Review: Detention by Tristan Bancks

9780143791799.jpgA thrilling, heartfelt page-turner enriched by probing social commentary, Detention is essential for opening and fuelling dialogue about the asylum seeker and refugee situation in Australia.

It is 5:28am when Detention begins, and young Afghani girl Sima and her family are pressed to the ground, among a sea of fifty other refugees,  behind the wire fence of the Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre in Midgenba. On the other side of the fence, a protestor is cutting through the fence, wire by wire, determined to free the detainees before they’re forced to return to the homelands they escaped from. Tristan Bancks — author of Two Wolves and The Fall (among others) — infuses these passing seconds with incredible heart-pounding tension, as guards patrol nearby, and her father’s final words to her before they began their breakout reverberate in her mind: “No matter what, you run.”

Finally, the fence is pried open, just enough for the human chain to squeeze through, one by one, perilously slowly, methodically and silently. Then disaster. An alarm starts blaring. Panic erupts. Guards howl. Guns are yanked from holsters. It’s absolute chaos. Sima loses her family, runs for the trees, finds herself on the grounds of a school, hiding in a toilet block as the school goes into lockdown, armed Border Force agents determinedly checking every classroom.  Which is when she is discovered by local Midgenba boy Dan, who needs to decide, quickly, whether to help Sima get away, or thrust her back into the hands of the agents hunting her.

Detention tackles big, important issues without lecturing or talking down to reader. In a world filled with toxic ideologies and divisions, Tristan Bancks shows young people have the courage to rise up and demand equality for all; to fight for human rights and ignore the banal politicising. And its breakneck pace means it’s almost impossible to put down.

ISBN: 9780143791799
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 288
Imprint: Puffin
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Publish Date: 2-Jul-2019
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Secret Hero Society – Study Hall of Justice by Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen

9781760276539.jpgThe cynic in me wanted to view Derek Fridolfs’ and Dustin Nguyen’s Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice as a perfunctory vehicle to spotlight younger versions of DC comics heroes and villains ahead of the release of the blockbuster film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But I’m a sucker for the DC’s ‘trinity’ – Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman – and I’m a long-time admirer of Dustin Nguyen’s art. So despite my hesitations, I pulled a copy from the shelf and dived in… and I was more than pleasantly surprised. I was delighted. This is a book that’ll have both adults and kids in stitches, scouring pages for inside jokes and references, and enraptured by the core mystery. In other words, it’s a winner.

Young Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent and Diana Prince form their own Junior Detective Agency in the halls of Ducard Academy in Gotham City when they realise there’s more to their new boarding school for ‘gifted’ children than meets the eye. They’re an oddball triumvirate, each displaying the divisive characteristics that’ve been portrayed in the comics for decades. Together, they unravel the mystery behind the school’s secret headmaster, overcoming the villainous obstacles in their way including fellow students Lex Luthor, Harley Quinn and the Joker, as well as dastardly school staff including General Zod, Hugo Strange, Vandal Savage, and so forth.

Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice is layered with references that young fans and older will enjoy – but every element is explicated well enough to ensure the layman won’t be left lost and confused. This is fundamentally a story about friendship – how different personalities, regardless of upbringing, can be moulded into an effective team – with a good amount of super-heroics thrown in. It’s told through traditional comic book pages, journal entries, pamphlets, text messages, and report cards, and the variation enhances the tale’s readability. The only flaw I identified was the novel’s pacing. The story takes its time to get going – it’s not plodding, but necessarily measured in order to establish the characters and their world – but in contrast the climax feels rushed, like suddenly the storytellers realised they were running out of pages. It’s not a major issue, and it certainly doesn’t take away from the novel’s successes, but it’s a noticeable stumble.

This is the kind of book I wish had been around when I was a kid. It’s fun and quirky, but doesn’t talk down to readers. I’d love to see further adventures in this universe, and there’s certainly a ton more characters to explore from the DC Universe.

ISBN: 9781760276539
Format: Paperback
Pages: 176
Imprint: Scholastic Australia
Publisher: Scholastic Australia
Publish Date: 1-Feb-2016
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt (illustrated by Lee White)

Lost Track of TimePaige Britt’s debut, The Lost Track of Time, is a whimsical journey through an incredible fantasy land, laced with the important message that children should always be free to let their imaginations run wild and follow their dreams.

