A Nation of Swaggies and Diggers, by Jackie French

Australia was booming, buzzing, clacking – and there was a lot of moo-ing and baa-ing going on as well. The colonies at the end of the world had grown!

A Nation of Swaggies & Diggers is an informative book on the early days of Federation in Australia. It details the early time of the colony from the end of the first gold rush in 1880 through to the end of the first Great War, charting the hardships and difficulties faced by the swaggies, and the diggers, the impact the war had on the population and way of life, and the development of the country.

Whilst this is not the first book written on the subject, for children it is certainly the most accessible. French has a humorous yet honest style, which doesn’t gloss over serious events. The text is complemented by the cartoon style illustrations of Peter Sheehan, putting his own funny spin on events.

This is history which kids can enjoy, even while they are learning plenty about this important part of Australian history. It is the fifth instalment in an eight-part series covering Australian history from prehistoric times to the Centenary of Federation.

Nice stuff.

A Nation of Swaggies & Diggers, by Jackie French
Scholastic, 2008

The Vanishings, by Michael Panckridge

Her father was standing stiffly at the window and her mother was packing a small suitcase. Fran’s heart raced as her mind crashed through the possibilities of news.
‘Is it…’ Fran chewed at her thumb nail.
‘The police received a phone call from Langford,’ said her father.
‘Langford. Langford? But that’s nowhere near home…our old home,’ said Fran.
‘We just assumed she would go back there. In fact it’s 500 kays in the opposite direction. Which makes me think…’ Her father sat down heavily on a footstool.
‘So, is it Carli? Is she coming home?’

Twins Fran and Carli and their parents have moved to a town so small, the train no longer stops there. Neither girl is thrilled about the move, but Carli at least seems to settle down when she meets local girl, Mel. Mel disappears and two days later, so does Carli. They are not the only disappearances. Over the preceding year several others have also vanished. Fran’s parents leave Fran home in the care of her aunt, while they investigate a possible sighting of Carli. Fran discovers there is something strange about the old station. An old man, Bill, warns her to stay away but she is determined to find her sister. She struggles to understand what is real, what is ‘other’ and how it connects to the disappearance of Carli and the others.

Fran’s last words to her sister were ‘get a life’ and it seems that Carli has done just that. Fran’s very normal life moves into the realm of ghostly apparitions and a mystery train that roars through the station at night time. The Vanishings is like the train that features in the story. It leaves the station and accelerates until the action is so fast it’s almost a blur. It’s a wild ride. Adults are removed from the scene – her parents by their search for Carli, and her aunt by alcohol and indifference – and Fran is on her own, with only her dog, Sherpa, for company. Twin telepathy works differently here, seemingly allowing Fran to travel where she shouldn’t logically be able to, rather than being able to ‘communicate’ directly to her twin as is often the case. There is no clear indication of the age of the twins, but they seem to be on the brink of teenage. Recommended for upper primary readers.

The Vanishings, by Michael Panckridge
Black Dog Books 2008
ISBN: 978174203019

the indigo girls, by Penni Russon

‘Summer always seems to start when we get to Indigo. Christmas and December, it’s like summer’s dress rehearsal. It isn’t really summer until we turn down the dirt road, until we see Point Indigo for the first time, until we see the sparkling ocean.’

Summer holidays mean camping on the foreshore at Point Indigo for the Indigo Girls – Zara, Tilly and Meike. Only this year Meike won’t be there until later. Zara and Tilly both secretly consider Meike to be the connection that keeps them together and neither is sure whether they can be friends without her. They only see each other for these two summer weeks. Short, brainy Tilly and tall, gorgeous Zara think they have little in common, little to build a friendship on. But as the days progress, their relationship changes. They complete the old rituals without Meike and begin some new ones of their own. Along the way they discover a lot about each other and even more about themselves.

the indigo girls is the second title in a new series from Allen & Unwin, developed in collaboration with ‘Girlfriend’ magazine. Zara and Tilly are dual main characters, with the story being told in first person in alternate chapters. Zara is a classic beach beauty – blue-eyed and golden-haired, but hides her questions and fears behind a ‘botox-bored’ face. Tilly, while lacking confidence in her appearance, can’t wait for university and the company of those who think like her. The girls overtly and covertly admire things about each other, often those they perceive themselves as lacking. The characters are well-developed and the action keeps the reader hooked. Themes of self-esteem, risk-taking behaviour, sexuality and friendship provide opportunities for readers to explore their own emerging independence and the responsibilities and risks that go with it. Recommended for lower- to mid-secondary readers.

the indigo girls, by Penni Russon
Allen& Unwin 2008
ISBN: 9781741752922

This book can be purchased online through Fishpond. Buying through this link supports Aussiereviews.

