Can a dog that smells like sardines and looks like a doormat ever find an owner to look after and love him? Find out in this comic canine caper.
Dumpster Dog – a homeless canine without a family or owner – lives rough on the streets. He’s smelly and messy and completely unkempt, although we shouldn’t hold that against him as he’s a dog down on his luck. Dumpster Dog has a friend, Flat Cat, a luckless feline that was run over and flattened. He tells Flat Cat he’s going to try and find himself an owner. His friend doesn’t like his chances.
Things don’t go according to plan. Dumpster Dog meets a potential owner, a well dressed man with a car, but the man turns out to be a rascal. Soon Dumpster Dog is on his own again, and in more trouble. He’s abducted by a group of bandits and put into a cage with a lot of other hapless animals. Their fate looks grim. Can Dumpster Dog be a hero to the other animals and escape? Can he ever find the company he craves, despite smelling like sardines and looking like an old doormat?
The first in a series of short chapter books by French writer Colas Gutman and illustrator Marc Boutavant, Dumpster Dog is an hilarious romp through the city streets of France. The story has a wonderfully comic cast of human villains and ill-fated animals. Who doesn’t like an adventure story with the requisite group of archetypal baddies, not to mention the young girl who works for them, administering tranquilizer drugs? Colas Gutman hits all the right notes with this goofy caper, balancing the cruelty of Dumpster Dog’s predicament against his sweet, innocent nature. This is a vibrantly told story full of invention and pleasant surprises. A real entertainment. Marc Boutavant’s illustrations are utterly gorgeous, little works of art in themselves, making this a very special book indeed.
Dumpster Dog is sure to win you over.
Dumpster Dog, by Colas Gutman. Illustrated by Marc Boutavant. Published by Enchanted Lion Books. RRP: $14.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A young Mexican man takes a dangerous journey on top of a train to the US border.
Manuel lives a traditional life farming corn with his family in Mexico. His older brother, Tono, has left Mexico for America. He lives in Los Angeles and does menial work to scratch out a living. Being witness to a tragic event prompts young Manuel (he is twelve-years-old) to ride on top of a freight train to the US border. These freight trains are colloquially known as The Beast. It's an extremely dangerous way to get to the border as murderous gangs patrol the train tops. The travel is also dirty and uncomfortable, with access to water and food limited.
It takes Manuel several years to re-unite with his brother Tono in Los Angeles. By the time he arrives he is fifteen-years-old and his hair has gone white from the stress of travel. He finds life in America isolating and exploitative. In one memorable passage, Manuel finds a laboring job, but is treated abominably. This is the lot of undocumented Mexican migrants, as they have no legal protections.
As life in Los Angeles becomes lonelier, and his prospects wither, Manuel makes a surprising decision.
Tony Johnston and María Elena Fontanot de Rhoads have created a gritty yet heartfelt story of a young man out on his own, making a terrifying trip. The story has a nicely rhythmic prose, liberally peppered with Spanish words, giving it a unique feel. In theme, if not in style, the book is reminiscent of John Steinbeck classics such as The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, as it deals with indigent workers trying to survive in a harsh American labour market that is stacked against them. Realistic touches, such as the depiction of the notorious gangs, the kindness of strangers and the grim camaraderie of the beast riders, make for a refreshing authenticity.
Young readers here get a window onto a very different world, exposing them to a current political and moral dilemma of how to respond to the US border problem. An adventure story tempered with much sadness.
Beast Rider, by Tony Johnston and Maria Elena Fontanot de Rhoads. Published by Abrams. RRP: $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A typical English family turns out to be not so typical after all.
The Mennyms are a neat, respectable little English family living quite peacefully in their modest home. They have lived there for many years – forty in fact – without much to bother them. Out of the blue comes a letter from Australia. A certain Albert Pond has inherited the house and is their new landlord. He's a likeable enough chap, going by his letters, and wants to meet the Mennym family. He plans on making a trip to England. When would the family be free to meet him?
The prospect throws the Mennym household into absolute chaos. The problem? The Mennyms are not human. They are actually a family of rag dolls, made by the house's original owner, Kate. The exquisitely made rag dolls she left behind came to life and now reside in the house, functioning as a perfectly normal family. The family keeps a low profile in the neighborhood, wearing thick glasses to cover their button eyes and hats so they are not so conspicuous. Errands to the local shops are made quietly and with a minimum of fuss, so as not to draw attention.
