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: Flying Furballs: Hot Air, by Donovan Bixley

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

See our review of Dogfight, number 1 in this series.

cv_hot_air.jpgThe second in the Flying Furballs series from Donovan Bixley is another laugh-out-loud action-packed read, set during the great war between CATs and DOGZ. The mission this time begins when Claude D’Bonair breaks a pigeon-message code:  he and his partner Syd Fishus are off on a top secret mission to supposedly neutral Switzerland.

Like all good secret missions, this one begins with a visit to the tech guys: in this case a canny cat called C-Four, who has a knack for inventing things that even he doesn’t know the real use of. This time, Claude & Syd take away an automatic hammock…but what could it be used for? As they begin their mission & figured that not everything is exactly going to go smoothly, it does come in handy for breaking the odd uncontrolled fall…

As Kyle Mewburn did in the Dragon Knight series, Bixley has made judicious use of the truth as applied to, for example, the types of planes flown in WW1. He also plays a little with the concept of goodies and baddies – we are frequently reminded via our hero Claude that “not all DOGZ are bad DOGZ.” And the secret weapon bears some resemblance to the Germans’ secret weapon in WW1.

Up and down gondolas, through the bellies of airships and into a handy one-seater plane, our heroes don’t have an easy job of saving the day. In fact, it’s not at all clear, once Major Tom gets hold of the facts, that they have. The next book is due in April 2017, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be figuring out who the spy is this time.

Highly recommended for action-loving kids aged 5-10.

Flying Furballs: Hot Air
by Donovan Bixley
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 978927262542

Book Review: Jake Atlas and the Tomb of the Emerald Snake, by Rob Lloyd Jones

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_jake_atlas_and_the_tomb_of_the_Emerald_Snake.jpgAny review of this book is bound to make mention of Indiana Jones, so let me get it out of the way. This book is Indiana Jones for modern kids – and that’s a great thing! Tombs, treasure and villains are all very Jones-ish, however this tomb-robbing adventure is very much a 21st century one, with high-tech spy gadgets galore.

Jake Atlas and his family embark somewhat gloomily on a trip to Egypt. His mother and father are their usual quiet and dull selves – which is a little strange considering they are Egyptology professors headed for their place of expertise. His Goth twin sister Pan is disdainfully silent, and Jake… well Jake just can’t seem to help causing trouble. This time though, the trouble immerses his whole family in an extraordinary adventure and turns their lives upside down.

Things begin to look up once they arrive in Cairo; mum seems to come alive, there is a spark in her eyes and even Pan can’t quite hide her interest in the ancient city. It may just be that this trip will help bring the family closer which is what Jake is hoping for. And it certainly does, but not in the way he thinks.

With their parents kidnapped, Jake and Pan are pulled into a new world of treasure hunting and tomb-raiding. Each brings their own unique skills to unravel clues and try to stay one step ahead of their dangerous rivals in order to save their parents. As they escape one tricky situation after another they edge closer to uncovering a huge secret. Pan’s clever brain and knowledge combined with Jake’s skill at on the spot problem solving sees them bonding and working as a team and embracing their special talents.

The plot moves along at a great pace, filled with action, fast-thinking get-aways, narrow escapes and surprises at every turn; the characters are kept on their toes and the readers are kept entertained and wondering what will happen next.

The author notes reveal that Rob Lloyd Jones studied Egyptology and archaeology, and this interest shines through his writing, with just the right amount of interesting and relevant facts about ancient Egyptian customs and culture blending into the story subtly and without an information overload. The book remains an adventure story without turning into a wordy textbook, and is done so well, that I found myself wanting to climb the pyramids and sail down the Nile. I hope there are more Jake Atlas adventures in tomb-raiding to come – Dr Jones would definitely approve.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Jake Atlas and the Tomb of the Emerald Snake
by Rob Lloyd Jones
Walker Books UK, 2017
ISBN:9781406361445

The Art of Free Travel: A Frugal Family Adventure, by Patrick Jones and Meg Ulman

cv_the_art_of_free_travelAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I walked through the south of Spain. Partly inspired by the English writer Laurie Lee and his account of the period he spent in the 1930’s walking through Spain, I spent a month or two walking along agricultural roads or on the gravelled shoulders of highways. Once I had overcome my fear of wild dogs and malevolent people (the former I learned to avoid, the latter never materialised- Spanish society has a soft spot for pilgrims), I experienced a certain blissful freedom: in the words of Lee, I grew fat with time. With this in mind, you could understand how The Art of Free Travel, the book as well as the ethos at its core, would in my case be a seed dropped on fertile ground.

