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Monday, March 23, 2009

THE GIMLET EYE By James Roy. Quentaris: Quest of the Lost City #3. Melbourne, Ford Street Publishing, 2009.

In this third instalment of the spin-off of the popular Quentaris shared-world series, a character from the original series is actually killed off, something that doesn’t usually happen in shared universes. As it happens in the prologue, it’s no secret.

The Archon, ruler of Quentaris, is dying. His horrible nephew Florian is persuaded to finish him off rather than wait for his inevitable death. Florian’s “friend” Janus (as in the two-faced god?) reminds him of the prophecy that declares that anyone who kills the previous ruler will rule properly himself. Janus, of course, has his own agenda.

Meanwhile, the adult magicians have been banished to a very nasty part of the city (well, they can’t be exiled elsewhere, short of being thrown overboard, since Quentaris has been travelling from one vortex to another). The younger ones, such as Tab Vidler, former Dung Brigader and recently an apprentice magician, and her friend Amelia, have been spared the dungeons, but left to their own devices. Tab is back to shovelling dung, though on a farm rather than the streets, while Amelia is working at a pub. Torby, the boy rescued in the first novel, The Spell of Undoing, is lying in hospital in a catatonic state. Nobody knows how this happened, except, of course, the reader.

That conceited ac-tor, Fontagu Wizroth the Third, has been ordered to do a command performance of a play called The Gimlet Eye for the new Emperor’s birthday, and he’s thrilled. Tab, Amelia and their friend, the former pirate Verris, can’t persuade Fontagu that there’s something fishy going on…

In my opinion, this one is the best so far in the new series. We learn more about the characters and their feelings. The adventure is fast, but straightforward enough for the young readers for whom this is an introduction to fantasy. At the same time, there’s a murder in the first chapter; there’s no tiptoeing around the issue. What happens to the adult magicians is also scary.

But there’s still plenty of humour, maybe more than there's been since the end of the original series – and in the end, Fontagu is shown in a more positive light than before.

The only thing is, while you can probably get something out of this book without having read the others, you really do need to have read them to understand properly what’s going on. The series is no longer a lot of related but individual titles. There is still, however, a policy of using some of Australia’s top children’s writers to keep the quality up.

Recommended for children from mid-primary to early secondary school.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Schooling Around: Treasure Fever!, Pencil of Doom!, Mascot Madness! By Andy Griffiths. Sydney, Pan Macmillan, 2008, 2009.

Andy Griffiths is the author of a lot of over-the-top Australian children’s books. His stories are funny and bizarre without quite the grossout of some other popular children’s writers.

Then again, there are the Bum stories. The first, The Day My Bum Went Psycho, started as a short story in which a boy’s bum detaches itself and runs away, leaving him with a major problem keeping his trousers on. In that particular story, there are official bum-catchers, so it’s not all that unusual.

And kids love the absurdity of it all, the sheer silliness, and no surprise there.

The Schooling Around series so far has the usual silliness of Griffiths stories. It manages to slip in messages about self-belief, bullying and courage, without hitting the reader over the head with them. In fact, it’s likely children will absorb them without noticing.

Schooling Around is set in Grade 5B at Northwest Southeast Central School. The Principal, Mr Greenbeard, loves ships and sailing, so treats the school as a ship and speaks in maritime terms. Most characters have appropriate names - the sports teacher is Mr Grunt, the gardener is Mr Spade, the teacher next door, Mrs Cross is always cross.

The adventures of 5B are narrated by Henry McThrottle, who has several friends - Jenny Friendly(she is), Jack Japes, Grant Gadget, whose father is an inventor, horse-loving Gina and Penny Palomino, the brilliant Fiona McBrain, Newton Hooton, who’s scared of everything. Their teacher, who arrives in the first novel, is the loopy Mr Brainfright, whose enthusiasm in teaching everything from how to breathe to how to eat a banana leads him to keep falling out of the window, into Mr Spade’s flower beds.

Each adventure is more or less stand-alone, although it refers to previous stories. In Treasure Fever! the students go searching for a “pirate treasure” buried in the school grounds years ago by Mr Greenbeard, when he was a student.

In Pencil of Doom! Henry desperately tries to get rid of a magical pencil that grants wishes when you use it to draw what you want, but definitely not in the way you were expecting your wishes granted. This story gives a nod to “The Monkey’s Paw” and even has Mr Brainfright telling the story to his class, as if it had happened to one of his friends.

In the recently-released Mascot Madness! the school has to compete in athletics sports against Northwest West Academy, whose obnoxious students jeer and throw things at our heroes whenever their bus is going past. They have been defeating Northwest Southeast Central for the last forty-nine years. Can Henry and his friends win this time, with the help of their new mascot - Mr Brainfright in a banana costume? Especially when their likable teacher is becoming obsessed with bananas and has started to think he is a banana?

Silliness or not - and there is something very silly about a giant dancing banana - there is a message here about believing in yourself and being optimistic.

Recommended for children from mid-primary to early secondary school.