June 20

Guest review: What matters?

Lauren Wolk has been able to capture many of the elements of To Kill a Mockingbird (and even some from Jasper Jones) as Annabelle has to deal with the prejudices against the town outcast Toby (a World War I veteran). Toby is the first to be accused when things go wrong and when he is accused of kidnapping Betty (the girl who terrorises Annabelle and her brother) it’s up to Annabelle to protect Toby from an unjust town.

More importantly, the ending is one that you just don’t expect.

This really is a moving story that will have you enthralled and captivated throughout.

Mr A. Balbi

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June 20

Guest review: Passing judgement?

I think I like Robert Newton more and more (When We were Two was already a great favourite of mine) as this novel takes me on a rollercoaster ride to dream fulfilment.

Ok, so the start is very shocking but the relationship that forms between Lexie, Davey and Mr Romanov is so heart-warming and challenging that you tend to forget the shocks at the start.

All three live in a rundown housing project in Melbourne and all three have their reasons for wanting to leave and chase their dream in Surfer’s Paradise.

I found the twists… not all that we hoped for will come true in exactly the way we wanted to be a very life-affirming message.

I also found the courage to look beyond first impressions and to appreciate what lies below very heartening.

Lexie, Davey and Mr Romanov will enthrall and captivate you as they journey together, avoid the police and deal with disappointments in their life-changing journey to their dreams. – Alex Balbi

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June 7

Big questions – the Honest Truth

Your friend has gone missing, and you have finally worked out where he is heading. The trouble is, you think he doesn’t want to be found. And he is trusting you not give him away. What should you do?

For most of his life, Mark has been battling to stay alive. When his cancer returns, he decides he wants to do what he wants to do – and not be dictated to by others such as doctors. In other ways, Mark is lucky – he has loving parents, a great friend in Jessie, and a loyal dog. These are his supports – but he has had enough. He wants to be a normal kid, but how can this happen if you spend your life in and out of hospital?

‘The Honest Truth’, by Dan Gemeinhart, is a gentle but emotional tale, dealing with big questions – of life and death, friendship and promises. It will have you in tears; then in the next minute, pondering what YOU might do if YOU were Mark’s friend.

For those who have loved books like ‘the Fault in our Stars’, or ‘Zac and Mia’, this tale presents the thoughts of a terminally ill protagonist who fights to achieve a personal goal. It intersperses these with the thoughts of his friend Jess, and how his parents deal with his choices. How this occurs, and the impact his disappearance has on others, make for a moving story with a powerful message about some of the important things in life.

A closing quote from the Honest Truth states:

“What Jessie said wasn’t a lie. It was just a better kind of truth.”

How this fits with the story is for the reader to discover; just like understanding “the mountain was calling me”, and why. Recommended read.

May 30

When life gives you challenges – Dandelion Clocks

Life already has lots of challenges when you are entering your teen years, right? Well, throw in an extremely challenging brother and a secret your parents are keeping from you, and that makes life difficult.

Olivia has this to deal with, as well as a growing infatuation with Ben, who she thinks her best friend is also keen on. How tragic can life be?

‘Dandelion Clocks’, by Rebecca Westacott, presents these, and many other typical ‘teen’ issues in an authentic voice – that of Olivia, as she deals with a major family event. How she copes (or not) feels very real, as the story deals with the ups and downs of a typical teenager – but with added complications.

Rebecca Westcott addresses many mother-daughter issues in this novel which has really strong and noticeable characters. Living with a brother with Asperger’s is challenging enough for Liv, but then it seems that her whole world falls apart.

How the family copes with a major event in their lives varies – dependent on who they are –  mother, father, daughter, son. But as the tale is told through Olivia’s (Liv’s) eyes, we watch her struggle with family responsibilities, friendship loyalties and young love.

You may need a box of tissues in some parts, or just be happy to laugh at the differences in the generations, as Liv compares her mother’s diaries to her own life experiences. Either way, Dandelion Clock has a lot to make you think about how relationships change and develop over time, and how we might consider what’s worth hanging on to in times of trouble and grief.

## Readers might also like Life on the Refrigerator Door’ by Alice Kuipers (previously reviewed), which also deals with mother-daughter relationships at a time of crisis.

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February 24

the Mozart Question – Michael Morpurgo

Renowned author, Michael Morpurgo, deals with yet another challenging issue in this short tale – how can we discuss trials and tragedies of the past? How do we heal the impact of extreme and damaging situations which haunt survivors – things their descendants struggle to understand?

When a young reporter is thrust into an important interview with a famous violinist, she is warned not to ask ‘the Mozart question’. Thankfully, she is unaware of what this means and in her innocence of this, she is able to develop an extremely meaningful and significant conversation with a descendant – of a survivor – of a Nazi concentration camp.

