Hamlet is not ok
Penguin Books 2023
Can’t get into Shakespeare? Not a problem. ‘Hamlet is not ok’ is a modern story with a modern character duo, dealing with literary questions that cross the ages. The book starts with a warning, “This book contains Shakespeare.” And that it does, but in such a way that it is completely manageable for a young teen who is being coerced into reading literature from the Elizabethan era.
This short novel follows Selby Michaels, a teenage girl who has no interest in reading or school. This is a disappointment to her book-loving, bookshop managing parents. Quietly defiant, Selby doesn’t read the books she’s supposed to for English, and ignores homework assignments. All this changes when her parents employ a tutor called Dan, and together Selby and Dan, get sucked into the world of Hamlet (literally- they get sucked in.).
Selby struggles with reading, but when she experiences the story in the flesh, she comes to appreciate how the plot in Hamlet is no more serious or ridiculous than the soap-operas that she loves to watch on T.V.
R.A. Spratt is a bestselling author and is well known for her Friday Barnes series. She has also written the Nanny Piggins series, The Peski kids series and some short story collations. Spratt has a witty tone which makes her stories easy to consume and highly enjoyable. This would be an excellent choice for Year 7 and 8 students.
Picasso and the Greatest Show on Earth
Allen & Unwin 2023
Life has changed for Frances. She’s in a new home, a new school, her dad has gone to work overseas and her mum has bought her a dog named Picasso. But the most glaring change of all is that Henry is no longer there.
It’s a struggle for Frances, and although she loves art, all she can think to draw is bacteria- microscopic, intricate bacteria. Not something others are too keen to look at. Starting a new school is difficult to navigate, but then she finds Kit, a tall, awkward boy who also finds the social complexities of school a challenge. Frances discovers his love for art, and through their shared passion, the two become close friends.
But there’s a barrier. Neither Kit nor Frances is ready to share the heavy burden that they both carry day in and day out.
Picasso and Greatest Show on Earth is a beautiful tale of love, loss and trust. Through the eyes of two young people, we learn about grief and healing. Through the power of observation and nature, the two develop their relationship and learn to open up.
Anna Fienberg is a master of simile and description. Reading this book will plant you right in the scene, painting vivid colours, sounds and emotions, making it hard to put the book down. She has written numerous children’s and young adult fiction, and is most notably known for her series Tashi.
This is a wonderful novel for a mature upper primary school or lower secondary school student.
The Good Sister
Read by Casey Withoos
Twins with a traumatic past. Now adults, each tell a story of growing up and the effects on them in the present. Which story should we trust?
Rose considers herself the sensible twin, concerned with actions and consequences. Her depiction of their mother and growing up poor is heart-breaking, and these stories justify the way that she and Fern live their lives and make decisions as adults.
Fern is a little different. She needs Rose to guide her. She doesn’t trust herself, and she doesn’t quite remember the past the way Rose does. Nevertheless, she has a steady, predictable job in a library and a sister who cares for her deeply. If things can stay the same, things can be good.
The sisters have a well-rehearsed way of life. Rose understands Fern’s need for routine and predictability. Fern appreciates Rose’s help and guidance in remembering what she needs to do and when. This is, until Fern discovers Rose is unable to fall pregnant and decides she can help.
Enter Rocco. Rocco is the man Fern decides will help her secretly fix Rose’s problem. He’s unique like Fern, and likes to spend time with her. In fact, Fern discovers that she too, enjoys spending time with Rocco. Rose on the other hand does not think that a romantic relationship is a safe thing for Fern to pursue. Things soon begin to unravel as Fern makes choices that don’t align with Rose’s way of thinking.
Sally Hepworth has crafted these two distinct voices with brilliance. She weaves a profound relationship between the two women, demonstrating a bond only twins could experience.
Casey Withoos is superb in giving voice to the two women as well as the secondary characters, making the listening experience a pleasure.
Hepworth is an Australian author, recognised for her nine published novels and awarded New York Times Bestselling Author credentials. She writes domestic thrillers; crafting female characters that readers come to love, trust, and then question.
The reader is undoubtedly questioning the whole way through the book ‘Who is the good sister’?
A family of Strangers
Read by Rebecca Macauley
Fiona Lowe knows women. As with Lowe’s Home Fires and Just an ordinary family, she has an innate ability to portray women through many generations, in recognisable and realistic depictions. Each has their own struggle, and each benefits from the friendship that develops throughout the story.
