Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Reviews, Recommended Books for Older Readers 2016

by Susan Stephenson,

Although I have a fascination (some may prefer to call it an obsession!) with children’s picture books, I love to find great books for older readers too. Below you’ll find some recently read books that I recommend if your children and teens love strong characters, humour, punchy dialogue and fascinating plots. Even further below, you’ll find a highly recommended read for adults.

Awesome Animal Stories for Kids

Awesome Animal Stories for Kids was written by Aleesah Darlison, illustrated by James Hart and published by Penguin Random House (2015). RRP $14.99.

From the publisher:

“Hear the legend of Alvarado, king of the cats. Experience the extraordinary tale of survival of an orphan foal. Discover magical sea creatures on a beach adventure. Find out the problem with pets from outer space, and solve a puzzling pig-napping.”

Darlinson has the wonderful knack of knowing what kids WANT to read. She tempts them with an intriguing premise and delivers with original plots and characters kids can relate to. In this paperback, kids will find a selection of animal stories - some funny, some serious, some realistic, others fantastic. The large font and occasional black and white cartoonish sketch by Hart make this a great choice for young readers who need support in their reading choices.

Squishy Taylor and the Bonus Sisters and Squishy Taylor and a Question of Trust:

Written by Ailsa Wild, with art by Ben Wood, the Squishy Taylor books are published by Hardie Grant Egmont, 2016. There are teacher notes available from the Squishy Taylor website.

This is a new series of junior fiction perfect for independent readers 7+ who want chapter books with easy-to-read font and fun illustrations to break up the text. Girls in particular will enjoy the adventures of Squishy and her bonus sisters (so much nicer than “step” sisters) as they become embroiled in wreaking vengeance on their enemies, finding diamond smugglers, practising ninja moves and solving people’s problems. The series continues with at least two more, so it’s perfect for those kids who like to know what they’re getting into with a book.

Clementine Rose and the Special Promise

Clementine Rose and the Special Promise was written by Jacqueline Harvey and published by Random House Australia (2016). RRP: $Au14.99

From the publisher:

Change is in the air in Penberthy Floss!

Clementine Rose has to say goodbye. Her friends, Sophie and Jules, are moving back to France. While she is sad to see them go, Sophie has promised they will come back. Plus, Clementine will now have an overseas pen pal!

At school and home, things are also changing. There's a new girl in Clementine's class who looks set to cause trouble. And at Penberthy House, Drew and Will have become such frequent visitors that Clementine begins to wonder whether a very special promise is about to be made.

This is book 11 in the Clementine Rose series, and I know young readers will grab it with glee. As usual, there are lots of things they will relate to in the book - Clementine Rose has to say goodbye to her best friend (sob) and still manages to blurt out things that get her into trouble. There's a new girl at school who is mean, and a mystery surrounding the intentions of Drew towards Clementine Rose’s mother. The characters are quirky and believable, and there's lots of tension and humour for readers to enjoy. Harvey wrote the Alice-Miranda series which is also much appreciated by the target readership - younger girls. Recommended for kids 7+.

Coco Banjo and the Super Wow Surprise

Written and illustrated by N. J. Gemmell, and published by Penguin Random House Australia (2016), Coco Banjo and the Super Wow Surprise has the RRP of $14.99. (I reviewed Coco Banjo has been Unfriended in my Bookish Christmas Gift Suggestions for Kids 2016.)

From the publisher:

YIPPEE! It's the holidays! Time for glorious summer days and fun with friends.

Coco's mum is still travelling, but she arranges the BEST surprises.

One surprise is in a box delivered by Coco's best friend, N.

The next surprise is an invention called the Skip Back Machine. What does it do?

And the biggest surprise is tickets to a concert by Coco's favourite pop star, Prince Louis!

But . . . what if N isn't allowed to go? Coco has a big decision to make .

Gemmell is another author who understands that many many young readers love to find a series they enjoy. It gives them the chance to get to know a character and an expectation of enjoyment in any book to come. Coco Banjo is a very likeable heroine - she’s impulsive, loyal, misses her mum (who’s working away from home) and is learning to be brave. Gemmell’s fun sketches and crazy fonts will definitely appeal to today’s kids, as will the zany situations Coco gets herself into.

