Book Review: Singing Home the Whale, by Mandy Hager

Available now in bookstores nationwide. 

Another wonderfully lyrical tale from one of New Zealand’s most skilled and under-rated cv_singing_home_the_whaleYoung Adult authors.

Last year, Mandy Hagar captured my emotions with the powerful story of a teenage girl battling grief and depression, with the outstanding Dear Vincent. This year, she brings us this beautiful tale of a friendship between two different species, courage, loyalty and determination.

Will Jackson does not feel he fits in to the tiny community in the Marlborough Sounds. He is a city youth, hiding out from a brutal attack and the public humiliation of a YouTube video gone viral. Things change for him when a juvenile orca makes his way into the Sounds. Drawn to Will’s fine singing voice, he and the young dolphin strike up a friendship unlike any other, a friendship that transcends the borders of species. But not all are as thrilled by the prospect. The local salmon farmer, a cruel and vindictive man, resents the intrusion and will do anything to protect his captive stock.

The chapters are skillfully interwoven between two narrators − Will and the orca, named Min. Min’s voice is lyrical, melodious, rich in evocative language and charming use of wordplay and prose. Each chapter is heralded with a page of absolutely gorgeous lineart. Will’s story is a little more straightforward in prose, a young man with a strong heart that has been, if not broken, then badly dented. Hagar captures the voice of the youth superbly as she takes him on this journey of friendship, dedication and personal growth.

This is definitely one of the stand-out novels I have read this year, for both its beautiful, rich language and the deep emotional − but never sentimental − power behind the adversity, the tragedy and the triumph.

Very few books have struck a chord in my heart like this one has.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Singing Home the Whale
by Mandy Hager
Published by Random House NZ
ISBN 9781775536574

Book Review: Edge of Eternity, by Ken Follett

cv_edge_of_eternityAvailable now in bookstores nationwide. 

Edge of Eternity is the third and final instalment in Ken Follett’s The Century trilogy, following on from Fall of Giants (2010) and Winter of the World (2012). The trilogy follows five families through the epic events of the 20th century; from World War I, the Russian Revolution, and women’s suffrage (Fall of Giants), to World War II and the rise of Communism in eastern Europe.

Edge of Eternity completes the story with a focus on the civil rights movement, the Cold War, and the subsequent fall of the Iron Curtain. The same five families that began the story in Fall of Giants feature again, this time the grandchildren of those original characters. It’s not at all necessary to have read either of the two preceding books but it does flesh out the backstory of the parents and grandparents, providing for a deeper understanding of where the characters now find themselves in history. The different families’ histories entwine over the decades as their passions and struggles see them cross continents in search of fame, in pursuit of love, and in the service of their countries.

The amount of historical research that has clearly gone into the trilogy is impressive. But Ken Follett has always been, first and foremost, a fantastic storyteller. Such is his skill at heightening suspense and drawing the reader into the action, that it almost comes as a surprise when the Cuban Missile Crisis doesn’t end in nuclear annihilation, when Robert Kennedy is assassinated less than five years after his brother met the same fate, and when the Berlin Wall falls. No “spoiler alert” warning needed, these are commonly-known historical events.Through chance, coincidence, and hard work, Follett’s characters seem to always manage to have a front row seat at any event of historical importance. It feels a bit Forrest Gump at times, but it does make for great reading. There are many real life personalities in the book (JFK, Khrushchev, Wałęsa, and Martin Luther King, to mention but a few) but the focus stays on our core cast of characters – civil rights lawyer George Jakes, Rebecca Hoffman and Walli Franck who long to flee communist East Berlin, Kremlin aide Dimka Dvorkin and his activist sister Tania, musician Dave Williams and his scandalous sister Evie. Having followed these characters and their ancestors throughout decades, they seem even more real and memorable than the actual historical personalities we meet along the way.

No review would be complete without addressing the elephant in the room: this is a Big Book. Big. Huge. At 1004 pages, Edge of Eternity is 172 pages longer than Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. When I tried unsuccessfully to smuggle it into my handbag to read surreptitiously at my daughter’s ballet lesson, even I, a book purist, was forced to concede that there are conveniences to e-books. Weighing 1.2kg, the hardback edition of this book allows you to skip the upper body part of your gym workout for a couple of weeks.

