The following reviews were written by Gersha Shteyman from Kesser Torah College in Sydney.  They will also appear in the NSW English Teacher’s Association magazine, mETAphor.

Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Across the Universe is a gripping, futuristic read.  Amy has left to journey with her family to a new world 300 years away but 251 years into the journey she is violently awoken to an alien world where is alone and an outsider.  Nothing in her new world makes sense and she is viewed with suspicion by the inhabitants of the spaceship Godspeed still many years away from reaching its destination.  Her only allies are Elder who is leader in training, Harley one of the patients of the Hospital and Orion, a secretive character.  Amy can no longer be returned to cryofreeze and is stuck in a world she does not want to belong to.  Mystery ensues in this novel as the frozen human cargo is being murdered by being awoken from cryofreeze and Amy and Elder have to race against time to find the murderer before more people, including Amy’s parents, are killed.  The novel is an engaging love story as well as murder mystery but what is even more interesting is the study of this futuristic totalitarian human society.  Apart from just being a good read, the novel raises some very interesting philosophical ideas which will have the class delving into questions about leadership, the role of the citizen in society, technological development, the purpose of life and many ‘what if’ scenarios.  One of the basic premises of this society, and one that Elder as the future leader has to grapple with, is whether it is better to be blissfully happy and oblivious to all around or aware of the truth and open to the ultimate despair as a result (much like the red pill/blue pill premise in The Matrix).  This is a very well written, highly recommended and engaging novel that will appeal to readers whether interested in sci-fi or not.  This is probably most suitable for Stage 5.

The Word Spy and Return of the Word Spy by Ursula Dubosarsky and Tohby Riddle (illus.)

The Word Spy and The Return of the Word Spy are both delightful exposès on our use of language in everyday life.  Both of these books are targeted for upper-primary and lower-high school but they really can be enjoyed by all age groups.  Dubosarsky’s books on the English language are not your typical dry grammar books but very entertaining with activities and puzzles at the end of each chapter.  The Word Spy takes us through how the English language developed and gives historical reasons for things like silent letters, the (il)logical development of plurals and the development of punctuation.  She continues to explain various features of language such as; anagrams, pangrams, lipgrams, acronyms, backronym, palindromes, mnemonics, pig latin, rhyming slang, puns, euphemisms, clichés, malapropism, homophones, mondegreens just to name a few.  In each of her explanations, Dubosarsky employs a conversational style that endears her to her readers.  She continues this in her book The Return of the Word Spy, which follows the same style and structure as The Word Spy.  In this second book on language, grammar such as nouns, adjectives, interjections, prepositions etc are explored as well as sentence structure and word meaning.  Different types of language are expounded upon such as mime, braile, pidgin English, Tok Pisin and Esperanto.  In each case very clear, simple and even entertaining examples are given to expand on the explanations.  These texts could be enjoyed similarly as novel or as a teaching text.  Students could read and analyse them as nonfiction.  A more interesting way to utilise these texts in the classroom might be to take a chapter at a time and teach the concepts explored stage by stage reading through with students, completing the activities and developing other activities around this topic.  In this way, the books could be an invaluable and interesting teaching tool.

Gladiator: Fight for Freedom by Alex Scarrow

Simon Scarrow is the well-known historical novelist who has based many of his novels in Ancient Rome.  His foray into young adult fiction now with the beginning of a new series titled Gladiator has lived up to expectations in the first novel Fight for Freedom with an enthralling tale of young Marcus Cornelius Primus, son of a famous Centurion, betrayed and sold into slavery.  Marcus has to forget everything he knows and learn to become a Gladiator, all the time biding his time until he can get to the great General Pompeius to right the terrible wrong that has been done to his family.  The reader is taken on a exhilarating ride as Marcus learns to become tough, makes enemies as well as friends, fights gladiator bouts, meets the great Julius Caesar and discovers a life-changing secret that could not only alter his own life but also Roman history.  All the while, Marcus maintains his integrity and never deviates from his main objective to save his mother and vindicate the name of his murdered father.  This novel is a highly recommended read.

The Valley of Blood and Gold by Tony Palmer

The Valley of Blood and Gold is an engaging novel set during an interesting part of Australian history.  The time of the Gold Rushes in Ballarat, Bushrangers, the Eureka Stockade and the conflict between the English and Irish settlers forms the backdrop of the story of Fintan Donovan and his personal struggles.  Fintan’s journey of self-discovery has him trying to determine the massive secret surrounding his family and learning his place in the world.  He, like many others in this world, have to decide if he will be pulled back by the conflicts of the Old World or forge himself a new life in Australia.  The personal relationships developed in this novel are particularly rich especially between Fintan and his aunt Niamh, uncle Kilkenny Pat and English boy Matthew.  The Valley of Blood and Gold is a powerful story of human relations exploring a particularly interesting segment of Australian history and as such is a recommended read.

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