Book Review: Harsu & The Werestoat, by Barbara Else

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_harsu_and_the_werestoatThis book is not the usual genre I am attracted to but I have to say this book fascinated me. I am also always on the look-out for books to inspire and interest my 12-year-old granddaughter Eden.

Harsu is a 12-year-old boy whose mother is Daama, the daughter of the Wind God. On the outside she looks like a woman but Daama is capable of changing into a stoat – hence the term werestoat.

When Harsu was 6 years old his father tried to teach Harsu about the world – also trying to teach him how to read.  Harsu developed a terrible fever-dream breaking out in a rash, and remembers his parents fighting.  By the time he recovered, his father was gone from the Palace.

Harsu’s mother started stealing babies as she wanted a perfect child, as thanks to the fever dream, Harsu wasn’t perfect anymore.  Daama’s behaviour continues to be of concern to Harsu as she constantly wants praise for her job as a mother and often doesn’t get it. Staff in the Palace walk out as her temper tantrums become worse.

Harsu is torn as while he loves his mother, he does not condone her behaviour. As he is part human and totally devoted to her, he can’t stand by and let her behaviour continue as she contrives to steal older children.  Moving via a mysterious portal, through history, finally settling in current-day New Zealand doesn’t seem to make any difference or contain her behaviour. It becomes even more bizarre.

The more I got into this book I realised that  this was a modern-day fairy tale. Not all fairy stories I grew up with necessarily had happy beginnings or endings. This has a great ending that most would be happy with.

Eden you are going to be the recipient of a new book! Enjoy, my darling girl!

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Harsu & The Werestoat
by Barbara Else
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776572199

Book Review: Hazel and the Snails, by Nan Blanchard

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hazel_and_the_snailsHazel and the Snails is an enchanting, thoughtful book, suited to readers about eight years old (give or take). Hazel, an energetic and matter-of-fact young girl probably about six or seven herself, is a super snail sleuth. We follow Hazel from home to school – along with her snails, who live in a cardboard box under her bed and are lovingly transported wherever she goes. Ms Taylor, a teacher a bit like Matilda’s Miss Honey says with a smile that ‘Snails are welcome at school but not on top of desks’.

This short chapter book deals with the serious issues of the illness of a loved one, death and grief from the point of view of a child. As Hazel’s dad progressively worsens, meaning Mum is away more while Hazel and her nose-studded brother Henry are looked after by her grandmother, Hazel remains absorbed in her snails and everyday adventures. Hazel lives in a distinctly contemporary New Zealand (I love the references to WeetBix and to Lilybee Wrap).

Hazel and the Snails shows, in a very everyday way, what it looks and feels like to be Hazel and sensitively introduces the idea of death and dying in a child’s life. I found myself thinking of the adventures of Milly-Molly-Mandy as I thumbed its pages – and was rewarded to see a reference to Milly-Molly-Mandy herself partway through! A lovely, honest and simple story by a first-time children’s author, complemented by pencil drawings by Giselle Clarkson. Grown ups will enjoy the story too – and might indeed benefit from this insight into children’s minds.

I look forward to seeing what else new writer Nan Blanchard has up her sleeve.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

Hazel and the Snails
by Nan Blanchard
Published by Annual Ink
ISBN 9780995113589

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Lenny’s Book of Everything, by Karen Foxlee

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_lennys_book_of_everything.jpgI was at the apex of this book as I sat eating my lunch on the Wellington waterfront one beautiful day, and I swear to god somebody could have had a vicious fight a metre away and I would not have lifted my head. This book is an immersive joy to read.

Lenny is small, pointy and unremarkable. She is a few years older than her brother Davey, who is perfectly normal for five years. Until he isn’t. Overnight, he goes from being a perfectly normal size, to 4’ 3”. Lenny and Davey live with their mum, and she works evenings at a rest home to provide shelter and food for them.