But don’t let its size deter you. Edge of Eternity isn’t as mentally taxing as it is physically cumbersome. There is plenty of humour, humanity, sex and intrigue to keep the story moving. It is an enjoyable and entertaining read, and nicely rounds off the trilogy. Follett fans will not be disappointed.

Review by Tiffany Matsis

Edge of Eternity
by Ken Follett
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9780230710160

Book Review: How does the Giraffe get to Work?, by Christopher Llewelyn & Scott Tulloch

Available now in bookstores nationwide. cv_how_does_the_giraffe_get_to_work

This beautifully illustrated book is a fine example of how personification can be used to take an everyday situation, replace people with animals, and using word families and onomatopoeia weave a very entertaining tale with a nice simple twist at the end.

In our tale, the zoo animals do not stay overnight but return home, only to face having to return in the morning with all the trials that can come from having to share your morning ride with friends and foe, plus all those unexpected extras that can really ruffle the days start.

This book is very easy to read and is well suited to a variety of age groups, it would also be useful for ESOL children and as an accompaniment to a Word Work lesson. The illustrations alone would provide endless opportunities for discussion on a wide variety of topics.

An excellent example of what is available for young readers and their parents.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

How does the Giraffe get to Work?
by Christopher Llewelyn & Scott Tulloch
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775432463

Book Review and win: The Land Ballot, by Fleur Adcock

cv_the_land_ballotAvailable in bookstores nationwide on October 3.
Be in to win a copy here: 

Fleur Adcock is a self-professed hitch-hiker, time-traveling to resurrect the lives of her forebears. The Land Ballot is a series of poems about relocation, where people are reborn or dislocated, contingent on their ability to coalesce with their surroundings. Adcock recounts the movement of her grandparents − from Manchester to Mount Pirongia, New Zealand. Here, characters tussle with the wilderness around them, breaking in the land, instating fences and turning native forest into workable pasture.

The settlement occupied by her grandparents is pitted against natural forces. Boundaries between gentrified country and bush-clad terrain shift and overlap. Ragwort trespasses into cattle land. Kea, the ‘demonic parrots’, attack sheep. Land is charted, divided, and land is cursed. Elemental forces are irrepressible and envelop the structures poised against them − ‘The school was a wooden box on a hill, surrounded by weather’.

This is a land of temperamental ‘fruit and honey’. The soil is ‘bush-sick’ and the fruit produced are ‘empty, bladder-like plums’. However, it is conceded that ‘there are no tigers in this forest’, and that the land is perhaps less hostile, and more malleable, than ‘jungle’ elsewhere.

There is a certain charm about the community’s quaintness. Adcock’s concern is with the parochial, but her reach extends beyond the isolated farming community. This is about family, and the tenacity of individuals, and the realisation of dreams. Cyril, Adcock’s father, is lent a first-person voice in the narrative, and he grows into the story’s hero, who will ultimately put down ‘a deposit on eight acres in Drury for (his family’s) rescue’.

Adcock’s tone is conversational, and the memoir she hatches is unambiguous, perhaps frustratingly so for some readers. Adcock is a magpie of text. There are snippets from the Waipa Post, inventories of building materials, an excerpt from the School Journal of 1917. But Adcock’s voice is her own. There is a rare clarity, and a lightness of touch about this collection. Adcock’s new work is a wistful backwards glance, a nostalgia for a time that precedes her.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

The Land Ballot
by Fleur Adcock
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739711

Book Review: You Can Do It, Bert!, by Ole Konneke

Available in bookstores nationwide from 3 October. cv_you_can_do_it_bert

I love Gecko Press. They are a small, local, quality publisher and distributor of nifty children’s books from all over the world. The great thing about their line is that they are unique. The art, the stories, everything is a little off the wall. And, in a world of homogenous literature and easy consumables this is a good thing.

My five-year-old, who is on level 11 first readers devours books like You can do it, Bert!. She loved the colours, the simple illustrations and the clean, basic words on the page. The uncluttered story is all about Bert gathering the courage to dive in the deep end, and we are all lead along on the adventure. At the start we’re not sure what Bert is afraid of as he ventures closer to the edge of the branch, shying away each time with lame excuses.

