Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Tag: junior fiction (page 2 of 3)

Review: Graduation Day – Ann M. Martin

Graduation Day book coverI am a Sweet Valley girl rather than a Baby-sitters Club girl, but back in primary school, when the Baby-sitters Club books were first being released in Australia, I was still a very big fan. You used to be able to get the new one every few months in the Scholastic school book clubs, and I built up a small collection of the first dozen or so books due to this. That was around the time I got into Sweet Valley High, though, and I outgrew the Baby-sitters Club not long after I started reading them. Still, for that short period in time, there was that wonderful series of books that told primary school children that they could babysit tiny children and earn money – even though they were only tiny children themselves! Okay, so perhaps it wasn’t very realistic…

It’s a long time since I last made any concerted effort to read the Baby-sitters Club titles. I picked up Kristy’s Great Idea at a library book sale a couple of years back, and was quite disappointed upon re-reading it. And then I discovered this, the final ever book at another library book sale, and decided it would be good to see how everything concluded.

Unfortunately, as a conclusion, Graduation Day is rather underwhelming. In one sense, it’s nice that the characters are still true to their beginnings. In another, however, it feels like very little has changed since the first couple of dozen books, if not since the very beginning. It really seemed like the characters were still dealing with the same-old same-old problems and emotions and, although I could see that the time machine and multiple perspectives were intended as a tribute, to me it felt a little forced and bitty. All of the old club members were there, but ones like Dawn were barely present at all.

The thing that most irritated me about Graduation Day, however, were the fonts used to mimic handwriting. These were okay when they were legible, but a lot of the time, they weren’t! I didn’t read Jessi’s chapter at all, because the writing was just plain ridiculous, and had to skip a few others as well. Handwriting fonts are cute when they’re easy to read (like Dawn’s, for instance), but when they’re not, they’re frustrating and a waste of a reader’s time.

It’s sad that the Baby-sitters Club didn’t go out with greater fanfare than Graduation Day allowed. But everything has to come to an end eventually, and at least Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia and Stacey were given a proper good-bye.

Review: Passion Flower – Jean Ure

Passion Flower book coverFor a novel aimed at a middle grade audience, Passion Flower is surprisingly dark. Absent (emotionally or physically) and negligent parents seem to be a staple of modern Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction, but Jean Ure takes it to extremes here. At first, Stephanie and the Afterthought (sister Sam) just have to put up with their parents’ separation and their father moving south to Brighton. But then their mother decides she needs some time away from them and heads abroad to Spain, sending then to stay with their irresponsible father. While initially this involves him feeding them junk food and leaving them to fend for themselves, it quickly evolves into something a lot more scary and dangerous. It becomes a bleak account of just how irresponsible and selfish a parent can be.

I think I would be fine with this if Passion Flower were an ‘issues’ novel, or even if there were something reassuring for readers at the end. Instead, however, it’s packaged as contemporary fluff, with a cartoon cover and a light-hearted blurb, and even reads as such for a good portion of the book. Due to this, I wasn’t really sure what to make of it.

On the upside, Ure’s character voice is great and the first-person protagonist, Stephanie, is a likeable and believable character. The Afterthought is also very enjoyable and the two sisters have a realistic relationship. I also liked the background presence of Stephanie’s best friend, Vix, who provided a link to normality.

Passion Flower is a quick read with a strong voice – but it packs a punch that younger readers may not be expecting.

Review: Whisper – Alyson Nöel

Whisper book coverThe first Riley Bloom book, Radiance was enjoyable but, as is often the case for the first book in a series, the amount of setting-up that was needed detracted a little from the book-specific plot. With Whisper there is no such issue, which meant that it could dive straight into the book’s storyline. It’s a fun plot, too, with Riley heading to ancient Rome to catch the soul of a gladiator caught in an endless repetition of his own downfall and learning a lot about herself in the process.

