Book Reviews

To connect to today’s children’s literature, I write book reviews for Buzz Words Books, the book review blog supplement to Buzz Words, an e-mag for writers and illustrators for children and for all those who love the children’s book industry. Here are a few fiction, picture book, non-fiction and young adult reviews for your perusal.

Book Review : The Floods – Bewitched

The Floods – Bewitched by Colin Thompson (Random House Australia)

PB RRP $14.95
ISBN 9781742755304
Also available as an ebook

ISBN 9781742755311
Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

Take a cauldron and simmer the usual suspects: blood, boils, bile, bedlam and, of course, bacon. Stir in a healthy dose of puns and drink in Colin Thompson’s 12th book, Bewitched, in his hilarious, The Floods, series.

The setting is Transylvania Waters and King Nerlin is going the way of all good monarchs. He’s going Doolally. ‘Things like Alzheimer’s disease and general Doolallyness weren’t supposed to happen to witches and wizards, they were the sorts of things humans got.’

As Nerlin’s mind slowly wanders off to Planet Janet, Queen Mordonna gathers their children and utters what all children dread to hear, ‘we have to do something about your father …’

Mordonna gets Nerlin his own personal manservant called Bacstairs, as Nerlin falls further under the spell of his imaginary friend, Geoffrey-Geoffrey.

But, as the title suggests, Nerlin may just be Bewitched! The Floods seek help from the old crones and ride their talking donkeys high up into the mountains, where ‘baggy knickers flapped like Buddhist flags’. They ride through the Masking Clouds (that keep things invisible) to the Impossible Waterfall, where water falls from thin air.

Nerlin is indeed bewitched as he loses control of his vowels and has to wear Incompetence Underpants until his vowels work again.

Thompson is a master of plopping in the puns. As with his previous Floods’ titles (that also pun the Soapies): Survivor, The Great Outdoors, Top Gear and Home and Away, Bewitched is bristling with them. There’s imaginary friend, Geoffrey-Geoffrey, the son of the Hearse Whisperer; the Floods ‘pop into Burnings, the famous Transylvania Waters hardware story’, and they even get caffe lattes from Scarebutts, where a wPhone is an iPhone for wizards.

There is also a parallel plot involving Geoffrey-Geoffrey; he is not all he seems to be.

So, is King Nerlin spiralling into Doolallyness or are the old crones able to cure him? All those children out there who are 8+ and who want to be in on the adventure, you’ll just have to read on.

Colin Thompson has more than 65 books published. He has won multiple awards, including a CBCA Picture Book of the Year, a CBCA Honour Book and was shortlisted for the Astrid Lindgren Award – the most prestigious children’s literature prize in the world. Let’s hope he never goes Doolally!

Book Review : Meet … Ned Kelly

Meet … Ned Kelly by Janeen Brian, illustrated by Matt Adams (Random House Australia)

HB RRP $19.95
ISBN 9781742757186

Also available as an ebook
ISBN 9781742757209
Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

I like the idea of “Meet …” as it’s an invitation to get to know, perhaps personally understand, many of the iconic men and women who have shaped Australia.

Meet … Ned Kelly is the first in this picture book series that spans the education and trade markets.

Told in verse, the story comes alive. The reader is involved in the action, just like in the bush ballads of Ned Kelly’s era. The font has a nostalgic look, as if it’s hot off an old-fashioned printing press.

The armour protected Ned’s arms, head and waist.
The bullets bounced off one by one.
Sergeant Steele took a shot at Ned’s legs that were bare.
With a cry, Ned collapsed and was done.

We all know how Ned’s life ended, but we are given a poignant insight into his early life of poverty and fatherlessness and how his mother was gaoled with her young baby. We share the major turning points in Ned’s life both by verse and by following the handy timeline at the back of the book.

As a young boy we learn how Ned saved a drowning child. He is presented with a sash for his bravery. Another poignant moment is the revelation that under his suit of armour, in the shoot out at Glenrowan, Ned is wearing the same sash from childhood provoking discussion on how deeply we are affected as children, along with the need to know that we have worth.

Matt Adams’ illustrations are evocative of Sidney Nolan’s famous Ned Kelly series, with hints of other landscape painters of the era, like Arthur Streeton and Russell Drysdale. Sometimes, it’s like I’m standing in an art gallery. Young readers will connect to the pathos and humour within the illustrations as they engage with Australian history. The cover is startling as you face Ned close up. He is kitted in his ironclad helmet and armour, although I would love to have seen a peek of the green sash that he was wearing underneath.

Award-winning author Janeen Brian has captured the essence of our most legendary bushranger and award-winning illustrator Matt Adams has brought him to life with colour and texture. An excellent read for 8+.

