The Choke, by Sofie Laguna

I was eating Weet-Bix at the kids’ table not long after I moved to Pop’s, when I heard Pop and Dad talking.
You should have been more careful, Ray.
Accidents happen.
Yeah, and now I’m stuck with your bloody accident.
The table was so low it kept me at the height of their knees. If they didn’t look down they forgot I was there.

Since her mother abandoned her as a toddler, Justine has been raised by her Pop, a troubled survivor of the Burma railway. Her dad comes and goes, away for months at time. Her half brothers visit regularly and are sometimes allies, but their different mothers, and the manipulations of their father mean that their relationship is uneasy. School is also difficult for Justine. Not only does she lack the home environment of her classmates, but she also struggles to read, and is seen by teachers as lazy and disruptive.

Amongst so much neglect, Justine must make do. She finds solace in her Pop’s chickens, who she feeds and talks to, and in the Choke, a narrow opening in the Murray River at the back of their house. Brief glimpses of kindness from fellow humans are rare, but somehow Justine manages to survive again and again.

The Choke is a haunting story of poverty and neglect. Justine, as the youngest member of a broken family, has a life which readers will see is cruel and unfair, but which is portrayed with a frightening, heartbreaking realism.

A troubling, powerful read.

The Choke, by Sofie Laguna
Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN 9781760297244

Clan of Wolves, by Jo Sandhu

Tarin pushed his dark and troubled thoughts aside. Luuka was right. They were bruised and battered, they had lost much of the Offering, but they were alive. He touched the owl pendant at his throat.
Thank you Spirit of Owl for protecting us. Thank you, Spirit of Wolf, for defending us.
Then he focused once more on the churning water ahead.

With winter rapidly drawing in, Tarin’s quest to save Mammoth Clan by finding the Mother and presenting her with the Offering, is seeming increasingly unachievable. One of his travelling companions, Kaija, is badly wounded, and they are without medicine, food and shelter. When help comes, it is from an unlikely source, but even with safety and friendship, Tarin must figure out a way to overcome his own doubts and continue on his perilous journey.

Clan of Wolves is the second title in the Tarin of the mammoths series. Set in the stone age, with mystical elements including Tarin’s ability to connect with animal guides, the plot is strong and the world in which Tarin and his friends move is as intriguing as it is well-defined. In this book we see Tarin, who has been seen in his own clan as a weakling, becoming ever stronger as he uncovers his own strengths and learns to accept help and guidance.

Perfect for readers for middle primary and up, this is an outstanding series.

Clan of Wolves, by Jo Sanhu
Penguin Books, 2017
ISBN 978014330938

The Fifth Room, by A.J. Rushby

‘I…’ I begin to argue, but my dad stops me, leaning forward over the table.
‘Miri, it would be unwise of me to say too much for both our sakes, but I will say this: there are things I used to be involved in – that I used to believe in – that I am no longer involved in or believe in. If you proceed with your current course, there are things I cannot help you with. Matters in which I would be more of a hindrance to you than a help if you were to call upon me. Do you understand what I’m saying?’

Miri should be in high school, but her brilliance and aptitude for medicine have seen her placed in an elite college program and invited to be part of an international secret society. She is thrilled to be part of the Society,and eager to engage in the opportunities it offers – especially the chance to do her own research, unhampered by the need for ethics approvals. But when her research proposal is accepted, she finds herself whisked away to a secret location where she must compete with other young researchers. Miri’s experiment means she is awake night after night , giving the opportunity to see that not everything at the research centre is at it seems. As her doubts grow, she isn’t sure who she can trust, or even if she’ll get out alive.

The Fifth Room is a blend of mystery, romance and psychological thriller. A fairly easy read, it explores concepts surrounding moral dilemmas in an intriguing setting.

The Fifth Room, by A. J. Rushby
Scholastic, 2017
ISBN 9781742762548

Jehan and the Quest of the Lost Dog, by Rosanne Hawke

That was when he noticed the water. It was all around him as big and deep as the sea Mr Nadeem spoke about. It splashed at the trunk of the tree just below his charpai.
‘Hei! I’m going to drown.’
Jehan closed his eyes to pray, then opened them again.
It wasn’t a dream.

