Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Stone Mouse by Jenny Nimmo

Elly and Ted have come to stay in Aunt Maria's seaside house.  She leaves her little stone mouse to take care of the family.  When they arrive they don't seem to notice him :

"The stone mouse felt a little knife of ice strike through him. The cold crept right into his tiny feet and ears and froze them. He was terribly afraid he might be turning back into a stone again."

Luckily Elly does see him.  She smiles and "he knew that his soft coat, his ears, eyes and whiskers were all in place, and that his heart was beating."

Ted has arrived at the house but he is filled with anger.  He needs to lash out and the stone mouse becomes the object of his rage.  He takes the mouse down to the beach and throws him into the ocean.  This is utterly terrifying but little mouse eventually washes into a rock pool.  Just as Elly is about to find him, Ted grabs him again and hurries off to bury him in the garden. 

The wise cats know something is deeply troubling Ted.  Ted hides in his room but the cats follow him and "They didn't budge, didn't even flick their tails, just glared at him; bored into him with a deadly, penetrating gaze. It was like being eaten from inside."

Yes this book is out of print but you may find a copy in a school library or from a used book supplier.  This little gem is well worth finding.  Jenny Nimmo has written a large number of books including series novels and picture books.

In just 61 pages The Stone Mouse is a powerful emotional story dealing with anger and disappoinment.  Communication is at the heart of this story.  If everyone had slowed down and talked to Ted before his rage became such an explosion much of the pain felt by Elly and the little mouse himself could have been avoided.  The Stone Mouse would be an excellent book to share with a class and you can find some discussion ideas here.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Prisoner of ice and snow by Ruth Lauren

"For the crime of attempted murder of a member of the royal family in the realm of Demidova, I sentence you to life in prison, beginning in Tyur'ma"

I have said this on previous occasions but I just marvel at the inventiveness of authors and the power of words to take the reader right inside a scene.  Prisoner of Ice and Snow is simply a splendid and utterly engrossing book. I actually gasped out loud at one point when Valor faces yet another terrible danger.

Political stability in Demidova relies on the return of an elaborate music box to the rightful owners from the neighboring kingdom of Magadanskya.  The treasure has been stolen and Valor's twin sister Sasha has been found guilty and sent to the notorious prison built to hold children under 16 called Tyur'ma.  This is a terrifying place with huge tattooed guards and no one has escaped in 300 years but Valor knows she must commit a crime, be captured, be sent to the prison and then she will rescue her sister.

Valor picks the state occasion when the music box is to be returned (it has been stolen but the ceremony is proceeding) to attempt an assassination of the Prince.  She is such a skilled archer she actually has no intention of killing him and her arrow strikes just to one side but this is enough to send every guard in a race across the city to capture her.

Once inside the prison Valor discovers it is far worse than she imagined. 

"You will work in the mines, or anywhere else in the prison we tell you to.  You will eat when you are told to, you will sleep when you are told to, you will work when you are told to. If you reach the age of sixteen ... you will be transferred to the adult prison ... If you are caught with contraband items you will be punished.  If you cause trouble ... you will be punished."

Valor is punished over and over again.  The worst is when she and her sister are both placed inside ice domes.  The cold is unbearable and the writing so powerful I felt frozen too.

Valor does manage an escape but the real tangle in this book comes from decisions about who to trust and who is an informer.  I really had no idea about this until quite near the end and so, early on in the story, I decided to trust no one.  Valor does not follow this advice and so she and her sister are placed in dangerous and distressing situations over and over again.

Here is an alternate cover and the one from the German edition.  It is always interesting to see how different book designers approach a text.

Take time to read the Kirkus review which mentions the promise of a sequel.  I now discover the sequel it will be available early in 2018.

One real strength of this book comes from the vivid descriptions of people and places.  Here are a few examples :

"The queen sat highest on a silver throne inset with pearls and backed by a huge fan of hundreds of peacock tail feathers. She wears her official robes of justice, deep blue with gold brocade on the cuffs and collar."

"The prince's cloak is clasped at the throat with a golden fist, revealing the high-collared peacock-blue tunic her wears underneath ... gold embroidery covers the front of it all the way up to the collar, which stands stiffly around his neck."

"The doctor takes my hands and smears the contents of another bowl over my skin.  It tingles, then soothes, taking the fire out of the burns. ... She wraps soft white bandages  around my palms and each of my fingers."

