Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Amazing Mind of Alice Makin

Here is a book that is very difficult to describe or slot into a genre or age group. The plot reminded me of David Almond and Skellig and Michelle Magorian and Goodnight Mr Tom.

The publisher and other reviewers suggest this is a book for middle Primary but the violence of the scenes between Alice and her step father along with a harrowing scene towards the end of this novel have left me thinking it is better suited as a Senior Primary novel or perhaps Junior High School. In fact this book was listed for our NSW School Magazine Bookshelf in 2009 and put in the senior primary section.

Alice is a twelve year old girl living in London just after World War II. Her neighborhood is very poor and has been badly damaged by the bombing. Alice lives in a run down apartment building with her mum and step dad. Living upstairs is her best friend Reggie and his ‘Grandad’. Reggie is an orphan and he has a marked stutter which makes his the victim of relentless bullying and ridicule. Reggie does not seem to mind this awful treatment but Alice finds it unbearable and regularly tries to rescue her friend especially from the Spicers. “The Spicers are as broad as they are tall. If they joined Norman’s army they’d be the tanks. Push and shove. Tight eyes. Tight lips. Crew cuts. Even their hair looks dangerous.”

Alice has a special ability. When she imagines something it sometimes comes true. In one memorable scene The Spicers are attacking a gum machine. “I stare at them, thinking all sorts of nasty thoughts… imagining how good it would be if they got caught or ended up with more gum than they knew what to do with.” It is this latter wish that is fulfilled with hilarious consequences as gum spews out of the machine tying the Spicers into a sticky mess.

Aside from these funny incidents (there is another wonderful one involving fireworks and bonfires) there are some very disturbing parts to this story. For reasons that are not really explained Alice’s step dad vehemently hates her. He beats her, bullies her, forbids her to see Reggie and constantly leaves her terrified. Her mum is distant and seems preoccupied. The family are living in poverty. Alice has a great deal to handle including a revelation from her mum that leaves her reeling in shock.

On her thirteenth birthday Alice decides to go to the library. This is a delightful scene. “Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday dear Alice, Happy Birthday to me. Rows of books ‘shush’ me. .. There’s a place for singing and a place for not singing. I like it in the library. I can get lost in books and forget about every thing else for a while… Mrs Bentley is the librarian. I like her because you know where you are with her. She’s always the same. Her face is always the same. She always dresses the same. I wonder if she has a spare same face and several spare sets of the same clothes.”

On the plus side this book provides a good insight into post war London, the characters are well drawn, the friendships are special and the writing is quite poetic but this is not a book for a very sensitive reader. If you were disturbed by the violence in Goodnight Mr Tom then you will know what I mean. It is interesting that I have just looked a little more closely at the cover of my copy and have discovered that Michelle Magorian herself has endorsed this book.

Look for The Amazing Mind of Alice Makin. It is an important story, set during the post war period of history and it is a book that will remain in your mind for a long time after you have finished reading it.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Among the Barons by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Book four in the Shadow Children sequence has once again left me breathless and keen to read on. These books are the perfect length and the plot line is so tense I devour each one in just a few short hours.

In Among the Barons we return to our hero Luke (Lee). The family that gave him his identity, The Grants, have sent their younger son Smithfield or Smits for short, to Hendricks school. In his grief at loosing his beloved brother Lee, Smits has blurted out at school that is brother is dead. His Mother and Father are Barons and they have worked hard to keep this information a secret. Lee (the real one) was in fact working for the resistance to undermine the government and the Grants who enjoy a highly privileged life at the behest of this same government cannot afford for this information to be leaked.

The biggest problem for Luke (and there are many) is not knowing who to believe. Smits has an overbearing and violent bodyguard who tells Luke one version of events and then the Grants themselves tell him something quite different. The only certainty is that Luke must be careful of chandeliers especially on the night of a big party hosted by the Grants and attended by the President himself.

I am usually not good at sticking with a whole series of books but I am sure I will read everyone of these and I am desperate to know how the sequence will end. The video I posted above is perfect. These US students are very skilled and I think it shows how much they enjoyed these books - these videos must take quite a lot of time to make.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Madame Pamplemousse and her Incredible Edibles by Rupert Kingfisher

If you have been reading my blog for a while now you will know that I enjoy books that talk about food so here is one you might also savor and enjoy although the food is far from conventional. In her exotic Parisian shop Madame Pamplemousse (what a perfect name!) sells the strangest of foods such as Bison and Black Pepper sausages, Pterodactyl Bacon, Great White shark fin in Banana Liquor and Cobra brains in Black butter. She also sells “her rarest delicacy, a delicacy sold in the tiniest little jar with a label upon which nothing is written. The label is blank and the ingredients are a secret, since it is the single most delicious, the most extraordinary, the most incredible-tasting edible of them all.” Hence the title of this book Madame Pamplemousse and her Incredible Edibles.

I came across this book because the sequel has been listed for our School Magazine bookshelf. Each year our School Magazine here in NSW selects 40 fabulous books. This is a source I really trust, actually this is where I found Toby Alone – my book of the year for 2010!

