Spider Lies, by Jen Banyard

A shivering, low moan invaded the room – a moan not so much heard as felt. Connor stiffened, feeling the sound grow in his chest. He tried to speak, but the moan only intensified as Connor’s cracked voice choked in his throat.
He could just make out the tiny shape of Alf. The spider was standing on a piece of broken jar facing the window, flailing his two front legs. Was it the sudden view of life without glass walls bringing on the strange movements? Or was it something to do with the long, spiky leg, thick as a tree branch, that was now snaking through the gap in the window, and waving, searching about the room?
Connor went rigid. He couldn’t utter a sound.

Connor likes spiders and he likes space science. Now an email conversation with Herman, a NASA scientist, has resulted in a spiders-in-space experiment. The class collects spiders and hands them over to unsmiling NASA officials. One escapes as the officials take the spiders back to the USA before their space flight. Connor takes him home, ‘Alf – the spider who almost became an astronaut’. Connor’s school cred may have risen with the NASA connection, but it takes a nose dive as new student, Wart, decides – none too subtly – that they are great friends. Now Connor is alone in his house, sure he’s being watched. Millie, the old lady next door, is muttering about his pet spider and Herman the knitting NASA scientist is acting strangely.

Spider Lies is a story about spiders and friendship, space and the secrets around it. Connor is the main character but most of the subsidiary characters are given an opportunity to say their piece in their own voice. Connor thinks he’ll enjoy some time alone and is happy when his ‘babysitter’ suddenly becomes unavailable. There are red herrings and power struggles, science facts and science speculation, school bullies and new friends. Jen Banyard keeps the story rollicking along and uses plenty of humour. The chapters are short and there are enough story threads to please any spider. Spider Lies’ viewpoints switch from chapter to chapter – sometimes within chapters – but it is easy to follow. The spider language is fascinating and inventive and may well inspire readers to invent words of their own. Recommended for mid-upper primary readers although it would also have interest for older, less confident readers.

Spider Lies

Spider Lies, Jen Banyard
Fremantle Press 2009
ISBN: 9781921361517

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

Fredrik Goes Bananas, by Melissa Firth

Fredrik Lotsie lived on Snowsmoke Island, where everyone loved fish.
Fish for breakfast, fish for lunch and fish for dinner.
Big fish, small fish, silver fish and smooth fish.

Fredrik Goes Bananas is set in a snowy icy north, where the daily occupation is breaking through the ice to catch food for the day. Fredrik Lotsie has eaten fish every meal of his life, as has every member of his family, and everyone in his village. When Fredrik decides he’s had enough fish, the villagers are sure he’s ‘gone bananas’. As Fredrick thinks through his options, his behaviour further convinces his neighbours that he’s ‘bananas’. His wife, Mrs Lotsie who makes fish-scale ballgowns, is inconsolable, even when villagers bring her bowls of steaming fish stew. As the days go by, Fredrik is still not eating fish but his plans for an alternative seem destined to fail. He feels increasingly alone and begins to doubt himself.

Fredrik Goes Bananas is an almost-square format hardback. A jubilant Fredrick on the front cover suggests either Fredrik finds a solution to his dilemma or he’s decided that going bananas IS the solution! Cheryl Orsini has used a mainly blue palette for her illustrations, and included plenty of white space which add to the feeling of a cold climate. The air may be cold but until Fredrik’s fall from grace, this was a close community. Everyone in town is unsettled by Fredrik wanting something different. There are themes here about conformity and the consequences of wanting more. Colour floods the page where Fredrik triumphs and pervades the following openings, ending the villagers’ unease and his isolation. Recommended for 4-6 year olds.

Fredrik Goes Bananas!

Fredrik Goes Bananas! Melissa Firth ill Cheryl Orsini
Scholastic 2009
ISBN: 9781741691139

This book can be purchased online from Fishpond

Valley of Grace, by Marion Halligan

To have your father shot when you are a small child is to lack a sense of him as a person. Even if you can remember a man who swung you up in his arms, who wore fleshy leather clothes and pressed you to cold prickling cheeks smelling of the night and cigarettes, or you learn him from a photograph smiling out of his wedding to your mother…you cannot talk to him, not in any way that he can answer you.

The streets of Paris are inhabited by beautiful, interesting people – but these people are as troubled as any of us. Fanny works in an antiquarian bookshop and is deeply in love with her builder husband, but they are unable to fall pregnant. Luc, who owns the bookshop, thinks of his shop as a resting place for volumes nobody can ever really own, making his business less commercially successfully than it could be. His partner, Julien, nurses sick and dying children. And Jean- Marie is a famous professor of Philosophy who allows his adoring female students to satisfy his libertarianist leanings.