Around the time Davey starts growing, the family enter a competition to win a full set of Burrell’s Built-it-at-Home Encyclopedias, delivered monthly over three years. They win, thanks to their mum’s slight stretching of the truth, and so the structure of the book is set – the things the kids learn from the fervently awaited parcels of knowledge creating a narrative backdrop to the world of Davey and Lenny as Davey grows, and grows, and doesn’t stop.

Author Karen Foxlee has skilfully created the most fantastic character I’ve read in awhile – and I read A LOT of books, particularly those aimed at smart 8-12 year olds. Lenny observes everybody around her with a clarity that gives you a full sense of what their character is – Mother, Mrs. Gaspar of the glorious dreams, the suspicious Great-Aunt Em and the creepy Mr. King from the fruit store.

As a result of the Encyclopaedia, Lenny is obsessed with beetles, and wants to become a coleopterist. ‘That day in class I counted the notches on a Goliath beetles legs in my head. I imagined them and I counted them and it calmed me…. Goliathus goliatus, I repeated, again and again in class that day after Davey went home with growing pains. They were words. …And words felt good and solid.’

Both Lenny and Davey live from story to story, and new fact to new fact, but as the facts of their unique situation overcome them, they devise a way out together: they will go to Great Bear Lake, where Davey will build a log hut, something he is certain he knows how to do thanks to the Encyclopaedia.

‘The L issues brought ladybugs and lacewings, larder beetles, leafwings and leatherbacks. I had dreamed of the family Lampyridae, the fireflies, and I was not disappointed. For Davey, L contained log cabins. Davey drew log cabins…He borrowed How to Build a Log Cabin from the library again and again.’

The book is punctuated with dates and a measurement for Davey. It is also punctuated by letters from Lenny’s Mother to Burrell’s Encyclopaedias – the fact they try to get her to pay for the covers for the encyclopaedias turns into personal correspondence with Martha Brent, who bends the rules throughout to get Davey his favourite letters – E for eagles, F for falcons. ‘I thought I would send all the H issues at once, for Davey, because I know he is sure to like hawks and perhaps hummingbirds.’

One book I can think to compare this to is The Book Thief. There are secrets and shared stories that become the spaces where hope grows. There is tragedy, and levity, and joy and humanity. It is a wonderful story, and one I’d recommend to anyone.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Check out the book trailer now

Lenny’s Book of Everything
by Karen Foxlee
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760528706

Book Review: The Goose Road, by Rowena House

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_goose_roadOne girl’s epic journey across France with her flock of Toulouse geese amid the terror and chaos of World War One is the subject matter of this debut novel by Rowena House.

It is 1916. News has just arrived that 14-year-old Angelique Lacroix’s alcoholic father has died in battle. The only chance Angelique’s family have of surviving the financial strain and keeping their farm is if she walks her geese across France and sells them for a significant amount of money.

Rowena House’s historical novel, inspired by her winning short story entry ‘The Marshalling of Angelique’s Geese’ in a competition run by Andersen Press in 2013, is both a historical journey into World War One affected France with the soon to arrive Spanish ‘Flu epidemic, and a charming personal story about a young girl dealing not only with the rearing of a beloved gosling to lead her geese onward on their treacherous journey, but also hunger, anger, violence, truth, and the unfathomable need for love in this world.

This book was a pure delight to read, which is surprising for me because I am one who normally shirks away from books involving war when I can. An easy page-turner with wonderful movement in the language like this:
‘I think of Emile, and his horror at watching that shrapnel shell screaming towards him. Does he still see it in his dreams? A shiver runs through me, and a twinge of guilt: I’ve never really wondered before whether Father saw the missile that killed him.

‘Maybe that’s why Mother wanted me to forgive him: not because of what he’d done to us, but because of the things he’d seen on the battlefield.’

Angelique’s journey is in turns inspiring and tear-jerking in ways I never thought I’d ever feel about geese. You yourself feel caught up in the journey, especially knowing that at the bittersweet end ownership and bonding with the geese must be sacrificed in order to save one’s home and family. Particularly, I will hold in my head forever the image of the tame geese wishing they could fly up in the sky with the wild geese they encounter on the way.

Ok, so go out and read Rowena House’s debut, I thoroughly recommend it.