Sunny Side Up, by Marion Roberts

That was the summer when everything started to change, and let me tell you, change is not my strong point. For starters, Mum insisted that Carl (her boyfriend), and his kids (Lyal and Saskia), help decorate our Christmas tree. Can you imagine? Tree decorating has always been my job.

Sunny, her Mum and their dog Willow get along just fine as a unit. Christmas morning means that Dad and his partner Steph join them for present-opening. But this year is going to be different. Mum’s boyfriend Carl and his two children will be there too. On Christmas morning there are two extra presents, from long-lost Granny Carmelene. Sunny is happy to have an extra present, and an invitation to visit, but Mum storms out. She doesn’t open her present and she extracts a promise from Sunny to stay away from her mother. As a heatwave grips Melbourne, Sunny tries her hardest to make sense of her world – a very challenging task as everything and everyone seems to be changing. Her best friend has started keeping secrets, their pizza business is burgeoning, her step-mother Steph is about to have a baby (and has cleared the fridge of interesting food), her mother and Carl have ‘plans’ and no one will tell her what caused the rift between her mother and her grandmother.

Sunny Side Up is a high-heat, quick-rising, multi-flavoured delight. Sunny has a wonderfully strong voice, and shares her world and her sometimes chaotic thoughts with the reader with humour and some introspection. Like a pizza-with-the-lot, her life is full to the point of overflowing. Marion Roberts gives us a view into the simplicity and complexity of Sunny’s eleven year-old brain. Sunny has enviably positive relationships with both her parents and their respective new partners. Accepting some of the other changes in her life takes a little longer, but she rises to, and meets, every challenge she is set. There are too many potential points for discussion to mention here – families, forgiveness, friendship, understanding of others are just a few. Highly recommended for 9-12 year old readers.

Sunny Side Up

Sunny Side Up, by Marion Roberts
Allen & Unwin 2008
ISBN: 9781740752366

This book can be purchased online from Fishpond. Buying through this link supports Aussiereviews.

Short, edited by Lili Wilkinson

I’m not sure I can blog this. So I’m writing it down on paper, the old-fashioned way.
I don’t want people to know, I guess. Not Jaz and everyone at school, not the teachers. They started it. Setting an assignment: If you Were Living 100 Years Ago, Who Would You Be? Not even Nana’s that old.
So I’m stuck, and it’s the week before the assignment’s due.
(excerpt from A Ghost Ate My Homework by Lucy Sussex)

Lili Wilkinson has edited this anthology of short works for young people, the proceeds of which will go to the Big Brothers Big Sisters organisation. There are short stories and poems and more from some of Australia and New Zealand’s best known writers and illustrators for children eg Michael Gerard Bauer, Julia Lawrinson and Terry Denton. Short also features contributions from young people. There are two-sentence stories about amazing sporting success (Michael Pryor), short poems like ‘If’ speculating light-heartedly on the meaning of life (Jill McDougall), short graphic stories (Connor O’Brien’s ‘Pickle Man’) and illustrations from Richard Morden and others.

Short is a smaller-than-average format book which will fit well into pockets, bags and lunchboxes. It includes light snacks, treats and more meaty offerings – temptation for all tastebuds. Readers can dip into it, or read it comfortably from cover to cover. Young writers have the opportunity to sample the work of many creators. Short could be used as a taster, offering as it does the opportunity to sample a wide range of subject and stylistic choices. Realistic, fanciful, humorous, ghostly, ridiculous – it’s all here. In short (pardon the pun) there is something for readers of all ages. Recommended for upper primary- to mid-secondary, although it may well also be enjoyed by readers outside this age range.

Short, edited by Lili
Wilkinson Black Dog Books 2008
ISBN: 9780742030340

She's With the Band, by Georgia Clark

Life never starts when you think it will. When I turned fifteen, I figured I’d be tossed the keys to the city, make out with a hottie, and have a modest parade thrown in my honour. But all that happened was that I got out of doing the washing up.
My dad’s life didn’t really start until about six years ago when he painted this huge, ridiculously ugly portrait of yours truly, won a big international art prize, stopped being Dad and started being ‘world-renowned artist Sal Mannix’, and suddenly became the person to say you met at parties.
The day we moved to Sydney was supposed to be the start of the new Mia Mannix – confident, charming, taller. But so far, it sucked.