There are three generations of Mennyms. Magnus and Tulip are the grandparents, Vinetta and Joshua the parents, Soobie and Appleby are the teen children, Poopey and Wimpey the twins and lastly is Googles, the baby. Not to be forgotten is Miss Quigley, who lives in the hallway cupboard. She likes to keep up appearances, knocking at the front door and pretending she has come from her house for a visit. Later she will officially farewell the family, but secretly slip in the back door and back to her cupboard. In fact, the Mennyms do a lot of pretending. Can they keep up a good enough pretence to make Albert Pond think they are real?
Sylvia Waugh's first book in The Mennyms series (she wrote five in all) is both charming and hilarious. They are a blameless family who simply want to get on with life undisturbed. The endearing comedy comes from the Mennyms trying to keep up appearances and seem normal. The family often devise ludicrous strategies to “pass” for human. Their cloth bodies often gets them into scrapes, like when Joshua, a night time security guard, finds that a rat has eaten the stuffing in one leg. He suffers enormous embarrassment when he tries to walk home with a leg that won't support him properly. Or there is the time when Soobie “scandalises” the family by blurting out in front of Miss Quigley that she lives in the hallway cupboard. The Mennyms' dignity and that of their lodger depends on a series of “pretends” and artifices. This is perhaps what makes The Mennyms so enduring, as one of its major themes is the fragility of our place in the world, and how our well being depends on the little kindnesses of others.
Highly readable and intimately human, The Mennyms is sure to captivate.
The Mennyms, by Sylvia Waugh. Published by Puffin. $14.99
Review by Chris Saliba
An ancient historical feud between goblins and elves gets the comic treatment in this razor sharp satire on war and state propaganda.
Brangwain Spurge is an elfin historian. He has been sent by spymaster Lord Clivers to the neighbouring goblin kingdom to make peace. He carries with him a carved gemstone, to be presented to the goblin king, Ghohg. Spurge is also charged with an additional mission: to spy and send back reports.
Upon arrival, Spurge is welcomed by his goblin host, Werfel the Archivist. Both men are historians and should hit it off, but they quickly start feuding. Goblins and Elves have been at war for over a thousand years and each party is keen to blame the other for their long history of hostilities. As troubles mount for Werfel in his own country, the historian and archivist learn to tolerate each other, eventually developing a friendship.
Brangwain Spurge is a razor sharp comedy that lampoons the absurdities of war. There are echoes of Cervante’s Don Quixote in M.T. Anderson’s courtly main characters, with their haughty concerns over honour and status. Their absurd and deluded misreadings of Elfin-Goblin history is a pithy reminder of how prejudices become entrenched. Beautifully produced, with entire chapters narrated by Eugene Yelchin’s lively black and white illustrations, Brangwain Spurge is a hilarious romp with a very serious message.
Ages 10 +
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin. Published by Candlewick Press. RRP: $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
When a mysterious virus hits Melbourne affecting only men and boys, the city is renamed Girltopia and the girls take charge. It's a new world, fresh with adventure, but also danger.
In the first instalment of the Girltopia trilogy, we learnt that a mysterious virus had hit Melbourne. It only affected men and boys, putting them completely out of action. Under emergency conditions, the city has now been renamed Girltopia and the women are in charge.
Twelve-year-old Clara Bloom has found herself at the centre of the action, along with her best friends Arabella and Izzy. Clara's mum, a respected doctor, is trying to find a cure for the virus. She works in the city's hospital and has access to level seven, a specialist ward surrounded in secrecy. Could something sinister be going on?
Clara has some secrets of her own. Her group of girlfriends are hiding Izzy's younger brother, Jack, in the roof of her house. For some reason, the virus hasn't affected him and they worry that he might be locked up or experimented on if found. The ruthless Sergeant Hamilton, newly promoted policewoman, is on their trail. There are rumours she is running interference on finding a cure and possibly doesn't like men.
As the four young people – Clara, Arabella, Izzy and Jack – try to make their way in a radically transformed city, they learn that this is indeed a brave new world. The subversive underground movement, the Girlhoods, are organising and agitating. Will life ever be the same again, will a cure ever be found?
Girl Boss is a winner. Hilary Rogers weaves exciting new details into this second novel, peppering the plot with liberal doses of suspense and hold-your-breath moments. There are also plenty of comic, tongue-in-cheek touches, such as the underground “Pink Market” and the Girlhoods' signature drink, “Girltopia Fizz”. There is even a Uber service called “Girlber”!
