Magpies Magazine Sample Reviews

Sounds Spooky

Christopher Cheng, ill.Sarah Davis, Random House, 32pp.,
978 1 86471 879 9 $19.95 Hb

Whistling wind, rolling thunder, screeching cats, creaking floorboards, turning doorknobs—sounds from afar and sounds getting closer; the stuff of spooky stories, ghosts and haunted houses in the night. Sounds Spooky echoes the classic haunted house tales but for one small difference; here is a child ghost within the house frightened by creepy sounds that are progressively getting nearer to her. Against the mould too is the brave little trio of explorers armed with torches and a camera stealing through the night, nerves on edge, investigating the grand old house, inadvertently making noises as they sneak up stairs and along corridors. Conceptually and artistically this is a brilliant, delightful picture book that is sure to become a favourite on the bookshelf of any young child. For older readers there is a certain poignancy in its subtle subtext that further enriches an altogether exceptional work.
Right from the beginning the reader gets the sense that Sounds Spooky is something special. There is the illustration for starters; each picture is an amazingly detailed plaster and cardboard constructed set and the characters—surely the most appealing little people to be seen in picture books for a long time—are sculptures, the boy and his two sisters each clothed appropriately for the chilly, creepy expedition. Not to forget the little ghost whom readers will instantly take to their hearts, especially older readers who will understand the significance of the old yellowed newspaper one of the children spots in the torchlight, with its headline of a great influenza epidemic.
Then there is the magic of the text that uses language to superb effect to signal the children’s progression through the house, to illustrate the dubious steadfastness of the ghost, to simulate the creepy sounds, to evoke fear, to create tension and anticipation, to create the climactic encounter between the two parties and affirm the subsequent fact and joy of their new friendship.
Sounds Spooky is a superlative picture book in every respect. Readers are sure to be impressed by its technical accomplishment but it will ultimately be the cute little ghost that will seal the appeal of the book. Indeed her image will haunt their memory of it.
Kevin Steinberger

The Little Refugee

Anh Do and Suzanne Do, ill. Bruce Whatley, Allen and Unwin, 32pp.,
978 1 74237 832 9 $24.95 Hb
978 1 74269 550 1 e-Book

I will pre-empt my review by saying that if there is one book that you should get for your child this year it is this one. This true story for younger readers, based on Do’s memoir The Happiest Refugee, is about how and, perhaps more importantly, why he and his family fled their home in Vietnam on an old wooden fishing boat that stank of fish, and what happened next.
Do, despite his family being poor, remembers his childhood as being a happy one because there were always lots of people to play with me.
The journey to Australia was a treacherous one with Do’s family and the others on board having to battle a storm that left them with little drinking water or food, and pirates who stole everything of value. Finally they were rescued by a German cargo ship.
Once in Australia the true story continues with Do’s experiences as a child who could speak a little English. His experiences are retold with poignancy and display the strength of spirit which he and his family share.
Bruce Whatley has produced exquisite illustrations that offer added humour as well as emotional depths to the story. He illustrates the before-arriving-in-Australia pictures in monochromatic tones while once Do gets to Australia there is more colour added, representing a new life full of possibilities. Plenty of scope here for discussion.
Recommended. (Warning, grownups may need a tissue while reading.)
Sharon Greenaway

Violet Mackerel’s Natural Habitat

Anna Branford, ill. Sarah Davis, Walker Books Australia, 32pp., 978 1 921529 19 1$19.95 Hb

Violet Mackerel is a girl with theories, and a chance encounter with a sparrow at the shopping centre leads to the formation of her latest theory, the Theory of Helping Small Things. Violet suspects that if you help a small thing, the small thing may find a way to help you back, which could be quite interesting indeed. So when it starts to rain Violet decides to help a ladybird by giving it a nice new, dry habitat. Into a glass jar goes some leftover Christmas tinsel, a flower, a sprinkling of water, Violet’s special rainbowy wishing stone and the wonderfully named ladybird, Small Gloria. Unfortunately, however, Violet is soon to learn a sad lesson about natural habitats. I am quite fond of Violet Mackerel, and this third adventure lives up to my expectations; it is an interesting, effortless and lovely read, as well as beautifully presented. Violet is a quietly clever, immensely likeable character who is perfectly illustrated by Davis and suited to young readers 5 and up.
Clare Hingston

The Scorpio Races

Maggie Stiefvater, Scholastic Books US, 404pp., 978 0 545 38827 6 $25.00 Hb

If you are planning to read The Scorpio Races be warned: don’t start if you’ve got anything else planned for the rest of your day because you won’t be able to stop reading until the last page. Maggie Stiefvater’s latest release is riveting. And masterfully crafted to boot.
On the tiny island of Thisby, it is October, the month when the blood-loving water horses—capaill uisce—climb out of the sea, hungry and sea-mad; when frenzied preparations begin for the first of November, the day of the Scorpio Races. This is no ordinary horse race for the islanders and riders, and if past races are anything to go by, for some riders and their capaill mounts the price of entering will be their lives. But it’s Puck (Kate) Connolly—the first female to ride in the races—and Sean Kendrick who have the most at stake; both have their reasons for racing, and for each one, the need to win outweighs the inherent risks.
Steifvater displays an unflinching ability to set characters solidly on the page; she knows first-hand the minds and hearts of a close-knit community, of the ache to belong, the ache to leave, and of the bitter enmity caused by jealousy. Her characterisation is a close match for her superlative plotting and she is a dab hand at crafting an artful sentence. Her prose is vivid and fresh, witty and rich, with clever foreshadowing and withholding of detail. Her descriptions of place invoke all the senses and it is easy to see Steifvater has done her research when it comes to the portrayal of cliffs, the ocean and the behaviour of horses. Her personification of the island makes it a character in the story, a mysterious living entity that impacts the lives of its inhabitants, and to which each reacts in their own way.
This is a story long in the making for Steifvater, and as she outlines on her blog, one she believes is her best work to date. It is a compelling read, with a relentless build up of tension throughout the book. It is about courage, kin, treachery, trust, and love; about wanting something so badly two marginalised young people are willing to put their lives on the line. With a storyline populated with horses, a race and romance, The Scorpio Races is a book older teenage girls will relish.
Highly recommended.
Carole Poustie