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Book Review: Parakeet in Boots, by Chris Gurney, illustrated by Myles Lawford

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_parakeet_in_bootsThis is a hilarious Kiwi version of the fairy story Puss in Boots. There was once a farmer, who fell ill and died, leaving three sons and a farm to divide. The eldest received all the buildings and land, the next got the tractor and cash in the hand. But there in the will, to his youngest son Pete, all the farmer had left was his pet parakeet!

“What good’s a dumb parrot?” Pete cried in dismay.
“Don’t worry!” the bird squawked.
“I’ll see you’re okay.”
“Get me some ugg boots to warm up my feet,
plus a flax kete, and all will be sweet!”

The story continues on with the parrot “helping” Pete get what he needed in life including perhaps, the “girl of his dreams”.

A rather unique take on a classical fairy story. Both our 2 granddaughters were mesmerised by the idea of a parakeet taking charge of Pete’s destiny. I kept thinking of the parrot wearing ugg boots and wondering how on earth he could fly in such cumbersome things.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Parakeet in Boots
by Chris Gurney, illustrated by Myles Lawford
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775434382

Book Review: The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_hate_u_givePossibly the most important benefit, and greatest joy, of reading is that it opens a window into new and different perspectives; we enter character’s lives and spend time in their shoes, allowing us to imagine and understand lives that may be far removed from our own. In The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas takes us into the life of Starr Carter, a contemporary African-American sixteen-year-old girl living in a poor and rough ghetto neighbourhood.

She has just witnessed her unarmed friend be shot in the back by a white police officer.

Being the sole witness places her in an uneasy position, not only in her wider community but also with the friends she grew up with and the new ones she’s made at the posh mainly white high school she goes to. If she speaks out, she places herself in danger, if she doesn’t, she contributes to a continuing societal problem that affects everyone she loves. Fully supported by her family, she navigates her way through grieving for her friend, and anger and frustration at the racial injustice faced by her community. Following her journey, we are shown different perspectives and insights into the choices people make, some with very little options open to them.

Starr and her siblings are being raised to be strong, respectful and aware of their history. Her parents are doing the best they can to teach them, give them opportunities and keep them safe; supporting their children through this harsh experience with humour, discipline and love. Starr works hard to walk between the two worlds she lives in, having to reconcile the contrast it creates in herself: ‘My voice is changing already. It always happens around ‘other’ people, whether I’m at Williamson or not. I don’t talk like me or sound like me. I choose every word carefully and make sure I pronounce them well. I can never, ever let anyone think I’m ghetto.’

As she moves between one world and the other, we too experience how each community perceives the other; the subtle prejudices and misunderstandings as well as the interest and desire to understand and find commonalities.

This topical story is intense and gripping, it is real and believable and it is alive with fully-formed characters who you can hear and visualise. It is relevant and thoughtful and well balanced. I kept trying to slow down and put it away; not to avoid it but to try to prolong a story I didn’t want to end. This is one of those books that you declare should be on the high school reading list; The Hate U Give has well and truly answered the recent call for more diversity in literature and film.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas
Walker Books, 2017
ISBN: 9781406372151

Book Review: Humans, Bow Down, by James Patterson & Emily Raymond

cv_humans_bow_downI have been an avid James Patterson fan for years. I especially enjoy the Alex Cross series and eagerly await new titles. His collaboration with a number of authors allows a wider repertoire and probably a greater spread of the profit. Sometimes the collaborations work, sometimes they make uneasy bed-mates.

So when I picked up Humans, Bow Down I was taken by surprise. This is no detective novel. This is a completely new genre but written superbly and a thoroughly gripping tale.

Here we are introduced to an earth in the future where humans are the minority, living on the fringes and subservient to their HuBot masters. It sounds like a simplistic plot, but it actually works well. Can the human race survive in a world where they are emotive and illogical? The intelligent, controlled and skilled HuBots are the masters on this earth.

The story follows the life of Six and her family as they struggle to survive in the underworld of the Reserve. On the HuBot side we have a malfunctioning family who appear to express emotions which leads to the empathy formed between the two lead females.

I felt the story was incomplete and rushed towards a conclusion. The setting lends itself to a new series of books based on these characters, which may perhaps be the hidden agenda. I look forward to further titles from this combination of writers telling of the future of HuBots and Humans on this strange new earth

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Humans, Bow Down
by James Patterson & Emily Raymond
Published by Century
ISBN 9781780895505

Book Review: The Spy, by Paulo Coelho

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_spyThe Spy is written by prolific author Paulo Coelho. It is in some ways a re-imagining of the life of Mata Hari, using news reports and letters between Mata and her lawyer. Voiced as though Mata is narrating her own life, we are privy to her thoughts as the events of her life play out.

