Review: Spark by Rachael Craw

9781922179623Spark by Rachael Craw is an amazing superpowers origin story that focuses on friendship and punching things. Two fantastic things to read about honestly. Sure it fell into a few typical superpower themed cliches, but it still managed to be exciting and engaging! It featured a simple magnificent plot twist that is guaranteed to blow your mind and knock your socks off simultaneously.

Evie is basically an average girl, living with her single aunt after her mother died. But turns out she’s actually a Shield — an experiment gone wrong leaving her with DNA that means she’s programmed to protect her best friend from any killers. Her body starts changing until she looks like a superpowered warrior and she starts training for the oncoming surprise threats. Except she gets a little distracted by her best friend’s brother — Jamie. Who, being a Shield too, is out of bounds. Ha.

This concept of DNA modified humans who have compulsively programmed to protect people was extremely awesome. It made them into almost “default heroes” but just to their one charge. There were plenty of sci-fi themed DNA discussions which kind of befuddled me, but a more science-attuned reader would probably adore.

Evie is also a fantastic narrator! She’s deep in grief when the book starts and not sure what her life is going to look like now that she’s without her mother. But as her Shield tendencies start activating and she finds a whole secret organisation is waiting for her — things take on a very different and exciting turn. I only got annoyed at the emphasis on physical beauty. With only a few weeks of combat training, she’s suddenly fit and athletic and super-model level gorgeous. All the superpowered people in this book are very carefully emphasised to be gorgeous and I thought it was a little shallow. But if that was the only drawback in pages of action, great dialogue, and superpowers — then I think we’re still doing well!

The romance was also slow-burn and intriguing. Especially since it’s “forbidden”. And I love how friendship still was a major focus! Evie is destined to protect Kitty and they have a very close bond. Although Evie does gravitate towards Jamie. Of course. Evie and Jamie had a “thing” when they were younger, but it rekindles in the book. I liked Evie and Jamie’s relationship and it was well balanced with training and action scenes, school and family dynamics.

The ending features incredible plot twists of awesome. Intense awesome. I didn’t see any of the twists coming and it opened up so many questions to be explored in the next novel, Stray. I’m desperate for answers and therefore needed the sequel ASAP. Because sure we have people bound by DNA to protect others…but there are also those bound by DNA to kill certain people. The plot just kept getting more interesting and mysterious which is a definite win for me.

Definitely try Spark if you’re looking for… superpowers, fight scenes, friendship, and an awkward heroine who finds out she has Mr. Incredible level strength and isn’t quite sure what to do with it.

[purchase here]

Curiously Good Books from Around the World

TimelineGecko Press in New Zealand plays a phenomenal role in discovering, and then making accessible, outstanding children’s books from around the world. Their 2016 publications are from countries as diverse as Sweden, Mexico, Japan and Portugal.

One of the most impressive books I’ve seen for a long time is Timeline: A Visual History of Our World by Peter Goes (Belgium). It is appropriately oversized and I felt a frisson of recollection and excitement when I opened many of the pages, remembering my first encounters with aspects of ancient history all over again. Beginning life, dinosaurs, first people and settlements merge into fascinating cameos of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Byzantine Empire. Ottoman, Chinese, Inca and North American histories are also covered. Modern history and world wars bring us to the present day. Australia’s claim to fame is the band ACDC.

France-based Stephanie Blake returns with the bold, bright colours and clear lines of her popular rabbit, Simon in Super Rabbit.

Don't CrossPortugal shines with Isabel Minhos Martins and Bernardo P. Carvalho’s Don’t Cross the Line! This is an exceptional, innovative postmodern (mainly) visual representation of people who aren’t allowed to cross the line onto the next page due to a pointless rule. It is a telling fable.

What Dog Knows is a cleverly constructed mixture of fact and fiction by Sylvia Vanden Heede and Marije Tolman from the Netherlands, translated by Bill Nagelkerke. It is structured into four sections: Mummies and skeletons; Robots, knights and pirates; Dinosaurs and dragons; and Rockets and the moon.

The delightfully flawed but kind, Detective Gordon, a cake-loving frog, returns in Swedish creators Ulf Nilsson and Gitte Spee’s A Complicated Case. As we are reminded in the detective’s Book of Law, ‘It is permitted to be nice but forbidden to be nasty’.

DaniAlso from Sweden is the poignant story of Dani in Life According to Dani by Rose Lagercrantz and Eva Eriksson, both highly awarded children’s book creators. This chapter book continues Dani’s realistic life, here dealing with her response to her father’s new girlfriend.

