Review: Anne Fine – Shades of Scarlet

Shades of Scarlet
Anne Fine

Scarlet’s parents have split up, they’re divorcing and Scarlet finds herself caught in the middle. While Scarlet tries to navigate school, friends and homework she somehow has to find time to also placate her parents – who want to know what the other one is doing, even if it isn’t Scarlet’s job to pass that on! It seems like her mom is at fault – but is her dad a problem too?

Another day, another book with a main character named Scarlet (see Skin Deep)! I wonder if it’s a common name at the moment. I’m sure that the author had some deeper meaning in mind when she named her protagonist, or perhaps she just thought of the colour red

You know what I also like about this novel? Scarlet isn’t automatically looking for a boyfriend/girlfriend to get herself out of the situation. I personally felt that her best friend was a bit off, but Scarlett herself was spot-on in her emotions and approach to life.

I like how this captured the side-conversations that adults sometimes have that kids aren’t meant to know about. So for example, Alice’s parents have some really inappropriate conversations that one/both girls see/overhear. In my experience, kids know when parents are being sneaky (I mean, not 100% of the time)! So holding conversations in the open is far more helpful for building trust.

I received this book very late compared to the publication date, so there are plenty of reviews around for it now. That being said, I feel like it’s a suitable Christmas gift for a 9-13 year old who has divorcing parents or just struggles to feel heard and understood. Scarlet has a lot of rage, anger and emotions to get out, just like the average teenager.

I’m going to give this one 4 stars. I think it would have appeal to a wide range of audiences, but would be most suitable as middle grade or young teenage fiction. I think that this is a worthy addition to school libraries.

Scholastic | 1st July 2021 | AU$24.99 | hardback

Review: Sosuke Natsukawa – The Cat Who Saved Books

The Cat Who Saved Books
Sosuke Natsukawa

The death of Rintaro Natsuki’s grandfather only strengthens Rintaro’s determination to stay at home, in the bookshop that holds fond memories for him. Yet, the bookshops are perhaps a dying trade – and Rintaro doesn’t feel strongly enough about anything to protect it from his loving aunt. But perhaps the cat can save the bookshop, and him too.

Some of the ideas in this novel were just too foreign to work with my understanding of the world. There’s no such thing as a ‘class rep’ and there is no chance that a teenager would be left in charge of a bookshop. Also, students generally aren’t allow to miss that much school without serious consequences in Australia.

I think that unfortunately this book loses a lot of its charm in the translation. Maybe I’m just not its target audience? I think that the audience it would suit are teenagers who are slightly more immersed in Japanese culture or literature, who are of the bookish inclination.

I loved the idea of a cat that cares about books, and I found the three labyrinths quite engaging. Hopefully other readers also find these ideas thought provoking. My favourite was perhaps the man trying to cut books down to a single word to compress the meaning of them. This is so true, and you see it in abridged audio books! Why would you cut out the best bits?

I think it’s somewhat unfair of me to assign this book a star rating as it just wasn’t aimed at me. Maybe I’ll give a 3 stars, but I’d consider 4 stars for the right audience. It’s a thin volume that can be knocked over in a short reading period (it took me around 2 hours). It’s probably great to borrow from a library or buy online to give as a gift, but I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for you to rush out to buy your own copy.

Pan Macmillan | 14th September 2021 | AU$19.99 | paperback

Review: Nat Amoore – The Right Way to Rock

The Right Way to Rock
Nat Amoore

Mac knows he loves music, and his favourite genre is musical theatre. He’s pretty darn good at guitar, but his real passion is writing lyrics. When he gets the news Watterson Primary is going to shut down the creative Arts, he’s determined to do something to save them. Can he pull off a musical to save them? Or will his mom’s rock dreams get in the way?

I loved how each chapter of the book started off with a musical interlude so to speak, of different popular tunes with new Ethan-relevant lyrics added. There were only a couple of missing points where I didn’t get the musical reference.

