Sunday, March 29, 2009

Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool by Odo Hirsch

Odo Hirsch is such an amazing author I have just loved every one of his books starting with Hazel Green and her amazing cakes and so when we received our copy of Darius Bell and the glitter pool I knew it would be a winner.

Once again Hirsch gives us a lovely cast of characters, a strong sense of community, heroes and of course lovely cakes!

Darius Bell comes from a family that is now down on its luck. They must give their city a special gift every twenty five years in order to retain their home and land. Hector Bell has no money and no ideas. Darius discovers a fabulous pool in a cave with sparkling jewels on the roof above it. “The water lit up. It danced, it glinted, it gleamed. There were flashes of light everywhere, as if the expanse in front of him wasn’t water, but a carpet of jewels. … Then he glanced up. Darius’s mouth fell open. He stared at the roof of the cavern, utterly dazzled.”

This could be the answer to the family dilemma but of course that would be far too simple. I don’t want to spoil the clever ending but once again Odo Hirsch gives the reader such a satisfying plot with a happy but not too sentimental ending.

If you are new to Odo Hirsch please look for his books in your library you will not be disappointed. One day I will host a dinner party for all my favourite children’s writers and Odo Hirsch will be top of the list and I will of course serve cake for dessert!

Varjak Paw by SF Said

I am not a fan of cats so I never seek out books about cats or books with cats as central characters and I especially avoid books with cats on the front cover but all this has changed as I have just devoured Varjak Paw. Our hero, Varjak Paw, is a Mesopotamian Blue the youngest member of a family of cats with names that curiously all start with J – Julius, Jay, Jethro, Jerome, Jalal, and Juni. Varjak is different because his eyes are the ‘wrong colour’ so we know right from the opening scenes that he is destined for greatness. Only Varjak can save his family but first he must venture into the unknown city, find a ‘dog’ and learn the seven skills in the Way of Jalal. These skills are communicated in Varjak vivid dreams.

This is not a book for the fainthearted as the battle scenes towards the end when the cats fight against two robot cats are very graphic and vicious. These robot cats are part of an evil conspiracy where real cats regularly vanish and are changed into robots using the body of the cat so they look eerily life-like. You can read more about this series at

The illustrations and white space all added to my enjoyment of this very different futuristic tale. I would recommend this to students in Years 4-6.

The Quest for the Sun Gem by Belinda Murrell book one in the Sun Sword trilogy

Fantasy, quest and adventure book fans will love The Quest for the Sun gem by Belinda Murrell which is part one of the Sun Sword Trilogy. This book is such an action packed adventure filled with marvelous twists as we run with our four heroes – Ethan, Saxon, Lily and Roana after evil invaders arrive and kill the king and capture the remaining royal family.

This book has all the ingredients. There is a magical scene with a mermaid, dangerous river crossings, crawling through underground caves, an attack by hundreds of rats and cockroaches, marvelous healing medicines provided by wise village women and lovely food such as custard and lemon tarts. Even the bread and cheese sound delicious. The animal characters are special too. There is a dog called Aisha and four wonderful horses called Caramel, Nutmeg, Toffee and Moonbeam. Horse fans will love the descriptions of tender love and care given to these faithful horses.

I really like the way Belinda Murrell is not afraid to use lovely vocabulary (suffused, chaotic, quipped, ominously) and her descriptions of the clothes and scenery really bring this rollicking tale to life.

“The next rider was a girl dressed completely in white, mounted on a striking white pony with a silver bow and quiver of arrows attached to her saddle…. Princess Roana had very pale skin, and long golden ringlets, under a circlet of jeweled silver. She wore a full-length cloak of white velvet, its hood trimmed with white fur which partially hid her face. She sat ramrod straight her ice-blue eyes staring forward between her horse’s ears, her head held high.”

I look forward to continuing the trilogy with Voyage of the Owl and will purchase a new copy of this book – I hope it is still in print – as our school copy is badly soiled. I wonder why no children have alerted me to this gem. Belinda Murrell might visit our school library later this year. Her web site is

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry

A new title by Lois Lowry – what a joy and what a surprise! This book is nothing at all like Lowry’s other books like The Giver, Number the stars, Gathering Blue. All of which are personal favourites of mine

If you love Lemony Snicket then you will ‘gobble up’ The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry. Here we have a family of orphans including twins whose names are A and B, a baby left on the doorstep, and shear cruelty by two parents and the oldest sibling that leaves you gasping for breath.