My Life and Other Exploding Chickens

My Life and Other Exploding Chickens was written by Tristan Bancks, illustrated by Gus Gordon and published by Random House Australia (2016). RRP: $15.99.

From the publisher:

Have you ever done a runner from the dentist? Are you petrified of clowns? Have giant headlice tried to eat you? Have you ever been attacked by Library Ninjas when your book was five years overdue? And have you come up with a genius way to never do homework again? All of these things have happened to me. I'm Tom Weekly. My life is an exploding chicken and the book in your hands is my attempt to glue it back together again.

Poor Tom Weekly! Unfortunately, but understandably, kids are more likely to laugh uproariously at him than to sympathise. And that’s what we want - humour is a most wonderful way to introduce kids to the idea that reading can truly be fun. Add a little grossness and sell them completely! Bancks understands that some kids want short, intense, hilarious stories with plots they can relate to, and characters they understand. If readers aren’t pulled in by the title and Gordon’s cartoon illustrations, share a little of each of Tom’s disasters adventures in My Life and Other Exploding Chickens to win them over for sure.

Friday Barnes: No Rules

Friday Barnes: No Rules is a middle grade chapter book written by R. A. Spratt and published by Penguin Random House Australia (2015).

From the publisher:

What if every clue points in the wrong direction?

Friday Barnes has been deported to Switzerland! With their in-school detective gone, Highcrest Academy has descended into chaos. Someone's fired all the teachers!

The Headmaster claims it wasn't him, and suspicion soon turns to Ian Wainscott, but Friday won't stand by and let her favourite nemesis take the blame. Apart from being innocent (probably), he's seriously good-looking. There's also the problem of the new vice principal and his questionable teaching methods. It's hard to take someone seriously when they wear tie-dyed t-shirts. Can Friday save Ian's scholarship? Can she find the prankster before they bring down the school? Can she run the cross country? She's certainly going to try . . . to do the first two, anyway.

Friday Barnes is a quirky character, yet one kids will relate to. You may remember I have reviewed Spratt’s chapter books:The Adventures of Nanny Piggins, and Nanny Piggins and the Race to Power, as well as Friday Barnes: Girl Detective and Friday Barnes: Under Suspicion Again Friday has to solve problems with her own special brand of deductive reasoning and the help (and hindrance!) of some very unusual characters.

I love that these sorts of series capture children’s interest and imaginations, and have them begging for more. If you think your kids will enjoy a book with a strong heroine, an interesting plot and lashings of humour and wry commentary, do seek out the Friday Barnes series.

The Selected Adventures of Bottersnikes and Gumbles

A quote from my review:

Apart from holding a wonderful environmental message, my students found the books full of humour and excitement. They LOVED little Tinkingumble, the one Gumble who has brilliant ideas that come to him with a clear “tink” like a bell. They loved the cunning plans as different Gumbles saved their friends from the mean and cranky Bottersnikes. They loved the detail of the cleverly built world Wakefield constructed and they adored that Gumble goodness triumphed over bad Bottersnikes.
Read my whole review of this great chapter book here.

Wicked’s Way:

Kids 8 - 12 who enjoyed Horrendo's Curse will be thrilled to read there’s a new book set in that same world. Written by Anna Fienburg and published by Allen and Unwin, 2016, it’s called Wicked’s Way, a title that certainly hints of excitement and problems to overcome.

From the publisher:

Will could walk a tightrope and juggle bananas as he went. 'One day you'll be the star of a circus,' his mother told him. 'But until then, you must be a secret.' For each year pirates came to the islands to steal young boys for their crew. And if that happened to you, well, you may as well kiss your life goodbye. So what's a young lad to do when his mother disappears and pirates arrive at his door?

Will takes courage from a crazy truth-telling parrot, and his mother's advice: 'Keep putting one foot in front of the other and your eyes on the prize.' But will this be enough to survive the perils at sea? And will that infuriatingly polite boy called Horrendo finally tip the balance?

A high-seas pirate adventure about scoundrels and blaggards, devilish treachery, and finding the most precious treasure of all.

