Book Review: ALPHA, by Isabelle Arsenault

Available in bookstores nationwide, though official publication date not until September.

cv_alphaEveryone in the Booksellers’ office wanted to keep Alpha, the new children’s book by artist Isabelle Arsenault. I can see why: it’s a beautifully produced hardback with painterly and vintage-styled illustrations. Arsenault is an award winning Canadian artist who illustrated books such as Jane, the Fox, and Me and Migrant, which was a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book. Her art and wit make Alpha a book for both children and adults, as it works on a number of levels.

The book interprets the International Radiotelephony Alphabet (also called the NATO phonetic alphabet) which is used by emergency services: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and so forth. Each double spread gives the alphabetic code word on one page and a related illustration on the other. The link between the two is often playful and indirect – for example the word ‘Kilo’ has a picture of a piece of chocolate cake. Such whimsy allows room for a discussion about the relationship between the two, or as the book states, ‘each page, each letter, each word and each image invite investigation.’

I read the book a couple of times with my four-year-old son. He has just started to learn his ABCs and knows the traditional alphabet song. We sang the song as we turned each page, stopping our song on the appropriate letter. I would point to the letter at the start of the word, (which was highlighted, for example the ‘O’ in ‘Oscar’ is a bright yellow), and we talked about what the word meant. As we worked through the book he started to recognise letters, which he found exciting. There were certainly some favourite images, such as the scary looking man with the ‘X-ray’ goggles, and the picture of a paper plane for ‘Delta.’ Images such as the elephant for ‘India’ let me tell him about when I visited the country, and the bowler hat for ‘Charlie’ let him imagine why Charlie wasn’t wearing it (‘Maybe he is swimming,’ my son suggested). Overall, there book prompted much more discussion than I expected.

The book included quite a few new words for my son, which meant he started to tire towards the end. For younger children, reading the book over a number of sittings would be more enjoyable. Some of the image-word relationships were certainly lost on him, such as ‘Romeo’ and ‘Juliet.’ I was also doubtful he understood the enigmatic ‘Echo’ which has a picture of two twins in a classroom. Still – this morning I was yelling through the house that it was time to go and he said, ‘Mummy, an echo!’

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

ALPHA
by Isabelle Arsenault
Published by Walker Hardback
ISBN 9781406361834

Book Review: Tightrope, by Simon Mawer

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_tightrope

Marian Sutro survived. For those who fell in love with her in The Girl who Fell From The Sky, this revelation was surely met with joy and fear in equal measure. Did we really want to know about the horrors she experienced after her arrest? And how could Simon Mawer possibly do better with Marian’s story than that dark and gut-wrenching ending, let alone risk venturing into the well-worn cold war spy genre?

Mawer must have been tempted to continue Marian’s story in the conventional way he told it in The Girl who Fell From The Sky, where we see her adventures unfold from a close third person point of view. Instead Mawer does something quite different and much more ambitious in Tightrope and it is this, at least in part, that keeps the book alive.

Tightrope is not told by Marian at all, but instead by Sam Walcott, her nephew. The book starts with Sam visiting Marian in Switzerland. She is now an old woman, and they haven’t seen each other for a very long time. Her greeting to Sam leaves us in no doubt. ‘Samuel,’ she said. ‘It must be almost fifty years.’ Inside, Sam sets his tape recorder running, and we understand right away this is no social visit. Accepting the framing of the story, that everything we read from now on is Sam’s interpretation, is critically important to understanding what is going on in Tightrope.

Although Tightrope starts with Sam recounting his visit to Marian in the first person, the point of view soon starts shifting around as Sam imagines how people, including Marian, felt, what they saw, and their motivations. This device gives Mawer the freedom to go anywhere and to anyone with the story, and he does, even showing some of the action from the point of view of minor characters. He often drops back to Sam in the first person, who explains directly how he deduced who did what, or how he can’t be sure about some other incident. This reminds us not only what is going on – that Sam is piecing together Marian’s post-war life – but also that the whole thing is Sam’s interpretation. Was Marian’s husband as unexciting as Sam likes to think? Was she really as brave as he describes? And does Sam interpret Marian’s decisions in an overly generous way, showing her in a more favourable light than she deserves?

