Smile: The Story of the original Mona Lisa by Mary Hoffman

smile.jpgTitle: Smile: The Story of the original Mona Lisa

Author: Mary Hoffman

Genre: Children’s/Teen/Educational/Historical Fiction

Publisher: Faber Factory/Barrington Stoke/Allen and Unwin

Published: 24th January 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 88

Price: $14.99

Synopsis: A gorgeous historical novel following the fictional life of the young woman who would become Leonardo Da Vinci’s greatest work

Renaissance Italy is a world of riches open to any man who dares to conquer it. In the life of young Lisa the doors to this world remain closed. Promised in her youth to a widower as a loving wife and mother, she is resigned to an unremarkable existence clinging only to the memory of being “Lovely Lisa” to the now great Leonardo Da Vinci. But when their paths cross again her portrait will become his masterpiece and her smile will capture the imagination of the world.

Information for Adults: This book has a dyslexia-friendly layout, typeface and paper stock so that even more readers can enjoy it. It has been edited to a reading age of 8. It features a removable ‘super-readable’ sticker.

 

Reading Age: 8 Interest age: 14

 

~*~

 

One of the most famous Italian Renaissance paintings known today is Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, hanging in the Musée de Louvre in Paris, and attracting millions of visitors a year. In Smile, Mary Hoffman has ficitonalised the story of Lisa Gheradini, the subject of da Vinci’s most famous and most visited painting, in a book aimed at children of all ages, but with those whose reading level and interest level don’t always align in mind. In Hoffman’s story, Lisa is first drawn by da Vinci at the age of three, and it is a portrait she has always treasured, however this likely didn’t happen in reality, but for the purposes of this story, makes for an interesting beginning and way to link the two figures together as the novel progresses.

 

Lisa is the oldest child in her family, and is aware that she must make a good marriage, something drummed into her by her mother since birth. Discouraged from her dreams of falling in love, Lisa is married to Francesco del Giocondo, and bears him several children over the years of their marriage. Leonardo da Vinci comes in and out of the novel, and the historical background of religious and political turmoil of Renaissance Italy and Florence weaves in and out of the novel, giving just enough context for readers to have an idea of what is going on, but also enough so that curious readers of any age and ability can explore the historical background beyond the page on their own.

 

 

It is a story that does not shy away from the difficulties Lisa faced in her marriage and society, but writes about them at an appropriate reading and interest level, allowing the reader to immerse themselves in the story without feeling like they can’t understand it or like it is too simple for them. For eager readers, it might be a quick read, and for those who might struggle, a good way to build on their reading skills whilst learning something new or about something they are interested in. Books like this give all children at all reading and interest levels something to read and enjoy, a good move in the book industry to encourage a love of reading, and help children find something they love to do.

 

A great read for any age, and a great initiative for children with dyslexia or other learning disabilities to access books they can read and will be interested in, and for others in their lives to share with them too.

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Rain Fall by Ella West

rain fall.jpgTitle: Rain Fall

Author: Ella West

Genre: YA Mystery

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 2nd January 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 224

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: A tense, engaging read that will have you racing through the pages.

I’m not running late like I usually am. Maybe that’s why I look in the river, maybe that’s why I stop when I see it. A dark-coloured raincoat, the arms spread wide, floating, hood-first down the river. 

And then it starts to rain.

Fifteen-year-old Annie needs to get to her basketball match, but the police have cordoned off her road. Is her neighbour, who she grew up with, still alive? What has he done to have the police after him?

A murder investigation brings new people to Annie’s wild West Coast town, including a dark-haired boy riding the most amazing horse she has ever seen. But Annie is wary of strangers, especially as her world is beginning to crumble around her. In setting out to discover the truth Annie uncovers secrets that could rip the small community apart.

~*~

Ella West’s new novel, Rain Fall, takes place in a small town in New Zealand – Westport, where the coal mines have long been a source of employment for many there, until recent closures and lay-offs start to gnaw at everyone. Annie, the main character and narrator, is on her way to school, prepared for an important basketball game when she is turned back, with a street blockade preventing her from leaving home as they wait for her neighbour, in trouble with the police, to emerge from his home. Pete is alone, and accused of theft and possibly murder. When his house explodes, the police are propelled into action to try and find him, or find out what happened to him under the shadow of the loss of one thousand jobs at the local coal mine.

As Annie’s life gets back to normal, or as normal as possible with big city police in the town, she encounters a new friend with a love of riding just as she has – and the mystery of what happened to Pete grows throughout the novel, and Jack, Annie’s new friend, soon turns to her for help with something she never thought she’d ever be helping with. In a small town where everyone talks, it seems not many people are very chatty about a potential murderer hiding in their midst.