I rarely give ratings but this is a five out of five, ten out of ten, totally perfect book which all avid readers should rush out and grab today.  Prisoner of Ice and Snow is Ruth Lauren's debut novel which excites and amazes me. I eagerly await more books form this talented UK author.  Here is an interview with Ruth.

I would follow Prisoner of ice and snow with Fearless by Tim Lott and The wolf wilder by Katherine Rundell.

This fresh and exciting middle-grade debut effortlessly melds an unforgettable protagonist, a breathless plot, and stunning world-building—and is impossible to put down. Night Owl Book Cafe

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sydney City Trails by Helen Greathead

Some time ago I did a series of little walking tours in my own city and I enjoyed all the stories the guide told and discovered many things - large and small - that I did not know.

When I saw this book Sydney City Trails from Lonely Planet I was interested to see what aspects of Sydney they included.  This book was published in 2017 so it is very up to date. 

Things I did not know :

Every ten years they replace the road surface on the Sydney Harbour Bridge
SS Ayrfield is a ship wreck in Homebush bay and it has mangrove trees growing out of it
We have a seed bank in Sydney (Mount Annan) with 10,400 seeds
HMAS Endeavour was sold after Cook's expedition and re-named the Lord Sandwich

Places on the North side of Sydney :

Quarantine Station Manly
Manly Beach
Dog day at Scotland Island
Lavender Bay and Wendy's secret garden
Barrenjoey Lighthouse
Erosion of the beach from Collaroy to Narrabeen

One of the many special places mentioned in this book that you must visit is  - Angel Place - forgotten songs

This book is easy to read and it is perfect for both visitors and locals.  The only thing I would have liked to see was a detailed city map but I guess you can easily access this yourself from any smart device.  You can preview some pages here.  There are many other cities in this series - Rome, London, Paris, New York, Washington and Tokyo.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Goldfish boy by Lisa Thompson

It might sound strange but I miss the brother I never met.  The one who died because of me.

Matthew is trapped.  He is trapped in his room.  He is trapped in his fear of germs.  He is totally freaked out by the number 13. He is trapped in his guilt.  Matthew is suffering. He constantly needs to wash his hands.  He cannot touch any surface because he is so afraid of becoming ill and making other ill.  Matthew spends his long days looking out the window and making detailed notes about life in his cul-de-sac street. 

The man next door is also quite obsessive. Mr Charles cares for his roses with great precision.  When his daughter drops his two grand children off for an extended visit his world is turned upside down.  Matthew is the only person who sees the truth about Casey the six year old.  Teddy throws her doll in to the fish pond and she retaliates :

"Stretching her arms as if she were about to do a conjuring trick, the little girl ran at her brother. Her hands hit him with such force his little head jolted back, then he toppled forwards, straight into the pond."

Sadly for everyone involved no one, not Matthew, not the police, not Mr Charles, link this event with the disappearance of Teddy aged 15 months. Meanwhile Matthew continues to suffer. He has not been able to share his guilt about the death of his brother five years ago.  The counselor tries to help and she does make some progress towards the end of the story but the real healing is provided by Melody - a girl who also lives in his street.  They need to band together to solve the mystery of Teddy and while they do this their friendship is forged. Everything is not solved at the end but it is reassuring to know Matthew can recover.

Here is a review with more plot details.  I would follow Goldfish boy with Counting by 7s, The curious incident of the dog in the night time, My life as an alphabet and The naming of Tishkin Silk.

Here is an alternate cover which I actually prefer.  I think it matches the complex themes of the book and may appeal to an older reader.

The extremely inconvenient adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty illustrated by Kelly Canby

"... you have bravery deep within your heart."
"But when important things happen between new friends - winning a treasure hunt, getting in trouble for walking on railings, ... the friendship stretches and billows, and dives deep into your heart."

I have something odd to tell you about this brand new book.  I attended the launch last night having rushed to read 494 pages and 91 chapters over just 2 days.  Reading this book I was certain Jaclyn must have used miles of planning sheets perhaps pinned up all over her walls with the names of each of the ten aunts that Bronte needs to visit to fulfill the requirements of her parents' will. In my imagination there would be huge diagrams and lots of crossing lines showing the connections between the aunts, the gifts they receive from Bronte (another condition of the will) and the adventures/incidents/disasters which Bronte faces during each visit.  I was entirely wrong about all of this.

Jaclyn Moriarty did not talk for long last night (there was special cake waiting for her attention) about her newest book but she did say three interesting things.