The chapters in Tightrope are short, often with one-word titles, and Mawer is confident enough to not resort to using places and dates to signpost where we are. We are in safe hands with Mawer as an author, and we know only as much as Sam knows. But what does he know? He has relied on Marian’s stories and explanations, limited secret service records, and his own love-and-lust-struck memories from fifty years ago. These are hardly reliable sources.

And so, where the story does wobble a little, with cold war and secret service cliches in the language, the plot twists echoing just a little too much le Carre, or the characters Marian encounters appearing somewhat stereotypical, we can forgive Mawer because it is Sam’s voice, not Mawer’s, telling the story. Mawer echoes many of the real-life events of the sixties and seventies, even referencing directly some of the people involved, while presenting fictionalised versions of others, all somehow connected to Marian’s story.

There’s still plenty of darkness in Marian’s life throughout Tightrope. She’s not that good – otherwise she wouldn’t have been caught in The Girl who Fell From The Sky – and she has weaknesses that leave her vulnerable. But she is also passionate, brave and confident, and it is the combination of all this that gives us some extraordinary moments in Tightrope.

While the subject matter of Tightrope has been traversed many times before, and some have asked whether Mawer should have even attempted to go into the genre, his approach – to come at it side-on, through Sam, whose own career in the secret service is only hinted at – keeps it fresh and alive to the very end.

And, of course, everyone still loves Marian Sutro, flaws and all. That’s not a surprise, the story being told through Sam’s eyes, Marian being the only one he ever loved. If you haven’t read The Girl Who Fell From the Sky I recommend you pick up a copy first, and I guarantee you’ll want to move on to Tightrope without delay.

Reviewed by C P Howe

Tightrope
by Simon Mawer
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN 9781408706206

Book Review: Oh Me, Oh My! Written by Jill Eggleton, illustrated by Richard Holt

cv_oh_me_oh_myAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

Jill Eggleton is a New Zealand author with over 850 literacy titles which can be found in schools all over the world.

Richard Holt is a freelance illustrator based in New Zealand. He has been illustrating children’s books for over twenty years.

Parrot was not happy. It was very black and it had been raining for days and days with his feathers getting very wet. Owl opened one eye and announced in a sleepy voice “The sun has fallen from the sky.” Parrot, not being very bright, was totally convinced that this pronouncement was correct. Parrot flew away squawking –

“Oh me, oh my,
Oh me, oh my.
The sun has fallen from the sky!”
Elephant was trying to keep dry by standing under a tree. Parrot flies by squawking –
“If the sun has fallen out of the sky,
I’ll have to find it and put it back.”

The story continues with Parrot trying to find the sun, looking in various places. Finally he finds what he thinks is the sun and with help tries to put it back.

This is a delightful book with beautiful illustrations. I read this story to my 4-year-old granddaughter Abby. She loved the story, commenting on various aspects of the story. The real proof is in the pudding, so to speak. I ended up reading this book twice. This book also comes with a CD – this also had to be played twice.

In my opinion the real success of any children’s book is how many times you are asked to read a book aloud. Abby loved this book commenting at the end, “Grandma, can I please keep this book?” Being a fairly indulgent Grandma, it’s a resounding, “yes”.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Oh Me, Oh My!
Written by Jill Eggleton, illustrated by Richard Holt
Published by Global Education Systems
ISBN 9781927307861

Book Review: Bud-e reading series Books 1 – 8, by Jill Eggleton and Richard Hoit

Available in bookstores nationwide.bude_starter_system

My 4-year-old will begin school later this year, and he is very proudly beginning to read. So when this new reading series came to my attention, I figured it would be perfect to share with him.

Bud-e is a reading system that helps to teach your child high-frequency words to encourage their reading skills gradually. The books that are in this, the first series, are Silly Billy, Tricky Mouse, Hungry Ducks, Hop it!, What a Muddle!, Alien in the Park, Junk Car, and Mice Mischief. Also included in the starter set is the full picture book Out of Bubblo, which introduces Bud-e himself.

Dan enjoyed learning to read each of these books aloud with me. He didn’t need me to read all of them aloud before having ago, as his reading and comprehension was advanced enough to begin at around book 5. He seemed very confident with the first few books, and we had good conversations around the images in the book and what was happening in them. We read a lot with Dan, and he has always understood that the story can be in the pictures as well as the words, as it is very clearly in this series.

