They Came on Viking Ships, by Jackie French

Reviewed by Dale Harcombe

From the first sentence, ‘When a witch gives you a True Name, it sticks,’ Jackie French hooks readers into this tale of the Scottish Wolfhound, Riki Snarfari, which means Mighty Rover, and his rescuer Hekja. The bond between Riki Snarfari – or Snarf ,as he is more commonly known – and Hekja intensifies after the Viking attack on the village that results in them both being captured. Taken away from her own land, Hekja becomes a thrall or slave, to Freydis Eriksdottir, the feisty daughter of Eric the Red. Snarf emerges as a hero as he smells the icebergs and warns Freydis and her crew, guiding the Viking ship safely through the icebergs.

Taken to the inaptly named ‘Greenland’. Hekja’s first impression is that it is ‘a land of snow.’ As a thrall, Hekja finds she has no rights but can be sold or traded at will by her owner. Life becomes a struggle, made bearable only by the presence of the faithful Snarf.

They Came on Viking Ships confronts readers, with the Viking princess, Freydis, determined to overthrow the idea that only men journey and discover new lands while women stay home. She yearns to one day lead her own expedition.

And she does – to Vinland. But the treachery of Finnbogi, one of her compatriots causes the previously peaceful Skraelings, who already inhabit Vinland, to attack them.

The pregnant Freydis and her thrall stand together and lead the men against the Skraelings.

This historical novel presents an unsentimental view of the society and life in Viking times that will involve readers from the opening line to the last page.

They Came on Viking Ships by Jackie French
HarperCollinsPublishers, 2005 ISBN 0 207 20011 4 $15.95 Pb

Redback Mansion, by Lorraine Marwood

The sky has bones,
electrical legs
that hip and socket
in neon strides
faster than a rocket.
(Storm, p 29)

Lorraine Marwood’s description of lightning as a skeleton marching in the sky is just one of many vivid and creative descriptions which will delight young readers. In her collection Redback Mansion, Marwood shares 46 poems for children on a wide range of topics.

There are poems about insects (Redback Mansion, Mosquito and others), about the weather (Hot Rain and Storm), and about childhood pleasures like riding a bike (Feel a Bike Rhythm) and making a cubby in a cardboard box (Cubby House). Marwood skilfully looks at everyday objects and events through new eyes. A dog lying on his back in the sun is portrayed as solar-powered:
Much stomach expanse
given to the task
of soaking up the sun.
(Solar Powered Dog, p36)
and a noisy washing machine becomes an earthquake:
I can hear an earthquake coming
thundering, lumbering
coming, coming
feel the floor shake
feel your heart quake.
(Earthquake Coming, p13)

A variety of font sizes and layouts have been used to complement the tone and subject matter of the different poems and the black and white illustrations of Marwood’s daughter Tamara and incredibly talented young artist Joanne McNamara.

Kids will love reading these poems – to themselves or out loud – and teachers will find this offering an excellent classroom tool.


Redback Mansion, by Lorraine Marwood
Five Islands Press, 2002

Deception, by Celeste Walters

Not much that happens in the silver city is not influenced by Kenneth Cullinan. He has a finger in every pie in town – business; politics, even football.

Josh Sim lives in the silver city. His life is study, family, and following the team. Until the game goes national, with Cullinan at the centre of the push, and Josh and every other local is left without a team to support.

Josh’s Dad played for the team and, to his grandfather, GD, football is life’s focus. When the team is closed, GD loses his passion for life.

Meanwhile, Josh’s mother, Liz, is living a lie. Every Wednesday she sneaks off to her new job – cleaning silver at Kenneth Cullinan’s home. The extra money will help put Josh through university, but she can’t tell him where the money comes from. Cullinan is universally hated and Josh wouldn’t understand why she is working for him.

When Josh uncovers his mother’s betrayal, he leaves home and takes to the streets. It seems, for a time, as if nothing will mend the rift.

