Book Review: All Our Secrets, by Jennifer Lane

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_all_our_secretsI began this novel with no expectations at all beyond the blurb, which made it sound dark and murderous, something along the lines of your usual crime fiction novel. And yes it would suit those who enjoy that type of read: but it is much much more than this. This is your ultimate immersive summer read.

Our 11-year-old narrator Gracie is the eldest in her family, which comprises of her mum, occasionally her promiscuous dad, and her extremely Catholic Grandma Bett; plus Elijah, and the 3-year-old twins Lucky and Grub. She and Elijah have a secret spot that they hide in while their Mum & Dad fight (usually about his indiscretions), but she is quietly proud to be his daughter. He is, to her eyes, the best-looking man in Coongahoola. Unfortunately, many other women agree.

‘At approximately three thirty in the afternoon, while walking on the banks of the Bagooli River, Martha Mills alleges she saw a vision of the Virgin Mary.’

The Bagooli River was not somebody anybody from the town went. ‘Not after the River Picnic. Not after Stu Bailey’s wife drowned in it, and whatever else happened that night.’ But one week after the vision, the Believers arrive. There are 500 of them, to camp beside the river and to worship the Virgin Mary under the tutelage of the self-named Saint Bede.

And then the murders began. ‘From every telegraph on Main Road, Nigel’s face looked down at up. His brown hair was bleached by the November sun and the sticky-taped ‘missing’ posters were crinkled and curling.’ Nigel is the beginning of a spate of murders centred on the River Children – the group of kids born 9 months after the River Picnic, many of whom don’t resemble their purported fathers.

Gracie’s brother Elijah is a River Child.

Author Jennifer Lane has drawn the small town of Coongahoola expertly. Martha Mills (who saw the vision) was there for Gracie’s birth when her mother’s waters broke at the supermarket at which Martha worked. Gracie’s godmother the nosy Mrs Ludlum was also there, and the rest of the characters making up the small town are all brilliantly drawn, with complexity where it is warranted, through a child’s eyes. Grandma Bett is another key character – as the main caregiver when times are tough, she is Gracie’s hero, albeit with a bit more praying than Gracie would like to do.

‘Grandma Bett was always talking to God – how could he hear what Mum was saying at the same time? And what about everyone else in the world? How could he hear them all at once?’

The complexities of religious belief is an ongoing thread in the book, thanks to the Believers and their inevitable ideological clash with every other church group in town. And while Gracie was never too concerned about being unpopular; thanks to her mum’s relationship with the Believer church, she has to endure cruel bullying. But this is no ‘woe is me’ tale – Gracie is emotionally smarter than that.

Lane’s writing is fabulous for that of a first-time author. The book felt well-edited and polished (as you would expectof a book edited by the wonderful Penelope Todd), and the writing is descriptive and immersive. The moments where Gracie retreats into her own thoughts are managed without dropping the pace of the story, and there is not one chapter that you finish thinking ‘that’s enough for now.’

One of the questions I went into this book was whether it had potential to be a cross-over title – from YA to adult and back again. I think it does. The murders are handled in a clean way, no Stephen King gore to be seen (though the way in which the naive narrator is used reminds me a little of a King novel). The voice is authentically young – you never feel as though an adult’s thoughts are going through a child’s head. But it remains interesting and fascinating.

I’d highly recommend this as a summer read for age 13+. It’s a pleasure to be part of Gracie’s world, dysfunctional though it may be.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

All Our Secrets
by Jennifer Lane
Published by Rosa Mira Books
ISBN 9780994132215

 

 

 

Advertisements

Book Review: The Thunderbolt Pony, by Stacy Gregg

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_thunderbolt_ponyIf you are a horse-loving tweenager, Stacy Gregg is a rockstar.  With her crazily popular Pony Club Secrets and Pony Club Rivals series and her more recent stand-alone novels, Stacy is one of New Zealand’s most popular children’s authors; both in New Zealand and overseas. Fans were queuing up to buy her newest release, The Thunderbolt Pony, last month without even needing to know the title or the plot; she is that popular.

Stacy’s newest novel is the first by her to be set in New Zealand. And what a tale it tells. Twelve year old Evie, already battling obsessive compulsive disorder after the recent death of her father, faces a new trauma when the Kaikoura earthquake strikes. Evie’s house in the small town of Parnassus is destroyed and her mother is badly injured, needing medical evacuation. When Evie is told she needs to flee the devastation with her neighbours to get to Kaikoura to meet a navy ship, she refuses to abandon her beloved animals and is determined to find a way to stay together. And thus begins her epic trek with her faithful pony Gus, feisty cat Moxy, and loyal dog Jock.

This is a thrilling read. The description of the physical experience of the big quake and its many aftershocks felt much too familiar. There were also far too many heart-in-throat moments of peril and danger. I found myself reading ‘just one more page’ on several occasions because I couldn’t bear to put the book down until I knew all of our animals were safe.

