Review – Eliza Vanda’s Button Box (Emily Rodda)

Keywords: Year 4+, fantasy, magical, light-hearted, emotional management.

The front cover, complete with Sultan and a box of buttons! Can you find Victor and the magic mirror?

Before we start, I just gotta say that I miiiiight be a little bit biased. You see, Emily Rodda – the author of Eliza Vanda’s Button Box – also wrote The Key to Rondo, which happens to be one of my all-time favourite books from my childhood (and a book we have reviewed before!). So there was a part of me that already liked Eliza Vanda before I even read it. I mean, it’s written by a beloved author and it has a pretty cover? Sign me up!

Of course, there is far more to a book than how it looks and who wrote it. There is definitely truth to the idiom, “Never judge a book by its cover”! This review is my attempt at being fair; I’ll try not to like or dislike the book for no good reason at all.

The character of Eliza Vanda is similar to Mary Poppins!

Okay, so let’s start with the plot. Despite its title, the main character of Eliza Vanda’s Button Box is not actually Eliza Vanda! It’s a girl named Milly Dynes, an 11 year old who lives in the seaside town of Tidgy Bay. She lives with her dad Rory and together they take care of holiday houses, which they rent out to people. One of these people is the titular Eliza Vanda, a mysterious woman who brings magic and buttons along with her. Think ‘Mary Poppins’ but with more dress-making!

Other characters include a snobby mouse named Victor, a grumpy black cat named Sultan, and a witch who will remain unnamed, because I don’t want to spoil the plot too much! I will, however, say this:

  • Yes, there is a hidden world that Milly explores;
  • Yes, there are magical creatures and characters;
  • And no, the hidden world is not what you think it is.
Lots of fantasy books involve characters travelling to hidden worlds, like Alice in Wonderland.

After you read a lot of fantasy books, you start to pick up on a lot of similarities between them. You even start to predict what a book must be about. For example, when I picked this book up, I said to myself, “Oh, there has to be a hidden world and the main character has to save the day with magic or something!” While this is the case for Eliza Vanda, the plot is actually not as predictable as it seems. Ugh, I wish I could tell you why it’s unpredictable but I can’t ruin the surprise! Just trust me on this one!

I would like to divulge one spolier, though, because it’s just too cool to ignore.

Every person in this hidden world has emotions. Those emotions, however, take the form of ‘mysies’, which are little creatures that live outside of their bodies. They’re mostly kept in hats, though some people keep them in pockets and bags. Some mysies include ‘Temper’, ‘Memory’, and ‘Sense of Humor’. So whenever someone needs a certain emotion, the mysie comes and whispers in their ear to help out! For example, when one character forgets who Victor is, his memory mysie helps him out:

The man stared at him blankly, then fumbled in a silver mesh purse hanging from his belt. A small, neat, lizard-like creature sprang from the purse and ran up his arm to perch on his shoulder and whisper in his ear…

“Victor!” cried the man, his face lighting up. (Chapter 6, page 71.)

This is what I think a memory mysie looks like!

But if you lose a mysie, then you lose that emotion. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “losing your temper”!

I truly love the idea of mysies. Actually, it’s a wonderful way to think of your own emotions; they can be easier to control and understand if you think of them as creatures and pets rather than something untouchable and invisible. The mysies are a vital part of the book’s plot and provide a lot of moments to think about our own emotions. What happens if you lose your ‘Courage’? How would you control a wild ‘Temper’ mysie? You could spend hours thinking about it!

The author, Emily Rodda

Having said all that, the book isn’t without areas of improvement. For example, it seemed a bit too fast-paced to me. There is a main villain, but we don’t hear about them until we’re three-quarters of the way through. It would’ve been much more engaging if the villain was hinted at much earlier in the book then revealed triumphantly near the end. That would be much more enjoyable and dramatic!

This also seems less like a stand-alone book and more like the first book in a series. Everything wraps up a bit too quickly for my liking. Hopefully, this will turn into a series. There are just too many unanswered questions!

The delightful fantasy of this plot appeals to fantasy-loving Felipe, so he had a great time reading it. Surprisingly, Gus actually liked it too! When I asked him why, he just shrugged and said, “You said it was fast-paced, so I decided to read it slowly. It was pretty good, not gonna lie.” So yeah, both Felipe and Gus recommend Eliza Vanda’s Button Box!

(Psst! If this book looks familiar, it’s because I wrote a reading comprehension exercise based on its first chapter! Check it out here!)

Review – The Iliad (Homer, translated by Kathleen Olmstead)

Listen to this narration while you read!

Keywords: classic, Greek, historical fiction, Greek mythology, Greek gods and goddesses like Zeus and Aphrodite, abridged, war, politics, revenge.

My flawless drawing of how the Trojan war started 😂

I know what some of you must be thinking: “But Miss, The Iliad is one of those boring classics that we’re forced to learn about. It’s not fun. Why are you reviewing it?”

I understand. Honestly, I was the same when I was a younger student. Classic books that I heard about from adults and TV (The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex etc.) sounded too difficult for me to read. To be honest, some of them are — especially in their original old-fashioned format! But this book is different.