Deception is a skilfully crafted book for young adults which will also appeal to adult readers. Author Celeste Walters creates a multi-layered and multi-streamed tale which shows the darker side of a city and of human nature, but also features hope and love as very real parts of life.

There is a tendency among writers for older teens to confuse realism with pessimism, and Walters carefully avoids this trap. The book is, at times, very dark, yet there, amidst death, family breakdown, and chaos, is a demonstration of goodness, of hope for a brighter future. There are no easy answers to the difficulties Josh and his family face, but there is an opportunity to search for answers, to work towards solutions.

A resonant read for ages 14 and over.

Deception, by Celeste Walters
University of Queensland Press, 2005

Dreamstone, by Helene Smith

I wish I had a friend, just one friend who would listen. I wish I could write a tory, just one story I could finish. I wish everything could be like it was last summer.

Last summer, Lucy had a wonderful time playing with her cousins and enjoying time with her parents. This summer, though, everything is different. Her parents have separated and now Lucy lives in New York with her mum. Home in Australia for a holiday with her dad, Lucy is sad. She wishes she had someone to talk to.

Sometimes, just sometimes, wishes do come true and, when Lucy makes her wish, something strange happens. A bright stone drops from the air and, when she looks after her, it hatches into a tiny being who has come to bring colour back to her life. Lucy has much to learn from Sharni, who gives her strength to face the changes in her life, but the hardest lesson of all might be in letting her friend go when the time comes.

Dreamstone is a charming junior novel from acclaimed South West writer, Helene Smith. The magical Sharni is a delight, with a special appeal in her language – her fingers are ‘touching ends’, and she calls people ‘earth-ones’. Lucy’s mouth is, to Sharni, a ‘word cave’. Young readers will love working out this language.

Another highlight of the book is the dleightful illustrative contribution of Geraldine Guinard. She combines the real world with the magical with ease, bringing a special ‘other-world’ feel to all the black and white illustrations which are full of detail.

This little offering will appeal to readers aged 7 to 10 and would be ideal for a child dealing with change.

Dreamstone, by Helene Smith
Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2005

High Hopes on Sea, by Jenny Wagner

The Hope family lived by the sea in a squeeze-in, sit-down, have-a-cup-of-tea sort of house that sheltered behind the dunes. If you knew the house well, you would also know that it had its hands in its pockets and wore a tin roof over one eye.

In this curious house lives a curious family – they don’t have much money but are filled with a sense of joy in the everyday. They love visitors, they love the gentle breeze that cools their house and they love their dog Sassy, who has an unusual problem. She loves the sound ‘o’ and so barks loudly whenever anyone mentions a bone, or a boat, or rope, or hope.

Sassy’s problem creates a bigger problem for the family. They aren’t supposed to have a dog in their rented house and when the builders next door hear her barking, they complain. The Hope family are told they must get rid of the dog or find somewhere else to live. No one wants to get rid of Sassy, but neither do they want to move, so an innovative solution is needed. Just as well Mr Hope is an inventor. Hopefully his newest invention will work.

High Hopes by Sea is a gorgeous offering. The story is funny but also touching as we see a family work together to fix a problem. There is also a lovely sense of support for each other – Mr Hope’s inventions are not very successful, but his wife always encourages him. Gregory Rogers’ black and white illustrations reflect the dream-like quality to the book, adding an extra touch of whimsy.

The text is accessible as a read-alone for children aged about 7 to 10, but really lends itself to being read aloud.

Jenny Wagner is the author of John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat as well as other books for children. High Hopes On Sea will be similarly treasured.

High Hopes On Sea, by Jenny Wagner, illustrated by Gregory Rogers
University of Queensland Press, 2005

Slaughterboy, by Odo Hirsch

Conrad ran. He didn’t understand exactly what he had done, except that he had run away, and therefore felt he had done something wrong. But the man in the black coat, who seemed to have taken possession of him over the last day, kept saying he would take him somewhere to die. And Conrad didn’t want to die, even though the man in the black coat said he must.

