Book Review: The Dog Runner, by Bren MacDibble

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_dog_runnerAs a kid born and raised on farms all around Aotearoa, author Bren McDibble can speak with some authority about growing up on the land. While she now lives on a house bus that travels around Aussie, her roots are clearly, and proudly, rural. That grounding speaks strongly through the theme of this ecological apocalypse she has created, which serves as a dark backdrop to this story. It comes through in her proposition: that a ‘all-too possible’ fungus could wipe out all the grass and starve our livestock. This, in turn would bring down the whole farming model and impact on our entire food chain and eventually our eco-system. It’s a familiar scene.

Food is scarce. So, humans are reduced to become scavengers and are helpless to fend for themselves, having abandoned their skills following mass production and corporatisation. It’s a bleak new world. Think of the movies Quiet Earth, Mad Max, I am Pilgrim and so on. Desolate, wiped out. The connections to the great Irish Potato Famine are also pretty obvious, too. Except this time, immigration will not solve the issue. In this world adults are useless, and powerless, having become slaves to supermarkets, the internet and their electronic devices. They fall into are petty habits, squabble and join tribes to survive instead of rallying together. They are ultimately selfish and self-serving. Therefore, it’s up to the kids to save the day. It’s a book that comfortably sits alongside other YA authors like John Marsden.

With the help of their five big ‘doggos’, our heroes Ella and Emery must use a dry-land dogsled to leave the security of their inner city apartment and navigate their way through rough terrain to reach the relative safety and food of Emery’s mum’s place. Ella’s dad has disappeared. Emery’s mother works for a power company, and holds a vital job managing this precious resource from a remote location. She does it reluctantly, under pressure from her employer. It’s never really explained but she must remain at work, separated from her family, inexplicably obligated carry out her tasks for Orwellian masters. The parallels to Soviet Bloc utilities is not overlooked as the power splutters on and off, exposing a decaying, cracked network.

The kids must escape their urban prison and venture out into these new wastelands. Along the way, they encounter a range of difficult characters, who challenge them is many ways. I don’t want to provide spoilers but again, think of those characters in the Mad Max movies, with fewer guns.

The story throws you straight in, with little need to explain the setting or situation and then drops plot hints, like a trail of breadcrumbs, to keep you going. It’s told from the first person, with Ella holding the camera as she pans around revealing her world and every step she must take. We are teased along, even as Ella and Emery get further and further away from their crumbling city. From time to time Ella breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the reader. This is partly a reassuring inner dialogue, and a popular mechanism for YA fiction. The way it’s written, Ella could be either a boy or a girl. Her voice has no defining gender, beyond a name. It means the reader doesn’t take sides, and can empathize with these challenging circumstances.

Given climate change this scenario is a real threat and given we are so reliant on grains for basic food and feeding livestock, it’s a problem we, as humans must consider seriously.

But it’s not all gloomy. With the same adventurous spirit as Blyton’s The Famous Five, MacDibble revels in the pursuit of adventure. The story is fast-paced, there are fraught hideaways, difficult puzzles and dubious foes. These kids are fierce and brave, like farm kids, and creative and innovative. They see every problem as an opportunity.

Once again, MacDibble delivers a thoughtful and provoking read. Her first novel, How to Bee, also had an ecological them, examining our world without bees, which has become more of a very real threat over the last few years. This book takes a few more steps into oblivion, visualising not only a world where grasses and grains are wiped out but asking questions about what would replace these vital food sources.

Both teachers and parents should recommend this to upper primary school readers and return after to spark a wider conversation. It was also be a great one for further classroom study.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

The Dog Runner
by Bren MacDibble
Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760523572

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: How to HELP a Hedgehog and PROTECT a Polar Bear, by Jess French and Angela Keoghan

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_how_to_help_a_hedgehog_and_protect_a_polar_bearIt’s difficult for animals to survive in the wild, but, as humans, we sometimes make it even harder… How to HELP a Hedgehog and PROTECT a Polar Bear shares 70 small things that you can do to help save our planet including, building insect hotels, packing a no-rubbish lunch, switching off lights and not using plastic straws and every little bit counts!

Caring for our planet’s precious ecosystem is so important and this book with its amazing illustrations introduces us to fun, smart and achievable ways in which children and their “grown-ups” can help nurture the environment. It includes essential information about 12 different animal habitats — gardens, hedgerows, heathlands, woodlands, highlands, wetlands, freshwater, coastlines, oceans, savannahs, jungles and mountains — so that you can help out no matter what part of the world you live in!

We should be instilling environmental care into our children as soon as possible so that they too are taking on the crucial job of keeping our planet healthy and liveable for all creatures.  How to HELP a Hedgehog and PROTECT a Polar Bear is the perfect resource for any children, parents or teachers wanting to make the first practical steps towards environmental awareness and learn how we can respect, protect and preserve the natural world from human destruction and pollution.

Reviewed by Alana Bird

How to HELP a Hedgehog and PROTECT a Polar Bear
by Jess French, illustrated by Angela Keoghan
Published by Nosy Crow
ISBN 9781788002578

Book Review: We See the Stars, by Kate Van Hooft

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_we_see_the_stars.jpgSimon is an eleven-year-old boy who lives in a world of silence, lists and numbers. He hasn’t spoken for years and at times lives in a fantasy world.

We See The Stars is set in rural Victoria where Simon lives with his Dad and younger brother Davey, and also his Grandma, who spends much of her day at the hospital with Granddad.

School is not easy for Simon as the other kids think he is weird and at times he feels his only friends are Davey and Superman who is always there when he needs him. Simon is often bullied and he has a variety of coping mechanisms when he begins to feel overwhelmed.