The story is mostly told from the perspective of Mata – and as such I think it may have partially lost its way. Paulo Coelho presents her life and thoughts using the fiction of her being ‘out of her time.’ The tag line for the book is “Her only crime was to be an independent woman.” It is in some ways a challenging read, as the reader is required to use that basis as the motivations of the character. Mata is presented as a sexually liberated dancer and prostitute, who is somewhat ahead of her time. This leads to her later conviction for spying. It seems to overlook some of the realities of her life – a young, abusive marriage, being forced to abandon her children and then having to support herself in Europe as it moved towards war. I couldn’t decide if this was an intriguing example of the ‘unreliable narrator’ – the character trying to portray herself in the best possible way. Is this genuinely how the author saw her story? Quite an intrigue.

Like similar books in this genre, it is a very easy to read overview of a particular period in history. Mata’s interactions made me quite reflective about what people do in difficult situations. What would you do to survive during wartime? What wouldn’t you do?

Mata’s internal voice is very flowery and somewhat poetic – there are some beautifully written passages such as “I was an exotic bird traversing an earth ravage by humanity’s poverty of spirit” and it concludes, sadly with “I am the nightingale who gave everything and died while doing so.”

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

The Spy
Paulo Coelho
Published by Penguin
ISBN: 9780143783404

Book Review: See You in the Cosmos, by Jack Cheng

cv_see_you_in_the_cosmosAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

This book centres on Alex, an 11 year old (but “13 in responsibility years”) who is fascinated by rockets and life on other planets. His mission is to launch his own rocket complete with his iPod on which he has recorded his comments about life on earth and what it’s really like for him.

It’s fair to say that Alex is not your average 11 year old: his dad is dead, his mum has a raft of issues of her own, and his older brother does not even live in the same town, so Alex is pretty much left to his own devices.  He is very resourceful, and very responsible. He sets out, without permission, because his mom is having one of her “days when she stays in bed and does not respond, to go to the South West High Altitude Rocket Festival taking along his dog Carl Sagan – named for his hero – and his rocket. This is where it turns into a road trip – and what a trip – there’s a zillion twists and turns and potential disasters and that’s before he even  gets to the festival.

It’s on the whole strangely credible, even if at the same time quite unlikely, and it gives the reader a great deal to ponder on about resilience, bravery and the importance of family. It helps that all the total strangers Alex meets up with are helpful, responsible and willing to take him as he is, which is probably somewhere on the autism spectrum. I don’t think that is particularly realistic but it does keep the momentum up. Faced with all the challenges which Alex encounters, most of us would give up and find a quick way home, but it’s part of the delight of this book that he doesn’t. It also shows an awareness on the author’s part of the challenges posed to, and by, kids on the “spectrum”, and the single mindedness which so often accompanies this.

I think it is an excellent story. It’s well-constructed, funny and sad sometimes at the same time, and Alex and the rest of the main characters (who cover a very wide range of the odd and the particularly peculiar, all good-hearted as can be) are quite credible.

Highly recommended for those who loved “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “Wonder”, but also for anyone who loves a story where challenges are confronted,  analysed and resolved through good will and compassion.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

See You in the Cosmos
Jack Cheng
Published by Puffin
ISBN: 9780141365602

Book Review: A Crime in the Family, by Sacha Batthyany

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_crime_in_the_familyThis book was an intriguing choice from the review pile. The author, Sacha Batthyany, is a journalist, born in Switzerland to Hungarian parents. He belongs to a once aristocratic, wealthy and powerful Hungarian family who lost everything in the Second World War, and in the Communist takeover immediately afterwards. Like many wealthy families, his grandmother’s family chose to flee, in this case to Switzerland. Sometime before the war, his great uncle, Count Batthyany, had married Margit Thyssen-Bornesmisza, sister of Baron Thyssen-Bornesmisza, billionaire Swiss industrialist and famous art collector, and they lived in the castle the family owned in Rechnitz, a town near the Austrian-Hungary border.

Quite by chance, around 2007, Sacha found out that Margit was involved in a massacre of 180 Jews that took place while she was hosting a party one night towards the end of the war at the family castle. Amongst the guests were German aristocrats and SS officers, as well as local officials. This is the first he has heard of such an appalling event, naturally he must find out more, and so his journey begins, the result of which is this memoir.

Once I had finished reading this book, I tracked down via Google what may be the original article that propelled Sacha into investigating and answering the questions about his family’s past. It is clear that the writer of the article, David Litchfield, does not have a high opinion of Sacha Batthyany, but that is another story and just as intriguing as this book. Links to the article and the writer of it are at the bottom of this review.