I found myself lol-ing at this book pretty frequently! This author has a fantastic turn of phrase that will make this novel appreciated by all ages. The tics of Tourette syndrome were super annoying, and I was so grateful that I wasn’t reading this aloud. I have to give points to the author for presenting a neurodiverse cast though. Did you know that despite typical portrayals in media, only 10% of people with Tourette have swearwords as their tics (coprolalia)? It makes sense to me, honestly because if it’s something that presents in childhood, there’s no guarentee that the child actually knows swear words!

I didn’t understand how Mrs. Moshie fit into the story line. I was somewhat confused as to how she could be considered a suitable caregiver for the two kids. I found myself still wondering about the next steps after the conclusion of this novel. That means that this book must have had pretty fantastic world building!

I picked this up not really realising what age group it was for, and not knowing that it’s the third book set in Watterson. This didn’t really matter to me, even though I guess, !spoilers! for the other two books. I’d give this to any pre-teen boy or girl to read as a lighthearted way to understand that being different is totally ok. 4 stars from me.

Penguin Random House | 1st June 2021 | AU$24.99 | paperback

Review: Di Walker – Everything We Keep

Everything We Keep
Di Walker

Agatha has bounced from home to home, never really settling in. That’s until Katherine gives Agatha stability – and a way to get back if she needs to leave her parents again. What follows is the tug between being at home with your parents, or being at home with an adult who can treat her as the child she is.

Initially we don’t know what the circumstances are around the deterioration of Agatha’s home life. We know that something major must have gone wrong, but it’s unclear. Slowly and powerfully it is revealed, as is the level of stress and anxiety in Agatha’s life. I worried for Agatha’s future, even as I was sure her present would turn out ok.

Some of the dialogue is quite stilted in this, and I’m thinking that since it is an ARC it will be fixed in the final proof. If I wanted a comparison of this author’s style, I would guess I can read Unpacking Harper Holt. I’m not sure I’m going to, because there are plenty of other good middle grade reads already demanding my time.

If only this was the lived experience for more children in the foster care system. The ending is near perfect, and sadly, unlikely to occur for many children. What Agatha experiences before meeting Katherine is so typical it hurts. Surely there is a better way? I once again conclude that trying to place children back with their biological parents at all costs is absurd. At the same time, I can’t (yet can) believe that foster parents just hand the child on when they get to be too troublesome.

What I would have liked to see a little more of was a resolution at the end. What are the next steps? How can Agatha really move forward? Is there any hope for her parents? How will the dynamic actually change when Lawson joins the family? Can Agatha keep up going to school? What about her burgeoning OCD?

3 stars from me. It’s not quite as moving a story as Fighting Words, but a little more straight-forward than Watch Over Me. It’s a worthy addition to foster care literature, and it’s certainly perfect for the middle grade audience in a way that these other two novels are for older audiences.

Scholastic | 1st April 2021 | AU$18.99 | paperback

Review: Shivaun Plozza – The Boy, the Wolf, and the Stars

The Boy, the Wolf, and the Stars
Shivaun Plozza

Bo’s best friend is Nix, the fox – but that’s all he has in the world. His guardian Mads doesn’t really love him, and the nearby villagers think that he brought the Shadow creatures. When Mads dies, Bo has to decide for himself what he wants to do – follow the adventure he had no intention of beginning, or just try to stay out of trouble.

Bo is lied to and abused by almost everyone in his life. In fact, even the people he trusts lie to him – even if sometimes it is to protect him. The underlying theme of this novel is that sometimes life is unfair – but you don’t need to let the anger grow too much.

Something I didn’t understand was why Bo always needed to hide his face in his hood. In the village it seemed to make some sense, since he was recognisable to everyone. After he got into the main world though, I couldn’t understand how people knew he was different.

I put off reading this novel because I had forgotten that it was middle grade, and I thought it might follow the pattern of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. I was pleasantly surprised that it was an entry fantasy novel that was light and quick to read – nothing like the YA offerings of this author ofΒ Frankie and Tin Heart.

I’m not the target audience, so with that in mind I would still recommend this book. It has a blatant message that it is bad to lie, and that forgiveness is hard to properly give, but it’s also fantasy so it is enjoyable to read. 4 stars from me.