Book Review : Robert Irwin Dinosaur Hunter

Robert Irwin Dinosaur Hunter – series by Jack Wells, illustrated by Lachlan Creagh
(Random House Australia)
PB RRP $9.95 each

Book 1 – The Discovery
ISBN 9871864718454

Book 2 – Ambush at Cisco Swamp
ISBN 9871864718461

Book 3 – Armoured Defence
ISBN 9871742750910

Book 4 – The Dinosaur Feather
ISBN 9871742750927

Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

This new series featuring Robert Irwin, son of Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, is every boy’s dream. With the aid of a dinosaur claw fossil, 9-year-old Robert and his friend, Riley, time travel back 95 million years into the Cretaceous era where they witness first hand, living with (and escaping from) dinosaurs.

Imagine being in the middle of a dinosaur stampede or crawling through a swamp, or camping in the Badlands of Canada or finding an abandoned dinosaur egg in prehistoric China.

Each book features a particular dinosaur. The font is large and clear and the chapters are scattered with black and white sketches heightening the action. The level of language is suitable for the readership of 6 – 9 year olds. Challenging words are used that will make readers feel more grown up, words like: carnivore, paleontologist, Cretaceous as well as the Latin names of the various dinosaurs. Readers will love all the prehistoric facts and finding out how to use a fossicker’s took kit to find fossils.

At the back of each book is a field guide detailing the chosen dinosaur. Lots of interesting information is given about their discovery, physical characteristics and the origin of their names. Robert Irwin has also sketched each dinosaur.

bob discoveryBook 1 – The Discovery takes place in Winton, in outback Queensland. Robert and Riley are at the dinosaur digs. Robert is chipping away and discovers a dinosaur claw that becomes his portal. He is ‘dragged down a plughole really fast’ into the prehistoric world to a waterhole where the dinosaurs ‘don’t have good table manners.’ As he is about to be made into a prehistoric meal, he is whisked back to the dino lab in Winton.

bob ambushBook 2 – Ambush at Cisco Swamp. Robert and Riley are on a research trip to the Cisco Swamp in Texas for the annual census of alligators, where they tag, measure and weigh each gator. Robert soon finds himself in the prehistoric swampland where he comes face to face with the largest prehistoric crocodile, four times bigger than its relative today. The croc is angry as it has a stick lodged in its massive jaw. Robert creatively thinks of a solution making sure he doesn’t become a ‘boy-sized meal’. A flock of pterosaurs wheel overhead as an enormous carnivore with ‘blood-stained teeth’ runs clumsily towards him. After a battle between the land dinos and the water dinos, Robert is back in the present, telling Riley of his adventures. Next time, Riley’s going with him!

bob armourBook 3 – Armoured Defence. The boys are camping in the Canadian Badlands, where the T-rex, Triceratops and Stegosaur roamed. At night, they are tumbled into the vortex of time travel to 70 million years ago, where instead of the desert they had left, they are in a swamp with quicksand and monster-sized mozzies. Vines have trapped a duck-billed dino and a meat-eating gorgosaurus is after it as an easy meal. Riley goes missing as Robert rescues the trapped dino only to become the target of the hungry predator.

bob featherBook 4 – The Dinosaur Feather. Back at Australia Zoo, where Robert lives with his family, he is making a video of the cassowary, the third largest bird in the world. There is a theme of evolution here as the boys are whisked to prehistoric China where they come in contact with an oviraptor, a dinosaur completely covered in colourful feathers. They find an abandoned egg and go in search of its nest only to be confronted by a giant dino, 9 metres long with a horn on its forehead. It is searching the trees for tasty birds and perhaps a couple of tasty humans!

What’s also exciting for lovers of all things prehistoric is that there are four more Robert Irwin Dinosaur Hunter books scheduled for release later in the year.

Book Review : Bureau of Mysteries and The Mechanomancers

Bureau of Mysteries and The Mechanomancers by HJ Harper, illustrated by Nahum Ziersch (Random House Australia)

PB RRP $15.95
ISBN 9781742756486

Also available as an ebook
ISBN 9781742756493

Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

George Feather, chimney sweep and assistant cryptographer, is on the trail of the Mechanomancers, ‘ancient evil beings that mixed magic and technology to terrorise the world!’

In this sequel for 8 – 12 year olds, author, HJ Harper has created a fantastic, almost Dickensian world, melding genres of Steampunk, Western and Detective Novel with a pinch of James Bond thrown in. It’s a combination to intrigue most readers.