Poor Penelope. She longs to be a writer – to fill readers’ minds with her infinite imaginings – but her parents’ complete disregard for her passion, underlined by her mother’s total dominance over her schedule, means she’s rarely allowed the chance to scrawl her ideas in one of her many notebooks. Every minute of her day is carefully structured to ensure not a moment is wasted, and unfortunately, her writing falls under the category of ‘waste.’ Despite her aspirations, Penelope feels her imagination is being crushed; reduced to a smidgen of its potential.

So when Penelope awakens one morning to discover an inadvertent hole in her schedule, she is delighted. The possibilities are endless! Alas, her plans are short-lived; because soon Penelope finds herself falling through the hole in her schedule, into the mystical Realm of Possibility. Once upon a time this was a world brimming with creativity, bursting with limitless possibility under the guidance of the Great Moodler. Now, the realm has been reduced to a desecrated hull; run by clockwork under the repressive reign of Chronos and his evil Clockworkers. The only chance Penelope has of revitalising the Realm of Possibility and returning it to its former glory is to resuscitate her sapped imagination.

It’s clear throughout The Lost Track of Time that its author, Paige Britt, had a ton of fun during its creation. Bursting with clever wordplay (albeit a tad on the nose in places, adults be warned – some of the puns sound very much like dad jokes) and deceptively simple storytelling, readers of all ages will be beaming from ear to ear as Penelope ventures deeper into the Realm of Possibility. Aided by Lee White, whose purple cartoons bring Britt’s prose to life, this is a book that kids will enjoy alone, but lends itself perfectly to a pre-bedtime read. I blazed through The Lost Track of Time in one sitting and loved it.

4 Stars Excellent

ISBN: 9780545538121
Format: Hardback (216mm x 168mm x 25mm)
Pages: 320
Imprint: Scholastic US
Publisher: Scholastic US
Publish Date: 1-May-2015
Country of Publication: United States

Review: TombQuest Book 1 – Book of Death by Michael Northrop

TombQuestAlex Sennefer is going to die. It is a matter of when, not if. His illness is undiagnosed; a mystery ailment with no cure. Modern medicine is powerless. His fate is sealed.

His mother has other ideas…

Doctor Maggie Bauer is ready to roll the dice and use the tools available to her as a curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. With Alex on the brink of death, she uses the Lost Spells of the Egyptian Book of the Dead to resuscitate her son. But in doing so, she wakes ancient Death Walkers, whose re-emergence threatens all of mankind, and leads to her disappearance.

Awakened and revitalised – for Alex wasn’t just revived, but rejuvenated completely by his mother’s actions, his illness obliterated – this twelve-year-old boy must team up with his best friend, Ren, and the enigmatic Doctor Todtman, to save New York from the restored mummy known as the Stung Man, and rescue his mother.

There’s a lot to like about book one in this new kids series. Alex’s mission is fuelled by a desire to protect his mother – “she’d taken care of him his whole life, and now it had cost her” – and his resurgence, from weakling to full-bodied and able makes for some inspiring moments; “For twelve years , he’d been defined by what he couldn’t do … spent so much time cautious and fearful, sitting and watching. Now, he’d be defined by what he could do.” He’s a strong lead, backed up by the diminutive and highly-intelligent Ren; and together they form a duo capable of taking on any threat. There’s some fun banter between the two throughout, emphasizing their bond: their friendship feels genuine despite contrasting personalities. I was a tad disappointed that Alex’s “miracle cure” completely abolished his sickness and rehabilitated him so pristinely; it would’ve been fun seeing a less-able hero combat impossible odds alongside his companion, and emphasize that we don’t need to be supreme specimens to overcome obstacles; but that’s nitpicking.

The action comes thick and fast, and is perhaps unsuitable for the easily-frightened. The Stung Man’s body is blighted by welts, and scorpions skitter throughout many dark passageways as Northrop ramps up the tension. There’s nothing gratuitous here, and most kids won’t bat an eyelid; but there’s an eerie resonance throughout these pages, an uncomfortable tension as our heroes explore the city’s hidden tombs. There’s a touch of the fantastical too, beyond the revival of ancient forces; Alex is equipped with a scarab that grants him mystical powers, and it’s a device that’s sure to be further developed in subsequent instalments.