Morpurgo has written several stories related to the impact of war  – most famously, War Horse, which has been made into both a global stage play and a movie. ‘The Mozart Question’ tackles the silence many families have faced, post-war, and gives younger readers a hint of discussions that never happened after major wars. What were the things that no-one wanted to discuss? How hard was it to have been a survivor? What were the impacts on life after survival?

‘The Mozart Question’ represents many of the unasked questions we have for survivors of war. In this story, we might ask:

  • Why doesn’t Paulo’s Papa play his violin anymore?
  • Why did his mother never reveal that she also played violin?
  • How will they react to Paulo’s violin lessons?

Morpurgo offers one type of resolution to come through an extreme wartime experience –  what can we learn from this? Can it reflect real life? and what can we learn about human resilience in the face of historical tragedy? Can stories like this show us what people have faced in times of war and beyond? Yes, yes!

# Listen to Michael Morpurgo (2010) discussing where his stories spring from:

February 17

Two boys, two families – the Kite Runner

Two boys, two families, together from ‘babyhood’, but with differing destinies. That is the foundation of ‘the Kite Runner’.

Set initially in Afghanistan in the 1970’s, it is a tale of friendship, loyalty, betrayal, prejudice and forgiveness. With this background of economic crisis, political instability and the uprising of the guerrilla opposition forces, the mujahidin (“Islamic warriors”), life is extremely challenging.

For Amir, the son of a wealthy well-respected businessman (Baba), life should have been almost carefree. But without his mother (who died in childbirth), Amir struggles to gain his father’s love and attention. Blessed with a playmate, Hassan, he is, however, able to enjoy some childhood joy.

Hassan lives with his father, Ali, who works as a servant to Amir’s father. Though Baba and Ali have also been friends since childhood, their status in Afghanistan is defined by their heritage; thus Ali and Hassan, scorned upon as Hazaras, are fortunate to work for Baba.

As a young child, Amir has the undying loyalty of Hassan. In contrast, Amir finds it hard to defend Hassan when he faces the taunts and attacks that come his way from the local Muslim bullies. He also struggles to meet his father’s ideal of a son, except for one particular occasion – and even then, he ultimately fails in another respect.

Having been born in Kabul himself, Hosseini was the child of middle-class parents like Amir. His family, too, left Afghanistan when he was young and were unable to return due to the Soviet invasion in 1979. They sought political asylum in the United States.

Therefore, it seems like much of the Kite Runner is autobiographical, as it certainly provides a thought-provoking story of life in a battle-torn country. Hosseini provides snippets of information about how another country faces clashes of culture and ingrained beliefs and the impact on the lives of children and their families. He pulls no punches in describing some of the dire situations in which a ‘less significant’ person might find themselves in an age of economic struggle and political turmoil.

Amir’s conscience encourages us to hope that not all mankind believes in these class structures, though his inaction is constantly frustrating. After a surprising act from Amir, the families are separated and then external factors force Amir and Baba to flee the country, and they get a taste of the life of the less-privileged as political refugees.

Throughout the story, Amir reflects on the importance of family and traditions, and the rich cultural Afghan heritage is peppered within this. The atrocities of war and violence are also a strong feature which makes some parts challenging, trying to understand how such things can happen. In spite of these dangers, Amir is ultimately compelled to return to Kabul – to seek peace, redemption and more.

the Kite Runner – book to movie

‘The Kite Runner’ was actually a debut novel for author Khaled Hosseini, and the author states that “if I were given a red pen now and I went back … I’d take that thing apart”. However, it has received many many accolades (and sales) since it was first published in 2003.

(Khaled Hosseini: ‘If I could go back now, I’d take The Kite Runner apart’ from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jun/01/khaled-hosseini-kite-runner-interview)

# I’m not sure I really liked Amir, even at the end of the novel: do we have to allow him forgiveness for his actions? is there a better ‘hero’ in the story?

## I have not seen the film version and wonder if it gave an even glossier finish to the tale?

November 26

Launching ‘the Godwits’

godwitsWhile this blog is mainly dedicated to reviewing Young Adult fiction, after attending the book launch of ‘the Godwits’ recently, I knew I had to write about it.

This is a tale that connects two worlds – and shows how they impact on one another, in spite of great distances and differing perspectives.

In one place, Gao Wei, the young son of Gao Da and Gao Shu, celebrates his birthday on the shores of the Yellow Sea in China; his new binoculars in hand. Many thousands of kilometres away, Gowie, a migratory bird also celebrates a birthday, as he awaits a momentous occasion.