In November 2013′ 2013, Patrick Jones, Meg Ulman, their toddler, Woody, eleven/twelve year old Zephyr and Zero the Jack Russell (hereafter collectively known as ‘The Artist as Family’ or TAAF) left New South Wales on touring bicycles. They returned in January 2015, having covered 9000 kilometres of Australian territory, mainly along the east coast, inland at times. Daylesford to Cape York return, for the most part on homicidally busy highways. Jones rode a tandem with Zephyr behind and Zero out front; Ulman had Woody in a bike-seat out back (total combined weight: >300kg). They primarily ‘stealth-camped’ ie. pitched their tents in non-official sites, beside rivers, the sea, in reserves and parks, near the main road when desperate. With limited cargo space, carried food was kept to a minimum. Foraging for ‘bush-tucker’ (walked- or biked-for wild food) was integral and successful; the book closes with a 256 item list of the free foods and medicines located and used along the way. The art of free travel and a frugal family adventure? In actual fact, yes.

travel_by-bikeAt this point, you could be forgiven for exclaiming “Why would you do this, with (to!) a toddler and a pre-teen?! It’s hard at the very least, outright dangerous at worst. Have ye no sanity, no sense of responsibility?!” And you would not be alone. The authors asked themselves these questions, waking sweating in the night in the weeks before they set out: “We were sure we were going to kill our kids on these totally unsuitable roads for bicycles. It was madness. Jesus! I could never forgive myself if they were killed. We spent our last nights in our emptied-out house… feeling a mix of dreadful foreboding and restless excitement.” Readers will recognise this train of thought; I experience it every time my family goes on a road trip, even in the relative security of a car.

Describing how his family became car-free in the first place, Patrick Jones writes:

“I was too often cooped up in a metal bubble on four wheels, technologically brilliant but ecologically stupid. I resented flashing past environments rich in intricate life that could only be experienced and better understood by going slow. I didn’t want conditioned air, I didn’t want radio heads, I didn’t want speed and glass and oil wars.”

Meg Ulman’s explanation of their developing desire to shed routine and have a family adventure provides further insight:

“…Camping, the lack of boundary between inside and outside, how brave it feels to sleep under the stars in summer and crawl into the womb of a tent when it’s cold. I love how intrepid I always feel with my head-torch on… no floors to sweep, no cleaning toothpaste spray from the bathroom mirror, no wiping dried milk from the stovetop… we felt suffocated by routine and more than ready to untie ourselves.”

Readers will be familiar too with these longings and aversions. New Zealanders tend to respond according to circumstance and personality: a camping trip to Golden Bay, a week on the Central Otago Rail Trail, perhaps a trip to Bali… but what propels the Artist as Family out the door and onto their bicycles for over a year? Big ideas and Big ideals, accompanied by saddlebags full of capability, fueled by serious willpower. The activism that lies at the heart of The Art of Free Travel will likely have readers shifting in our seats as we consider the choices we make, our willingness often to submit to comfortable numbness, and our complicity in cultural, economic and environmental unjustness. The action of living your ideals, and steering in the opposite direction to the norm, is guaranteed to cause friction, both within a group and in external encounters.

