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

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

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

In the Dark Spaces, by Cally Black

The stranger keeps coming, long-legged stretches of shiny black uniform kicking down the ramp. And it’s not a person. Facing McVeigh is this tall half-crow, half-scarecrow things, all dressed in black. SHiny black armoured ridges line down the centre of its chest and across its shoulders like the back of a crocodile. Its head is a massive beaked helmet. And it’s not a leathery cape, cos it’s moving by itself. They’re wings. Wings that lift higher and quiver….
My scalp prickles. Not right. This is not right. This is a real thing!

Tamara has spent most of her life hiding. Since she was orphaned, her Aunt Lazella has kept her hidden on the ships where she ekes out a living in the kitchens. Now, Tamara is responsible for keepign her little cousin, Gub, silent while Lazella works. But if she can get strong enough to work, too, their fortunes will improve.

When the ship is raided by strange crow-like figures, Tamara finds her fortunes changing in a completely different way. Separated from Gub, Tamara finds herself a prisoner of the invaders, taken back to their hive where she must figure out a way to stay alive long enough to figure out how to get back to her cousin. But, separated by space, this is not going to be asy.

In the Dark Spaces is a stunning spec-fic offering. Set in an unnamed future where fleets of starships mine space for the minerals necessary for survival on Earth, the story explores what happens when an alien race objects to the human presence, which threatens its own existence. Fourteen year old Tamara, who knows too well the downsides of human society, gets to experience first hand the highs and lows of an alternative civilisation, as well as being drawn into the quest for peace.

Tamara is an intriguing character, whose near-silent existence as a stowaway in her aunt’s quarters is swapped for one where she is initially voiceless because of the barriers of language. Her tenacity, coupled with her willingness to learn and to question, are key to her survival, and her loyalty to her absent cousin is a key factor in her survival.

Explroing themes including language, loyalty, human rights and so much more,
In the Dark Spaces is an outstanding read.

In the Dark Spaces, by Cally Black
Hardie Grant Egmont, 2017
ISBN 9781760128647

The Way Back, by Kylie Ladd

Terry swallowed. ‘You need to call Matt, get him back here. I hope I’m wrong, but when the dogs are onto something and then it suddenly vanishes it usually means the person has got into a car, or been picked up and carried. If Charlie was still anywhere near where we found her helmet we’d have her by now, but she’s not.’ He put his hand on her arm. ‘This changes things, Rachael. I don’t think she’s just missing anymore. We’re dealing with a potential abduction.’

Charlie Johnson is part of a loving family. She has an amazing best friend, and is kind of into Liam, a cute guy from school. But, most of all, she loves horseriding, especially riding Tic-Tac, who she’s finally convinced her parents to lease for her. But one day Charlie and Tic-Tac go out riding, and only Tic-Tac comes back.

For four months, Charlie’s friends and family searched desperately, not knowing if she is dead or alive. For four months, Charlie survives – barely. Finally, she is found wandering and injured, miles from where she was lost. Of course being reunited is wonderful, but can Charlie and her family really heal from what she – and they – have all been through?

The Way Back is a moving story of separation, fear and determination. Ladd explores the emotional complexity of the situation from a number of perspectives, showing that there is no one way that such events can impact on victims, or of dealing with the aftermath of such. Ladd’s empathy and insight take the reader inside a difficult situation in a way which seems real, yet prevents the experience from being overwhelming.

Gripping.

The Way Back, by Kylie Ladd
Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN 9781760297138

The Sloth Who Came to Stay, by Margaret Wild & Vivienne To

Sloth ate
very,
very
slowly.
He was so slow that Amy had plenty of time to talk about the things that had happened that day.

Amy’s family is the speediest family in the world. They do everything fast: shopping, eating, walking. There is never any time to talk or play or laugh. Until Amy brings home a sloth she finds in the park. Because the sloth does everything slowly, the family are forced to go slower too. And things begin to change.

The Sloth Who Came to Stay is a humorous tale with an important reminder for readers of all age about the value of taking time to enjoy conversations, experiences and more. With text by the marvelous icon of Australian chidlren’s literature, Margaret Wild, and digital illustrations from debut illustrator Vivienne To, this is a delight.

The Sloth Who Came to Stay, by Margaret Wild & Vivienne To
Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN 9781760290221

Pip and Houdini by J C Jones

Pip Sullivan’s middle name was trouble. At least that’s what people said.
She was the girl who’d gone on the run from the welfare in case they locked her up, broken into an empty house, bet on the horses, had the entire police force looking for her, brought down a very bad man and discovered why her mother had abandoned her as a baby – all in just a few days.
And she was still just ten (and a bit) years old.

Pip is back in a new adventure. After finding a new home with a new family, she’s trying to settle down and fit in, but somehow she always seems to be in trouble. This time the trouble is so big, she’s sure her new family will reject her and she will never find a place to belong. She and her dog Houdini sets out on a mission to find the mother who gave her up, Cass. The only clue she has is a postcard from Byron Bay. So that’s where she heads.