From Mexico is Paula Bossio’s board book, The Pencil (also called The Line). Deliberate smudges create texture and dimension alongside the fascinating pencil line followed by a young girl.

Yours Sincerely, Giraffe is a heartwarming, yet edgy tale of new friendships from Japan by Megumi Iwasa and Jun Takabatake. It’s unpredictable yet highly satisfying.

And we finish in Israel with Michal Shalev’s hilarious How to Be Famous. FamousThe pigeon is completely oblivious to her true level of fame.

Thanks for making these astounding books available to a wide readership, Gecko Books.

Picture Books to Celebrate the ANZAC Centenary

In just a couple of days we commemorate the legacy of the brave soldiers and the tragic events of World War 1 that occurred one hundred years ago. A beautiful selection of ANZAC books for children have been reviewed by Dimity here, but here’s a few more that certainly captured my heart with their touching themes of heroism, love and dedication.  

9781921720628Once a Shepherd, Glenda Millard (author), Phil Lesnie (illus.), Walker Books, 2014.

Gorgeous in its lyrical prose. Devastatingly provocative. Stunning imagery. ‘Once a Shepherd’ is a war story of love and loss, sure to break its readers’ hearts.
It tells of a young shepherd, living amongst a backdrop of emerald green beauty. “Once Tom’s world was all at peace.” He marries his sweetheart, and all the world seems right. Until he is called to war and he bids farewell to his wife and unborn child. A stranger veteran calls upon Tom’s home once the war had ended, only to share the shattering news of his heroic fall with a now grieving widow. Of the hand-stitched coat she once darned, now a new toy lamb is mended for Tom Shepherd’s baby boy. And the world is at peace once again.
‘Once a Shepherd’, with its carefully crafted verse and exquisite watercolour images of greens and browns, is a powerful, moving tale of the heartbreaking reality of war and the inherent hope for peace.
Prized Notable Picture Book of the Year in the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s 2015 Awards.  

9781921977718Midnight: The story of a light horse, Mark Greenwood (author), Frané Lessac (illus.), Walker Books, 2014.

A foal born at midnight; black as coal, eyes glimmering in the moonlight. She is Midnight, the Australian Light Horse trained by Lieutenant Guy Haydon and gracious in her charge in the last great cavalry.
The first port of call for the soldiers is four months in the trenches at Gallipoli without their horses. Reuniting once again in Cairo, the relationship is further bonded as the pair endure the harsh conditions of the heat, scarce water supply and flying shrapnel. But still, soldier and mare commit to their duties, and to one another. In a devasting final battalion (Beersheba, August 1917), riders tumble and horses fall. Guy and Midnight are both struck; a heartbreaking yet poignant moment as the pair share their last breath side by side.
The succinctness of the text reads almost poetically, and the continual references to the affectionate bond between Guy and his beloved Midnight make this war story more of a tender account of their time on the battlefield. The gouache illustrations by Frané Lessac compliment Greenwood’s evocative words and capture the starkness of each war scene.
With notes referencing background information on the Light Horse and the details of Beersheba, ‘Midnight’ makes for a terrific resource for studying the war, as well being as a heartrending tale of love and dedication.    

9781742833477Anzac Biscuits, Phil Cummings (author), Owen Swan (illus.), Scholastic Press, 2013.

This book is probably my favourite of the Anzac stories. ‘Anzac Biscuits’ poses a lovely contrast between a child’s warm and safe home, and her father battling the cold and dangerous conditions out in the trenches.
Rachel and her mother spend time together baking Anzac biscuits. As pots and pans bang and crash to the floor, the soldier lays low as shots bang around him. As Rachel sprinkles oats like snowflakes, the soldier turns his back to the bitter cold. The little girl loves the smell of burning red gum in her stove, but the soldier will never forget the choking gun smoke drifting across the fields. Despite the treachery that the soldier has faced, we are given a heartwarming ending we can cherish; the soldier – Rachel’s father – loved the biscuits made just for him.
An endearing story of affection, commitment and sacrifice, with equally warm and gentle illustrations, ‘Anzac Biscuits’ is a beautiful way to introduce the topic of wartime to young children. They will also find little clues in the pictures upon revisiting the book, which make for wonderful discussions about what life was like for both the soldiers and their families at home (and the significance of anzac biscuits).  
Prized Notable Picture Book of the Year in the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s 2014 Awards.
 
resized_9781743317235_224_297_FitSquareI Was Only Nineteen, John Schumann (text), Craig Smith (illus.), Allen & Unwin, 2014.