Wei is passionate about birds, in much the same way as author Bruce Pickworth describes his own long-term passion for writing. Wei’s passion moves him to oppose a development which his father, Da, is meant to support in his work, and the battle begins. (Bruce’s has finally produced a picture book!)

In the other ‘world’, Gowie personifies the life of a Bar-tailed Godwit – an amazing bird which annually migrates between Australia/New Zealand and Alaska, via mainland China. We learn about the instincts these birds need to call upon, and the behaviour of the flock and who controls it. We are reminded that the power of the individual is not determined by size, but by attitude and relationships, when it comes to achieving leadership.

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As the tale develops, page by page, events in Wei’s life sit alongside those of Gowie; as each becomes stronger, and better acknowledged by others.

Dr Meredith Burgmann, who launched ‘the Godwits’, reminisced her own battles against developments threatening the environment. She also identified with many other aspects the book touches on like freedom of speech, feminist issues and family relationships. And then she wondered if it was time again for her to protest – in front of a grader about to start a demolition like Wei does in the story!

Author, Bruce Pickworth has combined a life-long passion for writing with a family interest in bird-watching, adventuring and natural discoveries. The result is a delightful tale which both entertains and informs, as Wei and Gowie overcome struggles put before them. Illustrator, Lorraine Robertson, provides gloriously detailed scenes to contrast the two worlds (as well as informing the astonishing fact pages). Authentic support from Birdlife Australia and their own personal histories bring Bruce and Lorraine together in achieving a wonderful project.

Once the story itself is finished, it is complemented by pages of amazing facts about Godwits, and actions that have been taken to ensure their migration path remain accessible  as the industrial world encroaches on these sites.

Here is another book to join those like Jeannie Baker’s ‘Circle’ to both entertain and inform our younger readers – and stun and amaze older readers, by presenting great visuals, and an appealing story for important environmental issues we must all consider. (It may be interesting to use them as comparative texts?)

* Copies of the book and teachers notes are available from Bullawai Books. The trade and school distributor is INT BOOKS – intbooks.online

November 18

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

a_monster_callsConor is facing a monster – it looms high above him and takes on the shape of the old yew tree – except it is in his bedroom. And it leaves evidence from its visit – like poisonous red yew berries strewn across his bedroom floor. This nightmare has been visiting him, ever since his mother started her treatment.

Life is troubled for Conor. At school, he is targeted by bullies; at home, his interfering grandmother has come to stay; and now, he feels distant from others he used to be friends with. His mother is also distant as she battles illness, even though she puts on a brave face.

Then all of a sudden, everyone wants to ‘have a little talk’:

  • at school, his teachers ‘have a little talk’ when he gets caught fighting
  • his grandmother wants ‘a chat’ about his mother
  • his father (returned briefly from his overseas/other family) discusses ‘the future’
  • and even the monster forces Conor to ‘talk’ – to express himself after three tales he tells him

‘A Monster Calls’ came about when Patrick Ness was asked to complete a story which orginated with another author. Unfortunately, Siobhan Dowd* tragically succumbed to illness before her characters and ideas came together fully in her novel. As stated in the preface, Ness was at first hesitant to write the story, but thankfully, was able to take a hold of her ideas which:

…were suggesting new ones to me …(so that)… I began to feel the itch that every writer longs for: the itch to start getting words down, the itch to tell a story.

(Then) along the way, I had only one guideline: to write a book I think Siobhan would have liked. Patrick Ness.

‘A Monster Calls’ has recently been released as a movie, which may not be for the faint-hearted as this clip may suggest:

‘A Monster Calls’ works on many levels as Conor struggles to cope with all that life is dealing him.

As a fantasy novel, it is a little different from his previous dystopian ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy. It challenges your feelings, questions the way people sometimes act, by presenting everyday events that you can relate to. Nightmares, real or imagined, face us all at times – emotions may ride high as a result.

Look around – what are your monsters, and how do you tackle them?

Do you think Siobhan Dowd would like the story Patrick Ness developed from her ideas?

November 16

Prime Minister’s Literary Awards 2016

Teachers and students, if you are looking for some great reading after a hectic exam period, or planning ahead for the holidays, then why not visit the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards site to see which books have been given accolades this year?

prime-ministers-2016

Among these awards are categories for fiction, non-fiction, poetry, Australian history and Young Adult fiction. Notably, several books which were on the CBCA list were also included in the shortlist for this award. Have you read any of them yet? Perhaps there are suggestions here for Christmas presents for family and friends – impress them with your choices!

non-fiction

Here’s a link to more detail about the winning entries from the Better Reading website, to help you make you choices. See what you can find in our library, and ‘get your reading on’!