Author Archive

Tales from outer suburbia by Shaun Tan

December 9, 2008


A new Shaun Tan publication is always a treat and Tales from outer suburbia is no different. A picture book for older children, there is much to pore over and savour. 15 tales of varying lengths and illustrative styles populate the book.

Tan recognises some of the politics that have influenced Australia over the last few years; ‘Alert but not alarmed’ is a humorous interpretation of how xenophobia was turned around, to the benefit of all mankind. ‘Wake’ is a warning to those who think cruelty to animals is okay.  Globalisation is one focus of ‘Our expedition’.  Designed as a page from a newspaper, the depth of ‘The Amnesia Machine’ is linked to the articles surrounding it; meaning can be made from the articles which appear only in part. Comment on relationships to those around one abound; ‘Eric’, ‘No other country’ and ‘Broken toys’ allude to the richness of life lived in harmony with others. ‘Grandpa’s story’ is an allegory of the trials and sacrifices of a successful married life.

Tan’s use of colour and illustrative style is interesting; the apparent grey wastelands of ‘Grandpa’s story’ reflect the difficult times, the colour used in the last page is the happy ending. The frescoes and almost religious paintings of ‘No other country’ depict the richness of belonging. The suburban malaise is successfully rendered by muted tones and sparse reality in ‘Stick figures’.

Tan has created some weird and wonderful characters, places and concepts, giving children and parents or teachers much to discuss, ponder and interpret. The stories move from playful to serious and thoughtful. The end papers are hilarious and time seemed to disappear while I pored over the numerous illustrations.

Designed to look like a parcel sent through the mail, the contents page uses postage stamps to point to the chapter names and page numbers. They are a delight and of course, beautifully illustrated. I also love the dedication page, with the date due slip and the old Brown borrowing system used to impart thanks.

Tales from outer suburbia is a rich book, both in illustration and meaning. With a sumptuous presentation, Tan is on another winner here! Highly recommended.


The red shoe by Ursula Dubosarsky

December 9, 2008


The Red Shoe is yet another brilliant book by Australian author Ursula Dubosarsky. Set in Sydney’s Palm Beach over nine days during the Cold War of the 1950s, the story focuses on a family on the brink of upheaval. Daughters Matilda, Frances and Elizabeth are all very different, but they are all affected by their father’s job and subsequent behaviour. A merchant seaman who saw action during World War II, their father continues to be away constantly as part of his work. However, he is due back home at Easter but does not arrive. Little by little the reader is let into the disastrous and far-reaching events of the day at The Basin and just how they have affected each and every member of the family. Fifteen-year-old Elizabeth has a nervous breakdown and her mother battles depression.The private and secretive neighbours also draw Matilda’s interest and the genuine newspaper articles that are interspersed throughout the text help the reader to understand that the neighbours are probably the asylum seeking Mr. Petrov and perhaps his bodyguards.

Dubosarsky’s story provokes many questions and not all of them are answered directly, leaving the reader to think and speculate. Was that last newspaper article about Uncle Paul? Why weren’t the school children told about Mark? Why would Mr. Petrov’s driver give the girls a lift to school? Why would the girls’ mother leave them unattended in the city for over an hour?

Written in the third person, but through the perspective of youngest daughter, Matilda, The Red Shoe is a poignant look at a specific time in Australia’s history, through the clouded eyes of a child. Issues of mental and physical health are not often associated with the cliched view of affluent Australia in the 1950s, but the scourge of polio, depression and what then would have been termed ‘shell shock’ are viewed in terms of the wider human cost of such illnesses. The theme of red (Russians, Cold War, communism) and red shoes run throughout the book. Matilda reads and thinks about Hans Christian Anderson’s Red Shoes, and her mother owns a magnificent pair of red shoes, which Matilda damages symbolically during the day at The Basin.

The Red Shoe is a beautifully crafted story.