It’s Riley’s character development in Whisper that forms the strongest part of the novel. Alyson Nöel does a great job of making her protagonist realistic, and Riley has all of the angst and frustration that you’d expect of a young girl who died before she could achieve any of her goals in life – even the seemingly simple goal of turning thirteen! Here, however, Riley really starts to grow up a little. She begins to look beyond her own feelings and to make the first steps towards overcoming some of her flaws and, in doing so, becomes a much more rounded character.

I’m always a little wary of fiction set in ancient Rome, because I often struggle to disengage my classicist mind and can end up spending my reading time picking out historical inaccuracies instead of enjoying the plot. I didn’t find this to be much of an issue with Whisper, largely because Nöel seems to have (cleverly) avoided placing the story too firmly in its historical context and also because I had read the note at the end where she admits that she’s used literary license where the history of the novel is concerned. I’m a lot less picky when a book doesn’t claim to be historically accurate! I will say, however, that the number of times that the Romans were referred to as barbarians was a little irritating.

I wasn’t sure about Bodhi in the first Riley Bloom book, but I liked him a lot here, even if he wasn’t around much! It seems like he has also undergone some character development between the first and fourth books, so I shall be interested in reading the other two to see what caused it.

As for the plot itself, I enjoyed the idea of ghosts being endlessly caught up in the repetition of a brief part of their lives, and I thought the insight given into Riley’s character through the dream world that Messalina creates for her was very cleverly done.

Whisper is an enjoyable book and a great instalment in a series that is entertaining to adults and younger readers alike. And now I have to go back and read Shimmer and Dreamland!

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Radiance, by Alyson Nöel

Radiance book coverWhisper, however, I decided to start at the beginning, with Radiance.

I assumed correctly. Radiance is definitely more my sort of thing. The series actually reminds me quite a lot of the Angels Unlimited series (Annie Dalton), although there’s enough that’s different about the Riley Bloom books for me not to feel like I was revisiting old territory. In this first book, Radiance, there’s quite a lot of setting up that needs to occur, which means that the first third or so is a little slow-moving. Once Riley starts actually moving towards becoming a Soul Catcher, however, the book really picks up.

Nöel’s regular use of sentence fragments, my biggest issue with Fated, is not nearly as obvious in Radiance. They’re still used more than you would usually find in a published novel, but here it is much more unobtrusive. I would occasionally notice them, but they generally didn’t pull me out of the book.

I enjoyed Riley as a protagonist. She really felt like a twelve-year-old to me. She’s a bit annoying at times, but that’s just who she is and the age she is, and with the series being a lot about her character’s personal growth, you need an imperfect starting point so that you can move forward. I wasn’t quite as sure about Bodhi in this book, largely because I was finding him about as annoying as Riley was, but I think that’s just a sign of Riley’s voice being so strong.

Overall, Radiance worked for me a lot more than my previous Alyson Nöel experience and made me look forward to reading my next Riley Bloom book.

Review: A Twist in Time – Jean Ure

A Twist in Time book coverA Twist in Time is a short and sweet speculative story for young readers. The protagonist, Cosy, is a likeable and believable girl, who is torn between her studious nature and love for her mother and her desire to fit in with her new foster siblings, Jade and Jemma. She struggles with the loss of her mother, who has been hospitalised due to mental illness, and with the stress of the academic demands of her new school, and finds a welcome distraction in the form of her very own ghost girl.

Because it’s written for young readers, A Twist in Time is a swift read, with not a lot of detail given. It touches a little upon wartime England, through Cosy’s interest in the ghost girl, Kathleen’s, era, and deals lightly with mental illness, but neither is given much depth. We see hints of the sad pasts and true natures of Jade and Jemma, but most of this is also left up to the reader to deduce.

A Twist in Time is a light read, with a lovely ending, but I was left feeling as though it could have been better than it was. The concept is very clever, but I would have liked to see Cosy and Kathleen connecting in a more mutual fashion and, perhaps, for there have to been a touch more action in what was quite a flat narrative. Still, it’s an interesting enough read, and I am sure that many young readers will find plenty to enjoy about it.