Valley of Grace is a fine literary novel which interweaves the differing stories of the characters, with the themes of birth and babies running through each story. However, as the novel progresses it becomes apparent that it is more than just a theme which is common – with the characters’ lives also overlapping and coming increasingly together.

This is a tale of shocks and surprises, of dark and light, of birth and death, with characters and relationships blossoming while others fall apart. Set in Paris, it is an intriguing and sometimes disturbing read which is ultimately satisfying.

Valley of Grace

Valley of Grace, by Marion Halligan
Allen & Unwin, 2009

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

The Zoo of Magical and Mythological Creatures, by Sam Bowring

Zackary gazed at the large double doors, waiting for the inevitable. The doors were oak, carved with elaborate spirals and curls, inlaid with gold and silver, and on either side stood armoured guards, eyes unseen behind the shadowy visors of iron helmets. These were the throne room doors of Solaris Castle, and beyond them were the King and Queen of Zedge.
Zackary started to bite his nails, as he often did when nervous, then stopped and glanced at his companion. Beside him on the marble bench sat Sir Godfred, a riding crop laid across his lap. Godfred did not approve of nail biting, and Zakary had felt the sting of the crop more than once. He dropped his hand to his side.
Finally the throne room doors creaked open to reveal an attendant. ‘The King and Queen await your presence, good sirs,’ the man announced.
Zackary sighed as he rose. Whatever Sir Godfred planned to tell the King and Queen, he was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be good.

Zackary is the youngest prince in the royal family, and the only non-twin of their seven children. When his third teacher in six months declares him unteachable, his parents are at a loss to know where to send him next, declaring ‘This is serious. Zackary must have an education.’ So it’s off to the not-quite dungeons for him to study with Barnabus the Administrator. Zachary is horrified and more so when he discovers the somewhat unusual methods employed by Barnabus in filing the palace records. Zachary hasn’t been allowed to go to the zoo his grandfather set up, his parents being concerned that he wasn’t old enough. Barnabus sends Zackary to the zoo on an errand and he inadvertently finds himself with a job. It’s one he really enjoys, with a boss who doesn’t treat him as either a prince or the baby brother. His challenge then is to maintain a new double life, keeping the zoo staff from guessing his identity and his family from discovering his job.

Zoos are wonderful places to view a wide range of familiar and unfamiliar animals. This zoo has some particularly unusual creatures. Some will be familiar to readers of Greek myths, but others, like the crying Squonks and the elusive Bandersnatch are less known mythological creatures. Here in the zoo, Zackary finds a world full of cages and containment spells, but also a place where he can be freer than he ever was in the luxury and privilege of the palace. And ironically it is the most fearsome of creatures, a Nucklelavee, en route to the zoo to be contained by both enclosure and magic, that becomes the instrument of his freedom. Sam Bowring introduces many mythical creatures in this frequently funny adventure, but also includes a gentle message about everyone having their place in the world. Recommended for upper primary, early secondary readers.

The Zoo of Magical and Mythological Creatures

The Zoo of Magical and Mythological Creatures, Sam Bowring
Pan Macmillan 2009
ISBN: 9780330424752

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

After the Fall, by Kylie Ladd

I had been married three years when I fell in love. Fell, collapsed, stepped off the kerb and found nothing but air. Oh, I already loved my husband of course, but this was different. That had been a decision; this was out of my control, an impulse as difficult to resist as gravity.

Kate and Cary are happily married, and considering starting a family. Their friends Cressida and Luke are similarly in love and content in their marriage. But when Kate and Luke recognise a growing attraction and then, impulsively, act on it, the world of both couples comes tumbling down. Their affair is secret, but places a strain on their marriages – and when Carey decides he wants a baby, and Cressida has a chance to work overseas, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the charade. When Cressida discovers the affair, it looks like both marriages will be over. Can things ever be the same?

After the Fall is an intriguing tale, told from multiple perspectives – with the four central characters each giving their first person perspective in alternating chapters, and occasional chapters from the perspective of a friend, Tim. This format, and the sequencing of its telling allows a dissection of the events leading up to the affair, the affair itself and the aftermath, with the reader allowed to see the perspective of all participants, though still able to build differing sympathies for the varying characters.

A fascinating read.

After the Fall, by Kylie Ladd
Allen & Unwin, 2009

A Book for Kids, by C. J. Dennis

There’s a very funny insect that you do not often spy,
And it isn’t quite a spider, and it isn’t quite a fly:
It is something like a beetle, and a little like a bee,
But nothing like a wooly grub that climbs upon a tree.

