Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Recommended Books for Older Readers 2017 (1)

Reviewed 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. The last review is a book for adults.

The Grand Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler by Lisa Shanahan, published by Allen and Unwin (2017.) RRP:$Au14.99 PB

From the publisher:

It struck Henry that perhaps he was waiting for the exact right moment to be daring and brave. The exact right moment where he felt no worry at all, not one tiny flicker. But what if that moment never came?

Henry Hoobler is a reluctant adventurer who is worried about his summer holiday camping at the beach: bugs, spiders, snakes, stingers, blue-ringed octopi or sharks. Worst of all, his family and friends are pushing him to ride his new silver bike - without training wheels. But when Henry meets Cassie, he discovers that courage is there to be found when you have a friend who is straight-up and true.

A joyous, heart-warming story from the much-loved author of My Big Birkett.

This is a novel supplemented by small black-and-white sketches for chapter headings and breaks by Judy Watson. The publisher recommends it to kids aged between 7 and 11, but I truly loved it as an adult, irresistibly and almost immediately drawn into the world of an Australian summer camping holiday. Shanahan immerses us in that world. We hear the tent flapping in the wind of an approaching storm, pick up the scent of suntan lotion, become aware of incessant tightening and loosening of tent ropes, and can just about taste all those delicious gelato flavours. Henry is a great character, and we experience the holiday through his point-of-view. He is anxious but we see his courage, his compassion and his dawning respect for himself.

Shanahan’s writing is elegantly crafted but I suspect kids will be too caught up in the story to notice! They will love the humour, connect so many situations and feelings to their own lives, and by the end of the book, feel as if they understand more about coping with fear. I think this a truly enjoyable and heart-warming story, and hope you’ll recommend it to all the kids you know!

Captain Jimmy Cook Discovers X Marks the Spot is a junior novel for kids 7 - 10 written by Kate and Jol Temple, and illustrated Jon Foye, published by Allen and Unwin (2017.) RRP: $Au12.99 PB. I have previously reviewed Captain Jimmy Cook Discovers Third Grade, the first book in this series.

From the publisher:

Captain Jimmy Cook has made a Top Secret Important Discovery. Even more important than any discovery that the other Captain Cook from the olden days ever made. A real dinosaur footprint! And everyone knows that underneath a real dinosaur footprint will be a real dinosaur bone.

Jimmy has to keep the amazing discovery a big secret because he found it behind a toilet block (that's totally out-of-bounds). That's not going to stop Jimmy and his crew! Once he digs up the dinosaur bone, he's going to be the most famous Captain James Cook in history and not even Ms Fennel will be mad with him.

But even the greatest explorers have problems. Jimmy's are these: 1) Everyone in the school now wants to help in The Dig, so it's just a matter of time before Ms Fennel puts a stop to the greatest discovery of all time and 2) a large smelly cat is sitting in his hole.

But luck is on his side. Jimmy's found a map of the school with a large X on it. And everyone knows what that means -- Treasure! Treasure! Treasure!

Captain Jimmy Cook is about to make the discovery of a lifetime ...
This second series of adventures about Jimmy Cook will grab kids from the start. Jimmy confides in us via his log book that he has made an amazing discovery - something he can’t really help doing, on account of his being probably the greatest explorer who has ever lived. From a dinosaur to potential treasure, from a Time-Travelling Bin Buddy to a valuable ancient Roman coin, Jimmy rockets through life and kids will enjoy the ride.

With his very active imagination, total belief in himself, and appetite for discoveries and treasure Jimmy is as inspiring as he is hilarious. The Temples leave no rock unturned in their quest to supply outlandish scenarios, and Foye adds wonderful and quirky detail with his black and white sketches.

Artie and the Grime Wave by Richard Roxburgh, published by Allen and Unwin (2016.) RRP: $Au 16.99

From the publisher:

Artie and his best friend Bumshoe have stumbled upon a Cave-of-Possibly-Stolen-Stuff, and along with it a gang of shady characters including scary Mary, fang-toothed Funnel-web and the devious Mayor Grime.

Artie and Bumshoe's attempt to solve the mystery sparks a chaotic chain of events that involves kidnapping, puppy-dog cutlets, modern art and pioneering the sport of the bungee- wedgie.

