Book Review: Landscapes with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_landscape_with_invisible_handWeird, bleak and oddly compelling. Landscape with Invisible Hands is more closely aligned to social satire than science-fiction. It asks what would happen if the aliens came offering the ability to cure all illnesses and replace the jobs so that you need never work again? Sounds ideal? Well, it’s not.

The gap between rich and poor increases. The rich — and those who’ve managed to work their way into vuvv society — succeed. The others, left below to scrap over the few jobs that remain, suffer. Adam is one of those left below, living in the shadow of the vuvvs floating city. He is an artist, a painter, and something of a dreamer. Not the most ambitious of youths. After falling in love with a neighbour, the two of them decide to earn an income by starring in vuvv reality TV shows. The vuvv don’t form pair bonds but they do enjoy watching human courtship, circa 1950. It doesn’t end well, and thus Adam’s downward spiral begins…

This is a very readable, and quite relatable look at society — at what makes humans human and the lengths that we will go to both to make money and to please our mostly benevolent (but selfish) overlords. It acts as a social commentary on the division between the wealthy and the poverty-ridden, and how the latter are sometimes dehumanised. The ending falls a little flat but given the characters and the circumstances, I wasn’t expecting it to be dramatic. Overall, quite compelling (with short chapters) and one to make you think.

Review by Angela Oliver

Landscape with Invisible Hand
by M.T. Anderson
Published by Candlewick Press
ISBN 9780763687892

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Book Review: Alex Approximately, by Jenn Bennett

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_alex_approximatelyAlex, Approximately is sort of a modern-day novelised equivalent of the movie, You’ve Got Mail, aimed at a new generation.

Our protagonist, Bailey, loves classic movies and follows a strict habit of avoiding things that take her out of her comfort zone. So, when things become too uncomfortable at home with her mother’s new boyfriend, she moves to a small Californian coastal city, to live with her father. The fact that her online friend, fellow film-buff Alex, also lives there is just an added garnish.

However, not one to rush into things, Bailey determines to track down this mysterious “Alex” and suss him out before even tell him that they’re in the same city. The city, resting on the Californian Coast, somewhere near Monteray Bay and with the redwood forests as a backdrop, is a surfer’s paradise. It’s also home to a bizarre museum known as “The Cave” (which I feel was loosely based on The House On the Rock in Wisconsin). Here she picks up a summer job, and also catches the attentions of sexy, if infuriating, surfer boy, Parker. Their initial meetings are typical to the genre: he gently mocks her, and ultimately seems to be intent on trying to embarrass her. She bites back. They grow closer, become friends, and eventually Bailey decides she should stop trying to lightly stalk “Alex” in favour of her new relationship, and their already fairly infrequent online conversations cease.

If you’re reading this book for discussions about classic movies, I’m afraid you’re likely be disappointed. What you do receive, instead, is the awkward world of teenage dating and a frustrating case of hidden identity, interspersed with an intriguing array of background characters (Parker’s mother is most excellent!), and a somewhat-antagonist, Parker’s ex-friend, Davey. Davey is all kinds of messed up: he injured his knee a few years ago, became addicted to painkillers, and switched from there to harder drugs. He exhibits a variety of antisocial mannerisms, including a deep resentment of Parker, and Bailey has also caught his eye…

On the surface, Alex Approximately feels like a fairly light, superficial read. The twist, Alex’s identity, is easily figured out (and is pretty much spoiled on some of the promotional material, although not, fortunately, the blurb). It does contain frequent mentions of recreational drug use (although the main characters remain drug-free), violence, and some fairly descriptive sexual content. Thus I would not recommend it for the younger or more innocent reader (I would suggest, ages 14+).

It also fails to deal with some of the harder issues, such as Davey’s drug addiction, and he is cast more as the villain in need of taking out than the teenager in need of serious help that he clearly is. Bailey, for all that her father calls her “a good detective” at one point, is possibly the worst detective I’ve seen in a young adult novel, and completely fails to figure out who Alex is, despite the fact that even her father has guessed (but refuses to tell her or even drop substantial hints, presumably because the situation amuses him).

Whilst I would describe it as extremely readable, and quite entertaining, it could have been so much more.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Alex Approximately
by Jenn Bennett
Published by Simon & Schuster
ISBN  9781471161049

Book Review: Slave Power, by Raewyn Dawson

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_slave_powerSlave Power is the first in The Amazon Series, and introduces a new voice in the Young Adult market. It is a tale of friendship, of determination, of love, and of dedication. Set in the historic world, and around the Black Sea, it follows two very different girls, brought together by unfortunate circumstances.

The fifteen-year old heroine, Melo, is one of the most talented Riders in the Wild Horse Tribe. Her prowess, combined with her compassion, has stirred the jealousies of older beauty, Mithrida. Envious, and devious, Mithrida hatches a plan to remove Melo from the tribe, a plot which results in Melo falling into the hands of slave traders. Here she befriends a young girl, Atalanta. Atalanta’s family, and her entire tribe, fell to the slave traders, many slaughtered, others captured.