Jehan’s life is uncomplicated. he goes to school, plays cricket with his friends, and helps with the chores his parents give him. His little brother might annoy him sometimes, and others he wishes someone else could fetch the water, but really he is happy with his close knit family. But when the monsoon comes early and causes a massive flood, Jehan is swept away on his bed – his charpai – and finds himself stranded in a tress, with the waters all around him.

As the days stretch by, with no rescue, Jehan has to use all his resources to figure out how to stay alive. Then he rescues a dog who has also lost her family and the pair offer each other hope as they struggle for survival.

Jehan and the Quest of the Lost Dog is a charming story of survival, set in flood-torn Pakistan. Hawke gives an insight into life in rural Pakistan and to the impact of natural disasters, with the events based on the real-life floods which ravaged the country in 2010.

As well as being an intriguing read on its own, Jehan and the Quest of the Lost Dog is also a companion book to Kelsey and the Quest of the Porcelain Doll.

Jehan and the Quest of the Lost Dog, by Rosanne Hawke
UQP, 2017
ISBN 9780702259609

The Cursed First Term of Zelda Stitch, by Nicki Greenberg

This time there’ll be no hiding at the back of the classroom, hoping no one notices me. No pretending to have a stomach ache or locking myself in the toilets to cry. In just nine hours I’ll be standing in front of a while class of the little monsters, trying not to make some kind of terrible mistake. Although I think I’ve already made one, taking this job in the first place.

Every teacher is nervous when they start their first job. But Zelda Stitch has an extra thing to worry about: how to keep the fact that she’s a witch secret from her students. especially when she isn’t even good at being a witch. When term starts she soon realises that it isn’t going to be easy. When the children play tricks on her, she struggles to keep her magic hidden. And it seems she isn’t the only witch in the room. One of her students seems to developing witch skills. And someone in the school has put a hex on the principal.

The Cursed First Term of Zelda Stitch is a humorous diary-format novel, complemented by equally humorous illustrations by the author. Zelda is bumbling but likeable, and supported by an interesting cast including her seemingly objectionable cat, Barnaby.

An easy read, with plenty to keep readers turning pages.

The Cursed First Term of Zelda Stitch, by Nicki Greenberg
Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN 9781760294908

The Great Rabbit Chase,by Freya Blackwood

Mum went out to buy a new pair of gumboots,
but came home with a rabbit.
I named him Gumboots.

Gumboots the rabbit is a much loved pet, but the thing he does best is escape. Today, he chooses the moment Mum is in the shower and the narrator’s friend Norman is at the door to escape. Soon Mum (wrapped in a towel) and the two children are in pursuit. As they move through the town,more people join in the chase – a neighbour with a plate of cakes,a man with shiny black shoes, even a mum with a crying baby. Finally, Gumboots leads them to a park, where everyone feels more rested, and Gumboots has a surprise.

The Great Rabbit Chase is an adorable picture book about happiness, slowing down -and rabbits. Blackwood, best known for her gentle, life-filled watercolour illustrations, shows that her creative talents extend to writing with a similar touch of gentle whimsy.

Adorable.

The Great Rabbit Chase, by Freya Blackwood
Scholastic, 2017
ISBN 9781743811641

500 Minutes of Danger, by Jack Heath

As soon as her foot hit the quicksand, Ella knew she was doomed…
Panic gripped her chest. ‘Help!’ she screamed. ‘Someone help me! Please!’
Insects buzzed. Birds chirped. But there were no voices. No help was coming.

A girl trapped in quicksand, with no chance that anyone will hear or. A boy trapped in what seems to be a coffin. And a girl, searching for a lost heirloom, instead finding  killer crocodiles on the rampage.

The ten stories which make  up 500 Minutes of Danger are high-action, fast paced stories each of which sees a young character engaged in a life and death struggle, with plenty of cliffhanger moments and twists and turns. Each story stands alone and can be read in about half an hour. But, as the book progresses,  readers gradually become aware that the stories are linked and that seemingly unconnected events and characters are all overshadowed – literally – by one big menace.

Perfect for reluctant readers.