The young protagonist, George, with the aid of his Cryptographer’s Compendium (his code-breaking book) and his partner, Imp Spektor, have to save the mysterious metropolis of Little Obscurity. They team up with adventurer, Lord Periwinkle Tinkerton, who travels with his scribing assistant, Lexica Quill, in his mechanical mammothmobile.

Together they battle mechanical bulls and icebergs of garbage; they ride on a giant grey rat called Bubonic through the sewerage dungeons and joust giant lice.

George uses all the tools of the trade in his quest to eradicate the Mechanomancers. He has Antigravity Gauntlets and Eyeopener Goggles. There are skypirates and skydragons. The adventure twists and turns as each chapter ends on a hook.

The reader rollicks along with George as he comes across many codes that he has to crack. This is a strength of the book, as young readers will pit their wits against George, in the quest to work out the clues and eliminate the enemy.

There is clever wordplay throughout that keeps you chuckling. There are clichés and puns (the Clockness Monster, Joust in Time). The use of first person includes lots of internal dialogue, so you know what George Feather is thinking.

All is wonderfully illustrated in Nahum Ziersch’s stylised black and white panels that depict characters and scenes along the way.

Twist follows twist towards the last third of the book. You don’t know the goodies from the baddies as you weave in and out of the story. In the end, it’s down to the power of the pen … and the ability to decipher codes.

Book Review : What the Raven Saw

9781742757353What the Raven Saw by Samantha-Ellen Bound (Woolshed Press)

PB RRP $16.95

Also available as an ebook
ISBN 9781742757360

Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

On first sighting the gothic cover of What the Raven Saw I was reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s equally gothic poem, The Raven, with its dark imagery and philosophical concepts.

Readers who love something different, something ethereal, something a little enigmatic, will enjoy this extraordinary and original tale about a raven that lives in the bell tower of Father Cadman’s church. Here, the raven converses with a bookish but inferior pigeon, a flirty weather vane and the many ghosts who inhabit the graveyard.

The raven is vainglorious as he preens and protects his treasure of ‘bottlecaps and silver-stippled stones, curls of flashing tin … human jewels … gleaming slender bones of small animals.’

But there are other stories happening around the raven. There’s the child-ghost of Todd, who has just been buried. His sister, Mackenzie, frets that his death is her fault. Somehow the raven finds a way to communicate between the two.

There’s the man who the raven sees in the churchyard tree; he is full of despair and ready to jump. The raven ‘dealt out life’s lessons in the branches of a tree’ and saved the man’s life. There’s a lonely scarecrow in a nearby field in need of solace, and a church thief. Both come under the watchful wing and the philosophical wisdom of the raven.

The concepts of this book are old, almost fable-like. You learn that beneath the raven’s cool, black feathers, there is a soul both proud and lonely. He loves to live in Father Cadman’s church as it welcomes all creatures.

Beauty is found in death, in storms, in tatty old scarecrows, ‘everything from tombs to abandoned wheelbarrows to the spires of the church, (they) had a lightness, a sense of belonging to only themselves’. This is the crux of the story.

It’s a book about mythology and symbolism. Its values are those of generosity and kindness and its themes are of loneliness, helping others and dealing with death. It’s about philosophy and finding your voice.

Samantha-Ellen Bound has done a fine job in writing such a layered, complex and compelling story that will hold the interest of readers 11+. Next time you see a raven, look it in the eye and wonder what it’s thinking.

Book Review : Dandelion

dandelionDandelion by Galvin Scott Davis, illustrated by Anthony Ishinjerro
(Random House Australia)
HB RRP $19.95
ISBN 9780857981028

Also available as an ebook
ISBN 9780857981035

Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

This picture book for primary aged children tells the story of Benjamin Brewster, a young boy in the first years of school. Instead of school being a safe haven of joy and wonder, it’s become a prison, as Benjamin is bullied by older children.

Capturing the sadness and the powerlessness of being bullied, illustrator Anthony Ishinjerro has used the persona of a faceless child (other bullied children might see themselves here) wrapped in a sepia world. It is filled with shadows and the reader looks through a kind of lens at Benjamin’s alienated childhood.

‘Each morning he would count the nine hundred and seventy-two steps that it took him to reach his school.’

But it was hopeless. All Benjamin saw were hovering, ominous figures, barred gates and pointing fingers, so he skips school and hides beneath the shelter of a tree. As he sits and worries and thinks, a field of dandelions sprouts around him. As all children do, Benjamin picks one and makes a wish as he blows the feathery seeds that parachute into the wind.

The dandelion seeds are a metaphor for the bullies (and perhaps his worries) as he blows them away.