It's a sticky situation and if Artie's going to escape, he might need help from family, friends, a little old lady, a small dog and the Fartex 120Y.

A riotously funny adventure from the multi-talented Richard Roxburgh.

I suspect Roxburgh deliberately set out to write the sort of book he would have loved as a kid. Could any child resist weapons like the Fartex 120Y, the Prickle-ator and the Super-Snotter? Kids will cringe over some of Artie and Bumshoe’s trials, particularly having to gag down Aunty-boy’s talc-covered sweets. They’ll also groan over Roxburgh’s puns, despise the villains, be appalled by the Mayor’s treatment of pets, and cheer as the good guys finally, finally, save the day.

This is an over-the-top, riot of a novel, enhanced by Roxburgh’s own hilarious sketches and perfect for kids 8+. I’d especially recommend it to reluctant readers - this might well be the story and characters that will sell them on reading!

Violet and the Smugglers by Harriet Whitehorn, published by Simon and Schuster (2017.) RRP: $Au14.99

From the publisher:

Meet Violet Remy-Robinson, an amateur Sherlock Holmes in the making...
Uncle Johnny has invited Violet and her friends to spend the summer with him on a sailing adventure around Europe and Violet couldn't be more excited! But when she suspects that the captain of a boat nearby might be up to no good, Violet needs to put her detective skills into action… Could he be the head of a smuggling ring?

Here’s a feisty heroine and her friends, intent on adventuring and solving mysteries. Whitehorn has a real gift for quirky characters and we meet such gems as PC Green, Grandmère and an assortment of crooks, as well as seeing their fun, cartoon-style portraits drawn by Beck Moore. The book has lots of purple, black and white illustrations which definitely make it visually appealing and memorable. I think girls 7+ in particular will be drawn to Violet, and enjoy the humour and detecting.

Stinky Street is junior novel written by Alex Batt, illustrated by Jules Faber and published by Pan Macmillan Australia/ (2017.) RRP: $Au14.99 PB. (Also available as e-book for $Au 9.99.)

From the publisher:

The first thing I noticed when I woke up on Sunday morning was a mysterious smell...

When Brian ('call me Brain - everyone does') awakes to a truly putrid pong, he knows it is up to him and his friend Nerf to neutralise it. But that putrid pong is just the beginning, because life on Stinky Street is a riot of rotten reeks, awful aromas and sickening scents. So grab a peg (for your nose) or risk being flattened by the fumes!

There’s a promise inherent in the word “stinky” that young readers will find adventures with the gross factor. They certainly will! Redoubtable hero, Brian, and his best buddy Nerf, have close encounters of the stench kind with an assortment of disgusting smells. I hope those same readers will be as impressed as I was with the humour - both slapstick and more subtle - and the tight, active writing in Stinky Street. Batt (pen name of author Frances Watts) knows exactly what appeals to kids who are independent readers, but looking for a fun, light and straightforward read. Faber supplies a real note of hilarity with cartoon-style sketches.

Grab this one for your libraries for kids 7 - 10. It would also make an excellent choice as a serialised read-aloud, because it’s in four linked but discrete adventures.

Ball Stars: The Bench Warmers is a junior novel about basketball by David Lawrence, published by Penguin Random House (2017.) RRP: $Au 12.99.

From the publisher:

A fun-filled junior fiction series written in partnership with Basketball Australia

Meet the Bench Warmers – Danny, Crystal, Angie, Omyr, Leanne and Cody. They're the new basketball players at Robdale Primary and according to hot shot Greg 'The Goat' McGriffin, they don't have a chance of winning a lunchtime game. But when the gang are picked as part of the school squad things start to look up.


Can the newbies shake off their name in the upcoming interschool comp, or will it be just another reminder of where they really belong?

What does The Book Chook know about basketball? Well, there’s a hoop called a basket on a board where the ball must go. However, I am not the target audience for this book. It’s written for those kids who love sport, particularly basketball, and who want to read about kids just like them, having adventures. But it’s more than that - it’s a reminder to all kids that being a team player, striving to improve and having fun is what sport should be about.

