Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Recommended Books for Older Readers 2017 (2)

Reviewed by Susan Stephenson,

You may have noticed I review a lot of children’s picture books, but 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 - or drama, adventure, puzzles and fantasy! The last three reviews are books for young adults, and adults.

The Super Moopers

The Super Moopers is a new series from Five Mile Press which I believe is ideally suited to newly independent readers. The series is presented by Sally Rippin, written by Fiona Harris, illustrated by Scott Edgar and published by Five Mile Press. I checked out two books from the series, Nervous Nellie and Musical Markus.

From the publisher:

Welcome to Moopertown! In Moopertown, everyone is special – in their own special way!

This fun, funny and affirming series will entertain children of all ages. In each book we are introduced to a new Mooper – Musical Markus, Nervous Nellie, Dramatic Dom and Giggling Gertie. At first they seem to have a really silly trait – Markus loves to sing…all the time, Nellie is always nervous, Dom is overly dramatic and Gertie just can’t stop giggling – but it’s these very traits that eventually transform these Moopers to superhero status!

With humorous, sweet, character-driven stories and a richly-detailed world that children will engage with, this exciting new series celebrates the idea that our differences are what make us unique, and we are all capable of being superheroes when we can see the best in ourselves.

Nervous Nellie

In Nervous Nellie, kids initially see a great detailed spread of Moopertown, and they discover more about its inhabitants, like faffer birds and wixies. In particular readers get to know Nellie, a character so nervous she is scared of marshmallows getting stuck to her teeth or of bubbles popping. Nellie finally channels her anxiety into doing something very brave and becomes a Super Mooper. Kids will enjoy Edgar’s cartoon-style illustrations, especially the goofy characters and their over-the-top expressions.

Musical Markus

If I were forced to pick one key ingredient in books for newly independent readers, I would choose: Humour. Laughter over genuinely funny snippets helps kids associate reading with pleasure and brings them back for more. I am MUCH older than a child, but I did laugh over parts like the words of Markus’s songs. Harris has kept description to a minimum, relying on lots of dialogue and those zany songs to carry the story. As in Nervous Nellie, there are cartoonish illustrations kids will love that help to explain the text.

Dr Karl’s Little Book of Space and Dr Karl’s Little Book of Dinos were both written by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki and published by Pan Macmillan Australia (2017.) RRP: $Au 12.99  PB.

In the lead up to Christmas, gift-givers often wonder what to buy for kids. Books always make great gifts. As well as providing lots of reading material and fun activities, I think these two paperbacks make good stocking stuffers for those kids who love to share trivia they have learned about their favourite subject - space or dinosaurs.

I liked that inside both books kids will find a range of activities - not just counting, drawing etc but poem writing, word-based puzzles and creative activities like designing a dinosaur. Great books for rainy days, holidays or any days!

Dr Karl’s Little Book of Space

From the publisher:

Which planet in our solar system has the most moons? Why would Goldilocks prefer to live on Earth instead of Mars? And just how gigantic is a Red Giant?

Combining all the best bits about SPACE from Dr Karl's Big, Even Bigger and Biggest Book of Science Stuff and Nonsense, this little book answers all these questions and many more.

Filled with facts, quizzes, puzzles and activities, Dr Karl's Little Book of Space provides light-years of astronomical fun!

Dr Karl’s Little Book of Dinos

From the publisher:

How big were the teeth of a Tyrannosaurus Rex? How long was the neck of a Brachoisaurus? And why do scientists study dinosaur poo?

Combining all the best bits about DINOSAURS from Dr Karl's Big, Bigger and Biggest Book of Science Stuff and Nonsense, this little book answers all these questions and many more.

Filled with facts, quizzes, puzzles and activities, Dr Karl's Little Book of Dinosaurs provides a prehistoric world of fun!

The Stinky Street Stories: 2 Stinky is junior fiction written by Alex Ratt, illustrated by Jules Faber and published by Pan Australia (2017.) RRP: $Au14.99 PB

From the publisher:

There was a smell on Stinky Street...and it was awfully, abominably odorous.

From smelly sewers to pongy penguins, there's always a rotten reek on Stinky Street.

So put some pickles up your nose and join Brian and his friend Nerf for a brand-new series of revoltingly runk, truly toxious and sickeningly smell-odorous adventures.

Brian (call me Brain) and Nerf stumble and bumble their way through more stench-related adventures in this follow-up to Stinky Street Stories by Ratt and Faber. As usual, Brian has wonderful plans to combat stinky problems and most of them involve the hapless Nerf. I loved the way Brian tries to emulate his sister’s superior vocabulary, converting rank to “runk”, toxic to “toxious” and putrid to “pewtid”. I also love the way Ratt thinks constantly of her readership - the writing is tight, active and very rich in dialogue, making it easy to read. Faber’s black and white comic-style sketches really add to the humour. For example, there’s a wonderful illustration of Nerf in a floral shower cap (stench-fighting gear) and Brian and he both have pickles dangling from their nostrils (more stench-fighting gear.)

