Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

Book Review: “The Leopard Princess: The Tales of Jahani” by Roseanne Hawke (2016), University of Queensland Press

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The Leopard Princess is the second book in the series titled The Tales of Jahani by acclaimed South Australian author Roseanne Hawke.  Following on directly from Daughter of Nomads, I highly recommend that readers will continue with this only after reading the first book.    Unlike some series, which can be read in any order, I suspect that The Leopard Princess may fail to resonate if read in this way.  I assume that the publisher made the decision to separate what was one rather long book into two smaller ones as they feared a younger YA audience may feel overwhelmed by such a large book.  This was probably the right decision although I feel that both books could easily be bundled together in one volume and pitched successfully at an older audience.

Feel free to read my earlier review of Daughter of Nomads hereThe Leopard Princess picks up the story in the Autumn of 1662.  Jahani remains in hiding from her jilted fiancée, the cruel Muzahid Baig and the tyrannical Dagar Khan.  With the constant risk of capture and increasing fear of retribution upon the nomadic people who are hiding her, Jahani knows that she must travel through the mountains to the northern kingdoms in an effort to secure peace for the region and realise her destiny.  Continuing on from Daughter of Nomads, The Leopard Princess develops themes and ideas that explore good versus evil, triumph against adversity, in addition to the quest for one’s identity.  The Leopard Princess also asks pertinent questions about love, leadership, followership, courage and self-sacrifice.

With plenty of action, a sprinkling of romance and just enough magic to make things interesting, I imagine that this book will appeal to readers in the middle years.  Certainly, as Jahani moves further into adolescence, I envisage that older teens and many adults will also discover plenty to relate to.  As with, Daughter of Nomads, this story provides unique opportunities for Asian perspectives, particularly to a History unit focusing on the Middle Ages and Renaissance period (which is too often Eurocentric).  I imagine that students might appreciate the opportunity to compare the life of Elizabeth I with Jahani, contrasting the challenges and limitations faced by women in positions of authority at this time.

While The Leopard Princess neatly draws to a conclusion the quest begun in Daughter of Nomads, I will live in hope that Hawke will decide to write a third book in this series.  After all, there are still plenty of adventures to be had for Jahani and Azhar.  I’d also be keen to read a story written exclusively from the perspective of Azhar, especially one which explores a time before the events in books 1 and 2.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Daughter of Nomads: The Tales of Jahani” by Roseanne Hawke (2016), University of Queensland Press

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In all honesty, I couldn’t wait to crack the spine on this one.  When a book arrives on my doorstep with the name Roseanne Hawke attached to it, I just know that I am about to start what is guaranteed to be an amazing journey.  Daughter of Nomads didn’t fail to disappoint.  In fact, it lived up to every whisper of a promise hinted at in the rich teal cover.

Australian readers are no doubt very familiar with Hawke’s work.  I first encountered her writing as a beginning teacher working in Port Augusta when I was ‘told’ to teach her contemporary novel The Keeper to my energetic group of year 8 students.  The students were captivated and so began my first introduction to a writer whose work is as prolific as it is diverse.  More recently I had the opportunity to read and review the immensely absorbing and gut wrenching story of Aster, a Christian Pakistani girl in her book The Truth About Peacock Blue (you can find my review for that title here).  Daughter of Nomads, the first book in the series The Tales of Jahani, is also set in the world of the middle-east.  However, Hawke explores this setting as it might have been in the summer of 1662, and adds a sprinkling of magic for good measure that is certainly reminiscent of the tales of Scheherazade.

Fourteen year-old Jahani lives with her mother in the village of Sherwan. Unfortunately, the violent world of tyrants and war lords is always close, with conflict constantly simmering and threatening to shatter the peace.   One day, while shopping in the bazaar Jahani and her friend are attacked.  With the help of Azhar, Jahani escapes certain death and so begins an adventure to discover the truth about her family and her real identity.

Daughter of Nomads will engage readers from in the middle years of secondary school.  It will especially hold appeal with students that have an interest in religion and history and might be a useful text to explore middle-eastern cultures.  While I personally would not use this as a shared text within my coeducational classroom, the accessibility of the language, make it a good choice for extending students into texts that are more culturally diverse.  That said, the story has the potential to work really well with single sex female classes, providing a unique Asian perspective with historical connections that could easily complement the Year 8 HaSS National Curriculum focusing on the Mediaeval Period.