Book of Death is a fun adventure novel for kids, and a bright beginning to the TombQuest series. Kids who devoured The 39 Clues and Spirit Animals series will want to dig in immediately.

Note: TombQuest Book 1 – Book of Death is released alongside an online game. This was not reviewed, and has no bearing on the novel’s merit.

Review: Who Could That Be at This Hour? by Lemony Snicket

Lemony Snicket“Who Could That Be At This Hour” is the first novel in a quartet of young adult novels by esteemed author Lemony Snicket (David Handler). The “All the Wrong Questions” series is a prequel to Snicket’s standout work, “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” which I’d heard of, naturally, but never read: and the chances of me delving into a 13-part narrative is extremely unlikely, regardless of its acclaim. And in fact, when I picked up my copy of “Who Could That Be At This Hour” I had no idea there’d be some overlap into Snicket’s preceding fiction. I was simply enamoured by its opening lines:

“There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a left. I was living in the town, and I was hired to investigate the theft, and I thought the girl had nothing to do with it. I was almost thirteen and I was wrong. I was wrong about all of it.”

I imagine Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler would be nodding their heads in approval: this is the kind of stripped-down noir-saturated prose I’ve rarely seen in fiction aimed at younger readers.

The plot centres on a mystery, with Lemony Snicket playing the role of lead detective who is apprenticing for the VFD under S. Theodora Markson. In the town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea – a seaside town bizarrely no longer by the sea – a statue has been stolen from the Sallis residence. Theodora and Lemony are tasked with the returning the object to “its rightful owner.” But determining the statue’s rightful owner amidst all the treachery and betrayal, and the looming threat of the enigmatic Hangfire, as well as Snicket’s own furtive machinations, isn’t a simple task.

Of course, this being the first of four, the novel asks more than it answers: but its threads dangle so tantalizingly, you’ll inevitably seek out the other volumes to learn how the story wraps.

Review: Life of Zarf – The Trouble With Weasels by Rob Harrell

Zarf

Zarf Belford is a young troll who attends Cotswin Middle School in the kingdom of Notswin, where lunch is served by Goldilocks, who always ensures the food is neither too hot nor too cold, always just right. In terms of the social hierarchy, he’s anchored at the bottom because of his heritage. Even the Normals / Animals and Band Kids / Minstrels rank above him. His best friend is Kevin Littlepig, who lives in a brick house (of course) and whose family is in the construction business after that mess with the huffing and puffing wolf. Chester is the son of the King’s jester, but hasn’t been blessed with his father’s humour. To make up for it, he studies joke books, and desperately flails at even the easiest of puns. The trio often hang out at the Wishing Tree – which, instead of granting wishes, actually makes them, again and again, mumbling to himself, until the kids shut him up with peanut butter. Zarf’s nemesis is Prince Roquefort, next in line for the throne, and who will only grow into a larger thorn in Zarf’s side as time goes by.

 

We learn all this background in the opening twenty-or-so pages of Rob Harrell’s first book in his new middle grade book series – and from here, we join Zarf and his friends on a quest that will see them overcoming their fears, beating the odds, and learning valuable life lessons; but they’re never belaboured, always funny and nuanced in a fashion that’s sure to keep young readers turning the pages.
Harrell is a cartoonist, and his novel is peppered with chuckle-worthy illustrations, emphasizing the pure ingeniousness of Zarf’s world, a unique blend of fairy-tale tropes and characters and elements from our world. One minute, Zarf is being challenged to a joust on a swampfrog and the next he’s getting a call on his cell phone and referencing Spider-Man. There are enough pop culture references throughout to ensure parents enjoy the ride as much as their children; a fine feat indeed.
LIFE OF ZARF: THE TROUBLE WITH WEASELS is a fantastic addition to middle grade fiction. If your kids have exhausted the entirety of the Wimpy Kid series and are looking for something new, this could be it. Heck, buy it for yourself. It’s that good.