Conrad doesn’t remember his parents or even when he came to this town. The woman who looked after him is dead, and now he is alone, living on the streets. Befriended by other urchins, who live in a tomb beneath a rich man’s house, he learns to scavenge and to fend for himself.

In time, he is taken in by a slaughterman, who begins to teach him his trade, but when hard times hit the town, Conrad finds himself once more alone and fighting for survival. Through a series of fortunes and misfortunes he manages to survive and grow into a young man, who must trust no one but himself if he is to satisfy his almost insatiable hunger.

Slaughterboy is a dark book. Conrad lives in a world of beggars and thieves, and as a young boy trying to survive, is befriended by dishonest people who will use him to meet their own needs. Conrad, in turn, is a survivor, who loves no one and nothing. His driving force is to satisfy his hunger. Having nearly starved to death more than once, he is determined never to know such privation again. His desperate appetite leads to him being labelled as a Hungerboy – a child who will eat his way through everything in a household, bringing destruction.

Whilst it may be a dark tale, however, it is deeply compelling. Hirsch is a master story teller, able to create empathy for a character who, on close examination, has few redeeming qualities. The setting of the unnamed medieval town is painted to well that the reader can see and even smell the fetid streets and the desperate characters who roam them.

Suitable for teen and adult readers, Slaughterboy is a challenging, gripping read.

Slaughterboy, by Odo Hirsch
Allen & Unwin, 2005

Magic Beach, by Alison Lester

At our beach,
at our magic beach,
we swim in the sparkling sea,
surfing and splashing
and jumping the waves
shrieking and laughing with glee.

Australians young and old love the beach and, for children, a trip to the beach can be magical. Alison Lester’s classic picture book captures the essence of that magic with lyrical text and delightfully detailed illustrations.

Especially captivating is the use of juxtaposed images, which shows the ‘real’ beach on one page and the imagined beach on the next. So, while the children play at building sandcastles, the next page shows the castle complete with drawbridge and fiery dragon, as a scene of much drama. Whilst adults are present on many of the pages, the children’s adventures stem from their own initiatives and imaginations, so that the book is a celebration of that imagination.

Lester’s illustrations are filled with detail. As the family walk on the beach on an overcast day, gulls fly, a ship crusies on the horizon and pieces of driftwood poke out of pockets. The illustrations of the ‘real’ beach spread across a page and a half, with the text against a white backgound on the remaining space, while the ‘magic’ beach scenes are on one page only, within a circle which feels like a telescope view or perhaps a dream cloud, with the text on the opposite page. Borders around each double page spread highlight details from the illustrations – shells, driftwood and feathers around the above-mentioned walking scene, fishing gear around a fishing scene and so on.

Magic Beach was first published in 1990 and has sold 125 000 copies. To celebrate that fact, the book has been rereleased with a cover with sparkling details, which will delight young readers.

Through her magical mix of words and pictures, Lester reminds us that all beaches hold magic.

Magic beach, by ALison Lester
Allen & Unwin, 1990, this edition 2004

Rhubarb, by Craig Silvey

Eleanor Rigby lives in darkness. She is blind and, although she lives with her mother, this woman’s emotional state means Eleanor may as well be living alone. She spends her nights lost in nightmares and her days running from them.

Ewan McGregor is similarly damaged. He is agoraphobic, although he is more afraid of other people than of being outside, making early morning dashes to the shops for his supplies. He spends his days playing his cello to himself and thinking of ways to get rid of the two possums infesting his house.

The pair come into each other’s lives unexpectedly. Ewan takes his cello out onto the front veranda for the first time ever and Eleanor, walking past, stops to listen to him play. She is drawn both to the music and to Ewan, prehaps recognising a kindred spirit. Their friendship is neither instant or orthodox. Both have hang-ups and ghosts which stop them from trusting, from voicing their feelings and from giving too much. Eventually, though, some sort of connection is made.