AaFnewbanner2015This is exactly what occurs, as TAAF rubs up against not only landowners and taxpayers, the law, traffic on the Bruce Highway, dehydration and aggressive fauna (there is something truly Homeric about the guaranteed appearance of wild dogs in this sort of journey), but also against its own constituent parts. There are arguments, negotiations, complex dynamics, tears and realised fears. The trip is not a lark; Jones and Ulman don’t beat around the bush. They both write excellently, from the heart and head, about the pain and joy of the ongoing adventure but also about issues important to them: raising children, the abuse of indigenous rights, and the degradation of Australia’s environment. The details of emotion, place, character and dialogue are finely observed; the whole epic shebang is shaped into a coherent whole, with credit also due to the editors at at NewSouth.

Breathing fresh air, eating fresh food and having a lot of good fun can be done to a greater or lesser extent in a variety of ways, but it’s hard to imagine a more comprehensive way than that chosen as a way of life by TAAF. And coming back to that fraction too much friction that was a companion to the family adventure: perhaps, as is sometimes the case, this friction contributed to the creation of the pearl that was the adventure, which became the pearl that is The Art of Free Travel.

*The artwork and writing of Patrick Jones, Meg Ulman and TAAF, as well as details of their current book-promoting bicycle-tour, can be found at permapoesis.blogspot.com and theartistasfamily.blogspot.com

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

The Art of Free Travel: A Frugal Family Adventure
by Patrick Jones and Meg Ulman
NewSouth Publishing
ISBN 9781742234434

Book Review: The Children’s Pond, by Tina Shaw

Available from booksellers nationwide. cv_the_childrens_pond

What a cover. A Beautiful still photograph of a gnarled old tree on a shady bank of the flowing Tongariro River. Conveying a sufficiently high degree of spookiness, mystery, some anxiety, plus of course that enigmatic title. As with many New Zealand novels, you know immediately, that the scenery, flora and fauna are going to be a significant part of the plot, the setting, and general atmosphere of the book.

The Children’s Pond is actually a real place, on the Tongariro River, at the National Trout Centre just outside the township of Turangi. Most of the places in this novel are real. It is in this pond, one day, that the body of a young woman is discovered. But that is only a small part of the story, and a lot happens before this particular alarming episode. Jessica is a woman in her late 30s who has moved from Auckland to Turangi to be close to her son, recently sentenced to a stint in Rangipo prison. She finds work at a fishing lodge and slowly sets about finding her feet, rebuilding her relationship with her son, and dealing with a sizeable amount of personal baggage. Being a small community it is not long before she finds herself drawn into the lives of those around her, in particular the family of the dead young woman. Slowly the threads of Jessica’s early life and the lives of those she gets to know in Turangi become more and more entangled, until Jessica herself is at the centre of the danger.

Even though the river cannot speak, it is probably the largest character in this tightly written and gripping novel. The river dominates the lives of those attached to the fishing lodge, both the tourists, the owners and the employees. All rivers have a life of their their own, a secret beauty, peace, tranquillity and enticements. Jessica is no less sucked in than the next person and finds her main solace in learning to fly fish. Now, if there was ever an advertisement to get someone out there learning to fly fish, then Ms Shaw is the perfect person to be writing about it. I am not at all surprised to see that this book is dedicated to Bruce – “who showed me the grace of fly fishing”. Her descriptions of fly fishing are glorious, for me the highlight of this book. I know nothing about fly fishing, and have never had any interest in it. But now? I would love to have a crack at it. She writes in such a way about the art of fly fishing that I get why people come from all over the world to fish for trout in New Zealand rivers. And mostly they fish for the sport of catching, not for the killing and eating.

Tina Shaw is not an author I have heard of. But I probably should have, and after reading this latest work, I am really keen to read more. A scroll through the list of publications on her small but perfectly formed website reveals a writer interested in all sorts of subjects and places and plot lines. She has written fiction for children, young adults and adults, as well as short stories, two anthologies and two works of non-fiction. Writing would appear to be her life.

This is a really good story, totally believable and well-written. There is a spooky and sinister overtone running through the whole story, short sentences, wonderful descriptions and visualisations, interesting characters, all with a back story. Everybody who has ever been to the Turangi area, even if just driving through, will already have a sense of the place. Reading this book makes you feel like you are still there, and may even make you want to go back.

by Felicity Murray

The Children’s Pond
by Tina Shaw
Published by Pointer Press
ISBN 9780473274023

Book Review: The Devouring Dragon – How China’s rise threatens the natural world, by Craig Simons

I’ve never read a book about zombies, and now I don’t need to. cv_the_devouring_dragonThis book is frightening enough.