After so many years, so much death, records destroyed or altered, so many people refusing to speak, it is very hard to know what is the truth and what isn’t. Hungary being behind the Iron Curtain for so long has not helped the dissemination of information, and with virtually no-one from that time still alive, maybe the truth will never come out. However, this does not detract at all from a most interesting and at times very emotional journey that the author must take to track down what his family members did or did not do.

Sacha has a number of sources in his search. Firstly, his father is still alive, and as a small boy lived in the castle, although too young to remember what happened in 1944. He is most reluctant to speak about what happened, the rumours, any coverup. Sacha’s grandmother, Maritta, kept a diary during the terrible war years, and it is in reading this that Sacha comes across another tragic and violent episode involving a local Jewish family. Sacha again has to question everything he has heard about his family and what went on during those years.

His investigations uncover the daughter of the Jewish family, Agnes, now very elderly and living in South America with her own daughters. She was a friend of Sacha’s grandmother and also kept a diary during the war years, survived Auschwitz and its aftermath, but never knew what had happened to her parents or her brother. The family very generously allow Sacha to read the diaries, and eventually he is able to return to Agnes and tell her exactly what happened to the rest of her family.

Secrets, secrets and more secrets. As the years pass, the survivors of the war years are dying. In many cases they take the secrets of what happened to them, to their communities, betrayals, good deeds and bad, to the grave with them. It was a truly terrible time, and who can blame them for wanting to bury it all as deep as they can. That their children and now grandchildren are beginning their own investigations is producing many many books of this ilk such as The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Vaal. Sacha Batthyany is clearly very troubled about what his family did or omitted to do during the war, and the veil of silence he appears to keep coming up against is difficult for him to bear.

This book is as much about the author’s journey of discovery as it is about what actually happened. At least two trips to the town of Rechnitz, one with his elderly and reluctant father, another to Buenos Aires, and weekly visits with his psychoanalyst are all carefully documented. He actually struggles more with what happened to Agnes’s family than he does the massacre. This may be because the massacre has been well-documented, accurately or otherwise, but the deaths of Agnes’s parents not at all. His ‘family’ guilt almost consumes him, and as annoying as I found them, the weekly sessions with Dr Strassberg have their own reveal.

Sacha Batthyany is just one of many thousands of descendants of people who have lived through terrible times such as the Second World War. There will be many, many other stories such as what he has uncovered, and it is good that we get to hear of them, wondering what we would ourselves do in such situations that aren’t really all that long ago. For these reasons alone it is worth reading, and I am putting this into my book club, because I know it will lead to all sorts of discussions.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

A Crime in the Family
by  Sacha Batthyany
Published by Quercus
ISBN 9781786480552

Book Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_hearts_invisible_furiesI must be honest and admit that I spent four days handling this book before actually starting to read it. Why? Well I have really loved all John Boyne’s books. The Boy in Striped Pyjamas was a stunner and I have never forgotten the impact it had on me when I read it. When I heard he had finally written a story based on the Ireland he had grown up in, I was anxious lest it be a disappointment.

This book was something different. Fear not, you will love it.

The tale of Cyril Avery takes us through the Ireland of the 1940’s to the present day. It is the story of an unmarried mother, denounced from the pulpit, who travels to Dublin where she gives her child up for adoption. Cyril is taken in by an unconventional family. This provides much of the comic relief in the story as his writer Mother (adoptive) and businessman Father (adoptive) struggle to cope with a son they rarely see and a world which is a mystery to them.

Cyril’s childhood, adolescence and advance to old age take us through political, social and literary changes in Ireland and the world. The detail is fascinating and Boyne knows the Dublin landscape so well. In a natural way, the lives of Cyril, his parents, friends and birth Mother interweave across the 60 years. We revisit them in different times and locations but the storyline keeps us guessing. It is a truly funny book with descriptions of erratic behaviour and genuine prejudice from the times. I can remember hearing the bigoted comments he captures so well, in my own youth. It is also a deeply moving story and I will admit to a few tears. Such cruelty and such love in one story.

Some will enjoy the book as an engaging tale written with style and great literary talent. For others, it is a reflection on what it means to be alive. Is happiness due to us, do we have to earn a sense of belonging or do we grow to be part of a family? It is about acceptance and rejection, religion and sexuality, love and loss. This all sounds cliché but the book is not. My suspicion is that this will become a great Irish novel. It tells a story we all suspect, we all know, but we could not say it so well. Make sure it is on your 2017 booklist.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Heart’s Invisible Furies
By John Boyne
Published by Doubleday
ISBN 9780857523488