Lawrence supplies readers with lots of quirky grown-ups, believable child characters - I appreciated the way the conceited basketball star wasn’t ALL bad - snappy dialogue and genuine laugh aloud moments. Basketball fans will appreciate the way the sport is woven throughout the chapters, and there are also tips at the back on dribbling and shooting. The Bench Warmers is book one in the Ball Stars series, so it will appeal to kids who like to read more stories about characters and settings they’re familiar with.

King Flashypants and the Creature from Crong is a junior novel, written and drawn by Andy Riley, and published by Hodder Children’s Books (Hachette Australia) (2017.) RRP: $Au15.99 PB

From the publisher:

When rumours of a huge and terrifying monster called the Gizimoth reach Edwinland, King Edwin Flashypants decides that, to be a proper king, he needs to go and fight it. Meanwhile, Emperor Nurbison has had a similar idea, but he has a much sneakier plan for what he can do with the Gizimoth. And it involves squishing Edwinland.

Hold tight for another thrilling Flashypants adventure, with jousting, vegetables, fire-breathing toads and plenty of FOO-HOO-HOOing.

I wrote about Riley’s first book in this series, King Flashypants and the Evil Emperor, last year. In this second book, King Edwin Flashypants decides to go and do battle with a particularly nasty monster, the Voolith. Also managing to maintain his own particular nastiness is the Emperor Nurbison of Nurbisonia, still intent on crushing the kingdom of Edwinland.

Riley’s cartoon-style sketches are hilarious; corny jokes abound; kids will enjoy all the silliness, and the eventual triumph of good over evil. King Flashypants and the Creature from Crong is a perfect choice for kids 7+ who want an entertaining and easy-to-read story with illustrations to break up the text.

Paladero: The Riders of Thunder Realm by Steven Cochran, published by HGE (2016.) RRP: $Au18.99

From the publisher:

Welcome to Thunder Realm, where cowboy-knights known as paladeros herd dinosaurs during peacetime, and take up arms during war. Joss, a young orphan, has always wanted to be a paladero – but first he must prove himself by going on The Way, a treacherous journey through the kingdom to retrieve a rare Questing Egg.

With his trusty raptor Azof by his side, Joss will face off against witches, bloodthirsty monsters and even his own brethren to learn what it truly means to be a paladero – all while uncovering a dark conspiracy at the heart of the kingdom.

Does it come any better than this? Cowboy knights that herd dinosaurs in peacetime, but take up arms in wartime!

When I choose a children’s fantasy book, I look for certain things:

Does it have compelling characters, and a hero/heroine who may be flawed, but must be likeable?
Does it have an engaging premise and a really gripping plot?
Is it a richly detailed and imaginative world?
Are there more books set in this world for those young people who like to read a series?
Is there a map?
Does the front cover contribute to the whole book’s air of “grab me now”?

This middle-grade chapter book passed my test! While at times the language is quite descriptive, the action scenes are very tightly written, so that parts of the story leave the reader breathless.

The next book in this epic adventure series is The City of Night Neverending.

The Lotterys Plus One is a novel for children by Emma Donoghue, with cover art and occasional illustrations by Caroline Hadilaksono, published by Macmillan Children’s Books (2017.) RRP: $Au14.99.

From the publisher:

Meet the Lotterys: a unique and diverse family featuring four parents, seven kids and five pets - all living happily together in their big old house, Camelottery. Nine-year-old Sumac is the organizer of the family and is looking forward to a long summer of fun.

But when their grumpy and intolerant grandad comes to stay, everything is turned upside down. How will Sumac and her family manage with another person to add to their hectic lives?

Internationally bestselling author Emma Donoghue's first novel for children, with black-and-white illustrations throughout, is funny, charming and full of heart.

When I was a child, I loved to read about big families in books like Cheaper by the Dozen. But rarely has family life been portrayed in such messy, chaotic, realistic detail the way it is here. There are two dads, two mums and an assortment of kids and pets, yet each character makes an impression on the reader that lasts. Sumac is our point of view character - she’s the level-headed, observant member of the family. She certainly doesn’t feel level-headed when Grumps comes to stay and she has to give him her bedroom, and take over Spare Oom near the top of the house. Sumac tries to be Grumps’ guide, ends up trying to get him to move into a retirement home, but finally makes some important realisations about family.