Craig Simons is a reporter on the environment, principally from Asia. In this brief account, he describes the effect that China’s phenomenal economic development over the last few decades has had on the environment of the whole planet. He bases this book on reporting trips over the period 2009-2012, and has conversations with many interesting people in some unexpected places. He blends personal stories, reportage, theory, and scientific and historical background, in a lively, often gripping way which carries the reader along a bleak road.

The environment is a broad topic, but there are two main themes: carbon emissions, which of course accelerate the rate of climate change world-wide, and the destruction of the natural world to satisfy China’s ever-growing need for resources.

As far as emissions are concerned, China is, per capita, the largest user of coal in the world. The author details the extent of this use, and discusses rather mournfully the lack of tangible results from the Kyoto and Copenhagen agreements. He puts the blame for this failure not only to China, but the developed world as well, describing the agreements as poorly implemented.

In terms of the natural world, China looks like a giant vacuum cleaner. It is the largest market for threatened species of wild-life, principally for use in traditional medicine. It has changed from being self-sufficient in forestry to stripping huge areas of tropical forests. Soy-beans are needed – so farmers in Brazil clear vast swathes of the Amazonian rain-forests. And there are many more examples, covering a wide geographic range. The author starts in Colorado, visits New Guinea, Brazil, India and many other places. New Zealand gets two mentions: for what is described as the alarming rate in which land is being converted to dairying, and for mining coal. You may disagree with one or both of these and that stimulation of discussion is one of the book’s strengths.factories_china

The issues are described partly by observation – the book becomes a travelogue in places – and partly using a huge number of figures, which are carefully interwoven into the narrative so not to appear as reference material. He covers a vast amount of ground, and while I knew that China’s growth had costs, the full impact and the wide geographical sweep of the depredation astonished me. Many of his figures will be obsolete very quickly of course, but that does not matter: they give a scale which it is sometimes difficult to appreciate: one fifth of humanity, one quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, one half of all coal burnt in the world.

But there’s a loaded word in that paragraph. Depredation – really? Why should the Chinese not aspire to the same standard of living as other economies who started their exploitation of the environment earlier? Simons does not shy away from this, and makes it clear that China alone cannot solve the problems. Cooperation on an unheard-of scale between the large economies is the only hope for any solution. This cooperation founders of course on self-interest; NZ is unlikely to want to stop selling dairy products.

Simons is sympathetic towards China, and makes it clear that there is nothing to be gained by being anti-China. He takes a number of historical detours, showing that at least some of the blame lies with the West.tiger_boner

What about solutions? The author describes some attempts that have been made to resolve some of the issues. For example, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a major factor in the dreadful loss of Rhino, Tigers and other animals. Yet many doctors in China realise that TCM is worthless, and are trying to teach the population that this is so. Without much success so far – and it is here that we see the vast range of China, geographically, ethnically and socially. It would be fair to say that while Simons describes solutions in many areas, he is pessimistic about the likelihood of success any time soon.

As always with books on complex topics, I want to be assured that the author is worth trusting. And he is a journalist after all! He is an American, was a Peace Corps volunteer in China, studied widely and now lives in Beijing. He has reported on the environment from “a dozen” Asian nations, for newspapers and magazines. He has taken information from a lot of sources, and talked to a lot of smart people. Often the source material is not allowed to disrupt the flow of the book but is relegated to forty pages of notes, which are reassuringly complete. The writing is excellent – it is well paced, mixes direct observation of situations world-wide with reflection, and he has a great knack for highlighting one small detail which epitomises the big picture. It would have been easy just to write a lament but he hasn’t.

So, no zombies but the book frightened me anyway, and left me both better informed and more concerned. Well worth reading.

The Devouring Dragon: How China’s Rise Threatens the Natural World
by Craig Simmons
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781877551888