Pip and Houdini’ is the second instalment from J C Jones, about Pip. The first, ‘Run, Pip, Run’ introduced the reader to this feisty, independent character, Pip. Her early years have been unconventional, to say the least, but she has a very well-developed moral compass and an almost-inexhaustible store of openness, optimism and energy. Houdini is the perfect offsider: supportive and intuitive and up for any adventure Pip begins. ‘Pip and Houdini’ is a delightful and heart-warming novel. It introduces young readers to a world that may well be beyond their experience, and encourages them to look beyond first impressions to the heart of everyone they encounter. And it’s all wrapped up in a ripping yarn. Recommended for mid-primary readers.

Pip and Houdini, J C Jones Allen & Unwin 2017 ISBN: 9781780296056

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

Figgy Takes the City by Tamsin Janu

Nana was writing so quickly that he kept breaking the lead of his pencils.
But he didn’t sharpen them. That takes time.
To sharpen a pencil we have to go outside, because Principal Mensah doesn’t like pencil shavings on the classroom floor. Which is confusing, since chickens wander into the classroom and poo on the ground all the time and she never complains about that. We also have to sharpen pencils with little metal razors, which takes a lot of effort. And sometimes, when you are sharpening too quickly, the razor will cut your finger. So there is blood, and you have to go to the teacher for a plaster, and by the time you get back to your desk the test is nearly over and the cut on your finger hurts so much you cannot write anyway.
So Nana came prepared.

Figgy is back and in this third Figgy (and Nana story), the friends both win scholarships to the high school in Accra. Figgy is initially very nervous but quickly settles in and is keen to absorb all the experiences that a city can offer. Nana, however, has more trouble and Figgy can’t make him talk about what’s worrying him. Or where he disappears to. Cities are strange and wonderful, dangerous and sad. This year is going to change them forever.

Figgy Takes the City’ follows ‘Figgy in the World’ and ‘Figgy and the President’ and continues the story of Figgy, a Ghanian village girl with a big heart, a wonderful imagination and enough love to wrap the whole world. These adventures introduce the reader to Ghana, village and city life, to dilemmas unimaginable and familiar. The definition of ‘family’ expands and then expands again. What is family after all but individuals looking after others? Figgy and her friends are warm, fallible, true-hearted and brave. This is another adventure that should find a home in every heart. Recommended for mid-primary readers.
Figgy Takes the City, Tamsin Janu Scholastic 2017 ISBN: 9781742992006
review by Claire Saxby, Children’s author and bookseller
www.clairesaxby.com

Blossom, by Tamsin Janu

The little girl was silent, and just stared.
So Lottie asked questions. ‘What’re you up to? Are you lost?’
Silence. The little girl hadn’t blinked once.
‘Where’re your parents?’
Silence.
‘Don’t worry if you haven’t got any parents. I don’t. I live with my Uncle Bobby, who’s kind enough.’

Lottie lives with just her Uncle Bobby, and has always longed for a sister, so when a lost girl turns up on her doorstep, she’s excited. But the girl – who Lottie names Blossom – isn’t like other children. Not only doesn’t she speak, but she only eats plants, makes funny sounds, and has green liquid instead of blood. Lottie navigates the difficulties of having such an odd sister presents, until Blossom gets sick, and suddenly becomes the center of scientific interest. Only Lottie and her friends can rescue her.

Blossom is a beautiful tale of an unexpected friendship, with an equally unexpected outcome. It soon becomes apparent that Blossom may be from another world, but just how different this place is is only slowly revealed. In the meantime, Lottie draws on her own strengths as well as the help of those around her.

A beautiful, whimsy-filled story.

Blossom, by Tamsin Janu
Scholastic, 2017
ISBN 9781742991641

Ache, by Eliza Henry Jones

Annie has never been the sort of person to have nightmares. But since the fires on the mountain, her dreams have changed. They have developed a pattern, as though the fire changed the landscape of everything inside her. The ridges and curves.
Her dreams are steady, the same things flickering across each night. Ash and bubbles and dark water that movs like waves.
Since the fires, since leaving her nana on the mountain, Annie has dreamt of ash. She’s dreamt of drowning.

A year ago, Annie was visiting her grandmother up the mountain when a terrible fire ripped through the area. Since leaving her nana behind to die, Annie has tried to keep her life in the city from completely falling apart. But her daughter, Pip, is traumatised, her husband Tom is angry, and Annie herself is haunted by what happened. Now, she needs to go back to her childhood home to try to get her mother’s life back on track. But being there also means confronting her own demons, and helping Pip find equilibrium.

Ache is a moving story of survival and rebuilding in the face of adversity. A whole family, and a whole community, have been impacted by the fire, and Jones captures the range of emotions and experiences which might be expected from such an event as well as examining the ways survivors can find a new normal in order to move forward.

Beautiful.

Ache, by Eliza Henry Jones
Fourth Estate, Harper Collins, 2017
ISBN 9781460750384