Book Review: Mōtītī Blue and the oil spill, by Debbie McCauley

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_motiti_blue_and_the_oil_spill

Mōtītī Blue and the Oil Spill is a beautifully told story which follows the experience of a little blue penguin, called Mōtītī Blue, as he tries to survive the oil spill from the Rena ship grounding in 2011.

The pages are packed with great photos, interesting facts and a wonderful story, written in both English and Māori. There is newfound knowledge on every page, from descriptive fact files to illustrated maps, all providing lots of detail about penguins’ life cycles and habitats, the ship’s grounding, and the rehabilitation of affected wildlife.

The story, in both English and Maori, is well-written and would appeal to children of all ages. This book is ideal for both recreational reading and classroom use. The book is packed with factual background material which would make this book a perfect teaching resource in schools. Although it is a very informative book on its own, it also includes a handy list of sources for further research.

Mōtītī Blue and the oil spill is a very clever book indeed and a worthy finalist in the non-fiction category of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults.

Review by Elisabeth Matsis (9), with a little bit of help from Tiffany Matsis

Mōtītī Blue and the Oil Spill
by Debbie McCauley
Published by Mauao Publishing
ISBN 9780473268695

Book Review: The Kamikaze Hunters: Fighting for the Pacific, 1945

Available now in bookstores nationwide.

While researching this book, I came across plenty of wild newspaper headlines, such was the cv_the_kamikaze_hunterslore built up by the press, at the time of launch, around this remarkable group of young men whose outright courage and stubborn determination has remained under-recorded in military history. A prominent UK Paper proclaimed “I cheated death as Japanese kamikaze pilot hit our ship…British pilot Keith Quilter has recalled the attack by world’s first suicide bomber!” For a change, there was good reason to make gravy of this. That’s no surprise, in the light of recent tales of Bletchley Park, et al. It just goes to prove that so much of WWII is yet to come out.

In May 1945 the War in Europe was finally closing down. But in the Pacific the Japanese were unleashing a new weapon – kamikaze. As two Zeros hurtle towards aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, 23-year-old Pilot Keith Quilter sees the warning flag from the control tower. Strapped into his cockpit, awaiting take off, he had but seconds to get below deck, or be killed by one of the world’s first suicide bombers. Recalling the incident to Iredale, now 93, Quilter remembers “I have never moved so fast in my life. I switched my engine off, undid my straps, leapt out and got down three decks by the time it hit… an almighty crash and the ship lurched to one side. When I climbed back on deck it was a complete shambles. Most of the aircraft near where it hit were on fire. The rest were battered beyond repair and had to be pushed over the side.” This is but one brief tale that Quilter provides in the book. The Kamikaze Hunters reads like the History Channel and Boy’s Own, with more exciting explosions and near misses than a Commando comic.

Much has been written about the cult of the kamikaze pilots in their suicide planes, the infamous Zeros, and a terrifying new foe who were unlike anything seen before. By the end of the war, over 2,500 Japanese pilots had committed suicide, killing over 5,000 Allied sailors along the way. Quilter notes that “the anti-aircraft guns could probably kill the pilot and knock lumps off the wings, but once they were set on that course, they were still going to hit you. Nothing you did could stop them.”

Drawing on meticulous research and personal access to surviving pilots, like Quilter, Iredale recreates this group of young men, in some kind of literary 3D model, to get inside who they really were. He’s never too heavy handed in the narrative, which I really appreciate. But the fact remains that the Allies’ only real defense against were these kamikaze hunters – squadrons of fighter pilots stationed above the fleet to shoot them down. Almost as crazy as their prey, writes Iredale, they were a secret force, trained in jungle warfare, in case of ‘shoot-downs’ and utterly ruthless. We know all this thanks to Quilter and his colleagues, like his cabin mate Wally who left behind a leather-bound diary, which was kept it on his bookshelf for 67 years before he was final able to return it to Wally’s great niece.This is one offshoot that Iredale chooses to include in his holistic approach of these men. And it’s his respect for the men involved, along with a personal collection of photos and personal encounters with several more key personnel, now in their 80’s and 90’s, that provides the colour and gravitas to this epic, very readable book.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

The Kamikaze Hunters: Fighting for the Pacific, 1945
by Will Iredale
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781447284710

Book Review: A Year of Marvellous Ways, by Sarah Winman

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_a_year_of_marvellous_ways

A Year of Marvellous Ways is like reading a long form poem; full of lyrical language and rich with metaphor, the story is lush and multi-layered.

Covering themes of love, loss, failure, redemption and magic, A Year of Marvellous Ways is the story of an 89-year-old woman, waiting for ‘something’ that was foretold in a dream. It’s 1947, and she has seen love, death, birth, and two World Wars. An extraordinary woman, she lives in a caravan near an abandoned church in Cornwall, part-eccentric, part-wise woman. Self-sufficient and happy in her own company, at one with both land and sea, she knows her life is coming to an end, but that there is one last task for her to complete.

Marvellous Ways – for that is the woman’s name – is at the centre of the plot, and it is her interactions and relationships with the people and things around her that make the story come to life, in particular the arrival of the damaged Francis Drake (no, not that Francis Drake, but another clever christening of a character. Other characters are often also creatively named – Peace, Paper Jack, Mrs Hard).

The story travels back and forth between 1947 and Marvellous’ past, as she slowly reveals herself and her understandings of the world to Francis. Francis’ past is also slowly revealed, so that we see how he came to wash ashore in Marvellous’ world, disturbing her equilibrium. To say much more about the plot would be to reveal too much – and I don’t want to ruin it!

A Year of Marvellous Ways demands, and deserves, close and careful reading; the complexity and lyricism, with the shifting of perspective and time, make the story a bit hard to follow if you’re not concentrating. For that reason it’s not a particularly relaxing read, and I saved it for commuting rather than bedtime. This is no criticism; rather that Sarah Winman has crafted an intricate, compelling story that is worthy of the reader’s full attention.

A compliment also to the book designers; I’m not sure if the retail versions of A Year of Marvellous Ways have a double cover, but my review copy is encased with orange card, with a cut out showing the boathouse, an important building in the story. Inside is the cover proper, with images of stars, starfish, leaves and fish (or possibly mermaid’s) tails … all part of the imagery contained within the story. The edges of the pages are tinted blue, reflecting Marvellous’s connection to the sea. The beauty of the book design matches the beauty of the prose within. I’m going to read A Year of Marvellous Ways again.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

A Year of Marvellous Ways
by Sarah Winman
Published by Tinder Press
ISBN 9780755390922

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

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

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