Our hero in Madame Pamplemousse and her Incredible Edibles is Madeline, a young girl who is sent, each year, to work in the restaurant of her appropriately named Uncle, Monsieur Lard. His restaurant is called the Squealing Pig and the food served there is truly awful especially the dishes prepared by Monsieur Lard himself. Madeline is a talented cook but when her uncle discovers this he is enraged and makes an edict that Madeline is only to be allowed to wash dishes, clean out the ‘fridges and sometimes go shopping for supplies. It is on one of these shopping expeditions that she encounters Madame Pamplemousse and her cat Camembert and her life is drastically changed.

This book is a delicious romp through the streets of Paris and through recipes both delectable and revolting. The characters are all larger than life and the little black and white illustrations throughout add to the fun.

If you enjoy this book look for the sequel Madame Pamplemousse and the Time travelling Café which is almost as good. If you have a few spare minutes pick up the first book. It is a quick one to read and one that might leave you hungry although it is more likely to leave you keen to visit Paris one day!

Among the Betrayed by Margaret Peterson Haddix

You don’t think I’m an illegal third child?”

Among the Betrayed is the third book in the Shadow Children series and each one has left me breathless. These books are thrillers in the best sense of the word. In Among the Impostors (Book 2) the story closed as Jason and Nina were arrested by the Population police. Jason planned to expose the illegal third children living at two boarding schools, one for boys and one for girls. He has befriended Nina and Lee and gained their trust and confessions and now plans to sell this information. Just as this is about to happen he is arrested so when this third installment opens we see Nina lying in a prison cell having endured hours of violent interrogation about her role in this plot.

Nina is innocent. She really is an illegal third child in a society where things have gone mad and food shortages have led to the banning of third children. I really can’t say much more because this book has so many twists and turns as the author constantly flips the plot over in most unexpected ways.

There are seven books in this series and I am totally hooked. There are scenes of such suspense you just want to keep reading and reading and reading. You might also like to read my reviews of the first two books.

I found some YouTube vidoes made by students here is one :

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mimi and the Blue Slave by Catherine Bateson

Catherine Bateson takes the reader on a very emotional journey in her newest book Mimi and the Blue Slave. I might be wrong but I think this book is certain to be on the CBCA short list for 2011.

The story opens as Mimi, and her mum Lou, prepare to attend her dad’s funeral. Mimi is ill with a bad dose of flu and everyone is talking about whether Mimi is well enough to attend the service.

I didn’t want to go to the funeral. I’d never been to one before and now my first one was going to be Dad’s. It wasn’t fair. I thought you should be able to practice funerals starting with people you didn’t know well – distant aunts and uncles perhaps. They should all be old, too. My dad hadn’t been old and now he was dead.”

Mimi has a very special friend – the Blue Slave. He works on her pirate ship. He is her confidant, her guide, her true friend, the voice of wisdom in her head. So interspersed though the story Mimi has conversations with Ableth, her pirate slave. He in turn addresses her as Queen Griselda.

This book is filled with rich characters – the aunts, sisters to Louise, Ann and Marita, the boy from the organic fruit and vegetable shop down the road called Fergus, Edie, mum’s friend from Night School and Guy, a family friend who also works in the antiques trade. Mimi's parents run a bric a brac store.

This is a story of sadness and healing, of memories and futures, of old friends and new ones. My only question is who is the intended audience? I read this book in one sitting and loved it. This book handles very sensitive issues gently and in a very real and personal way. I will recommend this book to senior girls and to other adult readers because I think the journey that Mimi takes us on is an important one. You can read more of the plot here.

Look for this gentle story in your library soon.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Just a dog by Michael Gerard Bauer

This is an oddly disturbing book and one I almost did not include in my blog but the final four chapters made the harrowing journey of this story worthwhile. In spite of the cute cover this is not a book for a very sensitive reader. Even in chapter one I was upset when Corey, the narrator, inadvertently killed his pet stick insect.

As a child I had a beloved dog, he actually looked a little like Mr Mosely without the Dalmatian colouring. In a series of short chapters Corey recounts the tough times for this family as they face unemployment, absent parents and the escalating cost of living. Mr Mosley works hard to develop a special relationship with each family member.

One thread in the book that simply did not ring true for me was the way Mr Mosely waited for Corey each day after school. My dog did this too. According to Corey, Mr Mosley would wait for hours for Corey to arrive home. This goes against everything I know about dogs. They have an inbuilt clock and while my dog did meet me at the bus stop each day he did not need to head down there until nearly 3pm each day. Similarly Corey says it was easy to fool Mr Mosely by pulling down his hat but dogs can smell you and see your body shape. This idea of tricking Mr Mosely has disastrous consequences and while I found this another harrowing incident I also questioned this reaction of a dog.

I have read several very glowing reviews of this book. In one case the reviewer selected this title as his book of the month so I guess all I can say is give it a go for yourself.

If you enjoy Just a dog or you want to read a better book about having a dog as a best friend I suggest you look for Love that dog by Sharon Creech. If you like books about dogs that are very emotional you might also like Marley a Dog like no other.