In all of Lowe’s stories, she paints a vivid setting and selects a medium for bringing her women characters together so that they can support each other when in need. In A family of strangers, it is a beach town in Tasmania that sets the scene, and a community choir to bring each character’s problems to a head.
Addy has returned to the Cove and bears a shameful secret that she won’t tell anyone. She battles her secret trauma through being a work-a-holic and drinking. Neither of these strategies do her any good and she is unsure who she can turn to for support.
Steph wants to conceive. She and her husband Henry have hatched a dream-like plan for their life that begins now, when they move to the cove. Only, things don’t go at all like planned, and the unexpected addition of Steph’s 13 year old step-daughter adds some potholes to the already rocky road.
Zoe has been sent to live with her dad and step-mum, Steph. She must change schools, change locations and make new friends. There is one girl who wants to be her friend. She’s bubbly and naïve. At first Zoe tolerates her but soon realises that good friends are like gold.
Brenda has a secret. One that she can’t bear to tell her adult children, especially her over controlling daughter Courtney. She does everything she can to keep up appearances and maintain the image of herself as a farmer’s wife, but the secret is doing more damage than it’s worth.
Courtney needs control. When she discovers that her daughter has befriended the far from poster girl Zoe, she fears that the influence of this new 13 year old will lead her own daughter on a terrible path. She uses all of her powers as a mother to roadblock the friendship.
This is a story that you’ll find difficult to put down and as always, as an audiobook, Rebecca Macauley does each character perfect justice!
Garlic and the Witch
Quill Tree Books 2022
Garlic and the Witch is an adorable graphic novel pitched perfectly for middle primary aged children. The story is a modern fable that tackles the fears and challenges of a person going through changes. The lovable characters include little Garlic, a witch called Agnes and a vampire called Count.
As Garlic grows and transforms, she learns that in time, everyone goes through their own changes. The characters in Garlic and the Witch are friendly and accepting of each other’s differences. With gorgeous pictures and unique characters, this story is inclusive and guiding for any young one who feels nervous about changes the future may hold.
Bree Paulsen is a Canadian born comic writer and illustrator. With her expressively drawn characters and cartoon-like settings, the pictures are reminiscent of Ghibli studio images, which may be partly why I fell so quickly in love with this comic book. Paulsen studied animation at Laguna College of Art and has created a webcomic called Patrik the Vampire, as well as the first of this series called Garlic and the Vampire (2021).
The Spectaculars are an artistic group of people who have been gifted not only with natural talents, but also “Star Stuff”- a magical essence that allows them to extend their creative abilities to the paranormal. The Minister, from one of the Sunless Provinces, fears what he cannot understand and has classified the Spectaculars as a dangerous species. It is for this reason that these unique performers have decided to escape the City of Smoke to live a freer life in the land of Wondria. The journey to Wondria is treacherous. Harper Woolfe and her family are separated from the group when a collision occurs just before they cross through the gateway.
Everything changes for Harper on that fateful day and her re-entry to the Spectaculars years later is not a smooth process.
This book starts with action and delivers action all the way through. Similar in theme to Harry Potter, but certainly holding its own with character development, a unique setting and an original problem. The cover art implies a younger audience, however the humour, language and complexity of plot suggest a perfect fit for senior primary students (ages 10 to 12).
Jodie Garnish is a playwright and performer. Her experience in theatre has informed her writing for The Spectaculars. She has also written a sequel “The Spectaculars: the four curses”. This is a great book!
How to be…the new person
Written by Anna Branford
Walker Books Australia 2022
The introduction threw me at first. I’m not keen about kids on YouTube and the premise of the story is about a girl who secretly creates ‘How to’ YouTube videos in her mind. It is her coping strategy. Thankfully I read on. The book is so much more than a grab at engaging non-readers who are obsessed with the internet. This is a book with themes of friendship, bullying and courage. It is what might be classified as a ‘High interest, Low challenge’ text because it is pitched perfectly for a tween readership in content, however, it is a short 17 chapter read with large font and non-challenging vocabulary.
Hazel Morrison, the protagonist of the story is being forced to move house and change school because of something dramatic that is happening in her older sister’s life. The story hints at bullying and harassment without going into detail, and Hazel finds herself getting lost in the shadows of her sister’s drama. She must leave the school and best friend that she loves, and start fresh in a new neighbourhood. Everyone thinks that Hazel is made of ‘tough stuff’ and forgets to ask how she is feeling about all of the changes. When she starts at the new school, fitting in is not a smooth process and Hazel finds it difficult to make friends.