Penguin Random House | 20th October 2020 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: Amelia Mellor – The Grandest Bookshop in the World

The Grandest Bookshop in the World
Amelia Mellor

Pearl Cole is sure that she lives in the greatest place in the world. She stays home, and reads on the topics that make her happy. She looks up to her Pa and loves her siblings. But one sibling has died, leaving a hole in the family that the mysterious Obscurosmith can exploit. Can Pearl and Vally save their arcade, or will it, and their memories, be gone forever?

This novel confused me. My daughter received it for Christmas and I grabbed it up – who wouldn’t want to read a book about a bookstore? I was then informed that it was based on a true location/story/event. However, although I was able to suspend my disbelief for some of the novel, eventually I was left feeling confused and a bit cheated. It might be a real location (as described in the historical note), with some of the games passed down from child to child, but it wasn’t a true ‘based-on’ novel.

I liked the magic system in this book. Magic works based on three things: imagination, articulation and conviction. But apart from that, there are no rules! Each person can shape the magic as they like to, and some are better at it than others. Some people are very successful at it, such as writers like Pa Cole, while others are not so good because they are too practical.

There were some laugh-out-loud moments where I giggled so much my birdie thought the world was shaking! The games were fun, and I got enjoyment out of trying to solve the riddles just from the information the children gave me. As the novel progressed, I had to work harder to keep the magic alive in my mind, and that spoiled the novel for me.

I love the idea of a bookshop where you can read as long as you like – I have some favourite memories of sitting in a bookstore, hidden from the staff, polishing off a novel while my parents shopped. Of course it’s frowned upon – but there aren’t any libraries in most store arcades! As digital books continue to take over, the historical artifact of a brick-and-mortar bookstore will fade. And I will be very sad, even if it’s just the idea that excites me.

I won’t reread it as the games aren’t fascinating enough for that, but I’d highly recommend it to its intended audience of children, say 8 years and older. 3 stars from me for adults, 4 stars for children.

Review: Lauren James – The Starlight Watchmaker

The Starlight Watchmaker
Lauren James

Hugo is good at his job as a watchmaker to the elite students of the Academy. He’s quiet and undemanding, and just trying to keep his job. When Dorian busts into his workshop to demand his watch repaired, Hugo’s little world will be overturned by a potential terrorist plot.

This cute, delicate little novella is a very quick read for an adult. In fact, it’s so short that I struggled to form an opinion on it at all. Hugo is endearing, far more so than the last ‘poor android’ novel I attempted. Dorian is demanding and clueless, but not in a vindictive manner. I only wish I got to hear more from the baby planet!

It turns some ideas on its head – what if a library needed watering instead of staying dry? What if planets started out as babies that had to go to school before they grew up? I loved the author’s imagination and how it came to light in front of my eyes.

The plot is a very simple one, and there’s no sense of underlying menace – it’s not scary at all. It says that this is aimed at middle-grade to junior YA but I’d put it in the under 10 bracket. I’m pretty sure the 10 year old reader in my family would turn up her nose at such a simple story! I think it would be suitable for a child still learning to read confidently, where the adult and child take turns reading.

Allen & Unwin | 5th August 2019 | AU$14.99 | paperback

Review: Catherine Bruton – No Ballet Shoes in Syria

No Ballet Shoes in Syria
Catherine Bruton

Aya, and Mumma and Moosie are waiting for dad to appear to continue on with their lives. But he’s lost, and without him the family is adrift in an alien world. Aya is the one looking after Mumma and Moosie and helping them claim asylum – but is there time for her own ballet dreams as well?

I loved Moosie! Aya’s interactions with him really brought her to life for me. Her friendship with Dotty made me feel a bit ambivalent, because Dotty made me feel angry in a way – how inconsiderate she is, and how nice Aya is in comparison. But I’m sure Aya wasn’t nice all the time either – what 11 year old can do that all the time?

I admit that I didn’t like the title. There were, in fact, ballet shoes in Syria. That’s how Aya learned to dance after all! And she managed to find ballet teachers in most of her stopping places on the way to Europe too. I liked how although she had natural talent, we saw her working really hard as well.