1. Usually her books involve an enormous amount of planning but reading the now very famous Big Little Lies by her sister Liane Moriarty she marveled that such a complex book could be written with out detailed plans and in fact her sister said the revelation of the killer in Big Little Lies was as much a surprise to the author as it is for all readers.  I imagine you have guessed I was totally wrong about the planning for The extremely inconvenient adventures of Bronte Mettlestone.  Jaclyn told the audience at Mosman Library that she did not plan out this book.

2.  Where did the cloudberry tea idea come from?  Jaclyn received a letter from a fan many years ago and lady mentioned sipping cloudberry tea while enjoying one of Jaclyn's books. Jaclyn promised herself she would one day include cloudberry tea in a story.

3. Jaclyn comes from a large family and if you add them all together there are ten aunts.  Her childhood relationship with some of these aunts showed her every one has a 'back story' - children only see one moment in time or one aspect of a relative - often there is so much more going on.  When you read The extremely inconvenient adventures of Bronte Mettlestone you will see how Jaclyn carefully gives tiny insights into each aunt - personality, life changing moments, desires and more.

When she is a tiny baby Bronte is left in the lobby of her aunt Isabelle's building.  Inside her pram there is a note (sadly lost), a bottle of milk and a "canister of cloudberry tea."  I love this moment from Chapter One :

"So for a while I carried about a little notebook and took down the favourite hot and cold beverages, fruits, sweets and ice-cream flavours of everybody I encountered.  That way, when I myself grew up and abandoned my only child ... I would be sure to add a sample of  their preferred treat to the pram."

When Bronte is ten she and Aunt Isabelle receive the new horrible news that her parents have been killed by pirates. They visit the lawyers and hear the terms and conditions of their complex will.  Bronte must journey across the kingdom, alone, delivering small gifts to each of her ten aunts.  If she fails to follow any instruction her home town will be destroyed.

Now take a look at the publisher trailer.

It will spoil the story if I go into any more plot details so I just want to draw out aspects of this book that appealed to me.   I loved the discovery that Jaclyn wrote her book sitting in different cafes around Sydney.  In their will, her parents, tell Bronte where to eat and what to eat and this part of the story made me smile.  It was a light diversion during times of struggle as Bronte journeyed across the lands to visit her quite eccentric aunts.  Here are some of Bronte's cafe experiences :

Aunt Sue - The Dishevelled Sofa - Today's Special and house-made lemonade
Aunt Claire - Visiting Gainsleigh - the Arlington Tea Room - lemonade and cakes
Aunt Nancy - Mountain View Cafe - order Hot Chocolate
Aunt Alys - diner next to the Stantonville Post Office - cheese and ham sandwich, a fruit frosty and a slice of cheesecake

The trailer and blurb talk about dragons as though they are frightening.  When you read Chapter 31 and meet Aunt Sophy the dragon veterinarian you will absolutely change your ideas about this.

"I soon forgot to be afraid.  It helped that some of the dragons cold speak human language. Once you start chatting with a monster about the weather, you begin to forget that it's a monster."  In fact  it is the dragons who help Bronte escape when the confrontation between good and evil reaches it's terrifying climax towards the end of her long journey.

I am going to finish with a few thank goodness moments :

  • Thank goodness Bronte had "a small sack of silver coins 'for expenses' on my journey"
  • Thank goodness for beautiful words like skedaddle, exuberantly, tiff, impenetrable, resonant and appraise.
  • Thank goodness for scrumptious picnic food - salmon fish cakes, a cheese and bacon tart, roast chicken drumsticks, potato salad and chocolate cake and this is just a small sample of the delicious food eaten during this adventure.  You will want to eat Ricochet oranges - I am sure they are amazing.
  • Thank goodness for Bronte's commendable work ethic for example when she sorts out Aunt Carrie's dark sad home and when she puts everything back at Aunt Emma's after it has been ransacked by The Chief Detective.
  • Thank goodness for great friends and fun loving cousins.
  • Thank goodness for resourceful librarians!

"I make too much noise' she confided. 'But I love it when people want to research! Do it! Dear child, you will love it! The catalogue is over there!'  Her voice rose to a shout at the end. ... I found a great stack of books on the subject that I wanted, and sat down to read."

The extremely inconvenient adventures of Bronte Mettlestone is a long book with nearly 500 pages and 91 chapters but the action does not ever falter and you will find yourself turning page after page as you race towards the ending which has surprises and lots of smiles.  You can see some of the terrific illustrations by Kelly Canby here.