500 Minutes of Danger, by Jack Heath
Scholastic, 2017
ISBN 9781743816493

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A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares, by Krystal Sutherland

Esther Solar had been waiting outside Lilac Hill Nursing and Rehabilitation Center for half an hour when she received word that the curse had struck again.
Rosemary Solar, her mother, explained over the phone that she would no longer, under any circumstances, be able to pick her daughter up. A cat black as night with demon-yellow slits for eyes had been found sitting atop the hood of the family car – an omen dark enough to prevent her from driving.

Esther Solar believes her family is cursed. Ever since her grandfather met Death in Vietnam, every family member has been cursed to suffer from one great fear, and to eventually die because of that fear. Her Grandfather, told her will die from drowning, avoids water, even baths. Esther’s father is an agoraphobic who has lived in the basement for six years, And her twin brother Eugene is terrified of the dark. Esther, though, is determined to avoid the curse, by avoiding everything that might trigger a phobia. She’s made a list of them, a semi-definitive list of worst nightmares. Then she meets Jonah, a would-be film maker with problems of his own, who is determined to make her confront, and dispel every one of her possible phobias.

Funny, sad and satisfyingly weird, A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares is hard to categorise, which is a good thing. The cast of flawed characters – teens and adults – are intriguing, and the plot equally absorbing. There’s some tough stuff happening, but the story is ultimately fun.

A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares Penguin, 2017
ISBN 978014357391

The Twentieth Man, by Tony Jones

He reached the Adria Travel Agency and went straight inside. The Serb, Risto Jadorovski, sat at a desk, talking on the telephone. Jadorovski waved to him, indicated that he should take a seat. A young woman was behind the shop counter. She smiled at him. She was a pretty young thing. He hesitated, staring back at her. Then he put down the shopping bag, turned and walked back out through the glass door.

It is 1972 and someone has planted two bombs in Sydney’s CBD, in a terror attack which shocks the country. Young journalist Anna Rosen knows at once which group will be responsible. She has been investigating the Ustasha movement, and is sure they are behind the attacks. With the impending visit of the Yugoslav prime minister, it is vital that police find those responsible. But for Anna, there’s is a more personal reason. Her former lover, Marin Katich, is linked to the Ustasha. He has been missing since he and twenty other would-be revolutionaries sneaked into Yugolsavia. As Anna’s journalism career flourishes, her connection with Katich keeps her from being completely objective.

Based on true events, this fictional account of the events of the early seventies, from journalist Tony Jones, is an intriguing look at the politics and personalities of the time.

https://t.dgm-au.com/c/328195/69171/1880?u=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.booktopia.com.au%2Fthe-twentieth-man-tony-jones%2Fprod9781760295004.html, by Tony Jones
Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN 9781760295004

Swan Lake by Anne Spudvilas

It is midnight. The young prince has been hunting in the forest with a party of friends. Now he is alone and deep in thought. It is the eve of the grand ball that the Queen is holding in his honour. He must choose a bride from all the princesses in the land. His heart is heavy.

The story of Swan Lake is known and loved. In this picture book version, the story is set out first in text, as it is in the ballet. Each of the three acts is summarised on a single page, then shown in mostly monotone illustrations in the following pages. In the first act, a prince meets the Swan Queen, who has been cursed by a Sorcerer. In Act 2, the ball proceeds and the Prince is bewitched by the Sorcerer’s daughter. In Act 3, he realises he has been tricked and pursues the Swan Queen.

Swan Lake’ is simply glorious, from the swan embrace on the front cover, through the drama and tragedy, all the way to the final dramatic image. Setting it in the three acts allows those familiar with the story to ready themselves for the next instalment, and for those new to the story to absorb the words before tipping headlong into the romance of the images. It is no surprise that the story spills across 48 pages rather than the more familiar 32 pages. Colour is used sparingly and with great insight and skill. Notes at the end give some hints of techniques used to create images. Highly recommended for lovers of dance and this story; for artists and creators; and for readers of all ages.

Swan Lake, Anne Spudvilas
Allen & Unwin 2017
ISBN: 9781743318454

review by Claire Saxby, Children’s author and bookseller
www.clairesaxby.com