I think kids who want drama, humour and a plot they can understand will enjoy this novel. Some may find it a little over the top in its chaos - pet rats at the dinner table, mashed pizza on the baby’s face, misunderstandings and even mayhem - but I loved it and hope young readers will too. It’s also a book that would promote discussion about attitudes and responsibilities, about diversity and tolerance so it might make an interesting serialised read-aloud for primary students.

Pax is a novel for kids and teens, written by Sara Pennypacker, with illustrations by Jon Klassen, published by HarperCollins (2016.) RRP: $19.99

From the publisher:

Pax was only a kit when his family was killed and he was rescued by ‘his boy', Peter. Now the country is at war and when his father enlists, Peter has no choice but to move in with his grandfather. Far worse than leaving home is the fact that he has to leave Pax behind. But before Peter spends even one night under his grandfather's roof he sneaks out into the night, determined to find his beloved friend. This is the story of Peter, Pax, and their journeys back to each other as war rampages throughout the country.

Peter is 12 and has a believable 12-year-old voice. The story alternates between Peter’s point-of-view, and Pax’s, and Pax’s chapters are also authentic. We also meet other characters - they are often quirky, but always well-drawn. Peter is brave, persistent, loyal, but not perfect - in short, a very likeable character. His bond with Pax will echo with anyone who has loved a companion animal.

I was caught up in this story from the start. Despite that, I couldn’t help pausing occasionally to marvel over Pennypacker’s beautifully crafted writing style. She paints pictures with words that put the reader right there, and we feel not only the breeze on our skin or fur, but also the heart-wrenching pain of loss. I found the novel difficult to put down, and carried thoughts of Peter and Pax with me until I could get back to reading it.

While Klassen’s illustrations are few, they definitely add to the atmosphere of the book, particularly the front cover, where we see Pax all alone, gazing out over a misty valley at sunrise. I love that the publishers have added illustrations to what is essentially a middle-grade/YA chapter book - why should older readers miss out on the visuals? I think senior primary as well as junior high school
students will enjoy a book that I have no hesitation in recommending.

Frogkisser! is a YA fantasy novel for kids 13+ by Garth Nix, published by Allen and Unwin (2017.) RRP: $Au19.99.

From the publisher:

Princess Anya needs to see a wizard about a frog. It's not her frog, it's her sister's. And it's not a frog, it's actually a prince. A prince who was once in love with Anya's sister, but has now been turned into a frog by their evil stepstepfather. And Anya has made a 'sister promise' that she will find a way to return Prince Denholm to human form...

So begins an exciting, hilarious, irreverent quest through the Kingdom of Trallonia and out the other side, in a fantastical tale for all ages, full of laughs and danger, surprises and delights, and an immense population of frogs.

Here’s another novel with a strong and feisty heroine! I loved Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series, as well as The Old Kingdom series. So I wasn’t surprised to find myself swept up into an enthralling adventure, punctuated by moments of laugh-out-loud humour. Princess Anya is a delight who must go off on a quest, and is helped/hindered by some very quirky characters. Along the way, Anya learns much more about herself and about the nature of the world she lives in.

Like many of Nix’s books, Frogkisser! make an excellent story for adults too, thus suiting a whole family of readers. It also makes a good choice for schools who need resources about fractured fairy tales. I was thrilled to read that Frogkisser! is to be produced as an animated musical film - I know many young people will be brought to read and enjoy the novel because of this, and it encourages students to compare two different media.

The Things We Promise by J.C.Burke was published by Allen and Unwin (2017.) RRP: $Au 19.99

From the publisher:

There are two things you need to know about me. The first is that I remember life by what I was wearing. The second is that I think too much.

It's the early 1990s and all Gemma can think about is looking perfect for her first school formal. Gemma's brother Billy - New York's up and coming hair and make-up artist - has made her the ultimate promise: he's returning home especially to 'create magic' on her and two friends for their end-of-year formal. Gemma's best friend, Andrea, is convinced it'll be their moment to shine; Gemma hopes it's the night Ralph will finally notice her.