Daughter of Nomads was a captivating read that I found utterly immersive.  I can’t wait for the release of the second book in the series The Leopard Princess.

Book Review: “Jo-Kin Battles the IT” by Karen Tyrrell, Karen Tyrrell (2015)

ktyrrell-jokin-cover-promo-web-lgeAs teachers and librarians we can be a judgemental lot. During the process of selecting books for use in the classroom, or to sit on shelves in our libraries, we are sifters. By that I mean we sift through stacks of books in an effort to identify those which serve our own personal agenda. This inevitably means eliminating books for one reason or another. For instance, it may be that the language is too simple, the themes and ideas too one dimensional, the structure too formulaic. During this process we sometimes neglect a certain truth that what appeals to us, as adults, does not always concur with the interests of children.
My ten year old son reminded me of the importance of this a few weeks ago. As often occurs in my household, a novel arrived on my doorstep. Usually, my son pays little attention to this (it is such a common occurrence). However on this day he was drawn to the book like a moth to a flame (I apologise for the weak analogy). “What’s this Mum?” He asked holding up the copy of Karen Tyrrell’s Jo-Kin Battles the IT, “Can I read it?” I must confess, at the time I was bogged down with other books to read, so I told him he could have it now as long as he promised to tell me what he thought of it. Off he scurried to his room, book in hand, where he wasn’t heard from for a few hours. “This is awesome Mum!” he told me later that night. “It’s a page turner. I’m already up to chapter 8.” I nodded my head, told him not to read too late, and stood quietly in the hallway while he continued his reading. What I heard was the beautiful sound of literary engagement. His laughter told me that not only was he enjoying the story, but clearly it was one with characters he could strongly identify with.
Sadly, my reading of the same book was not nearly as enlivened. I found the story a little trite, and at times inane. This middle grade chapter book tells the story of Josh Atkins and Sam Jones, who, after winning a computer contest, are selected for training as Super Space Kids. Following training, they are launched into space where they do battle with the deadly alien IT. While my adult brain did not really love the book, I could immediately see why the story resonated so strongly with my son. Michael, it seems could identify with Josh, who like himself, is obsessed with computer games, and quite frankly, all things best described as being ‘nerdy’. Having snared him with Josh (and let’s face it, corny gags), Tyrrell proceeds to tell a story that empowers children to overcome feelings of self-doubt, as they develop resilience, while understanding the value of team work.
Jo-Kin Battles the IT is a cleanly edited story, typeset in a child-appealing manner, with a scattering of delightful illustrations by Trevor Salter. The story will be appreciated by younger primary students up to grade 4. The ease of language will deem it suitable for independent reading although the story would benefit from a shared class reading where the themes of resilience may be explored in greater depth.
Tanya Grech Welden

For teaching resources related to this title please click here.

Book Review: “Cloudwish” by Fiona Wood, Pan MacMillan Australia (2015)

cover69891-mediumVân Uoc is a year 11 first generation Australian girl of Vietnamese parents.  As a scholarship recipient, her presence at Crowthorne Grammar, an exclusive school in Melbourne, comes with pressure.  Pressure to succeed.  Her parents, have high expectations also.  The expectation that she will rise to the top, train as a doctor, and become everything that they are not.  It is a shame then, that Vân Uoc wants to be an artist, a secret that she dreads having to share with them knowing it will destroy them.  Until that time Vân Uoc is the obedient daughter, studious and hard-working, she keeps her head down and gets on with the job at hand.  However, after a chance experience in a writing workshop, a wish falls in her lap and in the moment she casts aside her lack of belief in all things magical, and wishes that the object of her secret desire, Billy Gardiner (jock, part-time comedian and heart throb) will fall in love with her.  It’s a safe bet, she assumes, since he doesn’t even know she exists.  Until, like magic, he starts to pay attention.

I read Wood’s novel Wildlife last year.  I’ll admit that I found it a satisfactory read, albeit annoying.  I’m not generally a fan of the whole poor rich kid scenario.  It doesn’t speak to me.  To be fair it’s probably my working class roots, and my own negative experience as the disadvantaged kid at the snooty school, clouding my judgement.  Anyway, Cloudwish, is a spin off from this book.  It is set in the same school with the same cast of characters.  It is probably just as well then, that I didn’t know this before I read it, because I probably would have given it a miss.  This would have been a huge shame because I loved this book for the very reason why I didn’t like Wildlife.  You see Vân Uoc gives voice to the kid in school who, for economic reasons doesn’t fit in socially.  Vân Uoc became my hero and not just because she got to the heart of what it is really like being the poor kid on school casual days.