Thank goodness for happy endings, benevolent millionaires, kind nannies and glossaries – this one is a real treat. And there is a list at the back of all the stories Lowry has cross referenced.

There are wonderful sentences like “Once she read it a book but found it distasteful because it contained adjectives.” People might call this book a parody but I prefer to call it a spoof. I think children will enjoy the black humour and the neat coincidences.

This is a slim volume of on 157 pages and I think it would make a terrific read aloud story for children aged 9 and over. I read it all in one huge gulp and enjoyed every moment.
Read another review here.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

The endorsements on the opening page of this book are so glowing and complimentary I began to think they must be a joke. Words such as “Like the Potter books”, “Fans of Roald Dahl or Blue Balliett will find a familiar blend of kid power, clues and adventure”, a “Lemony-Snicket-style outing.” But by the end of this book I find I actually agree with these ideas.

In this story we meet four very different children called Kate, Constance, Reynie and Sticky (real name George Washington). As you might expect from a book like this we have two boys and two girls I am not sure why but it does work. I enjoyed about 400 of the 485 pages but towards the end I did find the plot a little predictable. The best parts were the challenges the children had to complete to be selected to join this team (Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?) and save the world and the way Trenton Lee Stewart gave each child special and unique skills which were then used as they defeated the evil Mr Curtain. You will be left with some questions at the end of this book for example how can Mr Benedict and Mr Curtain be twins? I imagine this will be solved in the second book The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey. It was charming to see Morse Code used as the main form of communication between our heroes and their adult helpers.

In essence the plot is another of those stories where one bad man wants to control the earth and control the minds of all the people on earth and he is using children to do this. It reminded me of Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman, Fearless by Tim Lott, Galax Arena by Gillian Rubenstein and The View from Saturday by EL Konigsburg. And of course once again the children are orphans! Please note Fearless is not for younger readers - Upper Primary only - read more

Control comes through broadcast signals sent through televisions, repetitious messages that are designed to convince the general population that there is a real emergency happening and that only Mr Curtain can save the world.

As in Fearless, the orphanage is organised into a hierarchy will older students acting as bullies to control the younger ones.

This is quite a long book but I found myself compelled to keep reading even over breakfast. The plot moves along quickly and I think many senior Primary students who are Lemony Snicket fans will especially enjoy it.

The bookseller who recommend this title to me loved the fact that the smallest and seemingly most useless member of the team of four – Constance Contraire – actually saves the day. This was not a real highlight of the book for me but as I said already I did like the way the author used the different talents of each team member. I have just read the review in the School Library Journal and was interested to see this review also had this book recommended. The ideas in this review really resonated with me

I am amazed to discover you can read more about this book in Wikipedia -

Why I hate school by Michael Fatarsky by Kris Stanhope

No matter what we as Teacher-Librarians might say, the cover of a book is so very important particularly for young readers and most especially for boys. That is why I picked up this book as it lay on our covering shelves ready to go out into the library. Why I hate school, there are 243 reasons and some of the funny ones are handwritten on the cover such as “I hate ordering lunch because the pies are always cold”, I have singing in music so I just mouth the words and pretend”, “I hate the toilet paper in our school because it feels like sandpaper”.

This terrific book is the winner of the Tom Fitzgibbon Award, a New Zealand prize awarded for a first novel. When I looked in the back I can see we have 3 or 4 past winners of this award in our school library and on the strength of my enjoyment of Why I hate school I think I will seek these out too. You can read more about these winners at

Why I hate school could so easily have been just another funny school story replete with jokes about teachers, principals and kids but it is so much more. The first hint that there is more to this story comes at the end of the first chapter when it says “Michael didn’t like to remember some things.” In Chapter two Kris Stanhope opens the first layer showing us a hint of the tragedy underneath. Michael's mum now has no relationship with her son and Michael's father is deliberately absent. In chapter 5 we meet Sharon and a astute reader will recognize these two kids need each other and their relationship will lead to the healing both desperately seek.

I laughed and I cried – I love books that give me an emotional experience. This simple looking little book is a winner with me!!! Don’t miss the last 40 pages where you can read all 243 reasons why I hate school.

If you enjoy this book you should also look for books by Steven Herrick especially Tom Jones Saves the World read more at, Swashbuckler by James Maloney, I Nigel Dorking by Mary Ann Fahey and even books by Morris Glietzman who sometimes (not always in my opinion) successfully combines a very poignant story into a humorous plot.

One final point I am not sure why our hero is called Fatarsky – I was expecting some teasing or jokes about this name but none were forthcoming. Why give Michael such an awkward surname?