Point Blanc graphic novel by Anthony Horowitz

December 7, 2008


This is the second graphic novel based on the Alex Rider books to be produced. Again Alex is required to be sent into the field by MI6 and somewhat reluctantly, he agrees. This time Alex is sent to a ‘Finishing School’ in Europe entitled Point Blanc. Mystery surrounds the deaths of two of the students’ high profile parents and Alex goes undercover as a spoilt brat who was expelled from Eton.


As in the novel of Point Blanc, the action is non-stop and begins from the very first page. The title page and publishing details come at the end of what would be chapter 1.The characterisation is excellent; Alex is depicted as an ‘every boy’, Mrs Stellenbosch and Dr Grief are suitably drawn. The use of colours is appropriate and add to the urgency of the action.


The graphic novel is true to the original text; the captions are mostly direct quotes from the novel. Some scenes have been removed (such as those with Fiona) but their removal do not impact negatively on the graphic novel.


Many of the students I asked about Point Blanc: the graphic novel had already read the novel but were still suitably enthusiastic about this version of the story. Anthony Horowitz has a dedicated core of fans who will follow everything that is published in his name. Hopefully other children/young adults who have not yet read the Alex Rider novels will be entranced by the graphic novel version and want to encounter the full-length text

Raiders tide by Maggie Prince

December 7, 2008


Set in the north of England in the late 16th century, against a backdrop of invasion from the Scottish enemy, Raider’s tide is a story of violence, love, treason and duty.  Told in the first person by Beatrice, a 16-year-old girl who lives in an English border community, the reader comes to terms with life during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.  For Beatrice and for her community, life is dangerous.  Annual raids by the Scots have meant that they must keep a constant watch, live in fortified housing or risk losing everything.   It is during the latest raid that Beatrice injures a young Scot, who has climbed the extremities of her family’s tower fort.  Although he escapes, she later discovers him nearby, near death.  To help him would be treason, to leave him to die would be cruel.  And so Beatrice makes a decision that will endanger her life and those of her family. 

 In the time it takes Robert’s wounds to heal, Beatrice falls in love with him – the sworn enemy.  But will she agree to Robert’s plan to escape to Scotland together, or will she refuse him and stay in England and face the violent wrath of her drunken highway robber father?  

 To read Raider’s tide is to be immersed in Elizabethan England.  The detail of the book is evident and obviously well researched.   The reader receives an in-depth lesson in 16th century life, while all the while being absorbed in Beatrice’s struggle.  The language should be accessible to students as it is modern without losing the feel for the period in which the story is set.  There are a only a few terms with which students may not be familiar but perhaps a brief glossary would have been beneficial.

 The cover is very attractive and the presentation of the novel adds to its historical feel.  Raider’s tide is a most enjoyable and enlightening book.  I can’t think of a better way to learn about such an interesting era in history.  A real page-turner!

North side of the tree by Maggie Prince

December 7, 2008


This is the highly entertaining sequel to Raider’s Tide.  Set in Elizabethan times in northern England and southern Scotland, Beatrice is once again in trouble for helping Robert, who is a Scot and therefore an enemy.   Beatrice fell in love with Robert in Raider’s Tide and helped him to recover from his injuries before assisting him with his escape back to Scotland.

 Meanwhile Bea is falling in love with the village Parson, who had taught her as a child at school.  Torn between her love for John Becker the Parson, her duty to her family and the spectre of Robert’s return for execution, Bea makes some risky decisions and implicates many of those around her. 

 On discovering that Robert has indeed been transported for execution, Bea feels in her heart that she must help him.  Not even an animal deserved to be kept in the damp, dark, rat infested cell that Robert was decaying in.  How could Bea leave him there to rot alive, even if it meant risking being caught and tried for treason?  Bea enlists John’s assistance to help Robert escape and puts all of their lives at risk in the process.   But time is short as Robert has been listed as being put to death at noon the very next day.   Some fast talking and fast work is needed to save Robert’s, Bea’s and John’s necks.   But if Robert escapes execution, who will Beatrice choose?  Loyal, dependable, upstanding John or the violent enemy Robert? 