The story concludes with examples of characters speaking up and supporting each other, allowing Hazel to finally settle in to her new life.
Anna Branford is an Australian author and creator.
If the world were 100 animals
Written by Miranda Smith
Illustrated by Aaron Cushley
Red Shed 2022
I was really excited when I began reading this book and an immediate desire to teach maths overcame me. Maths? You might ask- but why? Well Miranda Smith and Aaron Cushley do something really clever in this non-fiction picture story book about animals. The whole book is a beautifully illustrated lesson in animal classification (so I’m keen to teach some science lessons too- and that’s from a self-proclaimed science novice!), however, the way that it helps young minds to imagine these classifications for over “20 billion billion animals all over the world” is through the introduction of percentages. Initially, the book demonstrates how, if we were to imagine only 100 animals in the world, we could understand that 6 of them would be vertebrates and the other 94 would be invertebrates. It then goes on to further classify the vertebrates into birds, amphibians and fish, again breaking these into percentages by asking the reader to image only 100 vertebrates. And the classifications become more intricate and detailed as the book continues.
Illustrator, Aaron Cushley, has created stunning colourful images of the animals in their classifications. The engaging visuals, intriguing facts and ingenious structure make this book perfect for a vast age range starting from 6 to around 12 years, and a wonderful teaching resource for maths, science, reading and writing (and probably plenty more!).
Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens
By Shankari Chandran
Ultimo Press 2022
Cinnamon Gardens is a multicultural nursing home in Sydney. It houses residents who have moved to Australia from far reaching countries across the globe. Maya, the owner, is also now a resident and has left the management of the business to her daughter. But this is no feel-good book about old people. Each of the characters have a tragic history to share, and Maya, a published author, enlists the help of her linguist carer, Ruben, to record their stories.
Like a run in a stocking, racism may at first be invisible to most, but as it grows and spreads, the shocking ugliness and destruction expands. Through her writing, Shankari Chandra has illustrated this poignantly and although a work of fiction, the stories she interlaces come from a true place in history.
There is a rage in Chandra’s characters and through her writing, this rage ignited in me- almost to trembling point. I felt the grief that these characters feel and I was compelled to know more despite the unpleasant realities of the hatred that I know exists in Australia and around the world today.
I am amazed by the tapestry of love and pain that Chandran has so artfully woven, and I highly recommend this book.
Beautiful World, Where are you
By Sally Rooney
Faber and Faber Ltd 2021
I am envious of Sally Rooney’s writing. In both Normal People and Beautiful World, Where are you, Rooney breaks rules.
I was aware as I read both these books that writerly rules were being broken, but I just wasn’t sure which ones. And the rule breaking had me questioning at times how much I actually liked the story. However, both with Normal People and her latest, Beautiful World, Where are you, I found myself thinking about the characters for days, weeks and even months after reading them.
So my conclusion is that I do like these books; perhaps I even love them. Although the untraditional story telling may make me a little uncomfortable or awkward at times, I develop a vested interest in what happens to the characters as if they were my own friends, and find myself wondering about them beyond the story on the page. A sign of a good book, surely.
In this latest novel, we follow two women in their thirties. Best friends who communicate by letter or email, they talk of their love affairs and losses. They explore existential ideas, insecurities, culture and developments within their work. When they meet up towards the end of the book, it seems that there are some bridges to cross. Their relationship in person is not as easy as their relationship in script. Rooney’s style is unpredictable and as the reader, one starts to fret that there will not be a happy ending.
The concepts and ideas discussed between the characters in this book are deep and thought provoking. The characters are relatable, yet their dialogue seems removed from reality. The narrator is omniscient, yet we are blocked from hearing and seeing absolutely everything, almost as if the spy cameras on these people’s lives got covered or muffled accidentally at certain points in the story.
For someone who enjoys analysing relationships, reading about love and going with the flow of an unusual storyline, this is well worth the read. And who knows, maybe there’ll be a T.V. series made about this novel too, which would be excellent I’m sure.
What's this about?
As a lover of books and a teacher, I read widely. Here you will find book reviews of many genres including picture story, middle grade fiction, graphic novels, women's fiction, short story anthologies, non-fiction and anything else that takes my fancy.