Fifteen year-old Mia Mannix, daughter of famous painter, Sal Mannix, is thrilled when she convinces her father to move away from their backwater home in the Snowy Mountains to the excitement of Sydney. She’s had to promise to give up music to concentrate on her art, but she’s sure it will be worth it. Her new school, Silver Street High, is a school ‘…for those intending to or already pursuing, careers in the performing arts or entertainment.’ She starts school, makes some new friends and discovers that giving up what you love most isn’t as easy as she thought it would be. There are compensations though, and one of the most attractive is Justin, hot rock star.

Starting at a new school is never easy, even when it’s what you most want to be doing. Starting at a school like Silver Street High is no different. In She’s With the Band, Mia is a bright and talented teenager who’s promised her father to abandon her beloved music to concentrate on ‘real art’. She intends to keep this promise, but is soon convinced to play in a band with friends Seb and Lexie. Her life may be exciting, but it takes her to places she’s not really ready to go and introduces her to people who are not quite as they seem. Mia is a spirited main character, her enthusiasm and strength getting her both into and out of trouble. She learns about friendship and about the impact her words and actions have on others. Title 3 in the new ‘Girlfriend fiction’ series from Allen & Unwin, She’s With the Band is a realistic look at the passions and challenges of mid-teen girls. Chapter headings are song titles and come with a mood rating. Recommended for lower- to mid-secondary students.

She’s With the Band, by Georgia Clark
Allen & Unwin 2008
ISBN: 9781741752878

This title is available online from Fishpond. Buying through this link supports Aussiereviews.

Pact of Wolves, by Nina Blazon (translated by Sue Innes)

Blanka was freezing. Although it was the middle of April, she hadn’t brought a jacket. She had expected to be constantly moving, not waiting around like this in the furthest corner of the lawn on the edge of the forest. The school was an angular silhouette against the night sky. A semicircle of torches set on iron stakes lit up the trees behind her.
Two masked figures in dark cloaks carrying torches had just appeared and taken a second group of students away with them. Now there were just four of them left – two other girls, who had already paired up and , standing a bit apart from them, Blanka and a pale boy with blond hair, someone she hadn’t noticed this morning at the welcoming ceremony.

Blanka joins several new arrivals at the mid-year intake of the Europa International boarding school, a school for the best and the brightest. The school has been here for about fifty years but many of the buildings are much older. There is even a museum on the grounds which tells stories of nuns, orphans and long-ago witch trials. Blanka is sceptical about the ‘Society of Wolves’ that she hears other students talking about. Even when her introductory ‘tour’ of the college turns spooky, Blanka is sure the ‘wolves’ are just playing pranks to scare the new students. Then she stumbles across a body in the library. Purportedly a tragic accident, Blanka is encouraged to get on with her important studies. But it’s not that easy. A leather-jacketed man is following her, the Society of Wolves seem to hate her and her roommate thinks Blanka is going mad. Blanka is determined to understand what’s happening but doesn’t know who to trust.

Pact of Wolves was first published in Germany in 2006. This English-language edition was translated by Sue Innes in 2008. Secret societies exist in many places, their exclusivity a trap to those inside them, and both an enticement and a warning to those outside. Everywhere there are secrets. Blanka struggles with a secret of her own, not revealed until late in the novel. But the present is consumed with her search for answers to the mysteries that keep surfacing around her. Each mystery solved reveals another deeper puzzle. In this way, Pact of Wolves is a coming of age novel about learning to interact with a larger world, about gaining perspective and learning about trust. It’s also an intriguing mystery, with a touch of the supernatural. Recommended for mid- to upper-secondary readers.

Pact of Wolves

Pact of Wolves, Nina Blazon translated by Sue Innes
Allen & Unwin 2008
ISBN: 9781741753905

This book can be purchased online from Fishpond.

Media Savvy, by Jim Schembri

It was during her sixteenth year of life that Cobey Myles became convinced that she had the oiliest skin of any person on earth.
The terrain of her face looked clear and smooth for the moment, but Cobey knew – positively knew – that beneath that blotch-free surface raged a thousand microscopic rivers of oil, all bubbling and boiling away like lava, just waiting for their chance to burst forth and ruin her life.