 North side of the tree, which is so named as the Scots who were hanged in England are hung from the north side so they can see their homeland as they die, is another wonderful book from Maggie Prince.  Suspenseful, moving, entertaining and gripping, North side of the tree again shows the reader Elizabethan England in an engaging manner.  Prince’s style of writing is such that even though some Olde English is used, it is not at the expense of the story.  A glossary of Olde English terms used is provided at the rear of the book.  A wonderful piece of historical fiction, with a strong and determined heroine as the central character.

This charming man by Marian Keyes

December 7, 2008


A funny yet moving mega novel from the wonderful Irish author Marian Keyes!

Lola, Grace, Marnie and Alicia all have ties with the irresistible and oh-so-charming Paddy de Courcy. Lola has been dumped by Paddy; Grace the journalist has been used by him; Marnie was his girlfriend when they were teenagers and Alicia is now his wife. Gradually we find out the full story of ‘this charming man’ and what he is capable of.

Alternately told in the first person by Lola (whose adventures with the locals in the west of Ireland and the (sometimes) dreamy Rosa Consadine are hilarious) who uses a abbreviations when writing; the first person by hard as nails but lovely journo Grace and the third person by the suffering Marnie and the abominable Alicia This charming man is an excellent read taking you from laughter to tears and back again.

Solo by Alyssa Brugman

December 7, 2008


What do we do to our children without even realising it? Solo is the new book by Alyssa Brugman that focuses on Mackenzie, a teenager who is displaying anti-social behaviour and perhaps some form of mental illness. We journey with Mackenzie from violent and threatening behaviour to eventual understanding and acceptance of her life and her future.

 Mackenzie is nominated by her counsellor to attend a wilderness youth camp. It is in this scenario that Mackenzie relives her past and slowly imparts the facts and the impact of these on her life to both the reader and to herself.

 The novel is written in the first person, however, it is not long before the reader beings to question Mackenzie’s reliability as a truthful and reliable narrator. It is Mackenzie’s and the reader’s ability to work through the issues and Mackenzie’s ‘re-remembering’ of horrific events that she has attempted to exorcise from her mind that eventually makes sense of her life and the novel.

 Brugman enters and portrays Mackenzie’s mind so thoroughly and vividly that the reader is taken along with Mackenzie’s every lie and delusion. Occasionally deciphering which are the delusions, the lies and the truth becomes difficult, but once a resolution is reached, the reader can identify Brugman’s skill at manipulating the reader to feel exactly what Mackenzie feels, to live through what she is living through. Brugman’s ability to impart only as much information as she’s prepared to impart at certain points keeps the reader engrossed and guessing.

 Alyssa Brugman has done it again. Yet another brilliant but challenging work that will make its mark amongst important young adult literature.

One night by Margaret Wild

December 7, 2008


One night is a poignant verse novel about Gabe, Bram and Al, boys who live on the edge through either drinking, copious amounts of casual sex or violence.  Gabe’s one night encounter with Helen results in her pregnancy and flight from home.  Helen’s decision to cherish her baby means tough choices, but is Gabe willing to support her?


This verse novel is so full of issues that could be discussed in the classroom; homelessness, teen pregnancy, families, disabilities, the effects of drug and alcohol abuse, friendship and relationships. One night is beautifully written and the sparse text layout ensures access by teen readers of all abilities.  So much can be gained from so few carefully chosen words.  Highly recommended at year 9 and above.

Theodora’s gift by Ursula Dubosarsky

December 7, 2008


Theodora’s Gift is the sequel to the exceptional The First Book of Samuel, written a decade ago. Set in the tumultuous times of September 11 2001 and told by an omnipresent but unknown narrator, Theodora’s Gift could be read alone. However, it is a much richer experience to meet and live with the intriguing and unusual Cass and the Danz families through both books. Reading The First Book of Samuel beforehand gives the reader so much information about the clans that so much in Theodora’s Gift relies on; Theodora’s Gift touches the reader so much more when they know the love and history bound up in these two families.