Review by Penny M Geddis

The Goose Road
Author by Rowena House
Published by Walker Books Ltd
ISBN: 9781406371673

Book Review: A Change of Key, by Adrienne Jansen

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_a_change_of_key.jpgOn first immersion, this is a novel full of shadows, muffled voices behind closed doors, with single, solitary loners, ears pricked up in paranoia, pacing the empty corridors of a council housing project. How the loners ache to be included in the simple goings-on of neighbours they can hear through the thin walls, but fear of their own past catching up with them haunts their every motive and move. Behind and between all this however, threads of music slowly weave the residents together in ways none of them could possibly have expected.

This book, by Adrienne Jansen, is centred on the same characters as her 2013 novel The Score, but it isn’t necessary to have read this first.

The story starts with Marko, a once illustrious Bulgarian musician, peering through foreign language books in a second-hand bookstore far away from his home country. At the counter he is spat upon by the old Polish shop owner and called a traitor. Someone has taken his picture, and there is his face in the newspaper, attached to a small headline on the front page: MP Claims KGB Spy Living Here. At the same time, living on the same floor is Stefan, Marko’s piano-restoring neighbour. Both men have run away from their home, and run far. The men, joined by others also separated from their own origins, bond through the shared love of music, a language common to all.

Each character faces the threats and challenges of being a foreigner in a foreign land – trying to fit in, to be accepted, to work in employment beneath their qualifications just to pay the rent, and the sadly common experience: racism born of intolerance and ignorance. Throw in a hefty building rent hike, terrorist suspicion, blackmail, threats of exposure, and you have a physical and mental health bomb waiting for detonation.

Sadly, the author is not making all of this stuff up. The novel draws on Adrienne Jansen’s years of experience working amongst New Zealand immigrants, and their collected anecdotes as people who have lived the immigrant experience in New Zealand.

A Change of Key is a moving story, and in that movement, music reveals itself as an integral part of life. The musical interludes between the fear and angst reveal how music both weaves the characters together into unexpected and welcome friendships, but also helps to unravel the tension experienced by them all. Marco, Stefan and the mentally fraught Phil experience freedom from the world through playing their instruments together. Within music they loosen and sometimes lose their fears and inhibitions. And those that listen to their music are also consoled by it. A lasting image for me is Haider, suspected terrorist and Stefan’s neighbour, head against the wall listening to Stefan playing the piano he’s been restoring within his flat. The sense of longing for connection in a foreign land is intense in that moment.

The ability Jansen has to weave so many characters from so many ethnic backgrounds, ages, and economic statuses into one, easy-to-hold paperback novel is to be applauded. A lot of graft and care has gone into this work and I am glad to have had the opportunity to read it. If you want to be moved yourself, by music, or, by life stories foreign to your own, then you’ll want to read this novel. I haven’t read a book invoking this much feeling in quite some time. Potentially it will make you look at your world and perhaps your own words and actions in quite a different way. Possibly it will even inspire you to more inclusive action in your everyday life. Forming your own band maybe?

Review by Penny M Geddis

A Change of Key
by Adrienne Jansen
Published by Escalator Press
ISBN 9780473440916

Book Review: The Mapmakers’ Race, by Eirlys Hunter

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_mapmakers_RaceThe Santander siblings – Sal, Joe, Francie and little Humphrey – have twenty-eight days to reach the finish line of the Great Mapmakers’ Race. With their father missing and their mother stranded, they have no choice but to carry on alone. Their task: find a route for a railway line between Grand Prospect and New Coalhaven. If they win, they will receive a large prize that will allow them to fund a search party for their father. If they lose, they will never be a proper family again.

Launching the adventure with a thrilling train ride, the four children and their talking parrot, Carrot, speed past ‘tunnels and bridges, fields, farms and forests’ to arrive at Grand Prospect. With fourteen-year-old Sal guiding her younger siblings through the bustling town, they join the Mapmakers’ Race with the help of their new-found friend, a fifteen-year-old boy named Beckett.