This is one to recommend to kids who loved the first in the series, but it works fine as a stand-alone book too. The fact that there are four different adventures means an adult could choose one to share as a read aloud. I think kids 7 - 10 will be drawn to The Stinky Street Stories: 2 Stinky, especially those who love a huge helping of laughter with their books. There’s also large font, and lots of white space and illustration to break up the text and support junior readers.

How to Bee is a middle grade chapter book, written by Bren MacDibble and published by Allen and Unwin (2017.) RRP: $Au 16.99 PB.

From the publisher:

Peony lives with her sister and grandfather on a fruit farm outside the city. In a world where real bees are extinct, the quickest, bravest kids climb the fruit trees and pollinate the flowers by hand. All Peony really wants is to be a bee. Life on the farm is a scrabble, but there is enough to eat and a place to sleep, and there is love. Then Peony's mother arrives to take her away from everything she has ever known, and all Peony's grit and quick thinking might not be enough to keep her safe.

Peony is a great character. She's the kind of character kids will like and admire, one who keeps talking to a reader well after the book is over. MacDibble has created a very strong voice for Peony, with just enough invented vocabulary to create interest but not to weary. The other characters are very real too. The setting is Australia in a dystopian but not ultra-horrifying world. There are several tense and scary scenes, but I think most kids will take them in their stride.

Apart from Peony’s strong POV, the 3D characters and setting, the book’s other huge strength is that it’s a great story, one that grabs a reader’s interest and holds it tight. I really enjoyed How to Bee as an adult and found myself hoping MacDibble might share more of Peony’s story with us. I would recommend it to children who enjoy fantasy, but seriously, also to kids who like realistic fiction as the “world” was more a vehicle for the story than an over-riding element. Ultimately the message in How to Bee is a positive one, about children who survive and thrive.

Pippa’s Island 1: The Beach Shack Cafe by Belinda Murrell, published by Penguin Random House Australia RRP: $Au 14.99 PB.

From the publisher:

Pippa has just arrived at a new school, in a new town, and even living on a gorgeous island isn’t cheering her up. Her arrival causes ripples at Kira Island Primary School – but Pippa soon starts to make friends with eco-warrior Meg, boho-chick Charlie, and fashionista and cupcake baker Cici.

Pippa’s mum plans to buy a rustic old boatshed and start a bookshop cafe, and Pippa worries they’ll lose all their money in this madcap venture – until her new friends come to the rescue to help get the grand opening back on track.

Will Kira Island ever feel like home?

Pippa has lots of problems kids will relate to, and she believably handles them with some grumbling and some false moves - but then with spirit and good sense. The characters are well-drawn, from the mildly annoying younger siblings to the crotchety elderly neighbour. Because of Pippa’s new friends, there’s a real emphasis on fashion, on the environment, and on cooking. I think girls will love those details and this feel-good story in general.

The Tale of Angelino Brown by David Almond, illustrated by Alex T.Smith and published by Walker Books (2017.) RRP: $Au 19.99 HB.

From the publisher:

Bert and Betty Brown have got themselves a little angel. Bert found him in his top pocket when he was driving his bus. Bert and Betty’s friends think he’s lovely. So do Nancy and Jack and Alice from Class 5K. What a wonder! But Acting Head Teacher Mrs Mole is not so sure. Nor is Professor Smellie. Or the mysterious bloke in black who claims to be a School Inspector. Then there’s Basher Malone – big, lumbering Basher Malone. He REALLY doesn’t like Angelino. And it looks like he’s out to get him.

How could any young reader fail to be captivated by a tiny lolly-loving angel? Angelino certainly beguiles lots of characters in the book - Bert and Betty who become Mum and Dad, the children at school, and even some characters who find themselves changed by Angelino’s advent into their lives.

I enjoyed the humour, the characterisation, and the expert weaving of Angelino’s tale. The dialogue in particular is cleverly written so that each character is revealed by what it says. The Tale of Angelino Brown is an imaginative and unusual story. I would recommend it to capable readers 8+ who are looking for a book that’s quirky and different.

A Most Magical Girl is a middle-grade chapter book by Karen Foxlee, published by Bonnier (2016.) It was a Notable CBCA Book of the Year 2017 - Younger Readers. RRP: $Au 19.99 HB.