A main character who walks the tightrope. A beloved but missing mother. Adventures on the high seas. Humour. Action. Problems to solve. A parrot to care for. And a friend and saviour called Treasure. What more could a reader want? Do look out for this longish 32 chapter novel and get it for your homes and libraries.

Raymie Nightingale

I really enjoy Kate DiCamillo’s books, so I was eager to read her latest middle-grade novel for kids 9+. Raymie Nightingale was written by Kate DiCamillo and published in Australia by Walker Books, (2016) (Candlewick in USA.)

From the publisher:

Raymie Clarke has come to realize that everything, absolutely everything, depends on her. And she has a plan. If Raymie can win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, then her father, who left town two days ago with a dental hygienist, will see Raymie’s picture in the paper and (maybe) come home. To win, not only does Raymie have to do good deeds and learn how to twirl a baton; she also has to contend with the wispy, frequently fainting Louisiana Elefante, who has a show-business background, and the fiery, stubborn Beverly Tapinski, who’s determined to sabotage the contest. But as the competition approaches, loneliness, loss, and unanswerable questions draw the three girls into an unlikely friendship — and challenge each of them to come to the rescue in unexpected ways.

It’s sheer pleasure to read books by highly skilled writers! DiCamillo puts us squarely in Raymie’s point of view - we try to work out what’s going on in Raymie’s life as, bewildered, she encounters the book’s other main characters and interacts with them. The other baton-twirlers: Beverly Tapinski - who seems eternally angry and wants to sabotage the Little Miss Central Florida Tire Competition; and Louisiana Elefante, offspring of the Flying Elefantes and probably a shoo-in for that same competition. Raymie has convinced herself that her dad will see her picture in the paper if SHE wins the contest, abandon the dental hygienist he ran off with, and return to Raymie and her mother. 

There’s lots of humour, snappy dialogue from quirky characters, tension as we grow to care about Raymie and her potentially flawed plan and overall, that immensely satisfying feeling of being completely drawn into someone’s world.

The Turners

My next recommendation arrived Chez Chook gift-wrapped and accompanied by a card warning me not to open it until my thirteenth birthday. I waited and waited. Finally it dawned on me that my thirteenth birthday would never actually come again, so I opened said parcel. The Turners was written by Mick Elliot and published by Hachette Australia (2016). RRP: $Au14.99

From the publisher:

Leo Lennox has an epic problem: it's his thirteenth birthday and he has just grown a tail.

You'd think that growing a tail in the middle of the school library would be the worst thing that could happen to you, but Leo is about to discover that things can always get worse - and a whole lot weirder. Now, as he discovers an unthinkable family secret, Leo must team up with his infuriating older sister to escape snake-skinned henchmen, ancient shape-shifters and a whispering villain determined to feed him to a pack of genetically engineered killer pigs - all while trying to control his new shape-shifting powers. 

The first instalment of a trilogy from the funniest new Australian kids' author in years.

You know those chapter books that you pick up for just a minute, intending a quick skim? Ha! I defy anyone with a sense of humour to put this book down. From the beginning where I actually thought I felt my own reptilian tail growing, to my hysteria as the hero-tuurned-komodo tried to assuage his hunger on his classmates and perhaps the school librarian, through to increasing plot twists and gags involving an attack of Vipermen, surfing on sharks, and more shape-shifting and hair-raising adventures than you could ever believe would fit between two book covers, I was riveted by The Turners and I know kids will be too.

The Snow Pony

This is a 15th Anniversary Edition of The Snow Pony, by Alison Lester, published by Allen and Unwin, 2016. RRP: $16.99.

From the publisher:

Only Dusty can ride the wild Snow Pony. And no one but Dusty will trust her. Three years of drought have reduced the Riley's farm to a dirt patch and strained the family to breaking point. A trip to the mountains to muster their cattle promises a fresh start, but sudden violence erupts into the peaceful landscape. Now Dusty and her beautiful brumby are tested as never before.

I really enjoyed The Snow Pony. It’s set in Australian alpine country and tells us about Dusty Riley and her family, and also a girl from Dusty’s high school, Jade, and her family. The two girls’ lives entwine when Jade wags school for a week, and Dusty, her dad and brother go mustering up on the high plains. We get to know the two girls really well, but also recognise many of the other characters: Grunter, the local policeman; Horse and Neville, the two low-lifes; Jeannie, Jade’s fun-loving and flighty mother. All Lester’s characters are real, and the plot of The Snow Pony is full of tension and action.