There are also teaching notes which you might find useful.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Thai-riffic by Oliver Phommavanh

I usually start my blog entries by searching for a copy of the book cover – how funny to discover Thai riffic(minus the dash) really is a Thai restaurant in fact there are more than ten of them listed so I am beginning to think this might be the name of a chain?

If you are a fan of Andy Griffiths, Paul Jennings and Diary of a Wimpy kid then I think you might enjoy Thai-Riffic! I would also recommend this one for students who are reading NIPXI in class and if you want another book with a similar setting you could try The Punjabi Pappadum by Robert Newton.

Our hero in Thai-Riffic is Albert Lengviriyakul or Lengy as his teacher the wonderful Mr Winfree christens him. As is often the way when real school teachers create teacher characters they make them real and funny at the same time. Oliver Phommavanh is a teacher and like Andrew Clements he seems to be in close touch with teachers and with the minds and naughty ways of young Primary School students. I am not saying this book is quite at the same level as the wonderful Andrew Clements but Thai-riffic is worth finding in your library.

One of my favourite chapters in this book is when Mr Winfree is absent and a casual or relief teacher comes for the day. Mr Winfree anticipates trouble so he puts sticky notes all over the classroom. “There are sticky notes everywhere. On the blackboard. On the cupboards. On the windows. Mr Winfree’s desk is covered with notes Back off. Don’t touch. You’ll be sorry. .. Grumpy bear has a note on his forehead that reads, My eyes are cameras.” The kids try the old trick of sitting in different seats but Mr Winfree has this covered too. The relief teacher pulls down the projector screen to reveal a sticky note seating plan. The other lovely thing about Mr Winfree is his collection of stuffed toys which Albert finds childish but which Mr Winfree uses as marvelous teaching props.

While this is not a book that made me jump up and down and want to shout read it read it read there are some funny moments especially when Albert sets himself up for major embarrassments via his parents and their fanatical love of the family restaurant. The illustrations are fun (by the author) and the chapter when the restaurant critic comes to sample the food would make a good read-a-loud. I guess quite a lot of this story might be autobiographical and that certainly lends an authenticity to the settings and humour. Start by reading the chapter headings they will certainly make you smile.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Song of the Winns The Gerander Trilogy Book One by Frances Watts

As a new year begins I am excited to review a new Australian book, the first in a trilogy – The Gerander Trilogy. In Book One The Song of the Winns we meet our four heroes, the triplets Alistair, Alex and Alice and their new friend and fellow ginger mouse Tibby Rose.

Frances Watts does not reveal the story of this Kingdom until page 177 and normally I would not reveal so much of the plot in this blog but I do think this information sets the scene. Long long ago the kingdom of Greater Gerander was one large united country then the queen had triplets and as an inheritance the land was divided into three countries Souris, Shetlock and Gerander each with a ruler. Over time circumstances change and Gerander is overtaken by Souris for the usual strategic reasons of wealth, borders and access to sea ports. Zanzibar, the rightful heir to the kingdom of Gerander has been in hiding and in prison. Now there are those fighting for reunification but while Souris has a queen (the author hints that she is an evil character), Shetlock has a democracy. While all this sounds very political and it is please don't be put off, The Song of the Winns is at its heart an adventure involving children who are on a quest to rescue their brother who has been kidnapped.

All the characters in this book (except for one very helpful owl) are mice. There is no trace of the human world and so this book is not about mice adapting human dwellings, foods etc for their own use as you have might have read in Tumtum and Nutmeg. Each chapter alternates between Alex and Alice as they journey to find Alistair and then the adventures of Alistair and Tibby Rose as they travel to take Alistair home. Along the way they meet true friends such as Timmy the Winns. “Alistair found himself looking into the amused eyes of a very striking mouse indeed. Tall and slim, his fur was a deep midnight blue - all except his left arm and right leg, where were colours Alistair had seen on mice before but never in such a jumble. There was brown and white and black and grey and …yes, even a flash of ginger.” Alistair is a ginger mouse and so is Tibby Rose and this colour shows their link to Gerander and means their lives are in constant danger. Fortunately Alistair has some experience of dyes and so early on the two companions use blackberries to stain their fur purple.

Being a ginger mouse is a vital part of the mystery but be warned it is not completely solved leaving the way open for Book Two where I am sure we will read more about Zanzibar, the Winns river and the destiny of the triplets themselves.

This book made me laugh out loud, gasp with fright, lick my lips (yes there is some yummy food), and above all else it made me want to read and read and read. For younger Primary readers this book is a delight. It would be a lovely book to have as a read-a-loud, a thrilling bedtime story for the whole family to enjoy. If you enjoyed Tumtum and Nutmeg and are ready for a longer story, or you have discovered Frankel Mouse by Odo Hirsch, The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, or A Rats Tale by Tor Seidler then this might be the next book for you to explore. You can read more about the author and I have found a set of teaching notes too.

Take a close look at the cover - it is charming and shows Alistair and Tibby Rose and most importantly a small scarf which will be vital in Book Two.