Many Australian parents (and grandparents) would remember learning the lines above – from the poem The Triantiwontigongolope. Now the poem, and many others, is available for a new generation of young Aussies to enjoy, with the rerelease of A Book for Kids. First published in 1921, and enjoyed at home and in schools ever since, the book has been reproduced with the original illustrations in black, white and red, and with titles and page headers in red. The addition of a foreword by Andy Griffiths will help draw young readers in, and the stories and poems will do the best.

Although some of the language and subject matter will be unfamiliar to children, the sense of fun is timeless, and the ‘old fashioned’ material will have a novelty value rather than make the text inaccessible.

Along with the aforementioned Triantiwontigongolope, the book includes poems such as The Ant Explorer and Hist and stories including The Little Red House. This is a book for children of every generation, and one which parents and grandparents will enjoy sharing.

A Book for Kids, by C. J. Dennis
This edition black dog, 2009

Magic Mummy, by Caroline Stills

My mummy has magic hands. She can brush my hair without hurting me
She has a magic body. She grew me in her tummy.
My mummy’s hugs are magic too.
They let me know I’m loved.

Just in time for Mother’s Day next weekend, this is a delightful picture book celebration of the bond between mother and child. The young narrator opens by telling the reader that her mummy is magic, then elaborates by sharing the different ways in which her mummy is magic.

The text is simple and gentle, with the ways the mummy is magic being things most children (and parents) will relate to – mum knowing how to make things better, seemingly having eyes in the back of her head, and so on. The pastel colours of the illustrations add to this gentle feel, with the pictures showing mother and daughter engaged in everyday tasks.

This would make a lovely Mother’s Day or new baby gift, making lovely bed time reading.

Magic Mummy, by Caroline Still, illustrated by Christina Miesen
black dog, 2009

The Gene Thieves, by Maria Quinn

‘You see, I want to recreate myself, or rather myself as I should have been.’
Impatient to get the worst over with, the lawyer brusquely responded. ‘Please get to the point, Dr Brown, and in words a layman can fathom, if you will.’
‘The child I intend to raise will be the child of my parents, a new beginning, a chance for their genes to combine more successfully than at my conception and ultimately to be passed on to future generations, without creating another genetic mistake like me.’

Brilliant scientist Piggy Brown wants to have a baby – but not just any baby. Piggy is brilliant but, from birth, has been physically imperfect, resembling the animal he is nicknamed after. Now he wants to use a surrogate to give birth to the baby he believes his parents should have had. Peter Tebrett – Dancer- is the lawyer Piggy turns to for help in dealing with the legalities of such a baby. Dancer has his own reasons for wanting to help his client, not the least of which is to assuage his conscience. But in time a friendship develops between the pair.

Unfortunately for both men the surrogate chosen to carry the baby comes with baggage, and a past neither of them is aware of until it is too late. Piggy himself has problems. His genetic research has made him a target of mercenaries who will stop at nothing to gain his knowledge – even if it means violently kidnapping the baby.

The Gene Thieves is a gripping thriller set in a near-future which is plausible. The UN Ethical Science Council tries to ensure that advances in research do not take mankind down dangerous paths – but in a world where money can buy almost anything, this is a difficult task. Meanwhile, couples wanting children can legitimately use the services of professional surrogates, and marriage has become a temporary state, entered into as a legal mating contract.

In this world full of beautiful people, a man like Piggy finds it hard to live a normal life and sees producing a perfect baby as going some way to rectifying the disappointments of his now dead parents. But perhaps past wrongs can be righted in ways that are not so obvious.

There is much at stake in this tale – friendships, lives, reputations – but perhaps, most importantly, the future of humanity.

A gripping tale.

The Gene Thieves, by Maria Quinn
Harper Voyager, 2009

Four Great Aussie Stories

Reviewed by Dee White

As I was reading all four of these wonderful stories by Australian authors, I was reminded that the ability to laugh at ourselves, and rise up in the face of adversity is so much part of our culture – and has an important place in our literature.

All of these stories embody themes like friendship, finding a way out of difficult situations, loyalty and teamwork – each an integral part of the Australian way of life.

These Aussie School Books are relevant, easy to read and full of fun, and young readers will find them hard to put down.

Sailing in the Alice, by Kim Rackham,illustrated by Ben Hutchings
ISBN: 9781921255397

There’s a reason Mia’s family has carried a large empty cardboard box halfway across Australia.

They’re planning to turn it into a boat to race on the Todd River in Central Australia.