Dan spent a good hour on the app that came with the books, and enjoyed the interactive elements of it. I could see the app coming in useful on a long car journey, for when parents can’t help with the reading of the books. A very innovative approach to literacy learning.

The instructions for parents and teachers are very clear, and the explanation is interesting without being too jargonistic. Both Dan and I enjoyed the brief stories, and found plenty to talk about within the pictures. The story of the Tricky Mouse was a particular favourite, as were the stories featuring the aliens.

I saw this series for sale in a bookshop soon after I received them to try. I would recommend them to any parent who wants to invest in a reading collection to encourage their children to read independently. It is good to have this type of book in your collection, at the same time you could perhaps identify some of the books you already have in your collection that your child may wish to help you read aloud. We have several shorter books that Dan enjoys tackling himself now, and reading to his little brother.

Whether the app is appealing to you, or the books themselves, this is a great new series from celebrated educational writer Jill Eggleton, and illustrator Richard Hoit.

Books 1-8 are available in a box set from a bookstore near you.

Bud-e Starter Kit
by Jill Eggleton, illustrated by Richard Hoit
Published by Global Ed
ISBN 9781927307656

Book Review: Dark Journey: Passchendaele, The Somme and the New Zealand Experience on the Western Front, by Glyn Harper

cv_dark_journeyAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

The importance of Dark Journey as an anchor for the average kiwi’s understanding of the New Zealand effort on the Western Front in the First World War is possibly greater in this 2015 edition, eight years after the first edition was published.

It has become a truism that New Zealanders’ conscious connection with the First World War has been almost wholly focused on the defeat on Gallipoli. Glyn Harper began to widen this focus with his studies, Massacre at Passchendaele(2000) and Spring Offensive: New Zealand and the Second Battle of the Somme(2003). He used material from these two books in the Dark Journey, while adding intensively research material on the Battle of Bapaume.

When first published in 2007, Dark Journey would have been for many in this country, a revelation that there was a history, a glorious one, beyond Gallipoli. Now of course, there have been many other books written since 2007 on the New Zealanders’ deep and bloody involvement in Flanders. However, Harper’s book remains a pivotal work as we lead up to the 100thanniversaries of the great battles of the Somme and Passchendaele.

The great value of Harper’s work is the deep research of every aspect of these important battles. The military and political backgrounds of the British, French and Germans is well studied and so too is the personal involvement of officers directing the strategies and fighting the battles. Linking the hopes and fears of Field Marshall Haig with those of the New Zealand commanders such as Godley and Russell is very important to understand the strategic and tactical aspects of the battles. But to further combine the hopes and fears of soldiers who actually fought the battles, gleaned largely from letters home, creates a ” battle personality”, which leads to an untarnished understanding of the kind of war fought at that time.

The detail of troop movements, tactical changes resulting from experience and weaponry are all studied in this 544-page book, with Harper not afraid of laying blame for foul-ups and praising when military professionalism resulted in success. And it is not one-sided analysis: Harper has been meticulous in his research of German sources, which add considerable balance to the accounts of battles won and lost.

Harper claims that New Zealanders were among the best troops the British army had during the First World War. They played an important part, not only in the terrible battles of the Somme and Passchendaele, but also in the victories of the second Battle of the Somme . The capture by the New Zealand Division of Bapaume is one event that led to huge praise for the kiwis. Harper describes the battle: “Though the struggle to capture Bapaume is a relatively unknown battle in New Zealand’s military history, it does not deserve this obscurity.” More than 10,000 New Zealanders  took part, there are some 800 buried in military graves around the town and 2,000 were injured. Another huge sacrifice for New Zealand, among the many of the First World War.

With Harper’s book, we have the opportunity to understand more of this sacrifice.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Dark Journey: Passchendaele, The Somme and the New Zealand Experience on the Western Front
by Glyn Harper
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781460750438

Book Review: Whole, by Bronwyn Kan

cv_whole

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

Whole is a collection of recipes assembled to showcase wholefoods, and how growing, preparing and cooking foods in their most natural state, processed and refined as little as possible can lead you to a better state of health and well-being.