As well as the overarching plot about animals and earthquakes, there is a sub-story about Evie’s anxiety issues and counselling sessions. Stacey handles the topic of mental health with grace and empathy. Evie’s challenges with OCD and anxiety are not minimised nor used for comedic purposes. Her suffering is real and its treatment is explored gently and kindly, through the metaphor of Greek mythology.

This would be an extremely useful book to use to open a dialogue with children if they are facing any similar mental health challenges of their own, whether or not their anxiety is caused by a bereavement or earthquakes. Our hero is a great role model for anyone battling anxiety; she comes through her ordeal stronger and wiser: ‘… you could waste your life just waiting for the future to happen.  Sometimes we’re so busy anticipating things, we miss out on the moment that we’re living in right now.’

Evie’s story is one of courage, friendship, overcoming obstacles, and learning that there are some things we cannot control. It is an adventure story, an animal story, and a very New Zealand story; a great read for Kiwi kids and overseas friends.

Review by Tiffany Matsis

The Thunderbolt Pony
by Stacey Gregg
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780008257019

 

Book Review: Point of Order, Mr Speaker?: Modern Māori Political Leaders,edited by Selwyn and Rahui Katene

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_point_of_order_mr_speaker.pngWith the recent election it appears that Māori politics has changed significantly. The Māori  electorate seats have reverted to Labour, and the Māori Party is, at least temporarily, off the stage. A book on Māori leadership could have been highly relevant to this situation. However, with the emphasis on particular individual experiences of life before becoming MPs, this book tries to take a longer view.

It has to be noted that electoral events must affect how the book is read, certainly by a general audience. Of the eight political leaders chosen, two had already retired, and only three have remained in Parliament. All three of the failed candidates were actual party leaders who were contesting Māori  seats. Of the three that were elected only one is the MP for a Māori  electorate; one is the MP for a general seat in Auckland; and Shane Jones secured a winning party list placing despite again failing to win an electorate seat. The substantive shift to Labour amongst Māori voters is not reflected in the choice of leaders, and there is a bias to the pre-election governing parties.

This book is set up in a problematic way, firstly in the foreword by Whatarangi Winiata, the former president of the Māori Party. His short piece mostly focuses on the achievements of the Māori Party. But he also states that the leaders have to be rangatira, in terms of Whakapapa Maori, rather than being a leader who happens to be Māori. He holds Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples as role models.

It is quite difficult to comment on the chapters provided by each individual leader in the first person, especially after what happened to Metiria Turei just after this book had been finalised. However candid the leaders have been about their backgrounds, the critical scrutiny of Ms Turei’s personal situation after admitting an historical benefit ‘fraud’ raises fundamental issues about who (or what) is deemed acceptable in public life, and about those that are making the judgment calls. Although the focus here is just on the Māori influence, there seem to be different forces at play when a leader is elected outside of the arena of Māori politics. On the other hand, there is very little in this book which sheds light on Māori politics: e.g. why Nanaia Mahuta gained votes and increased her majority, when openly opposed by the Māori King.

Another interesting point in the background of the leaders is simply demographic. All of the eight individuals are from the North Island. Most of them had provincial or rural upbringings, apart from Tau Henare and Metiria Turei. Of the four men, three had formative experiences at the St Stephens boarding school, the exclusive Māori institution that is now defunct. Certainly, Shane Jones and Te Ururoa Flavell seem to suggest that this particular form of schooling was crucial in setting them on their path to leadership. But all this doesn’t seem very representative of urban Māori experience.

The book ends with some assessment of individual achievements, which is odd in places. Hekia Parata and Paula Bennett are commended for introducing unpopular policies, as if this was essentially strong leadership. Arguably, it just reflected the National Party’s view on undeserving categories, whether it be the teacher unions (Parata) or welfare beneficiaries (Bennett). The fact that Bennett also exposed the private information of beneficiaries should be condemned rather than celebrated.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Point of Order, Mr Speaker?: Modern Māori Political Leaders
edited by Selwyn and Rahui Katene
Published by Huia Publishing
ISBN 9781775503323

Book Review: The Scariest Thing in the Garden, by Craig Smith, illustrated by Scott Tulloch

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_scariest_thing_in_the_gardenBig scary eyes stare out of the cover of the latest book created by Craig Smith and Scott Tulloch as the pair take children on a journey around the garden to find The Scariest Thing in the Garden.

The opening pages show a very scared Brussels sprout! What scared the Brussels sprout?
The simple repetitive lyrics build up the suspense in the read aloud book as the children meet an aphid, a spider, a ladybird, a bird, a cat, a dog, and a child.
Nothing has scared the child. Or has it?

Kids will love the surprise twist in the tale at the end of the book.

The author of the number one best seller The Wonkey Donkey, Craig Smith lives in Queenstown and performs around New Zealand and Australia, and says ‘There’s something about eating food that you have grown or made yourself that is very special.’