The reality is that the bullies are still there. Benjamin calls on the namesake of the flower as dandelion means lion’s tooth, and he begins to let his roaring voice be heard. This, along with imagining the bullies being blown away, helps Benjamin to cope. He finds that if he uses his imagination, he begins to have control over the situation.

On the last page, Benjamin lifts his head to the light; his face is aglow as he looks into the future. Told mostly in rhyme, this poignant story will give many parents and teachers the opportunity to discuss bullying with their children. School Education Minister Peter Garrett said in November last year, ‘One in five students has experienced some form of cyber bullying. This means every family either has a child, or knows one, who is being bullied at school.’

As author Galvin Scott Davis says in his epilogue, he created a story ‘that could transport children and adults to a world where creativity is embraced to solve problems.’

Book Review : Seadog

seadogSeadog by Claire Saxby, illustrated by Tom Jellett
(Random House Australia)
HB RRP $19.95

ISBN 9781742756509
Also available as an ebook

Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

Fabulous and fun! I loved this picture book from the moment I saw Tom Jellett’s cheeky cover. There are many rascally dogs in children’s literature such as Harry the Dirty Dog and Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, and Seadog has just as much charisma.

Just like we are all different, so too are dogs. Who wouldn’t love a sea dog? Who couldn’t love a sea dog? Seadog is not a work dog or a fetch dog or a trick dog or a clean dog, he’s a ‘find-and-roll-in-the-fish dog’. He’s a rapscallion and his day at the beach is described in lots of hyphenated phrases, until he is a ‘Pee-ee-euw, Seadog’. After the day is done when he’s all stinky with fish he becomes a ‘sit-still-till-it’s-done dog’ and succumbs to a bath.

With Saxby’s clever use of alliteration and assonance, children and adults will have fun twisting their tongues around the rhythm and rhyme as they go on Seadog’s adventures at the beach.

Tom Jellett has captured the enthusiasm and joy of such a scruffy, lovable dog. The endpapers give the book even more sea-appeal with a patchwork of international maritime signal flags. There are lots of close-up pictures of Seadog that make you feel as if you could give him a pat and hold your nose as you smell his fishy fur.

Claire Saxby is prolific in her writing and admits to being inspired by her own children, memories of childhood and by the children around her. It helps that she has a dog that often pretends to be a cat.

Tom Jellett is not only a bestselling illustrator of books for children; he also has been an editorial illustrator for umpteen print publications.

This is one picture book for 3 and up that will become dog-eared from love.

Book Review : Australia’s Greatest Inventions and Innovations

Australia’s Greatest Inventions and Innovations by Christopher Cheng and Linsay Knight in association with the Powerhouse Museum (Random House Australia)
PB RRP $24.95

ISBN 9781742755649

Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

What a fascinating book. Not everyone is into reading fiction and this latest compendium of inventions that explains and celebrates Aussie creativity has three things going for it. It is sumptuous to look at, simple to read and seriously interesting to learn from.

Australia’s Greatest Inventions and Innovations is a handsome book, generous in size at almost A4 proportions, with each page clearly numbered and glossy to handle. Its layout is fresh with appealing print and visuals and enough white space so that you don’t feel weighed down by slabs of words.

Its catchy cover sparkles in colour and font and cries out to be opened. Sure, you can Google Aussie inventions (if you knew what Aussies had invented apart from Vegemite), but this book is tactile, fun and not intimidating even though it is filled with information.

Simple to read is another plus. With its conversational tone, it’s as if someone is spinning a yarn about each invention. There are nine themes reflecting innovations in science, industry and design. Each theme is colour-coded, such as green for communication, red for leisure and blue for health. Each invention begins with a problem conceived by the inventor, such as ‘How to convert chook poo into a useful fertiliser…’ We’ve all smelt the eye-watering odour around the neighbourhood and here we learn that chook farmer, Norman Jennings took years to work out how to turn the sludge into Dynamic Lifter that is now sold world wide. We get a short bio of the inventor and then find out the nitty-gritty of the process he had to go through. A keyword for each topic is helpful, as is the glossary at the back.

Seriously interesting is my last criteria. Over 45 inventions or innovations are explained that can be dipped in and out of. How would you find clues at a crime scene that are hidden to the naked eye like invisible fingerprints? Check out the Polilight on page 172. What about Spray on Skin or the Supreme Mousetrap Machine? Heard of the Black Box Flight Recorder? Read their stories and more.

This book would suit anyone from upper primary through to teens and adults. It is a result of the collaboration of great minds with accomplished children’s author Christopher Cheng and author and editor Linsay Knight together with the storehouse of all things innovative, the Powerhouse Museum.

Just think. You might be a future inventor. That light bulb moment could happen when you least expect it. What a great idea. Let’s patent it!