Review: Fleur Ferris – Seven Days

Seven Days
Fleur Ferris

The last thing Ben wants is to spend his school holidays with his tough cousin and some terrifying farm animals. He sets his timer to count down the seven days to leaving, but suddenly finds himself engrossed in solving a family feud that has been around for the last 100 years. Do the jewels exist?

I didn’t realise that this was a novel for younger teens, and so I initially found myself really disappointed in this latest novel by Ferris. However, once I realised the audience, I thought that it was actually pretty good!

Something that made me somewhat uncomfortable is the Uncle’s role as a counsellor. It made me get all sorts of wrong vibes, particularly as I’ve been reading a lot of abuse memoirs lately. I didn’t like the way that he approached the falling-out of the boys, and I felt like it was offensive the way that they just followed Ben home.

I would have bought that twist easily. Also, the ending was far too neat, but again, appropriate for the age group. I would have liked to see a little more about how it all broke down, but what’s a good book without a chase scene?

This comes as highly recommended teenage boy reading from me! It’s got action, it’s got a bad guy, and it’s got a (literally) kick butt kangaroo. Sure, there’s not all that much character development and some plot points are little inconsistent, but ultimately it’s a face-paced read. Ferris has found her niche in all-is-not-as-it-seems fiction, and it works. 4 stars from me.

Penguin | 3 May 2022 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: Jessica Miller – The Republic of Birds

The Republic of Birds
Jessica Miller

Olga isn’t pretty or graceful like her sister Mira. Olga likes reading about maps and cartography and somewhat dreams of going to the unmapped blank to be the first female cartographer. Exiled from a comfortable life inthe capital, perhaps the icey wasteland holds something new for Olga.

I read this novel as a pdf on my laptop, and it’s unsurprising that I didn’t enjoy it perhaps as much as I might have. I’d received back in 2020 to review, but I just couldn’t bring myself to read it. I sped through it pretty quickly as it had very little substance and was quite predictable to boot.

I’m going to pop this book firmly into middle grade or very young teen fiction. The characters aren’t particularly nauanced, and despite getting some backstory on the parents, and an attempt at looking more into Olga’s powers, there’s not much substance to them. Far more could have been done with the magic/folk-lore side of things – I still feel uncertain what the main story was (besides the traditional gimmic that the siblings have to save oneanother).

And hey! It’s possible that you will learn something from it. For example, did you know that the side of the rocks that the moss grows on is dependent on where the sun rises? I feel like that’s something that might change with climate change.

I didn’t love the ending. It was pretty satisfying, but at the same time, it would have been pretty cool to be a yaga! Even just the tiniest hint that Olga would be able to overcome the restrictions of her gender would have been amazing. That perhaps could have pushed the book to 4 stars from me, but it wasn’t to be.

Text Publishing | March 2020 | AU$16.99 | eBook

Review: Eoin Colfer – The Wish List

The Wish List
Eoin Colfer

Meg Finn has a single wish – to show up her step-father Franco and get on with life without her Marm. Unfortunately for Meg, she now owes Belch a favour and it could end up with her dead. But is there something worse than just being dead? Definitely if you’ve been saddled with meeting an old-man’s wish list.

This was a sneaky reread just after moving house – the book ended up at the top of a box and so it called to me to read it. Oops? But then I discovered that I hadn’t reviewed it, so I hadn’t really gotten away with anything.

Ok, so this book isn’t theologically accurate, and I’d even call it theologically challenging. It’s kinda cute that the Devil’s second in command goes by the nickname ‘Bub’. This has put a lot of readers off apparently, but if you aren’t thinking of heaven and hell in the way you were perhaps taught in Bible school, then you’re going to enjoy the ride in this book. Everything seems so simple… until it isn’t.

Eoin Colfer is probably best known for his series with the boy genius Artemis Fowl, which has since been turned into a movie. Don’t go into this novel thinking that it will be that deep or have intellectual jokes. This is an early teenage book, perhaps middle grade fiction.

Weirdly, I occasionally get Garth Nix and Eoin Colfer confused. I think it’s because they were both the early fantasy that I got into as a teenager, and that they haven’t limited themselves to a single universe or concept. I’d sort of even forgotten that this novel existed on my shelf, hidden as it was with the other novels. I’m still giving it 5 stars, even if I’m no longer in the target age group.

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 of 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