But when Billy arrives home from New York, Gemma's life becomes complicated. Her family's been keeping secrets; friendships are forged and broken; and suddenly the length of her formal dress is the least of her worries.

This one’s definitely YA - the publisher suggests 15-18. The novel is set in the 1990s and resonates with this time period - hairstyles and clothes, the way the characters talk, and sadly, the rampant homophobia and fear of AIDS. I loved Gemma’s voice which made her character authentic and very likeable. Her relationships were believable too, and there’s lots of detail I know will have teens nodding their heads wisely or with wry grins.

Many teens look for a book with tension, drama, characters they can relate to, and one that deals with real, even difficult themes they and their friends must cope with. I believe they’ll find that in The Things We Promise.

Charisma by Jeanne Ryan, was published by Simon and Schuster (2017.) RRP: $Au19.99 PB

From the publisher:

A chance at the ultimate makeover means deadly consequences... Aislyn suffers from crippling shyness - that is, until she’s offered a dose of Charisma, an underground gene therapy drug guaranteed to make her shine. The effects are instant. She’s charming, vivacious, and popular. But strangely, so are some other kids she knows. The media goes into a frenzy when the disease turns contagious, and then deadly, and the doctor who gave it to them disappears. Aislyn must find a way to stop it, before it's too late.

This novel is aimed at teens too. It’s a gripping, well-researched and scary premise, with a believable, flawed main character who learns and matures as the story progresses. Thoughtful readers will appreciate the wider issues brought up in Charisma: how far should gene therapy and other scientific advancements go? There are lots of ethical and social justice questions for teens to discuss and come to grips with. A great choice for high school libraries with students who want a dramatic, science-themed read.

Love, Lies and Linguine by Hilary Spiers, was published by Allen and Unwin (2017) and is a novel for adults. RRP: $Au29.99 PB.

From the publisher:

Hester and Harriet lead comfortable lives in a pretty cottage in an English village. Having opened their minds, home and hearts to Daria, a mysterious migrant, and her baby son Milo, the widowed sisters decide to further expand their own horizons by venturing forth to Italy for their annual holiday.

Back in England, Daria and Milo are celebrating - they've received official refugee status with papers to confirm they can make England their home. Meanwhile nephew Ben, who knows only too well how much he owes his aunts, is hurtling towards a different sort of celebration - one he's trying to backpedal out of as fast as he possibly can.

With a huge secret hanging between the sisters, an unlikely new love on the landscape for Hester and new beginnings also beckoning for Harriet, Italy provides more opportunities for adventure than either of them could ever have imagined. But which ones will Hester and Harriet choose?

As Hester and Harriet throw all their cards on the table in Italy, and potential catastrophe threatens Ben in England, it's anyone's guess how chaos will be kept at bay.

Sometimes I don’t want a book that grips me by the throat and stops me breathing. Love, Lies and Linguine didn’t do that, but it not only held my interest from the start, its characters stayed with me long after I’d finished. I guess if I had to classify it, I’d label it as “cosy” but classifying rarely does a book justice.

The story IS about love, about the lies that people tell, and about food, in particular food in Italy. Its characters are endearing, quirky and REAL - Hester and Harriet themselves are just as human, as annoying at times, as envious and arrogant as we all are. Their “nephew”, Ben, despite being bulldozed into doing something he knows is wrong, is is as bewildered, desperate and raw as any other teen can be. The secondary characters are well-drawn and add immensely to the book’s appeal. Appeal it certainly does - there’s a mystery to solve, sisterly stubbornness to navigate through, and so many humorous moments that will have readers laughing aloud or nodding ruefully as they recognise themselves or their neighbours.

One of my favourite characters was the indomitable Nats. She comes to the rescue when Ben’s party at the Aunts’ house is crashed, and issues Ben with a forceful ultimatum before she will agree to go out with him. Even the malodorous Finbar has a part to play in weaving this tale - we meet other characters from the first book, Hester and Harriet too, but also many new ones. Love, Lies and Linguine definitely stands alone as a novel, and I hope you will enjoy as much as I did.

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