Moriarty’s world-building is wonderfully imaginative and uniquely hers, while Kelly Canby’s energetic illustrations are a delight. This jam-packed, chunky novel is ideal for book-devouring readers in upper primary school.  Readings Melbourne

And the plot pulls together its many threads into a neat and satisfying climax. It will appeal to middle and upper primary readers who are happy to tackle long books as long as they have some pictures. Books and Publishing

This ambitious and clever novel seems geared towards younger readers, but I believe anyone will love it. I think everyone should read it, actually.  Trish Talks Text

Friday, November 17, 2017

My reading pile

I visited a local book shop near my school this week and picked up a huge pile of middle grade novels which I will read in preparation for a Christmas talk I am doing there in a few weeks.

I will be talking about many of these on this blog over the coming weeks but here is a sneak peek.

The Extremely Inconvenient adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty

From the blurb : "... armed with only her parents instructions, a chest full of strange gifts and her own strong will, Bronte must journey forth to face dragons, Chief Detectives and pirates ..."
I have actually finished this and it is a splendid book with interesting characters, a hero you want to help and encourage and lots of excellent problems to solve.

The Wonderling by Mira Bartok

From the blurb : "Welcome to the home for wayward and misbegotten creatures, run by the evil Miss Carbukle, a cunning villainess, who believes her terrified young charges exist only to serve and suffer."

The Rogues by Lian Tanner

From the blurb "The devious Lord Rump and his granddaughter Duckling need a disposable boy, and Pummel, a farmboy looking for work int he city, fits the bill perfectly. Duckling is happy to tangle him in her grandpa's web as long as Grandpa keeps his promise - that this will be his very last Scheme."

Whimsy and Woe by Rebecca McRitchie

From the blurb : "After being abandoned by their thespian parents, Whimsy and woe Morduant are left in the care of their austere Aunt Apoline.  Forced to work in Apoline's boarding house, slaving at the beck and call of outlandish and demanding guests, and sharpening the thorns of every plant in the poisonous plant garden, Whimsy and woe lose all hope that their parents will ever return. Until one day, quite by accident, the siblings stumble upon a half-charred letter that sets them on a course to freedom and finding their parents."

Prisoner of ice and snow by Ruth Lauren

From the blurb : "Valor is under arrest for the attempted murder of the crown prince. Her parents were cast out from the royal court. Her sister was banished for theft of a national treasure. Now Valor has been sentenced to life at Tyur'ma a brutal prison built form stone and ice."

Diego and the rangers of the Vastlantic by Armand Baltazar  Book One in the series Timeless

From the blurb : "In New Chicago, Diego's middle school hall ways buzz with kids form all eras of history ad from cultures all over the world. The pieces do not always fit together neatly, but this is the world he loves. There are those, however, who do not share his affection."

Smoke by Cao Wenxuan illustrated by Yu Rong

I really enjoy reading powerful picture books to older students especially those that focus on conflict resolution.  Smoke would be an excellent book to use with any Primary class.

Mr Shou and Mr Pang live in nearly identical houses on different sides of the river.  An argument on a bridge sets off their feud.  Each father returns home :

"From now on, you aren't to go over to the west of the river to play with Beanpole! That whole family are so ugly, thin as rakes, all of them."
"From now on, you aren't to go over to the east of the river to play with Butterball! That whole family is so ugly, fat as pigs, all of them."

The two fathers also ban the dogs from playing so Pointy Ears and Floppy Ears are forced sit on each side of the river desperate to have fun.  Eventually the dogs just need to play and so they jump in and frolic before returning to sit under the apple trees.  Time passes until one day both families are cooking near the river. One uses wet firewood and so the smoke is black and the other uses dry firewood and so the smoke is white.  As the smoke drifts into the air it intermingles.

"they hugged like two friends meeting. They twirled happily in the sky ... like two ribbons of silk, one black, one white."

The dogs chase the smoke, the boys then jump into the river and climb into a boat to chase the plumes of smoke. Finally everything settles down, the smoke disappears out of sight and the boys return to their respective sides of the river.  Now comes the important turning point. Mr Pang compliments Mr Shou about his apples and Mr Shou compliments Mr Pang. Apples fly from one side to the other.

This is the third Cao Wenxuan book that I have featured here.  Bronze and Sunflower is a novel and Smoke and Summer are picture books but all have philosophical undertones reflective of the authors own passion for this subject.  Smoke actually feels like an ancient folk tale filled with wisdom. It would be good to link this with books by Demi.

Take look at the illustrator's technique - the video is in Chinese but you can see her skillful papercuts and the music track is especially haunting.  You can read more about Yu Rong and see her work here.