger the Golden Retriever asks him to swim across the lake, but Chico finds a board to use. At the end of the day Chico has had the best play date ever, playing with all his friends, and trying out the things they are good at, finding that they are not all as easy for him to master.  His body is not as sleek or as fast, or attuned to water or dressing up, but going home, his family greets him with hugs and cuddles, and they all know what Chico is good at.

Charming illustrations depict the dogs talked of in the text , and will draw responses form the readers as they too recognise the animals and the traits they possess. Most readers will have a story to share about their dog and what it does best, fitting into the theme of the story, that we are all good at something. We may all be different but we can do different things with our bodies, making us just as amazing as the next person or dog. And written by Australian of the Year, Taryn Blumfitt, the book parallels the work she is doing with the Body Image Movement.

Themes Difference, Diversity, Body image, Humour.

Fran Knight

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