Rain Fall is an intriguing novel, and a good introduction to the mystery genre to teenage readers who might be encountering it for the first time. Annie is an interesting character, and following her love for horses, basketball and the rain gives insight into her and what to look for in the story. The rain throughout the novel, right from page one sets the scene and foreshadows the mysteries and events to come as the novel picks up pace right from page one, and keeps the action going as you turn the pages.

The mystery and the loss of jobs in the town form the backbone of the story, with Annie and Jack’s relationship evolving as the story goes on, allowing character development and the plot to happen nicely. It is a fairly quick read, and teenagers should enjoy it as a refreshing break from romance driven YA, allowing characters to exist without having to change who they are to be accepted.

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The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington

the red ribbonTitle: The Red Ribbon

Author: Lucy Addlington

Genre: Historical Fiction/Young Adult

Publisher: Bonnier/Hotkey/Allen and Unwin

Published: 25th October 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 320

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: Rose, Ella, Marta and Carla. In another life we might all have been friends together. This was Birchwood. For readers of The Diary of Anne Frank and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

As fourteen-year-old Ella begins her first day at work she steps into a world of silks, seams, scissors, pins, hems and trimmings. She is a dressmaker, but this is no ordinary sewing workshop. Hers are no ordinary clients. Ella has joined the seamstresses of Auschwitz-Birkenau, as readers may recognise it. Every dress she makes could mean the difference between life and death. And this place is all about survival.

Ella seeks refuge from this reality, and from haunting memories, in her work and in the world of fashion and fabrics. She is faced with painful decisions about how far she is prepared to go to survive. Is her love of clothes and creativity nothing more than collaboration with her captors, or is it a means of staying alive? Will she fight for herself alone, or will she trust the importance of an ever-deepening friendship with Rose? One thing weaves through the colours of couture gowns and camp mud – a red ribbon, given to Ella as a symbol of hope.

~*~

Set during the final months and years of the Second World War, Ella has been whisked away off the streets to the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, known in the novel as Birchwood. Here, she is set to working, making clothes for the guards and the Commandant and his family. Here, she learns to make patterns, to choose the right colours for people, and together with Rose, the storyteller, whose fairy-tale optimism keeps the girls going during the darkest of days, dreams of the dress shop they will own one day in the City of Lights – Paris. Ella’s way of describing her world Them, Guards – Nazis, and Stripeys – those in the concentration camp – is both innocent and sobering. It is a child’s view of this world she now inhabits, a world where she is not immune to the brutality surrounding her. It is Ella’s perspective that gives the novel the powerful impact it needs to have, to remind us of what has happened in the past, and to prevent the same thing happening again.

To escape the horrors of the camp, Ella finds her solace in sewing and designing clothes, a skill that she knows she will use when she gets out – but in a place where it seems nobody will ever leave, she begins to wonder if she will ever achieve her dream, or if it’s just a way to comfort herself through the long, dark days. It is not a comfortable novel to read, and nor should it be. Any novel that delves into the darker depths of human history and humanity should not be a comfortable or easy read. What this novel shows is that we should never forget, but also that the human spirit’s capacity to push on through adversity and survive, even when we think we can’t go on.

The Red Ribbon is one of those novels that stays with you and haunts you. It is not one to shy away from the gritty reality that Ella lives in. Instead, the gritty reality is shown, and the horrors communicated through Ella’s eyes as she fights to stay alive and then fights to find freedom. It is a novel to be read alongside the history books, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and stories of resistance against the regime, as portrayed in The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth, Reading these books together will give a more human view of the Holocaust than we get from history books – a human face put to those affected, to those caught up in what was going and to those actively trying to resist. Lucy has captured the history and experiences eloquently, and sensitively, ensuring that the careful research she did has been communicated in an effective and informative way to readers, and giving them a chance to explore the history behind the story in her notes at the end of the novel. it is one that I hope to read again at some stage, because it is important that we keep reading these stories to never forget, and to prevent it happening again during our own lifetimes.

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The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli

the last namsara.jpgTitle: The Last Namsara

Author: Kristen Ciccarelli

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 3rd October 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 304

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: A gripping YA crossover series from a spectacular new voice in the genre Once there was a girl who was drawn to wicked things

Asha is a dragon-slayer. Reviled by the very people she’s sworn to protect, she kills to atone for the wicked deed she committed as a child – one that almost destroyed her city, and left her with a terrible scar.

But protecting her father’s kingdom is a lonely destiny: no matter how many dragons she kills, her people still think she’s wicked.