It is no coincidence that Silvey’s main character has the same name as the Beatles’ song and readers may well find themselves singing the song as they read the book. Rhubarb is a book about lonely people – and not just Eleanor and Ewan. ALL the characters are ‘lonely people’ – Eleanor’s mother, who spends her days and nights in front of the television; Frank, who is one of the few people Eleanor makes conversation with regularly and who lives in denial of his wife’s death; even Bruno, the pseudo-Italian (he’s really Romanian) deli-owner and his long-suffering wife Althea. Perehaps Silvey is trying to tell us that we are all lonely people?

There is no doubt that Silvey is a talented first-time novelist with a mark to make on the literary world. His story is rich and multi-layered and speaks directly to the reader. He weaves symbolism into the fabric of the tale and his characters, though tragic, seem somehow real. At times, though, the story seems to get lost behind this cleverness, with the reader left groping for the plot, wondering whether the diversion is necessary or even fruitful. In the end, however, the reader is able to overlook this and focus on the skilful rendering of the tale of the two protagonists.

A resonant read.

Rhubarb, by Craig Silvey
Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2004

The Bilbies of Bliss, by Margaret Wild

Biba loved it at Bliss. There was so much to do! And the food was delicious!
Now and again, though, she worried that things weren’t as happy as they should be. The Rules were strict, and Matron sometimes lost her temper. But Biba pushed these thoughts away because she felt so lucky just being there.

Biba the Bilby has scrimped and saved so that she can spend her retirment in the beautiful surrounds of the retirment home called Bliss. Here the food is delicious, the food is tasty and the building and surrounds are perfect. Biba feels fortunate to be here.

So, if Matron’s rules:
No dancing.
No parties.
No midnight feasts.
No visiting each other’s rooms.
No talking after lights out.
No being late for dinner.
No falling asleep at the dinner table.

seem a little harsh, timid Biba is not going to complain. But when a new Bilby, Nina, comes to live at Bliss, she soon starts to question the rules. When Matron locks out a latecomer at dinner time, Nina lets him in, and when Matron ostracises a Bilby who falls asleep at dinner, Nina goes and sits with her. Biba is horrified. What if Matron sends Nina away?

Soon, though, Nina’s courage starts to spread to the other Bilbies, and Matron finds her authority being challenged. When they tell her that is she that must leave Bliss, life at Bliss becomes just as it should be – blissful.

This is a delightful allegorical tale about ageing, dignity and compassion. It also shares a message about standing up for justice and working together to change what is wrong. By choosing anthropomorphised animal characters, Wild has softened the message of the tale, but not diminished it. There is a serious message which adults and older children will easily perceive, whilst younger readers will enjoy the tale for its surface value.

The watercolour illustrations match the gentleness of the text, and with antique shades of olives, blues, mauves and greys, provide an antique feel appropriate to the setting of an aged person’s home. The attire of the bilbies, with beads, jackets and sensible shoes, is especially delightful.

This a book which is sure to endure, touching both children and adults, for a long time to come.

The Bilbies of Bliss, by Margaret Wild and Noela Young
ABC Books, 2005

Centimetre Perfect, by Dennis Cometti

Andrew Dunkley’s kick went so high it ricocheted off the Hubble Telescope.
McIntosh, like good hairspray, is the master of the subtle hold.

With the Australian Rules football season once again under way, footy fans around the country are regularly treated to the velvet tones of Dennis Cometti commentating the big games. Having been involved in the broadcast of sport since 1968, he has been commentating football since the competition went national in 1987, and has become well known for his entertaining and unique comments, often made in the heat of the moment.

In this little offering, Cometti himself brings together some of his more colourful Cometti-isms with mini-introductions explaining the contexts within which the comments were made.

An introduction by AFL Legend Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer gives a little insight into Cometti’s past – including the fact that Cometti was an excellent player himself until he chose to follow his passion for broadcasting. The text is also complemented by game-day photgraphs taken by Micahel Kennish.

This is a funny, easy-read offering, with a unique small format. It would be an excellent gift for a football fan.

Centimetre Perfect, by Dennis Cometti
Allen & Unwin, 2004