The book includes a CD which children will love as Craig sings his way through the book accompanied by his guitar, and children screaming in the appropriate places.

Scott Tulloch is based in Wanaka and has illustrated numerous Scholastic titles creating wacky cartoons, but also enjoys illustrating realistic wildlife. ‘I was too scared to paint a real-looking spider at first. but the publishing team at Scholastic told me I had to.’

The drawings are delightful, with big eyes staring out from all the animals, and children will love hearing this book over and over.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The Scariest Thing in the Garden
by Craig Smith, illustrated by Scott Tulloch
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775435051

Book Review: Dragons Under My Bed, by Kath Bee, illustrated by Lisa Allen

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_dragons_under_my_bedWhen I was a child, I was sure once the light went out in my room that strange creatures lurked under the bed and in my wardrobe. If I’d been given a copy of Kath Bee’s book, Dragons Under My Bed, I’m sure I would have slept better!

Illustrated beautifully by Lisa Allen, this book tells of the adventures of a family of dragons who come out to play under a young boy’s bed once his mother turns out the light.

First of all he hears giggling, then sees glowing red eyes… followed by puffs of smoke and deep breathing. He hasn’t got just one dragon under his bed, oh no, he’s got a whole family!

He’s quick to say they don’t hurt him, but they do seem to be responsible for making one heck of a mess on his bedroom floor. Strangely enough, they seem to do all the sorts of things little boys do in their rooms, like throwing clothes, books and toys on the floor.

When his mother comes along the hall to see what’s making all the noise, wouldn’t you know it, the family of dragons disappears back under the bed and you can imagine who gets the blame for the mess!

This book is great as a read-along as well as a picture book for younger children. There are lots of things to spot on each page – especially the one with all the books, as it features a book titled How to Build a Dragon-fired Pizza Oven!

The simple, colourful illustrations will delight children and can be used to help them identify different objects. The book has a downloadable link to an accompanying song, providing even more fun and value.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

Dragons Under My Bed
by Kath Bee, illustrated by Lisa Allen
Published by David Ling Publishing
ISBN 9781927305355

Book Review:  Taupo Blows! by Doug Wilson

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_taupo_blowsI will be honest with you.  I did not want to read this book at all. The title is the stuff of many of my childhood fears; after learning about volcanoes at primary school, staying at my nana’s home with its view of Lake Taupō during school holidays was never again a carefree experience. I don’t know how many nights I lay awake wondering if my number was up.

Thankfully, Doug Wilson hasn’t written that story. Instead he’s had Mt Ruapehu erupt, with young Rachel and Sam home alone when a second eruption throws a strange visitor onto their doorstep. Guld lives under the mountain, and needs Rachel and Sam to help him put things right before the whole volcanic plateau blows.

With the plot moving along at a cracking pace, Wilson introduces Rachel and Sam to a variety of odd characters to help them on their quest. The children must overcome their fears and find their inner strength to save the North Island from a cataclysmic eruption.

Taupo Blows! reminds me of the Maurice Gee classic (and nightmare-inducing) Under the Mountain in terms of setting, and Suzanne Collins’ wonderful Gregor the Overlander series in terms of characters and themes. This is high praise, and has Wilson keeping very good company. I’d recommend Taupo Blows! for readers from about 9-10 years, and I look forward to Wilson’s next offering.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Taupo Blows!
by Doug Wilson
Published by Bateman Publishing
ISBN 9781869539672

Book Review: Grace and Katie, by Suzanne Merritt and Liz Anelli

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_grace_and_katieGreat picture books have either a wonderful story and illustrations, or a profound message. The very best picture books manage to do both and Grace and Katie falls easily into this category.

Grace and Katie are sisters with totally different perspectives on art. While Grace enjoys using straight lines and order, Katie prefers colour and creativity. When they both decide to draw a picture of their home and the local park, the results are very different. The final results are not quite as satisfying as they would like. By sharing their skills and working together they create an artwork which combines accuracy with creativity.

Susanne Merritt is a passionate advocate for children’s literacy and as a Mum of 3 she has plenty of experience with the differences between siblings. Combined with the bright illustrations and detail of Liz Anelli, this book is a treasure.

I teach tolerance and difference to a Year 11 class, and asked if they would like me to read to them. They willingly sat on the mat as I shared Grace and Katie. The following discussion was wonderful as they picked up on the visual clues in the pictures. We talked about stereotyping and working with others. One girl explained that it could have been about her own experience as she was the creative one with a very orderly sister. This led to a sharing about gender stereotypes and the importance of being ourselves.

As a teacher, I see this as a great resource for starting discussions from pre-school level up. It is also a really lovely book to read and enjoy for the satisfying story, the wonderful pictures and the happy ending.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Grace and Katie
by Suzanne Merritt and Liz Anelli
Published by EK Books
ISBN 9781925335545