Is this a metaphor for leaping off into the blue, trying something new, or just learning to fly? Perhaps it’s all of these. It’s a charming, simple tale. Bert is now a firm favourite in our household, perhaps in part because he’s easy to draw. His portrait, rendered in Sharpie black and crayon is pride of place on our fridge at present.

Konneke grew up in Sweden during the 60’s and 60’s and was clearly influenced by the simple, stylish art of European children’s literature because he’s brought that element with him into his work in the 2000’s. In Germany, where he lives and works now, he has won the German Youth Literature prize (Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreix 2005) and is a major influence in kid’s books. It is great to have some of his work, translated into English, available here. And while you’re at it hunt out some of his other titles – Anton Can Do Magic, Anton and The Battle, and The Big Book of Words and Pictures. They are equally delightful.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

You Can Do It, Bert!
by Ole Konnecke
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781927271438 PB
9781927271032 HB

Book Review: A Blighted Fame George S Evans 1802-1868: A life, by Helen Riddiford

cv_a_blighted_fameAvailable now in bookstores nationwide. 

George Evans was one of those men instrumental in the establishment of Wellington about whom little has been heard. While the Wakefields and their roles in the NZ Company have been well-documented, Evans (for whom Evans Bay is named) seems to have flown under the radar until Helen Riddiford decided to change that.

Her book is comprehensive, complex and full of detail. Exhaustive references show clearly just how thorough her research has been.

Her family connection (by marriage) to George Evans was doubtless a catalyst for undertaking an enormous task. The result is a detailed, interesting and often enlightening work about a man who cared deeply for the new colony, and worked hard to help bring about its success.

He was clearly a complex man, and it’s an interesting book, but particularly recommended to those with a deep interest in early NZ history.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

A Blighted Fame: George S Evans 1802-1868: A life
by Helen Riddiford
Published by VUP Books
ISBN 9780864738967

Book Review: When The Night Comes, by Favel Parrett

Available in bookstores nationwide.

Australian author Favel Parrett was much acclaimed for her debut novel Past the cv_when_the_night_comesShallows, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. In her second novel, When the Night Comes, Parrett describes the life of a lonely girl, Isla, living in Hobart with her brother and mother after they’ve run away from the mainland, whose lives are brightened up by the arrival of Bo, a Danish cook on board the Antarctic supply ship Nella Dan.

There’s something warm and comforting about When the Night Comes. Perhaps it’s the simple but evocative prose, or the face that the story is told largely from young Isla’s point of view, but the harsh or sad things that happen in the novel are somehow washed away. Instead, what you remember of the novel are the vividly evoked moments that lie outside the mere plot. In fact it seems like it’s these moments—of Bo on top of a hill in Antarctica looking out at the expanse of white, for example, or of him watching a cape petrel in flight—that are really Parrett’s focus. The scanty plot is merely a vehicle for Parrett to serve up these tableaux of her characters experiencing the awe-inspiring environments they find themselves in.

Part of this book was obviously inspired and informed by Parrett’s own journey to Antarctica as a recipient of the Australian Antarctic Division’s Antarctic Arts Fellowship, hence the sharp clarity in her descriptions of Antarctic life. Parrett describes the snow petrels in Antarctica, “so white they disappear when they fly over ice, invisible except for their small black eyes looking down, their black beaks pointing”, while Bo sits gazing on “giant white cliffs running on and on, then out to the horizon, icebergs lined up for all of time [...] One million shades of blue and white. The scale of it all measured against me, one man standing here. Just one man, small and breathless.”

Parrett’s striking descriptions are a large part of the joy of reading her novel. In clear simple language she captures brilliant, iconic images, like that of Bo’s porthole—“A perfect circle of light against the black inside my cabin”—as he looks through to see his shipmates playing football on the ice, “by the side of a red ship in the middle of the frozen ocean”.

The barely-hinted-at plot means you don’t feel much narrative drive, and the novel seems to float gently along as if borne on an ice floe. But if you reconcile yourself to this semi-aimlessness, opening this novel’s pages feels something like coming home.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

When The Night Comes
by Favel Parrett
Published by Hachette