Even worse, to unite the fractured kingdom she must marry Jarek, the cruel commandant. As the wedding day approaches, Asha longs for freedom.

Just when it seems her fate is sealed, the king offers her a way out: her freedom in exchange for the head of the most powerful dragon in Firgaard.

And the only person standing in her way is a defiant slave boy . . .

THE LAST NAMSARA is an extraordinary story about courage, loyalty and star-crossed love, set in a kingdom that trembles on the edge of war.

~*~

Asha’s story begins on a dragon hunt, where the identity she has been given her whole life is made obvious from the beginning of the novel. The Old Stories that have been outlawed draw the dragons to her, and, following the name she has ben given, Iskari, she kills them in an attempt to atone for a crime she committed as a child. Asha’s scars tell her story, and cause the people of her city to fear her. Asha has been the stories of her destiny and what killed her mother for years and believed them – without anyone to tell her otherwise, she believes them. Until the day a young dragon prevents her from killing the First Dragon, Kozu, and awakens questions within that will lead her to do wicked and dangerous things to prevent more tragedy from befalling her family, and to prevent events that she has been desperately trying to avoid with the help of someone she never thought she would become close to. As what I hope is the beginning of an intriguing series, it has a little bit of everything, including a touch of romance that does not overtake the rest of the story and overshadow what Asha and those who gather around her eventually to help uncover the truth will have to do.

First and foremost, this fantasy novel is about Asha finding her identity, and uncovering secrets that have been kept from her so that those who wish to harm her can control her and ensure she does what they want, when they want it, and without question. Along the way, Asha’s worldview is shattered, and she befriends a slave, a skral, and learns his name: Torwin, going against centuries of tradition, and connecting with him in a way that puts them both at risk, and that mirrors the Old Stories, told in between sections of the first half of the novel, showing how they have shaped the world and how people like Asha’s father and Jarek, the man her father wants her to wed, fear what does not need to be feared – including the dragons that Asha has been made to hunt and must now protect.

The Last Namsara explores trust, family and identity, and illustrates how those we least expect can become the only ones we can trust. Asha is scarred – and has a paralysed arm from the events at the beginning of the novel, but she does not let this stop her, especially when everything comes to a head and she does what she never thought she would do, and puts herself in danger. It is these dangerous events that lead to the final events of the novel, and presents the reader with more questions than answers during the final chapters, that will hopefully be answered in a future novel, to wrap up the strands that felt they had more of a story to be told.

It is a gripping story that didn’t take me long to read, as it had a decent pace, not too fast or too slow, and intrigue that had me wanting to know what was going to happen next. A great read for fans of Young Adult, and Fantasy Literature.

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Moonrise by Sarah Crossan

moonriseTitle: Moonrise

Author: Sarah Crossan

Genre: YA

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Published: 1st September 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 400

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: The astonishing new novel from Carnegie Medal, CliPPA Poetry Award, YA Book Prize and CBI Book of the Year Award winning author Sarah Crossan.

They think I hurt someone.
But I didn’t. You hear?
Cos people are gonna be telling you
all kinds of lies.
I need you to know the truth.

Joe hasn’t seen his brother for ten years, and it’s for the most brutal of reasons. Ed is on death row.

But now Ed’s execution date has been set, and Joe is determined to spend those last weeks with him, no matter what other people think …

From one-time winner and two-time Carnegie Medal shortlisted author Sarah Crossan, this poignant, stirring, huge-hearted novel asks big questions. What value do you place on life? What can you forgive? And just how do you say goodbye?

~*~

Moonrise is the latest extraordinary offering from Sarah Crossan. Another novel told in verse, something Sarah pulls off extremely well, it tackles another story of the underdogs, the ones who are disadvantaged by a justice system, and other systems skewed in the favour of others and those who hold the fate of innocent people in their hands. Through the eyes of Joe, in poems that occasionally flashback to a childhood before his brother went to jail, and the years in between his journey to Texas to save his brother, Joe tells the story of what it was like growing up with a mother who didn’t care, a brother and sister who did, and who did everything they could to keep him safe, and an aunt who, after his mother left, refused to help his brother, Ed. It is a story that has few rays of hope and happiness within it, showing the gritty reality of a broken justice system that shackles and condemns people without proper investigation, and that varies from state to state, as Joe says in one of the verses, that the crime his brother had committed in Texas and earned him the death penalty would have carried a life sentence in another state.