There is so much to love about this book.  Wood’s exploration of the migrant, in particular, refugee experience was illuminating.  I appreciated the lengths she went to in breaking open the experience of being an ethnic minority, specifically Asian, in a culture where most norm references are distinctly white.  The only thing I found a little disconcerting was that Wood chose for her protagonist to be Vietnamese.  I understand that Vân Uoc qualifies her experiences by explaining that her parents were “old” when they had her, but I couldn’t help feeling that this story arrived 20-30 years too late.  Surely this experience could have been more accurately recalled from the perspective of a Sudanese or Syrian girl?

This aside, I loved this story.  I loved the way Wood meshed the impossible (the wish) with the real.  It gave this story a quirky, unexpected feel, that kept surprising me to the very end.  Cloudwish is an inspiring and enjoyable read with impressive originality.  I recommend it strongly for students from the upper middle years onwards.

Cloudwish is released 1st September 2015.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Snow White” by Keith Austin, 2014, Random House.

snow whiteKeith Austin has made a strong impression upon me as a writer of quality fiction for older children and young adults.  In fact, I’d go as far to suggest that he is an upcoming writer to watch out for; Australia’s very own Neil Gaiman.  I make this statement, still somewhat perplexed, that local publishers are not clamouring to sign him up.  Did they even read his manuscript submission?  Fortunately, a UK publisher did, thus bringing Austin’s amazing stories to the world.

Snow White tells the story of John Creed, a rather awkward 13 year old, whose stutter and facial disfigurement see him withdraw from his peers.  In the words of another Jon, “winter is coming”, and with it the snow has begun to fall, covering London with a white blanket that threatens to draw the city and its inhabitants into a deep slumber, only disturbed by a multiplying sparrow and crow population.   When John forms a friendship with the mysterious albino girl, Fyre King, the pair embark on an adventure to uncover the past and take on a pack of bloodthirsty wolves.

There are so many things to love about this book.  From the very outset Austin reaches out to his audience, reeling them into his gloriously woven tale with spell-binding language and darkly shrouded humour.  However, yet again, it is his talent for creating memorable characters which makes this book shine brightest.  I will forever be haunted by ‘the Kitten Tapper’, and will revel in the cast of minor characters, richly crafted, especially the split personality of Mr Christmas, Mordecai and the tea-swilling Duchess.  My only criticism is that I wanted to find out more about the White Wolf, making me think that there is definitely a sequel in this book.  I’d red hot keen to discover more about Fyre and John and their interdimensional adventures.

Snow White is a title that will hold broad appeal for students in the middle years.  The supernatural themes of the story are not overpowering, balanced out with a good dose of reality, so as to not alienate readers who might be intimidated by books of the gothic-fantasy genre.  While this is probably not a text I would use as a class novel, it is certainly something I would share with students as a space-filling treat at the end of a lesson.  Read aloud, students will love it, and as an added bonus I imagine that many of them will beat a path to the nearest library so as to read Austin’s other titles Grymm and Jago.

Tanya Grech Welden

“Jago” by Keith Austin, Keith Austin (2014)

jagojeff3Having read and savoured every single word in Keith Austin’s awesome book Grymm, it took a good deal of self-control to refrain from cracking the spine on his most recent offering for Young Adult readers, Jago.  With the housework in order, I finally succumbed to the temptation over the weekend and I wasn’t disappointed.

Set in the world of Victorian England Jago tells the story of 11 year old Demelza Cotton and Jago Quinn, a pair of street urchins who roam the streets of London’s Old Nichol slum.  Austin skilfully brings alive the voice of Demelza as she describes her pitiful existence, barely surviving alongside her friend Jago as they eke out a miserable existence through petty crime.   When the two friends discover an unusual lizard with rainbow coloured skin, an adventure begins in which their lives and the strength of their friendship is challenged.

The lightly gothic elements of Jago ensure that the book will have strong appeal with both boys and girls in the Middle Years.  This is a short read (incidentally I never wanted it to end) making it the perfect length for shared classroom study.  The title links well to the National Curriculum for History; with its strong focus upon the Victorian and Industrial era, especially for year 9 students where this is a key focus.  Teachers will appreciate the many references to living standards, the structure of society and the high rate of poverty and crime during the period.  The book might also incite a discussion on diverse topics such as Chinese culture, dragonology and Jack the Ripper.  Furthermore, the book serves as a perfect entry point for examining the life and work of writers from the period such as William Blake and Charles Dickens.