A fun filled follow-up, this good-natured pink dysptopia entertains right up to the last page.
Boss Girl (Girltopia #2), by Hilary Rogers. Published by Scholastic. RRP: $14.99
Release date 1st March
Review by Chris Saliba
Once you've entered Cynthia Rylant's sweetly remembered childhood world, you won't want to leave.
It’s the early 1970s. Ten-year-old Flora lives in the idyllic Rosetown, Indiana. Her mother works at a quaint vintage bookstore three days a week and her father is a photographer for the local newspaper. Flora is a bit daunted by entering her fourth year at school – the classes are notably more demanding – but she has her good friend Yury to help smooth the way. Many nice things happen to Flora. She finds a wonderful cat, who magically appears on a seat at the vintage bookstore and relaxes there. Flora adopts the cat and calls it Serenity. Her school teacher thinks she has talent as a writer and encourages her.
While Flora’s life, and the little town she lives in, seems perfect in every way, there are dark shadows at the edges. Her parents have separated, the Vietnam War is slowly winding to an end and Yury’s family has fled the Ukraine due to war. Her best friend, Nessy, lives in a gated community, a fact that hints at a world that is not entirely safe.
These dark shadows, however, are only peripheral. They are grey clouds that soon pass over, leaving Rosetown forever bathed in sunlight and happiness.
Some readers may find Rosetown too idyllic, even saccharine. It’s true, Cynthia Rylant does describe a near perfect world. Some of it self-consciously so: the local bakery is called the Peaceable Buns Bakery and piano lessons are taken at Three Part Harmony. This reviewer, however, was totally won over, accepting that Rosetown is almost a work of fantasy, a re-creation of the best parts of the author’s childhood. Rylant’s style has a lovely naturalism, like that of Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery. Or to use a musical analogy, this short novel has aspects of Dolly Parton’s songs of sweetly remembered childhood, such as "Coat of Many Colours" and "God’s Colouring Book".
A perfectly constructed children’s novel that strives only to be itself.
Rosetown, by Cynthia Rylant. Published by Beach Lane. RRP: $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Meet Catvinkle, a pampered puss who dances in baby shoes and makes friends with a Dalmation named Ula.
Catvinkle the cat lives in a stylish house in Amsterdam with her owner, Mr Sabatini. One day the kindly Mr Sabatini meets a homeless Dalmation and decides to take her home. When Catvinkle sees the Dalmation enter her precious room with the deliciously warm fire, she takes umbrage. How could a dog be allowed in the house?
The Dalmation’s name is Ula and soon enough the two take the first troubled steps to get to know each other. As a friendship starts to emerge, Catvinkle reveals some secrets, one of which is her skill as a dancer. She dances in a pair of baby shoes and regularly enters the National Kitten Baby-Shoe Dancing Competition. Her great rival in the competition is the vain and conceited Twinkiepaws. With the help of Ula, Cantvinkle finds the courage to challenge Twinkiepaws in this most celebrated contest.
Elliot Perlman’s first novel for children is a charming and pitch-perfect story about learning to accept difference and meeting life’s challenges. The story has a broad roster of brilliant characters, from the frightening dog Grayston (it turns out he's not so scary in the end) to the somewhat aristocratic and eccentric Russian wolfhound, Lobbus. The hip New York cat Ketzington is a hoot: her parents met at a nightclub called Studio Fifty Paws. There is much energy, imagination and invention in Catvinkle. A favourite hangout for the dogs is a place called “Café Puppy Land”, where dogs had been “resting, drinking and snacking since 1642”; a club for cats called Kittens Anonymous meets on the western side of Vondelpark.
Enter Catvinkle’s cosy, pampered world and prepare to be charmed.
The Adventures of Catvinkle, by Elliot Perlman. Published by Puffin. RRP: $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
When a body is found stuffed down a well in the basement of the Rue Theatre, young detective team Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells know only they can solve the mystery.
It’s 1936. The place is London. Amateur sleuths fourteen-year-old Hazel Wong and fifteen-year-old Daisy Wells are staying with Daisy’s uncle Felix and aunt Lucy. To keep the girls busy and out of trouble, it’s decided to pack them off to the Rue Theatre. Aunt Lucy has some connections there and manages to land the girls bit parts in an upcoming production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
They meet Frances Crompton, the owner of the Rue, and are soon enchanted by the magic of the theatre. But as they get to know the cast and other backstage members, they sense tensions bubbling away. Rose Tree, the actress playing Juliet, is tempestuous and has rubbed a few people up the wrong way. The fiery yet beautiful Martita, a Portugese actress playing Nurse, loathes Rose. Other actors, the American Simon Carver and handsome Lysander Tollington, playing Romeo, also have rocky relationships with her. The plot thickens as threatening notes start turning up, targeting Rose.