Review: How To Be A Vampire – Katy Hall

How to be a Vampire book coverFour reasons young readers will enjoy How To Be A Vampire

1. It’s pure vampire fantasy. The protagonist, Andrew, gets to experience flight as a bat, travelling through cracks in doors as a red mist and running through the town as a wolf.

2. Young readers (and boys in particular) will enjoy the fighting between Andrew and his sister, and the tricks he plays on her. Like Andrew, they might also think that the best thing about being a vampire would be the possibility of scaring a sibling!

3. There’s a strong bad guy, whom the three central characters have to team up on in order to have a chance against his vampiric powers. He’s not too scary, though, so more sensitive readers shouldn’t have nightmares.

4. The ending is very much in the horror genre vein and young readers will probably enjoy the twists and turns of the plot as it reaches that point.

Two things that may disappoint about How To Be A Vampire

1. The vampire myth is not expanded upon in any way. Hall’s vampires are taken solely from the more popular aspects of the mythology, with no real attempt to personalise them at all. This leads to the story feeling a little unimaginative.

2. As a protagonist, Andrew doesn’t have a lot of personality. Because there isn’t a lot to identify with about his character, readers are likely to be less invested in the struggle between him and Count Ved.

A fun vampire tale for junior readers.

Review: Forget me not – Sue Lawson

Forget me notIt’s hard to believe that April the 15th will be the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Sue Lawson has marked the event with the release of her latest novel for young readers, Forget me not. It’s a book that should appeal both to those who are familiar with the Titanic’s story and those with little knowledge of the tragedy. In it, Lawson tells the tale of one family’s experiences on board the ship, from the beginning of their journey to the events of the sinking and its immediate aftermath.

Forget me not focusses on Thomas and Eve, brother and sister, with chapters alternating between their perspectives. While Eve’s chapters are written in first person, Thomas’s are in third, which is an unusual technique that didn’t entirely work for me as a reader. I can guess at Lawson’s reasoning behind this stylistic choice – and did guess at it from the beginning of the novel, which rather muted the ending for me – but the change tended to bring me out of the text a little and I probably would have found the reading experience a little smoother if both perspectives had been related in the third person.

Apart from this small matter of personal taste, I thought that Eve and Thomas were well chosen as the co-protagonists of Forget me not. They allow readers to view life on board the Titanic from the perspectives of both male and female passengers – a fact that becomes particularly important once the boat begins to sink and it is the women and children who receive priority access to the lifeboats. Thomas is on the verge of adulthood and his frustration with not being treated as the man he wishes to be is well portrayed. Similarly, Lawson does a good job of presenting the conflict between Eve’s wishes for herself and her mother’s opinions of what constitutes proper behaviour for a girl or woman in the 1910s.

I particularly enjoyed Hugh as a secondary character. Like Thomas, he’s on the line between childhood and adulthood and, as such, he can be a little changeable when it comes to his interactions with Thomas and Eve. He’s always kind and reliable where needed, though, which should make him a favourite with a lot of readers. Thomas and Eve’s father is also an extremely likeable character – possibly even my own favourite. In contrast, it is a lot more difficult to appreciate their mother, even if the reader later learns to be sympathetic as to why she is the way she is.

Forget me not is a little slow-moving for the first half of the book, but this rapidly changes once the Titanic hits the fatal iceberg. Lawson has a talent for making her action both exciting and emotive, which is an excellent skill to have when dealing with real life disaster in a fictional frame. I think it would be extremely difficult for a reader to set down the novel once it reaches the point of the Titanic’s impact with the iceberg, so engrossing is the narrative in the latter part of the text.