Throughout the novel, which is solely seen through the eyes of Joe, we catch glimpses into his family members and how he responds to them. He is closest to Ed and his sister, Angela, whilst his mother has gone off. His aunt cares but in a harsh way – in a way that at the time, Joe sees as repressive and cold. She brings religion and a strict nature into the house, ensuring Joe and Angela will not end up in the same place as Ed, but as Joe relates through his poetry, people still associate what Ed has supposedly done with them, and they become isolated.

It is a poignant novel about the injustice of a justice system that serves to punish based on circumstance and misfortune of a casual link to a person, without evidence, leading to an inevitable conclusion that the reader hopes won’t happen. The grim reality that the Moon family face is something that many families face in America, and Sarah Crossan has done a sensitive job taking on a challenging topic that may not be understood by those not affected. Through the eyes of a teenager, she has shown how something like this can not only change the life of the accused, but the life of a family, and those who come to know them and who try to help them.

It is a powerful story that does have an effect on the reader, making your mind tick over about the issues dealt with in the book. To date, I have read two of Sarah’s books told in verse, and in both she has taken characters who are not fully accepted by society and not properly seen, and has told their story, opening up a world beyond what many readers might know, and evoking empathy and sympathy for those less fortunate, and those whose lives are affected by events that not everyone will experience. Telling it in verse makes it all the more powerful, and though it is a quick read, you still get the gist of the story, and the emotions that drive it.

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Sky by Ondine Sherman

SKY-final-257PX-194x300.pngTitle: Sky

Author: Ondine Sherman

Genre: YA

Publisher: The Author People

Published: 28th June, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 166

Price: $18.99

Synopsis: Sometimes you have to lose everything to find yourself.

After her mother’s death, Sky leaves her city life to move in with her aunt and uncle in a small Australian town. But the city isn’t all that she leaves behind. Trying to fit in with her new friends means doing things she never dreamt she’d do.

Just as she thinks everything is starting to feel normal, Sky stumbles on a case of animal cruelty that forces her to make some tough decisions.

Will Sky risk everything to stand up for what she believes in?

~*~

After the death of her mother, and removal to a small country town from the city, Sky is left with an empty, desolate feeling, a sense of disconnect from everyone and everything, including her aunt and uncle who have taken her in as guardians, and the sensation that she is losing her identity, and who she is, as well as her convictions about animal rights, and being vegan. Terrified of the isolation that comes with being a teenager and the new girl in school, Sky hides what she is passionate about in an attempt to fit in, and get in with the popular crowd – something that many teenagers feel during the turbulent years where they can sacrifice any part of themselves – interests, convictions, beliefs – in an attempt to fit in. Sky is torn between doing the right thing – staying true to herself and befriending Lucy, a less popular girl, but one who shares Sky’s passions – and joining in with the popular crowd, which means becoming a hypocrite.

aww2017-badgeAs well as this, Sky has been interacting online with a fellow vegan, and a boy at school who is also a devoted animal lover – could they be the same? This love story evolves as the story goes on, and does not dominate Sky’s thoughts – she is in mourning and the evolution of the story reflects this, and the reader’s ability to pause and think about these issues, but also, gives them the freedom to make their own choices as well.

Ondine Sherman has written a novel that reflects her beliefs but also reflects the nature of humans and the contradictions and challenges they face after death and in new places, and within themselves. Whilst Sky does speak a lot about being vegan and animal cruelty, rather than trying to convert the reader, Sherman shows one aspect of the fight for animal rights, and she does it well. With an open ending, leaving much to the imagination of the reader, I found that this worked for Sky and her story, and left off in a place where, like many people, she was left in a state of indecision.

Starting this novel, I wasn’t sure if I would connect with it or enjoy it, but found that like any novel, it had good points and bad points, and it is a powerful story about finding out who you are, and staying true to yourself, finding a family and finding friends who will always stand by you. At times I did find Sky annoying, but the popular girls were more annoying, and I did like that Sky stood up for what she believed in but at the same time, I also felt that she accepted that not everyone would agree with her all the time.

The power of this novel lies in its ability to communicate a message about what the author believes but also, a general message about being who you are. It may not be one I will revisit right away, but it was an unexpected and interesting read that had a story behind the story, and that fits in with the philosophy of The Author People and Lou Johnson.

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The Dream Walker by Victoria Carless

the dream walker.jpg

Title: The Dream Walker

Author: Victoria Carless

Genre: YA Literary Fiction

Publisher: Hachette/Lothian

Published: 27th June 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 265

Price: $19.99Synopsis: The weight of a secret can drag you under . . .

A tender coming-of-age young-adult novel for fans of Gary Crew, Vikki Wakefield and Craig Silvey.