Cobey Miles is a schoolgirl model who’s managed to get work experience with a local television station. Her luck gets even better when the on camera presenter falls and injures herself and Cobey scores the chance to take her place. Life is wonderful. Her career is taking off. She might know more about skin cream than about politics, but the camera loves her. So too does the Minister for Regional Development, in town to open a new childminding centre. Cobey might be naïve but she has a good eye for details and something isn’t quite right. The challenge is to discover just who is telling the truth, and who is telling lies.

Cobey, like many teenagers, is obsessed with her appearance but there’s an extra level of self-absorption required when your livelihood depends on it. If she relaxes her vigilance for a minute, her agent and the photographers and stylists are there to remind her to remain focussed. All this stands her in good stead when she lands the chance to appear on camera. It does however become more difficult to keep her ego in check. The same tight focus helps her to notice when answers are not quite right. The challenge for her then is to know who she can trust. Media Savvy scratches the surface of not just one appearance-obsessed section of our community, but three. Modelling/models, television, and politics all show their seamy underbellies in this mystery about playing with public perceptions. Recommended for 13-16 year olds.

Media Savvy, Jim Schembri
Hachette Livre 2008
ISBN: 9780734410252

Give Me A Home Among The Gum Trees, Bob Brown & Wally Johnson, illustrated by Ben Wood

ohn Williamson sang it, and Don Burke’s television series ‘Burke’s Backyard’ used it as the theme song. In this almost-square hard cover book the familiar song/rhyme is illustrated by newcomer, Ben Wood. Circles on the front cover and inside the back cover suggest a CD, but there isn’t one. In the illustrations, the reader shares in the homecoming of koala and sugar glider as they disembark the plane after their overseas trip. Snaps show where they’ve been, and an old ute conveys them and their gifts for the final leg of their trip home. Their welcome is riotous and wild, calming to a final spread showing possum accompanying a final chorus.

This new ‘Aussie Gem’ series from South Australia’s Omnibus books includes well-known songs and some old stories given an new Aussie twist. Give Me A Home Among The Gum Trees uses two of the four verses and the chorus as a backdrop for a story told entirely in the illustrations. Ben Wood’s delightful watercolour images are full of life, making it very easy to ‘hear’ the bush cacophony suggested. There is a cheerful magpie to find on every page, and myriad other Australian animals to discover. Young pre-readers will be able to follow the narrative without knowing the words. Older readers will enjoy learning this iconic Australian song. There are ‘flock’ sheep on the front cover, just begging to be stroked. Recommended for pre- and early-primary children.

Give Me A Home Among The Gum Trees, Bob Brown & Wally Johnson, Illustrator Ben Wood
Omnibus Books 2008 ISBN: 9781862917651

My Life & Other Catastrophes, by Rowena Mohr

Tuesday 19 April 4.30 pm
Okay, let me get one thing straight. This is not going to turn into Bridget Jones’s Diary. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be writing in this stupid thing but I can tell you right now you’re not going to get any personal stuff. Mrs Parisi – she’s my English teacher – said that this is simply supposed to be an exercise in self-expression and even though we have to hand these diaries in at the end of the year, no one is actually going to read them. Like I’m going to fall for that one!

Erin is fifteen, starting Year 10 and trying to cope with a life that seems to be spiralling out of control. She has to write a diary all year and it becomes her confidant when she is sure no one else is listening. Her best friend is becoming distant; her father is unemployed and boring; her mother is dating the ‘creepazoid’, Erin’s PE teacher. Even her little brother Ben seems to be having a better life. Erin tries to be helpful, telling her mother her boyfriend is a creep, explaining life to her friend, and even advising her singing coach Brendan on what to do with his psycho mother. But no one is listening. Erin is on her own, determined to save her world.

My Life and Other Catastrophes is told in first person through Erin’s diary. Erin is feisty and opinionated and sure she’s right. About everything. Her world gradually unravels and the reader begins to understand some of the reasons for her sometimes irrational outbursts. Erin is struggling with the divorce of her parents, confused about her changing friendship, clueless about boys. She wraps her perceptions tight around her and will brook no other explanations. Every relationship is suspect, every motivation is suspect, no one is on her side. Erin’s diary is exquisite agony, the reader aware of her skewed observations, but laughing at her words. Themes include friendship, relationships, honesty, mental health. There’s also a healthy indication that keeping secrets is not always healthy. Recommended for lower- to mid-secondary readers.

My Life and Other Catastrophes, by Rowena Mohr
Allen & Unwin 2008
ISBN: 9781741752861

This book can be purchased online from Fishpond. Buying through this link supports Aussiereviews.