Against the ever-ticking clock, the Santander team contend with dangerous river crossings, bears, a kidnapping, illness, loneliness, wet clothes, dark caves, family squabbles, cliff falls and terrible weather – not to mention a dwindling food supply. Racing against five teams of adults who refuse to play by the rules, the Santanders find out what it means to survive against all odds.

A fast-paced adventure story, The Mapmakers’ Race is propelled along by an urgent deadline. With regular reminders of how many days remain, each chapter pushes the tension to new heights as the children fight to survive. A gripping tale with beautifully drawn characters, children and adults alike will empathise with at least one of the four Santanders. There’s Sal, the mathematician of the family, the one using trigonometry and her trusty altimeter to ensure their route is safe for a railway. There’s the eleven-year-old twins: courageous Joe and silent Francie. Joe speaks for the both of them, but it is Francie who has the secret talent – she has a special power of ‘flight’ that enables her to look at the world from above, her beautiful maps reflecting her visions. Joe is the brave (and reckless) route finder, and four-year-old Humphrey provides the comic relief with his made-up words (‘Busticated’ he exclaims at one point) and strange observations.

An adventure story with dashes of fantasy and a taste of steampunk, The Mapmakers’ Race is Eirlys Hunter’s seventh book for children. A London-born writer who now lives in Wellington, Hunter teaches children’s writing at the IIML at Victoria University. Complementing the beautiful prose are the stunning illustrations of Kirsten Slade, a Liverpool-born illustrator and comic artist who also lives in Wellington. Each chapter begins with a map illustration detailing the Santanders’ journey.

Unlike most modern-day children’s adventure stories, which tend to focus on internal conflict or traumatic events, Hunter’s novel harks back to children’s adventure books of the past. No adults feature in this story: instead, the children are solely responsible for their own survival. They make the decisions, and they alone suffer the consequences – but also the victories.

A heartwarming tale about the bonds between siblings and friends, The Mapmakers’ Race is a compelling read. When the reader is able to pull themselves away from the plot, they will also realise the delicate beauty of the prose – ‘The full moon hung so big and bright that he could barely make out any stars until he turned his back to the moon and looked towards the dark horizon where there were tens, then hundreds, then thousands of stars pulsing silently – chips of ice in an infinite, frozen world.’

A story full of laughter, thrills, storytelling and danger, The Mapmakers’ Race is destined to become a Kiwi classic.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

The Mapmakers’ Race
by Eirlys Hunter
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776572038

Book Review: See You When I See You, by Rose Lagercrantz, illustrated by Eva Erikksson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_see_you_when_I_see_youSee You When I See You is the fifth book in the Dani series, about a girl starting the second year of school. The previous four books set the scene for Dani, a girl whose mother is dead and whose Dad spent a long time in hospital recently recovering from an accident. Understanding this context is useful, as without it the story seems oddly complex.

Dani has a bad start to a special day when her Dad asks her if it is OK for his friend Sadie to come over and cook dinner. It is clear from the story that Dani is not happy about this.

That day it is time for Dani’s annual school trip to the Skansen Zoo. The children go on a bus to the zoo, get a lecture about what to do if they are lost and happily have close encounters with some animals. Sadly, two of Dani’s classmates are mean to her, and in her distress she runs away. She remembers to follow the instructions of her teacher, and returns to the last place she saw her class. Suddenly she comes across her best friend, Ella. Ella is at a different school and the children make the most of the happy chance to go off and play.

The books are designed for children aged 5-7 and the publisher, Gecko Press, notes that ‘The series fills a gap of good reading for five- to seven-year-olds. It gives them a proper grown-up reading experience that is accessible but also has emotional weight.’

My seven-year-old daughter very much enjoyed the book, and I could hear the voice of seven-year-old’s in the story. With a seven-year-old’s understanding, not everything in the story is explained. We both enjoyed the illustrations, which show a child’s view of the action.

Books from this series would make a great gift for young readers, particularly those who would enjoy reading their own chapter books.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford.

See You When I See You
by Rose Lagercrantz
Illustrated by Eva Erikksson
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571307