From the publisher:
Annabel Grey has been brought up to be a very proper Victorian young lady. But being 'proper' isn't always easy - especially when you can sometimes see marvellous (as well as terrifying) things in puddles. But parlour tricks such as these are nothing compared to the world that Annabel is about to enter... After the rather sudden departure of her mother, Annabel is sent to live with her aunts. They claim to be Shoreditch witches, and from a very old family line of them too. They're keen to introduce Annabel to their world of transformation, potions and flying broomsticks (which seem to have strong personalities of their own) but are horrified when Annabel announces not only does she not know any magic, young ladies shouldn't believe in such things. But before Annabel has time to decide whether she does or not, she is swept into an urgent quest. 
The trees of Highgate have been whispering to Kitty - an extraordinary urchin of a girl, who Annabel's aunts seem very fond of - and so have the fairies. They talk of a terrible, dark magic that wants to devour all of London. And of a most magical girl who might be able to stop it... This sparkling and enchanting story is sure to bewitch you, so curl up in front of the fire, and prepare to be swept away...

This novel is most definitely going to appeal to kids who like fantasy. The witches and wizards are enigmatic but appealing; the villain is single-minded, suitably creepy and dastardly; and the heroines, while not perfect, are strong and determined. There’s quite a lot of detail about the world and I believe children will find it fascinating. The stakes are high and that creates loads of tension, some of it relieved by minor victories - the dragon - or humour - the trolls. Annabel Grey herself is a character I think both boys and girls will respect, and I predict this book will fly off the shelves as if it were broomstick-driven.

Fenn Halflin and the Fearzero by Francesca Armour-Chelu, published by Walker Books (2017.) RRP: $Au 16.99 PB. This is Book One in the two-part series.

From the publisher:

In a world that has been ravaged by flooding, Fenn Halflin learns the truth about his past - a secret that forces him to flee the safety of his home as he is chased across the vast sea by the ruthless Terra Firma and their cold-blooded leader, Chilstone. Finding shelter on a decaying island, Fenn is taken in by child survivors in hiding, and he begins a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with the Terra Firma, who will stop at nothing to find him. But as Chilstone's dreaded Fearzero ship appears on the horizon, and the water levels continue to rise, it seems that Fenn's hopes of escape will be washed away for ever.

Fenn Halflin and the Seaborn by Francesca Armour-Chelu published by Walker Books 2017. RRP: $Au 16.99 PB. This is the conclusion to the two-part adventure series begun in Fenn Halflin and the Fearzero.

From the publisher:

In the conclusion to this epic adventure series, perfect for readers of Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl, Fenn Halflin is on the run from the brutal Terra Firma. His survival depends on finding the last of the Resistance, said to be hiding in an ancient, flooded forest. Accompanied by his faithful mongoose, Tikki, Fenn must embark on a journey that will take him deep into the treacherous marsh and closer to the secrets of his past. But as the water levels continue to rise, his mission to unite the Seaborn people has never been more desperate.

There’s a strong environmental theme in both Fenn Halflin novels. The writing is compelling and characters are well-drawn. Some children may find the books too difficult emotionally - the atmosphere can be quite dismal as we witness Fenn and other characters eating roast rat, and cringe over the murder of an old man by the creepy Roustabouts. But the books are ultimately a triumph of good over evil, of the oppressed over the oppressor, as Fenn undertakes the long and hazardous journey that leads him to his destiny.

I would recommend both Fenn Halflin books to readers 10+ who are looking for exciting adventure books, and who can handle dystopian fiction.

Mr Bambuckle’s Remarkables is a chapter book by Tim Harris, published by Penguin Random House Australia (2017.) RRP: $Au 14.99 PB.

From the publisher:

When Mr Bambuckle arrives, laughs, thrills, silliness and imagination are guaranteed to follow!

He’s the first teacher to cook us breakfast.
Is his spark-maker beetle really that dangerous?
I heard he drank yak’s milk in Mongolia.
He’s the only person who isn’t afraid of Canteen Carol.
My mum says he used to be in the circus.

The class in room 12B has a new teacher, and nothing is ever going to be the same . . .

Who hasn’t wanted a teacher like Mr Bambuckle? We meet him as he balances himself on a unicycle, sings a Mongolian welcome song and subsequently reveals that he is a very interesting person indeed. He is also unlike anyone that the students in room 12B have met before. As the story progresses Mr Bambuckle draws out stories from the students themselves. He praises them for coping with their problems, and for not being afraid of failure. He also explains his belief that children should find their true passions and follow them. Naturally none of this sits well with Mr Sternblast, the school principal. Will he manage to get rid of Mr Bambuckle?

There’s so much humour in Mr Bambuckle’s Remarkables! Kids will feel immediately comfortable in the school setting, and giggle over recognisable characters like a cranky canteen lady or smart-alec student. Young readers will also enjoy the occasional illustration and other features that break up the narrative. For instance, we get to read the students’ app ideas and check out the actual notes passed between Slugger Choppers and Sammy Bamford.

I would recommend this novel to kids who love to laugh when they read, and who like stories set in a world similar to the one they live in.

The Mapmaker Chronicles by A.L.Tait, published by Lothian.