The words versing the iconic song about the Vietnam War, ‘I Was Only Nineteen’ tells of the devasting loss, sacrifice and emotional impact an elderly man is reliving of his time as a teenager at war.
We travel with this veteran from the moment he set sail, to inhabiting a firey, orange scrub, battling for hours and weeks amongst bullets and grenades and watching mates hit by the blasts. No-one told him about the mud, blood, tears, rashes and chills that would haunt him until he was old.
These memories of the war, through these unforgettable words, have been beautifully illustrated by Craig Smith, rendering warmth and respecting the spirit of our soldiers – the fallen and the survivors. I love the clever connection between the past recount and the present with a touch of army green evident in each scene showing the veteran and his grandson.
‘I Was Only Nineteen’ is a poignant rendition of a groundbreaking song by John Schumann, with great historical significance and plenty of scope for wartime study.
Prized Notable Picture Book of the Year in the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s 2015 Awards.

LEST WE FORGET

Review – The Last Anzac by Gordon Winch and Harriet Bailey

The Last Anzac, Gordon Winch (author), Harriet Bailey (Illus.), New Frontier Publishing, March 2015.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing. For this significant Anzac Centenary, a myriad of children’s books have been released to teach our young ones about the physical, emotional and historical impact of war, and to celebrate our war veterans; our heroes.

the-last-anzacOne such picture book that does just that is ‘The Last Anzac’, written by Gordon Winch and illustrated by Harriet Bailey. And this one is certainly special. It is based on the real life experience of a young boy’s meeting with Alec Campbell in 2001, who served in Gallipoli in 1915. Having being enlisted at the tender age of 16, at the time of the interview Alec was the last living Anzac at the ripe age of 102. Amazing!

The last anzac pic endpaperEndpapers with original letters, photos and stamped envelopes set the scene for the historical journey we are about to encounter. Alternating between past and present, we are told of the day that the young boy, James, and his father stepped off the plane in Tasmania to visit and interview the last Anzac, Alec Campbell.
He, too, was young and small, nicknamed ‘The Kid’ at the time of the Great War (1914 – 1918). Alec was a noble and brave teenager, having endured treacherous experiences in Anzac Cove. In comparison, whilst in the comfort of Alec’s present home, James nibbles on biscuits as he asks the veteran questions about his responsibilities, fears, safety, living conditions and health during the war.

The story retells Alec’s six weeks worth of dodging bombs and escaping firing gun bullets, eating tinned bully beef and hard biscuits, and the celebratory treat of oranges when leaving Gallipoli. An image of young and old hands touching war medals portrays the sheer dedication of this man in his short service, but also a reminder for children (and adults) to respect and honour all the soldiers who fought for our country long before they were born.
Alec was sent back to Australia after suddenly falling ill; now a Gallipoli veteran – at the age of seventeen. As boy and veteran bid farewell, it is this serendipitous moment that James realises he is in the presence of a true hero.
(Alec lived to the age of 103, passing the year after James’ interview.)

The last anzac picHaving had done extensive research on the subject, New Zealander, Harriet Bailey has illustrated this book with precision and sensitivity; appropriate for the given era. There are enough details to depict the harshness and trepidity of the wartime, but without any graphic or shocking images. The same is felt about the gentle nature of Gordon Winch’s text; the story provides basic information that is suitable for younger children to understand and digest. The juxtaposition between the 1915 retelling and the 2001 meeting is cleverly highlighted in the pictures with bold, earthy tones of khaki and burnt orange for the past, and softer, pastille shades for the present.

‘The Last Anzac’ is a beautifully written true account of this exceptional and humble soldier, Alec Campbell during World War 1. Its non-confronting and meaningful approach, and significant historical value make this resource engaging and suitable for early primary students.
Teaching notes are available at http://www.newfrontier.com.au/depot/item/898-20150317102244-The-Last-Anzac.pdf

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———-LEST WE FORGET———-

Review – Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey

9781783780877I grabbed this book solely on the back of a tweet from Joss Whedon but it then languished in my TBR pile for months. With the book finally being released in Australia I thought it was time to pick it up and was immediately sucked in.

Catherine Lacey’s writing style is electrifying. She skillfully balances between stream of conscious and almost manic narrative to intimately capture the unravelling of a person. Our narrator is Elyria who has, almost on a whim, left her husband and life in New York to travel to New Zealand where she is trying to hitch her way to an artist’s farm. Elyria has lost all regard for her own well being and safety and is focused on the one task she has set herself. As we travel with her we learn of tragic events in her life and her relationship with her unnamed husband.