It takes Mia a while to get into the spirit of the race but eventually, she becomes just as excited about Soggy Sadie as the rest of her family.

In Sailing in the Alice, Mia learns that you don’t have to win a race in order to have fun.

Kim Rackham’s great characters and fun descriptions are bound to give young readers a ‘giggle attack’ similar to the ones that make Mia’s Aunt Sadie cry with laughter.

The action takes place in a uniquely Australian setting, and Ben Hutching’s illustrations help the reader feel as if they there on the banks of the Todd River.

Young readers will enjoy the humour and action of Sailing in the Alice, as well as its truly Australian flavour.

The Big Blowie,by Sally Murphy, illustrated by Craig Longmuir
ISBN: 9781921255366

Where else but Australia would a germ-spreading pest become the hero of a children’s story?

As Sally Murphy shows in her book, The Big Blowie, blow flies can be good for some things. If somebody doesn’t come up with an idea soon, the drought-stricken town of Lake Blowie is going to evaporate off the Tourist Map forever. That’s when ‘young Syd’ decides to tap into Australians’ love of all things big to create a stunning new attraction.

Everyone works together to get behind Sid’s great idea, and save their beloved town.

Sally Murphy’s colourful characters and their quirks give The Big Blowie humour and credibility.

The Big Blowie is for kids seeking a quick read that will amuse and entertain them from start to finish.

Emily’s Sheepdog,by Tracey Slater,illustrated by Phong Lam
ISBN: 97811921255427

A common thread in children’s books is to see the main character develop as a result of what happens to them in the story. Emily’s Sheepdog is a prime example of this.

Emily wants her very own dog for a pet, but on a farm, every animal has a job to do, and there’s no room for a dog that’s just a pet.

This doesn’t stop Emily. She uses all her ingenuity and imagination to acquire her very own sheepdog.

This clever story uses action, description and realistic dialogue to convey Emily’s plight.

Author Tracey Slater’s engaging story gives children an insight into rural Australian life.

Young readers will enjoy Phong Lam’s expressive illustrations, and the humour that Tracey injects into Emily’s Sheepdog.

Backyard Battles, by Trudie Trewin, illustrated by Craig Longmuir
ISBN: 9781921255410

What could be more Australian than a game of backyard cricket? Trudie Trewin uses this popular summer pass time as the setting for Backyard Battles, a story about working together as a team, and not judging people by first impressions.

When Lavender Street is challenged to a match by Snapdragon Street, it’s game on. Rivals, batsman extraordinaire Gazza, and super speedy bowler Sarah are forced to play on the same side to save the honour of their street.

Trudie Trewin has used clever dialogue and active language like, ‘bounced’, ‘stamped’ and whack to build up the tension in Backyard Battles.

As the two teams slog it out, Gazza and Sarah must work together to win their toughest cricket challenge yet, and in the process they develop a new respect for each other.

7-8 year old readers will enjoy this action packed story, and Craig Longmuir’s fun illustrations.

Published by Aussie School Books Pty Ltd
PB RRP $9.95 (ea)

Reviews by Dee White

How to Ditch Your Fairy, by Justine Larbalestier

I have a parking fairy. I’m fourteen years old. I can’t drive. I don’t like cars and I have a parking fairy. Rochelle gets a clothes-shopping fairy and is always well attired; I get a parking fairy and always smell faintly of petrol. How fair is that?

In New Avalon everyone has a personal fairy. Having a god fairy can really ensure success – but having a less useful fairy can be a disaster. The problem is, you can’t choose the fairy you get. For Charlie, having a parking fairy when she doesn’t drive isn’t just useless – it’s also annoying. Everyone wants her to go places with them, to ensure that they get a parking spot when they get there. And some people – especially the brutish Danders Anders – won’t take no for an answer. Charlie is determined to get rid of her fairy and get a new one – but this isn’t as easy as it seems.

How to Ditch Your Fairy is a funny look at teen life in a parallel world whose main difference to our own is the existence of unseen fairies. The city of New Avalon is a slightly crazy place, where famous people are known as ‘Ours’ and revered as untouchables, and students are classified into schools based on their talents, so that they can aspire to be Ours too, or at least to ensure New Avalon’s continued position as the most important city in the world. The city’s self-centeredness and lack of awareness of the wider world is echoed by Charlie’s own self absorption, though as she works with her one-time enemy Fiorenze to ditch their respective fairies, she develops an awareness of the world around her and of other people’s needs and opinions.

A fun book for teen readers.

How to Ditch Your Fairy

How to Ditch Your Fairy , by Justine Larbalestier
Allen & Unwin, 2009

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