From my review:

“I would recommend these books to kids 8-12 who like adventure, who love to enter a detailed, believable fictional world, who like action, flashes of humour, quests and moments of nail-biting tension. Suggest The Mapmaker Chronicles too to children who like a series - there’s something very comforting about understanding main characters and growing with them over the course of several books.”

Read more.


The Traitor and the Thief by Gareth Ward, published by Walker Books (2017.) RRP: $Au 17.99 PB.

From the publisher:

Discovered picking pockets at Coxford’s Corn Market, fourteen year old Sin is hunted across the city. Caught by the enigmatic Eldritch Moons, Sin is offered a way out of his life of crime: join the Covert Operations Group (COG) and train to become a spy. At Lenheim Palace, Sin learns spy craft while trying not to break the school’s Cast-Iron Rules. Befriended by eccentric Zonda Chubb, together they endeavour to unmask a traitor causing havoc within the palace. After an assassination attempt on the founder of COG, Sin realises that someone closest to him could be the traitor. With no other option, Sin is forced into an uneasy alliance with the school bully, Velvet Von Darque. But can he trust her? And will COG try to bury him with the secrets he discovers?

Teens who love adventure, mystery and fantasy, especially steampunk, will be drawn to the novel, The Traitor and the Thief. As in the best steampunk, there are lots of fascinating gadgets, a detailed and well-built world, and many twists and turns in the narrative. Are all characters as they seem at first? Who can Sin trust?

Readers are plunged into a narrative and setting from the first page, meaning there is lots to discover, clues to follow and problems to solve. I would recommend it to teens who can handle some graphic scenes - the description of the Rat Pox and its pustule-covered victims is still seared into my brain - and are capable readers.


The Mystery of the Gut by Professor Kerryn Phelps AM, with Dr Claudia Lee and Jaime Rose Chambers, published by Macmillan Australia (2017.) RRP: $Au 34.99 PB.

From the publisher:

As practitioners, Prof Phelps and Dr Lee know the problems caused by poor gut health and how an uneasy gut can make life miserable. Symptoms such as weight gain, diarrhoea and cramping are common, but few people receive a definitive disease label. Most of us are entirely unaware that by taking care of our gut we can improve our overall health.

In this meticulously researched and highly practical book, the doctors explain how we are on the threshold of a major revolution in the way we think about the gut and its relevance to our health. They explain common medical problems - from IBS to various food intolerances - and show you what's going on and what to do about it.

To me, the most important reason to read this book is that it can help us improve our overall health. And I’ll bet I’m not the only adult around who’d like to be as healthy as possible. The gut need not be a mystery to us. The book starts with an overview of the gut and it role in our bodies, moves onto the gut microbiome, then cuts to the chase with a whole range of possible symptoms. (Luckily my experience reading Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome made me realise I did not, in fact, exhibit each and every symptom!) There’s information about FODMAPs, intolerance and sensitivity, side effects of drugs … and all of it written in a practical, conversational style that is very easy to read and (ahem!) digest. The recipe section was also great. These are easy balanced recipes that taste good as well as being from an authoritative source - Chambers is a clinical dietitian and nutritionist.

Those who want to be informed about the latest advice on maintaining optimal health, as well as those keen to understand specific gut issues, will want to read The Mystery Gut. It makes a great addition to a family or library collection of non-fiction books that inform.

Goodbye Vitamin by Rachel Khong, published by Simon and Schuster (2017.) RRP: $Au 29.99 PB

From the publisher:

Ruth is thirty and her life is falling apart: she and her fiancĂ© are moving house, but he's moving out to live with another woman; her career is going nowhere; and then she learns that her father, a history professor beloved by his students, has Alzheimer’s. At Christmas, her mother begs her to stay on and help. For a year. Goodbye, Vitamin is the wry, beautifully observed story of a woman at a crossroads, as Ruth and her friends attempt to shore up her father’s career; she and her mother obsess over the ambiguous health benefits – in the absence of a cure – of dried jellyfish supplements and vitamin pills; and they all try to forge a new relationship with the brilliant, childlike, irascible man her father has become.

What an unusual book this is! As a reader, I tend to gravitate towards linear stories, and what I think of as more a great story than literary fiction. I would describe Hello Vitamin as more literary fiction, and the story is not linear. Yet I found it grabbed my interest. I was beguiled by the almost stream-of-consciousness style of writing, as if the author were chatting personally to me about her thoughts and wry observations. There were times I cringed, and times I laughed aloud. I also found myself musing about love, parenting and the human condition. If you’re looking for something unusual, a novel that will make you think and give lots of opportunities for discussion, say hello to Goodbye Vitamin.

You might also like to read Recommended Books for Older Readers 2017 (1) or find more Children's Book Reviews on The Book Chook by clicking Reviews in the right sidebar.

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