Forget me not is a solid historical novel for younger readers, which should help to spark an interest in the real life events that it is based upon. It should particularly appeal to readers at an upper primary or lower secondary level, but the story of the Titanic is so timeless that older readers should find a lot to appreciate as well.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island book coverThis is not going to be a proper review, because WOW did I struggle to finish this book. I’ve been liking or loving most of the books on my 100 Books To Read Before I Die list so far, but I just couldn’t stand Treasure Island. I had to force myself to sit down and read a mere ten pages every night, because otherwise I was never going to finish it. The most amusing part is that a children’s story was the novel that almost spelled doom for my list!

It’s only fair to say that I was biased against Treasure Island from the beginning, because I am just not a piratey person. I can’t stand it when they’re raised up as wonderful, fun-loving characters for kids, because it goes in the face of the actual reality of piracy but, more relevantly to this novel, I also find them really dull when they’re playing the baddies.

I took exactly six months to read Treasure Island, which says it all when it’s only 160 pages long. I found the dialogue grating and convoluted, the action not very active and the backstory far too long compared to the actual journey and time on the island. What’s more, I didn’t like the protagonist at all. My favourite part of the book was when the ship’s doctor took over as narrator for a while.

Treasure Island is a much-loved classic, so obviously there are a lot of people out there who hold very different opinions about this book to my own. I’m interested to read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde later in my 100 Books journey, to see whether I’m more fond of Robert Louis Stevenson’s style when pirates are not involved.

Review: Night of the Werecat – Katherine Lance

Night of the Werecat coverNight of the Werecat is a quick, easy read that conforms perfectly to the chapter story rule of having a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. It’s amazing that Wendy, its protagonist, survived so many shocks to the system!

The writing here is of an appropriate level for the age group most likely to read the series and young cat lovers in particular will love the premise. Wendy is a little over the top when it comes to her cat obsession, but no more so than many primary school-aged children are with their own interests. (We won’t go into my horse obsession here…) The plot is a fun twist on the standard “cursed object” storyline and readers should enjoy the idea of werecats replacing werewolves. I do, however, question whether Wendy and her best friend are appropriately depicted as eleven and twelve-year-olds. They read as being several years younger, which would fit in nicely with the age group of the book’s audience.

A light read for children who enjoy paranormal elements without much true horror.

Review: Angel Cake – Cathy Cassidy

Angel Cake book coverI’m a fan of Cathy Cassidy’s books. She’s similar to Jacqueline Wilson in that her characters come from diverse backgrounds and often belong to non-nuclear families and families with financial difficulties. Angel Cake is no exception. Its protagonist is Anya, a young girl who has just arrived in Liverpool from Poland. Her father has brought the family to England to make a better life there, but the reality is different from Anya’s dreams and the financial climate means that their family struggles to survive in their new home.

Cassidy’s choice to write about a Polish character is particularly important given current levels of ill-feeling about EU immigrants in the UK – with Polish workers seeming to cop the brunt of such sentiments. It’s great that young readers are shown Anya’s story and the difficulties experienced by immigrants in their quest to settle into a new home, because it provides an alternative to this kind of negativity.

Despite her Polish background, however, Anya is very easy for the reader to identify with. She has a quiet presence in the novel, but her concerns are those of many teenagers her age – forming friendships, spending time with family and taking steps towards her first romance. I particularly enjoyed the strong relationship that Anya has with her family. She is close to her younger sister and her parents are loving and supportive.

Anya’s friends are not quite as well-developed, and I found that Frankie and Kurt felt very flat to me. I was also a little disappointed that Frankie’s happily-ever-after largely involved her losing weight and changing her eating habits to match those of a boy; this wasn’t the kind of message I expected to find in a Cathy Cassidy book. Dan is more three-dimensional than Anya’s other friends, but I still felt like there was something missing. It seemed almost as though there needed to be a deeper insight into who he is.

In fact, there is a level of shallowness to Angel Cake that makes me think it’s best suited to the tween market. Things are a little too simple for older teens to find the story entirely convincing. Those who belong to the right age group should love it, though, and it’s great to see an immigrant’s story being told in mainstream youth fiction.

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