Sixteen-year-old Lucy Hart has been counting the days till she can get the hell out of Digger’s Landing – a small Queensland fishing hamlet home to fifteen families, a posse of mongrel dogs, and Parkers Corner Store (no apostrophe and nowhere near a corner).

But just like the tides Lucy’s luck is on the turn, and as graduation nears her escape plans begin to falter; her best friend, Polly, is dropping out of school to help pay the bills, and Tom has been shipped off to boarding school, away from the flotsam of this place. And then there’s Lucy’s nightlife, which is filled with dreams that just don’t seem to belong to her at all . . .

When the fish stop biting, like they did when her mum was still around, Lucy realises she isn’t the only one with a secret.

~*~

aww2017-badgeVictoria Carless’s debut novel out this June, The Dream Walker, is Lucy Hart’s story in the year following her mother’s death, beginning with a fishing trip that results in a lack of fish, and ongoing accusations hurled at Lucy and her father, usually by the bully of Digger’s Landing, Gavin Lawler, whose bullying extends beyond the school bus, to his youngest sister and anyone else he perceives as weak. Lucy’s coping with the loss of her mother, driven to her death by a myriad of things, secrets that Lucy has been trying to uncover, the departure of her good friend Tom to boarding school in the city, and the ongoing bullying the Lawlers, led by Gavin, haul at her any time they can. She is counting the days until she can leave, and find her own place, away from the whispering and the stares, away from the accusations that her and her father are taking more than their share of fish during a time the fish aren’t biting and the fishing economy of Digger’s Landing is flopping around like a fish out of water, gasping for breath. In all of this, Lucy’s only friend is her dog, Glen, who knows her secrets, and who never leaves her side. At school, at least at the start of the year, she has her best friend Polly, the first friend she made when she moved with her parents to Digger’s Landing, who shares her Islander heritage (it is not specified which nation) and food with Lucy, until her father sends her off to work, forcing her to drop out of school to help the family make ends meet. After this, Lucy’s world begins to unravel. She is targeted and bullied by Gavin, and is dealing with her own grief, and her father’s, following her mother’s death. Her only distraction, helping alcoholic Syd Lawler, Gavin’s father, learn to read is short lived, and she is plagued by dreams that aren’t hers – dreams that belong to the people of Digger’s Landing. At first, Lucy is surprised that her dreaming has led her to dream about Mrs Parker, and the bus driver, Mr Sheriff, and a drowning boy, who keeps appearing. Is it Tom, her friend who has run away to the city, harbouring his own secrets about where he wants to go, and who he really is? His secrets that he has to hide from his parents, from everyone at Digger’s Landing, because they might not accept him for who he is are ones he’s too scared to share with Lucy, the one person who would have accepted him for who he is. Or is it someone else who is lost, with the water so far over their head, they can’t cope. Or is it more literal, and a dark omen of events that are yet to happen? Lucy is determined to find out, but with everyone keeping secrets, including her, will it be too late to do anything? Or will her own secret be revealed, and used against her?

At the beginning of the novel, all the Lawler siblings are shown as bullies, who think they own Digger’s Landing and who think they can always get their way, and not get caught out. It soon transpires that little Sadie is mistreated and bullied, and she runs away, to the safety of Glen and Lucy, and when Gavin and older sister Talia are bullying Lucy, she stands by her side, refusing to leave and go home where she is no doubt bullied further. Sadie ends up helping Lucy towards the end, and I like to think that little Sadie got a happy ending of sorts, away from a mother and siblings who didn’t notice when she ran away or wore the same clothes for a week.

The Dream Walker is heart breaking but at the same time, hopeful, yet realistic. Whilst the instances of bullying are not graphic, they are enough to grab your attention and they are well written, and hopefully, it will start a conversation about the themes explored in this literary fiction for young adults aged fourteen and older about alcohol, suicide, bullying and grief to help them deal with bullying or grief throughout their lives.

A surreal story set in a real world, a town failing to make ends meet, where everyone is fighting for survival against each other, and a town where anyone who is different in any way is a target for harassment and bullying. Within this novel, Victoria Carless eloquently deals with themes of bullying and harassment, suicide, grief and alcoholism, showing how being bullied can impact you, and how isolation because you’re different and feel you might not be accepted can lead to tragedies or near tragedies, and the fracturing of families within a town, allowing readers to engage with these themes through the characters and learn about them and how they can impact and change lives. It is a story that has moments of hope and moments of darkness. It has small triumphs but not so small failures, and it has a realistic ending – where not everything works out in a happily ever after, but resolves what needs to be resolved, and allows the reader to imagine the rest for themselves.

#LoveOzYa #AWW2017

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