Elyria is lost. She wants to be lost. She wants to go missing. Missing from her husband. Missing from her life. Missing from herself. Catherine Lacey captures this sense of running in prose that is charged with so many different emotions. Her sentences are long but frantic, her dialogue short and hidden. Elyria is spinning out of control but is just hanging on and Catherine Lacey manages to infuse this into her writing.

This is a novel that grabs you by the shoulders, holds on tight and gives you a good shake. It will captivate you, it will grab you and will not let you go long after you’ve put the book down. Nobody is ever missing because you can’t go missing from yourself. Even if that is what you want to do.

Buy the book here…

A joy to read. Pure reading heaven. I miss it already!

9781847088765

Review – The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

This was such a joy to read. It is pure reading heaven. It is richly detailed yet highly readable and features a large cast of characters who are each flawed in all the many ways people can be. It is also an intricate mystery, a puzzle that each character (and you the reader) are trying to get to the bottom of.

The Luminaries is a monster of a book. The size of the book may put you off but don’t be! I stupidly let this sit on my shelf for months. I didn’t want to commit to a book so big. However, literally after the first page, I was so glad that this was a huge book because I just wanted to read and read. You honestly don’t want this book to end. When I did finish I instantly began to miss it and all it’s characters.

Eleanor Catton loses you in the story and, like the characters of the novel, sucks you in to the puzzle. Catton’s style and talent defy her years. Each chapter begins with a brilliantly penned synopsis, which I must admit I’d read at the end of the previous chapter like a ‘next time on The Luminaries‘. These synopses brilliant capture the mood and tone of the story and are just one of many hooks.

The story is set in the New Zealand Goldfields and involves a murder, an attempted suicide, a missing man and a pile of gold whose ownership is far from clear. The mystery unfolds from the perspective of 13 men who are each involved in the story in different ways. Each of these men piece together their stories but the truth is hiding behind miscommunication, misinterpretation and each person’s own intentions and stake in the events.

The Luminaries is totally absorbing, utterly original and a must for The Booker Prize! I am going to have an absolute nightmare putting together my top 10 of the year now (a good nightmare). Eleanor Catton is such an amazing writer (I already have The Rehearsal sitting in my ‘to read’ pile). Even without The Booker this is a book that deserves to be read, enjoyed, celebrated and read again.

Buy the book here…

Interview with the angelic Nalini Singh (Part 2)

Today, Nalini Singh, author of the new Guild Hunter series, will be chatting about reading, and writing her books. As I said in Part 1 of the interview, Nalini will be heading down under later this month…but if you miss her this time, never fear! She will be back in Sydney for a book signing, August 13 at Crowne Plaza Coogee for the Australian Romance Writers’ Conference! Aren’t we lucky?!

So Nalini, have you always loved to write the decadence of romance, or are there other genres that you like to play around with?

I love reading across a number of genres, but the books that work best for me are the ones where there is some kind of a relationship thread – so romance is the perfect fit for me.

However, part of what I love about paranormal and urban fantasy romance is that I get to play with lots of different elements – for example, my Psy/Changeling series has some science fiction aspects, while the Guild Hunter books have a thriller edge to them.

New Zealand, your country of origin, is a stunningly beautiful place. Does it ever inspire your paranormal writings?

Of course. I think everything around me inspires me in one form of another, whether it’s the most lush beauty, or something far more stark.

Name the books/ authors that inspired your passion for writing:

I read so much that it’s difficult to pick just a few names – I think everything I’ve ever read has probably helped with my writing journey in some way.

Do you have a favourite place you like to read?

I have a sofa that gets the mid-morning sunlight – I love curling up there for an hour in the morning.

What books are on your bedside table right now?

Mark Del Franco’s Unperfect Souls, Patricia Briggs’ Silver Borne, Ariana Franklin’s Relics of the Dead and Jayne Ann Krentz’s Fired Up.

Aaah! I love Ariana Franklin…
Best writing or reading advice you’ve ever received:

When I was first submitting my work, another author told me to never just have one submission out there. That way, there’s less obsessing, and if one piece of work gets rejected, you still have the hope for success with one of the other submissions. Following that advice made it so much easier to bounce back from rejection.

And finally, you’re a big chocolate lover, I hear! So, the most important question of the day: Belgian or Swiss?

You know, to answer this question, I would really need to conduct an intensive year-long study. 😉

***

Hmmph. I would have picked Belgian, for sure.

Thanks to Nalini Singh for her generosity in allowing me to interview her (my fangirl knees were shaking), and also a special thanks to Hachette Publishing for the opportunity. Remember, if you want to hear about the latest that’s happening for Nalini, head to her website.