 Theodora is now fourteen, one year older than in The First Book of Samuel. She still lives with her father and stepmother in Sydney, while her mother lives in Melbourne. Theodora is still cynical and alert, but there are things that she knows she will never understand. For Theodora (and many others I assume) the word Israel represents so much that she does not comprehend and it is the terrorist attacks on September 11 that brings this incomprehension into focus. Elias, Theodora’s stepmother’s father, but more like a beloved grandfather to her, is dying. Her sensitive half-brother Samuel is interviewing Elias slowly and painstakingly about his past, about being driven out of Germany in the Second World War. The cruelty and horror of the times in encapsulated in the brief question and answer session recorded by Samuel;

  • A. What happened to him? He died after I left.
  • A. How? Was he old? Sick?

A.   There was a kind of law, Samuel, especially for Jews. No pets. (p. 99)

 The persecution of the Jews by the Nazis is coupled with the present persecution of the Jews and the West by Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations and the sense of history repeating itself is one that is frustrating, that nothing has been learned by all of the death and horror of the previous century.

 Amongst all of this turmoil, Theodora and Samuel’s opera singing father leaves them for a period of time to return to his first wife.  His confusion and uncertainty about life terrifies the children. Their awakening awareness that adults are sometimes as complicated, confused and powerless as children is chilling for them.

 The motifs of death, ghosts and gifts resonate throughout the book and the pomegranate is a metaphor for the struggle of the Jewish throughout the ages, encapsulated in Elias’s and Elkanah’s  memories. There is much intertextuality in the novel, references to operas, literature, the Bible, as well as many Jewish and World War Two references. There is much for the reader to follow up and understand, if they wish.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

December 7, 2008


Set in Arizona, Stargirl arrives at Mica Area High School to a curious bunch of onlookers. The students cannot believe she is for real. Stargirl’s eccentric attire includes 1920s flapper dresses, kimonos and a pet rat that rides on her shoulder. Her ukulele strumming at lunchtimes in the canteen, the way she knows when it is everyone’s birthday and her love of life and concern for the welfare of others gives everyone the jitters. They do not understand her; cannot define her. One night when Stargirl cheers and acts so wildly for the school’s under performing football team, she gains a following; as does the football team. The team is popular again and Stargirl’s popularity rises too. Her unusual antics, once thought of as bizarre, are now endearing.After the football season, Stargirl joins the cheer squad for the basketball team. All of a sudden the Mica team, the team that never wins, is on a roll. Stargirl cheers for both teams, wanting everyone to be happy and it is not long before she is seen as a traitor. Her purely good motives are not accepted and the students see her as an evil presence in their midst.

 Told through the eyes of Leo, a shy junior (equivalent to Year 11) at Mica High, we see the student body join together in shunning Stargirl. Leo encourages Stargirl to change and to please Leo she does. Somehow, this makes Stargirl even more unpopular and it certainly makes her unhappy.

 This is a wonderful novel; a great read. Sad, funny, poignant, addictive and always moving, Stargirl focuses on peer pressure to conform and bullying by exclusion. I was a little disappointed to see such little teacher/parent intervention, assistance, concern or even awareness of events. But there is so much to discuss in this novel, I feel that it is worthy of a class set. Although written for upper secondary students, the language and themes are accessible to a much younger audience. The themes of lost opportunities, doing what you believe in, standing up for your friends, peer pressure and the consequences of that peer pressure are just some of the issues that could be studied. There are a few terms that are so American that Australian readers may not understand them (especially those relating to the desert of Arizona), but do not let them put you off this amazing book which deserves a wide readership. Highly recommended.