I know that young people who love horse stories will grab this novel, but I hope other readers will too. It’s a great book for young teens who like realistic adventures. The publisher suggests the book is for 10 - 14 year-olds. I would err on the side of caution and recommend it to kids 12+ because of a scene where a man begins to force himself on young Jade, grabbing her breast and calling her a “b$#ch”. The main girl characters are both 14 - 15.

The Stars at Oktober Bend:

This YA novel was written by Glenda Millard and published by Allen and Unwin, 2016. RRP: $Au19.99

From the publisher:

Alice is fifteen, with hair as red as fire and skin as pale as bone, but something inside her is broken. She has acquired brain injury, the result of an assault, and her words come out slow and slurred. But when she writes, heartwords fly from her pen. She writes poems to express the words she can't say and leaves them in unexpected places around the town. Manny was once a child soldier. He is sixteen and has lost all his family. He appears to be adapting to his new life in this country, where there is comfort and safety, but at night he runs, barefoot, to escape the memory of his past. When he first sees Alice, she is sitting on the rusty roof of her river-house, looking like a carving on an old-fashioned ship sailing through the stars.
Some characters tug at your heartstrings immediately. Alice, the heroine of The Stars at Oktober Bend, has big obstacles to overcome. Yet her voice is pragmatic, never whiny, and she has such a strong and shining spirit you hope desperately she will be happy. Millard settles us deep into Alice’s point of view, writing in first person, hinting at Alice’s trauma and brain injury through her sometimes jerky voice, lack of capital letters and snippets of her poetry. Other characters are beautifully drawn as well, realistic and, if not always admirable, then definitely understandable.

It’s not just plot and characters that are stand-out features of The Stars at October Bend. Millard’s writing in the novel is so often lyrical and evocative. I have long admired Millard’s children’s picture books - you can read my reviews of The Duck and the Darklings, For All Creatures, Isabella’s Garden, and Once a Shepherd. She brings the same freshness of language and ear of a poet to this novel. We understand Alice when she says, "…hope prised open the tiny doors of my caged heart." Feel the despair of "the ravens came later. scratched the sky with sorrows. chased the wrens away…" and rejoice when, "the rescue crew wrapped us all in shining cloth to make us warm. bright as the stars at oktober bend we were…"

Millard gets the balance exactly right between literary fiction and a darn good story. Recommended for teens and adults!


Be Frank with Me:

This novel for adults, written by Julia Claiborne Johnson and published by Allen and Unwin, Australia (2016) was one of those books that grabbed me from its description:

From the publisher:

Meet Frank - a modern nine-year-old boy with the wit of Noel Coward and the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star.

Meet Mimi Banning - reclusive literary legend and mother to Frank. Mimi has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years, keeping her secrets, hiding from the world. Until Alice.

Meet Alice - a level-headed young woman who finds herself thrust into the Banning household, charged with looking after Mimi's unusual son. Alice doesn't want mysteries, she doesn't want eccentricity and she certainly doesn't want a love-affair. But she finds all of them under the Banning roof. In so doing, she discovers a part of herself she never knew was missing.

Full of heart and humour, Be Frank With Me is a captivating and unconventional story of an unusual mother and son, and the intrepid young woman who finds herself irresistibly pulled into their unforgettable world.

I do love a great story with humour and heart, and I'm definitely partial to appealing child characters and narrators with dry wit. But what keeps me reading I think is that almost indefinable quality of outstanding writing. The story must be well-crafted, and sweep me up into the fictive dream. Certainly I found what I wanted in Be Frank with Me.

The pace was fast; the humour delightful. I never really felt that Kate was laughing at Frank so much as subtly revealing his endearing though strange qualities to us. Frank himself was one of those kids who start by driving you crazy in a classroom, but end by being the one you’d love to adopt. His quirks are fun, and his dialogue spot-on for his character. Johnson’s research and writing skill underpin it all. Definitely one to look out for!

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