I was impressed by this book on many levels, not least because this work is self-published.  However, I did feel that a little more explanation relating to the origin of the lizard was needed, although I was not too perturbed, since the story is otherwise utterly engrossing.  The only other concern I have for this title is accessibility.  The book is currently available in print albeit in limited numbers and although it is available as an e-book, I fear that this will discourage its purchase by schools.

With richly drawn characters in an unforgettable landscape, Austin takes his readers on a memorable and faced paced journey into a slightly steampunk and Dickensesque world.  A must-have title for every school library.

Jago is currently available in hard copy format and as an e-book on Amazon Kindle.

Tanya Grech Welden

**The author provided me a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.  I have otherwise not been paid for reviewing this book and my opinions reflect my own unbiased evaluation.**

“Grymm” by Keith Austin, Random House Children’s Publishers UK (2012)

grymmcoverI’m a little ashamed to admit that I am naturally drawn to the dark side in my reading.  I’m not a particularly dark person but I love the literary richness of the Gothic genre.  It possibly goes back to my university days when I became acquainted with Mary Shelley.  More recently, in the classroom I have had a great deal of fun introducing students to the likes of Neil Gaiman through his film adaptation of his awesome book Coraline (2009).   I remember reading somewhere that Neil Gaiman has ‘nearly’ created his own genre in the world of literature.  I’m not sure about that, but he does offer something unique.  For me it is his distinct perceptibility that enables him to reach into our darkest fears and insecurities that I appreciate most.  In many ways Keith Austin’s book Grymm reminded me of this.

Grymm is set in the desert town of the same name.  Once a thriving hub for the mining industry, the gold deposits have since dried up, leaving Grymm as a fading ghost town.  Jacob and Mina, step-siblings with a distinct lack of appreciation for one another, land in Grymm with their parents and half-baby brother Bryan.  From the moment they arrive they have an inkling that things in Grymm are not quite as they first seem.  It doesn’t take long before their hunch is confirmed by the sudden disappearance of their baby brother.

The outback desert town Austin has created is darkly mysterious, and every bit as sinister as a Transylvanian-esque village in the European mountains might be. On many levels the town is quite stereotypical; although I did appreciate his hints to the Aboriginal Dreaming and the proliferation of flies that suggested something more Australian.  Grymm includes a host of vividly drawn characters, all equally grotesque in their own way.  Of particular note was the cross-dressing Maggot (who likes to add maggots to milkshakes), the larger than life baker Fleur, (who may or may not want to add the children to his latest creation), and Real Estate agent Thespa, (a voluminously hideous woman that conceals a heart of gold or possibly a taste for infants?). Also of note was the local butcher Cleaver Flay who was reminiscent of another insane butcher from film history, Clapet from Jeunet and Caro’s French cinematic masterpiece Delicatessen (1991).   As with any great Horror/Gothic tale what is needed is the evil antagonist who must act as the Master Puppeteer.  This role is taken by the insidious Anhanga, who despite living up to my expectations, was introduced to the story a little too late for my liking.

This is quite a chunky book which for practical purposes will possibly make it a little tricky to use in the classroom as a shared text.  However, it is definitely something that I would happily use excerpts of, alongside film as part of a Gothic/Horror unit at grade 9 level.  I have already mentioned parallels with this text and many of Gaiman’s titles (especially Coraline (2002) and The Graveyard Book (2008)), however it would pair equally well with, and provide extension for students who enjoyed Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (1999-2006) series.  It might also be worthwhile having a look at the short novel The Grimstones: Music School (2013) by Asphyxia. Despite being written in language that is widely accessible, some children at the lower end of the Middle Years, may find some of the content a little distressing so I would pitch it to students closer to 14 to be safe.

A vividly drawn Gothic-Horror title with a dash of Steampunk thrown in for good measure.   I highly recommend Keith Austin’s Grymm for a delectable read on a dark night.  Word of warning.   This title is best consumed without food.

Reviewed by Tanya Grech Welden

**The author provided me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  I have otherwise not been paid for reviewing this book and my opinions reflect my own unbiased opinion.**

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