The women who have donated groups of recipes to the Whole cookbook are (mainly Auckland-based) leaders in the wholefood and wellness movement. They are popular bloggers, adept at social media and many own their own successful cafes and food related businesses.

The recipes shine when you view them from the idea that you are cooking from scratch, using foods that you recognise the sources of – it helps you understand what you are eating, and the knowledge that better and fresher foods will yield a tastier result. However, Whole is not the kind of cookbook that is likely to form the staple of your cookbook collection. The recipe ingredients are not always what you’d have handy (Almond milk, coconut nectar, cacao butter, rice malt syrup to name a few), so following the recipes from this book requires a kind of dedication to wanting to explore the idea and culture behind the book, as much as the desire to make yourself something nice to eat.

A few of the Whole recipes nod to the paleo diet and using healthier fats, but the liberal use of coconut oil makes a lot of the cakes and treats in the book seem like things you should approach only occasionally or you’d find yourself on the wrong side of your bathroom scales.

The book is beautifully produced, with bite size recipe sections for each of our inspirational women, loads of pictures to show off their style and the beautifully presented food. It’s a treat to sit down with this book on the couch on a rainy Sunday afternoon and dream of the Mango & Turmeric Cheesecake or the Beetroot & Blackberry Chocolate Cakes that you could whip up to impress your friends and family.

Whole is a nice exploration into the possibilities of food, and helps you to consider how you might change the way you think about food and where it comes from, giving you new ways of approaching how you cook. For the average person who isn’t excited by fancy recipes in general, you might still take away a few ideas about how to think of foods differently, using alternatives to processed food, and being mindful about what you eat. If not, well then – it’s still a beautiful book to look at.

By Amie Lightbourne

Whole
Compiled by Bronwyn Kan
Contributions from Mondays Wholefoods, Heal Thyself , Monique Satherley, Sophie Carew, Buffy Gill, Kelly Gibney, Hannah Horton, Danijela Unkovich, Olivia Scott and Jordan Rondel
Published by Beatnik Publishing
ISBN 9780992264864

Book Review: Jim’s Letters, by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper

Available in bookstores nationwide, Picture Book finalist in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Jim’s Letters
is a deserving finalist in the New Zealand cv_jims_lettersBook Awards for Children and Young Adults. A sophisticated picture book, it gently details the journey of a young man heading off the big adventure of World War I, from the excitement of being overseas and the anticipation of seeing action, to the boredom of camp life and then the dawning horror of the reality of life on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Letters are exchanged between Jim, the soldier, and Tom his younger brother, who is still at home. It’s a nice insight into what the War might have been like for those at home, especially those young men who wished they were old enough to enlist. Tom also conveys the feelings of his parents – worry for their son – and the reality for those left at home who had to muck in and make up for all the missing people from the workforce.

Along with the increasingly poignant letters are wonderful, evocative illustrations by Jenny Cooper. Even without the words you could follow the story of Jim from youthful enthusiasm to the grinding misery of the trenches, just from the pictures.

It is clever of the designers to incorporate something of a 3D effect with the book, using envelopes, removable letters and lift-the-flaps to further bring the book to life. This also makes the story more real, particularly for modern children in a digital age, where letters delivered by post are becoming a rarity.

I asked three boys that I teach at my school to read the story and tell me what they thought of it. Nik, 9, liked that you can open out the letters. He said that it was both a sad and funny story – he liked that no-one wanted to play the ‘bad guys’ back home in New Zealand. Jack, 10, enjoyed the “good describing words” of Glyn Harper’s letters, and felt the story was sad and emotional. Anaiwan, also 10, agreed that the story was very emotional, and would recommend the story to children aged 8 or older.

Sadly, like so many war stories, this one doesn’t have a happy ending. A younger reader may well need adult support to understand what has happened in the story, and to discuss the reality of war a little further. There is a helpful two-page non-fiction spread at the end of the book which adds perspective and context for readers.

This is not a book to read to 5-year-olds, but for children who are in middle primary or older, it is a beautifully-told heart breaker, and timely as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings and then the battles in Europe and beyond.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore, teacher at Newtown Primary School

Jim’s Letters
by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper
Published by Penguin Random House NZ
ISBN 9780143505907