This version of The Iliad has been translated and rewritten by Kathleen Olmstead. Homer – the original author – wrote the book in an ancient Greek (Homeric Greek). It’s a mixture of different Greek dialects. For most of us (including myself), that’d be very difficult to read. Plus, the original book was actually an epic poem (‘epic’ as in the type of poem, although it is very epic and awesome as well!). It was 15,693 lines long. Imagine how long it must’ve taken Homer to write it and Kathleen Olmstead to translate it! To understand just how tricky it would have been to write and translate Homeric Greek, here are the first seven lines of the original version:

Zeus showing off how cool he is (he does this a LOT)

Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί’ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε’ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ’ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε δαῖτα· Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή·
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.

(Listen to how these Homeric Greek lines are spoken here! Skip to 34 seconds.)

This language is so beautiful! As it’s a dead language, not many people learn it anymore (or even want to). That’s a shame. Sure, it’s a complex language, but its history and alphabet are just too cool to be ignored! Having said that, you’ll probably want to start with a translated one first. Don’t worry: the Classic Starts version of The Iliad is far more readable than Homer’s original. You get to learn more about Greek mythology and how the gods and goddesses made decisions. The book is about the Trojan war, a 10-year battle between the city of Troy and the Achaeans (AKA the Greeks). You’ll hear a lot of famous names in this book, like Achilles, Zeus and Odysseus. It’s fun to see what kind of people these famous characters are! (Apparently, Achilles is the kind of person who throws temper tantrums. You also find out how stubborn Zeus really is.)

Helen of Troy (looking very annoyed for some reason)

Basically, the whole reason for the Trojan war is because of a fight between three goddesses: Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. They fight over an apple that’s meant for the ‘fairest’ goddess. In this case, ‘fairest’ means ‘most beautiful’. The goddesses decide to ask Paris, prince of the city of Troy, to state who is the most beautiful. He chooses Aphrodite as the winner. As a reward, she gives prince Paris the most beautiful mortal woman in the world: Helen. Unfortunately, Helen was already married to Menelaus, king of Sparta. So, Aphrodite basically stole the king’s wife and gave her to another city’s ruler.

That’s how the Trojan war began. It was fought for ten years. That’s right: ten years. The soldiers must have been exhausted! I bet their distress and tiredness is even stronger in the original version. All the more reason to study Homeric Greek!

Let’s just say that The Iliad is a classic for a reason. It’s filled with drama, godly powers and fighting. Even though he doesn’t read many books, Gus is a fan of The Iliad. It’s a great story to read through slowly just before you go to sleep! Since he’s a historian, Dmitri, of course, is a huge Homer fan. He has read every version of The Iliad, even the original Greek one! Both Gus and Dmitri recommend the Classic Starts version of The Iliad.

Review – Ella Minnow Pea (Mark Dunn)

Listen to this narration while you read!

Keywords: fiction, formal vocabulary, advanced reading, Year 8+, quirky, stand-alone book.

The front cover (do you get the joke the pictures are telling?)

Okay, before we start, I need to let you know that this book uses a lot of fancy words. Like, a lot. Definitely read this book along with a dictionary!

If you need to expand your vocabulary, this is absolutely the right book for you. Also, if you are a huge English nerd (no judgment, I’m one too!), this will probably be one of the most clever books you have ever read.

Ella Minnow Pea tells the story of Ella, a girl who lives on the (sadly fictional) Nollop Island. On this island, they praise Nevin Nollop, the man who wrote the famous sentence, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” It’s famous because it uses every letter of the alphabet. Go over the sentence and you’ll see!

Since the island’s hero is a person who contributed to the English language, it’s no surprise that every islander is obsessed with English. They’re all incredibly educated writers whose vocabularies are unimaginiably huge! You get to see how great their writing skills are in this book. Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel, meaning that it’s a book made up of letters. (‘Letters’ as in the things you write to others, like emails.)

It gets even more interesting. There’s a statue of Nevin Nollop on the island with his famous sentence displayed with metal letters. One day, the letters start falling off! The island’s government decide that Nevin Nollop is sending them all a message: to stop using whatever letter falls off the statue. Soon, it becomes illegal to write or even speak certain letters, like L or T. As the book continues, Ella’s letter-writing skills become simpler and more mispelled. She can’t use certain letters of the alphabet, so it would be difficult to write properly! Imagine trying to write something without the letter ‘a’ or ‘t’.

So, it goes from this:

“How different the world would be today if not for the sentence which the lexically gifted Mr. Nollop issued forth!” (pg. 5)

To losing a few letters:

“Insane woman name Ella: Retreat is what we want. Go away. Let we alone. Anonymess.” (pg. 158)

To eventually only having “LMNOP” to use, like this:

“No mo Nollop pomp! No mo 4 pop/1 moll Nollop looloo poop! No no no mo plop, plop, plop, plomp!” (pg. 197)

The book itself is good! I found it a bit difficult to be hooked by its first chapter. However, the plot quickly becomes interesting after the first couple of chapters, so don’t give up!

It’s a book that’ll need concentration and careful reading. So, both Louise and Gus heartily recommend Ella Minnow Pea!