Something terrible is brewing. Hazel and Daisy fear they will have to open their famous Detective Society for business again. The full horror of their suspicions is revealed when a body is found stuffed head-first down the well in the theatre’s basement. Who could have done it? So many had a motive for murder.
For adults reading this brilliantly paced and plotted children’s novel, it may feel like a spoof of the Agatha Christie / Dorothy L. Sayers crime genre. This reviewer couldn’t stop chuckling away at the campy, shock-horror plot developments and character histrionics. In one scene, the forthright Daisy addresses leading man Lysander with, “Step aside! If you please.” The cast is well drawn and nicely varied, from old timer Jim Cotter who mans the stage door to the flamboyant director, Inigo Leontes. The doll-like and garrulous Annie Joy, the wardrobe mistress, is a hoot. Interestingly, Robin Stevens weaves several gay characters into the plot, but it’s done so well it doesn’t jar. Hazel and Daisy are quite progressive when it comes to such matters and see the law penalising homosexual activity as so much stuff and nonsense.
It’s perhaps best to describe Death in the Spotlight as a hugely entertaining romp, one that perfectly captures the mood, language and characters of the British crime genre of the 1930s. At close to 400 pages, the suspense, laughs and good cheer never let up. Great fun and highly recommended!
Death in the Spotlight, by Robin Stevens. Published by Puffin. RRP: $16.99
A young girl braves dangerous counterrevolutionary forces in the Cuban countryside in order to teach literacy.
It's 1961 and thirteen-year-old Lora has joined a paramilitary group to spread literacy. Only two years previously, Fidel Castro had marched on Havana and ousted the corrupt, American backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Lora defies her father and commits to one year as a “brigadista”, an army member teaching literacy in the Cuban countryside. Even thought Batista has been defeated, there is still fighting and treachery going on. Young people have been tortured and executed. Even though Lora's role is to teach reading and writing, it's still a very dangerous undertaking.
American children's writer Katherine Paterson has crafted a seamless novel about a young girl's coming-of-age in a Cuba still torn by political strife. Based on interviews with Cuban friends and personal research, the novel has an effortless quality that makes it feel like it's based on personal experience. You'd never know the author is American and not Cuban. The portrait of Lora as a young girl who wants to do the right thing for her country, but is often scared by the very real possibility that she may be killed by the Batista forces, gives her an authentic feel.
My Brigadista Year doubles as a fascinating short history of the 1961 Cuban literacy program and inspiring story of an independent young girl, volunteering for a worthy cause and finding herself transformed by the experience.
My Brigadista Year, by Katherine Paterson. Published by Walker Books. ISBN: 9781406380811 RRP: $14.99
Review by Chris Saliba
When a mysterious virus hits Melbourne a group of girls take to the road to sort things out.
One day twelve-year-old Clara Bloom goes to school to find that there are no boys present. The male teachers are absent too. What could be going on? It appears a mysterious illness has afflicted all the men and boys in the city of Melbourne. No one can figure out why. A state of emergency is announced, major roads are blocked and there are up-to-the-minute television reports. Clara’s dad has gone fishing in regional Gippsland, along with friend Pete and his son Jack.
Clara and her teenage friend Izzy worry that the fishing trio may try to return to Melbourne, which would put them at risk of contracting the mysterious virus. Izzy, who has just received her licence, offers to drive to Gippsland. After picking up Clara’s best friend Arabella, the three girls go on a daring road trip.
Girltopia is the first installment of a three part series of novels from local North Melbourne writer Hilary Rogers. With its dystopian flavour and well-timed plotting, Girltopia makes for addictive reading. It has mystery, humour and loads of adventure. The main character, Clara, is easy to relate to, a young girl trying to piece her world together just as it is falling apart. Even though her parents are separating and life is full of confusion, she discovers strengths she never knew she had.
Parents will be happy with the novel's girlpower messages of independence, resilience and positive self-image. Girltopia will appeal to readers 9+.
Girltopia, by Hilary Rogers. Published by Scholastic. ISBN: 9781742994581 RRP: $14.99
Review by Chris Saliba