‘I tried to go invisible. I tried to turn into air. I stood right where I was, right there on the spot, while it all just kind of played out around me, and I felt heavy in my tummy when the noise came up over the top of me and broke over my head’.

One day Simon shares his Vita-Weats with Cassie, a girl from his class with a physical disability who has also faced ridicule, and a friendship starts to form. Their new teacher Ms Hilcombe also takes a special interest in him, and it is while he is at her house he begins to talk again.

‘I like your class’ I said, but quietly.
‘Oh Simon!’ she said, and her voice came out all in a rush of air. ‘Did you just….?’

This book is listed in the Mystery/Crime category but the author takes the reader on a fantasy journey with Simon as he searches for Ms Hilcombe when she goes missing, while at the same time Simon seems to be the only person in his household who visits his mother in her bedroom.

Kate van Hooft was born and raised in Melbourne and lives there with her husband Paul Carter, also a writer. She is currently working as a disability advisor at Swinburne while finishing a Master of Social Work. She has worked for more than ten years in student wellbeing and disability support in tertiary education and is passionate about youth mental health. We See the Stars is her first novel and will appeal to a wide age range of people especially those working in the disability field.

The novel is a beautifully written, gentle, compelling read and drew me in from the beginning, Simon’s thoughts giving the book a haunting appeal which kept me turning the pages. Mystery and fantasy combine as the story progresses into escapism keeping the reader guessing right to the end and beyond.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

We See the Stars
by Kate Van Hooft
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760632526

AWF18: The Creative Brain, with David Eagleman

Superstar neuroscientist David Eagleman’s latest book, co-authored with composer Anthony Brandt, is The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes The World.

Tara Black attended a session called The Creative Brain, on behalf of Booksellers NZ, and created this illustration of notes.

David_eagleman_ed
David Eagleman’s other event is:

Brain Waves: David Eagleman in conversation with Toby Manhire
Sunday, 20 May 2018, 10:30am – 11:30am
ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre

Book Review: The Great New Zealand Robbery, by Scott Bainbridge

Available nationwide from Wednesday 26 July.

cv_the_great_New-Zealand_robbery.jpgWho knew this robbery even happened? Certainly not me, true crime reader that I am. In this page turner Bainbridge unfolds the story of the so-called Waterfront Payroll Robbery which took place in downtown Auckland in 1956. A well executed robbery for that time: other than a smoke filled office and an empty safe, there was no indication whatsoever  who the robber/robbers were.

A cast of characters straight from the pages of a crime novel are brought to life here in a realistic and believable way, back stories are fleshed out, questions are asked and the reality of the criminal element that populated Auckland at that time is unraveled. Then there is the Police Force, who wished nothing more than to be rid of this element and have them all locked behind very strong bars, methods and modus operandi be damned: the procedures book made reasonable reading but did anyone really expect they would follow it? In the Auckland of the 1950s, crime was very much under the radar, in fact generally Auckland was pretty crime free and most of it featured the activities of the “Underworld” of whom Joe Average would have no knowledge.

In this book Bainbridge excels at digging, chipping away and unearthing a story that is little known. He paints a vivid and gritty picture of 1950s Auckland, the story flows, there are twists and turns in the tale, and each character – good, bad or indifferent – gets his moment in the sun. By the end of the book, we know that a certain gentlemen served time for the crime – but we don’t know if it was a solo or group effort, and we don’t know where the money ended up, here or over the ditch. This, however, does not detract in any way from the books effectiveness or the readers enjoyment of it.

I have read earlier work by Scott Bainbridge and have always enjoyed it. This book simply adds to his reputation as a very good writer of non-fiction crime and those who pick it up, will enjoy it.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

The Great New Zealand Robbery
by Scott Bainbridge
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781877505768

 

Book Review: The Winner’s Curse, by Marie Rutkoski

Available now at bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_winners_curseI find that when reading a novel, it is very easy to become complacent. Even the best of written text can grind you into a rhythmic lull – you need not actively think, but you can allow yourself to wander with the novel. This was not the case with The Winners Curse; the first book in the Winner’s Trilogy, by Marie Rutkoski.

The Winner’s Curse tells the tales of Kestrel, the general’s daughter, and Arin, a beautiful young slave bought by her. They live in a society that demands that everyone must enlist in the military, or, if you’re a female, get married. Kestrel does not wish to do either, despite having many eligible, and not-very-eligible bachelors up for the asking. Arin is the one she wants, and she can’t have him.

Arin, however, has his own secrets, of treachery toward his masters, and plans to gain freedom for his people, the Herrani. It’s a thrilling, fast-paced read that leaves you breathless, but admittedly, slightly confused at the complexity. You cannot relax while reading The Winner’s Curse, you need to be thinking of the different relationships, status changes of the characters and ideas that are presented, so unlike the New Zealand culture. Rutkoski herself said that she based the book off the Greco-Roman period ‘after Rome had conquered Greece and enslaved its population’, which is indeed what happens in this thrilling novel.

Despite being a slightly challenging read, it flowed brilliantly, and all presented ideas were clear and logical. It was a simply stunning read, and I am very excited to read the next two installments.

All in all, The Winner’s Curse is a wonderful read and is well worth challenging your mind with. However, if I had to fault something, it would have to be the confusing nature of the final scenes – read it, and see what I mean.

Despite that, I am proud to call myself a fan of the Winner’s Trilogy.

Reviewed by Jessica Rayner
Supplied as part of the Allen & Unwin Ambassador Programme

The Winner’s Curse
by Marie Rutkoski
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN 9781408858202