I did particularly like the full circle of Aya and her new ballet teacher’s lives. I guess I can’t say more without giving one of the major tear-jerking plot points away. It’s scary to draw parallels between fleeing the Nazi invasions and fleeing war torn middle eastern countries.

It must be so difficult being an asylum seeker. At least in Britain they’re allowed out into the community – in Australia we lock them up behind barbed wire and turn their leaking boats away. It is amazing the way humans can treat other humans so poorly. We should be asking refugees what makes them so resilient and resourceful.

This middle grade novel fits a niche that I think will resonate well with grade 5 and 6 readers.Β If you’re looking for a slightly more teenage version of this novel, I could suggest When Michael met Mina or even You Must Be Layla (again, quite middle grade). These are not strictly refugee novels, but have similar issues of being different for reasons you can’t change. 3 stars from me, and 4 stars for its intended audience.

Nosy Crow | 5th August 2019 | AU$14.99 | paperback

Review: Yassmin Abdel-Magied – You Must Be Layla

You Must Be Layla
Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Layla is ready to attend a new school, and being a hijabi is only a minor concern. She’s ready to fit in with the rest of the group, but with her sense of humour can she ever hope to stay at school past her first suspension?

I went from being really excited about this novel to being really disappointed in it rapidly. The writing style irked me. I read the first two chapters desperately hoping that the writing style was just an introduction.Β I didn’t find Layla a believable character. At times it seemed like the novel was just intended to explain some parts of Muslim culture, such as that women don’t need to pray at the mosque when it’s ‘that time of the month’. This detail was included in a way that just didn’t feel natural.

What also irked me about this novel was the use of numbers in Arabic words . The first one I found I thought that it was a typo! And then they kept happening, so I flipped to the back of the novel in the hopes it would explain what it meant. I thought they could be footnotes but instead it indicated a sound that couldn’t be written in English. Fine then! But why not at least attempt to use the appropriate alphabet to communicate the concept? English-speaking readers wouldn’t then be confused by numbers that meant nothing.

The ending was just too neat. I find it very difficult to believe that an adult with such deep-seated dislike of Muslim (and any outsiders) is won over in less than a day. I’m sure this novel is suitable for someone, just not me. I much preferredΒ When Michael Met Mina, and there are other novels out there that approach the problems of being a person of colour in a world of white privilege. 2 stars.

Penguin Random House | 5th March 2019 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: James Dashner – Journal of Curious Letters (The 13th Reality)

The 13th Reality #1 – Journal of Curious Letters
James Dashner

Tick has received a letter promising him that he will be exposed to incredible danger unless he burns the letter. But if he burns it, many people will be harmed. Tick isn’t afraid to admit he’s a nerd, and he’s rather fond of solving puzzles, but will his best be enough?

Wow, this novel’s first half was incredibly slow. I did like the elements of problem solving, and that redeemed the novel somewhat. Then again, I’m sorry, but Sato’s pensive and rude emotional state did nothing for me. And almost meeting a sticky end didn’t even improve him! He didn’t feel like a real person. In fact, the whole novel was so plot based that we didn’t see any character development at all. Except for Tick but that was all described in terms of him finally standing up to the school Bully – not anything more important. And that stupid scarf! Ugh. The author harped back to it, but it turns out that no-one actually cares (surprise surprise).

I saw pale parallels between this novel and Harry Potter (um, also, the name Norbert???). A 13 year old bullied small boy gets a mystical letter, and then is eventually whisked away to somewhere odd by some equally odd people? Has this now become a mainstream trope? Except that of course Tick’s dad loves Tick enough to take him to far away places, and let Tick travel with crazy people. I do find that hard to believe – what right-minded parent of a 13 year old lets their kid wander like that especially after he has just been eaten?

I could see on Goodreads that this was quite a polarising book – people either loved it for the action or completely hated it for the flat characters. It is fitting then I think that I gave this 3 stars. Someone who doesn’t mind their characters completely predictable and boring but likes non-stop action once it starts will enjoy this novel.

Scholastic | 1st March 2018 | AU$17.99 | paperback