They are taken to a isolated island to train as fighter-slaves. Here, Melo meets Sofia, a young priestess-in-training, and her older brother, Mati, captures Melo’s eye (and perhaps her heart as well). Whilst Melo helps to inspire and improve the spirits of her fellow slaves, the Amazon tribes must unite against the very real threat of the slave traders. Meanwhile, Mithrida, still plotting and planning for her own gain, forms an allegiance with the enemy.

The author has taught classical studies, so she knows her era well, and creates her world in evocative detail. With strong female role models, messages of compassion, kindness and finding value in others, “Slave Power” is an inspiration read for young adults, contrasting sharply with the more dark-world dystopia that currently floods the market. It promotes cooperation, and peaceful resolution. Romantic relationships are minimal, with the teenage heroine pursuing friendship first – a worthy message for the youth of today!

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Slave Power
by Raewyn Dawson
Published by Mary Egan Publishing
ISBN 9780473389376

Book Review: The Battle of Hackham Heath, by John Flanagan

cv_the_battle_of_hackman_heathJohn Flanagan is most well known for his Rangers’ Apprentice series, featuring Will, a young man apprenticed to the mysterious ranger, Halt. In this series, Rangers’ Apprentice The Early Years, we join Halt in his early years of training, and see how Will’s world was formed.

I have not read the first in this series, but I found the story flowed very well regardless. Events in The Tournament at Gorlan were explained in enough detail to carry this story on and fill in the blank spaces. Having read the first few Rangers Apprentice books, Halt was no stranger to me. Hackham Heath picks up with Gorlan left off. Morgarath is exiled and in hiding, building an army by recruiting powerful wolf-apes known as Wargals, and plotting his vengeance on King Duncan. Halt is employed to uncover Morgarath’s secrets, whilst his friend Crawley is tasked with protecting the Queen and the heir she carries. Both tasks will require the young rangers to take great risks and make difficult choices, choices that will change their lives forever.

What follows is a fairly standard, albeit rather clever, medieval fantasy. Flanagan certainly knows his tactics and techniques, and creates a convincing and compelling battle (on Hackham Heath, as you may have guessed) that will keep younger readers eagerly turning the pages. There are several nods made towards the Ranger’s Apprentice series too, which should appeal to fans of the latter. Overall, a solid plot, characters that display appropriate levels of heroism, and a lot of action.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Battle of Hackham Heath
by John Flanagan
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781742759326

Book Review: Capsicum, Capsi Go, by Toby Morris

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_capsicum_capsi_goToby Morris is a cartoonist living in Auckland, New Zealand, whose insightful Pencilsword cartoons are a regular feature on TheWireless website. Capsicum, Capsi Go takes a more lighthearted approach, and is a fun rhyming book introducing the concept of opposites to youngsters aged 0-3.

The illustrations are simple and absolutely charming, rendered in bold colours appropriate for catching the eye of the child. The pages are colourful and sturdy; they should handle the frequent attention they will no doubt be subjected to. Take your child on a journey with Capsi (a super-cool, super-cute fruit*!), as he travels to the tropics. There is an extra level of cleverness to the illustrations, adding a collage-style appearance: a taxi is rendered using the M-section of the yellow pages, whereas bubble-wrap adds an intriguing effect as Capsi goes swimming (inadvisable, as it turns out capsicum are not strong swimmers! but don’t worry: “Capsi’s sweet, Capsi’s fine”).

Simple and sweet, Capsicum, Capsi Go should be a lot of fun to read aloud – again and again!

[* more frequently considered a vegetable, but officially a fruit]

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Capsicum, Capsi Go
by Toby Morris
Published by Beatnik Publishing
ISBN 9780994120557

Book Review: William Wenton and the Luridium Thief, by Bobbie Peers, translated by Tara Chace

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_willian_wenton_and_the_luridium_thiefWilliam Wenton and the Luridium Thief was a big hit in Norway, where it walked away with the Ark’s Children’s Book Award in 2015. It has now been translated into 30 languages (including, obviously, English) and is set to become a feature film.

Eight years ago, William’s father was badly injured in a car accident and his grandfather vanished without a trace. Now his family are maintaining a low profile “hiding out” in Norway. William doesn’t know why, but he does know he must not draw attention to himself.

However, the arrival of the “Impossible Puzzle” proves an irresistible lure… and William’s love of cracking codes lead him to expose his talents, and therefore his family. Before they get the chance to flee to a more obscure location, William is captured and drawn into the mysterious Institute for Post-Human Research. Here he meets a wide range of bizarre robots with highly specialised skills, is given a special globe puzzle to solve and learns the secret of luridium, a rare metal that if it fell into the wrong hands, could cause disaster. Unfortunately there is someone else who wants it and will stop at nothing to have it – and William – under their control.

Aside from a few mild twists, the story followed fairly predictable lines. The pacing was good, with plenty of action and a few laughs, and, combined with the relatively simple language and short chapters, make it a good choice for the more reluctant or inexperienced reader. I did find it a bit disappointing that, despite being about code-breaking, there were no codes in the book for the reader to solve. Indeed, none were described in any detail, with William merely relying on his intuition to solve them.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

William Wenton and the Luridium Thief
by Bobbie Peers, translated by Tara Chace
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406371703

Book Review: Tui Street Tales, by Anne Kayes

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tui_street_tales.jpgWinner of the Tom Fitzgibbon award in 2016, Tui Street Tales is a fun and slightly fantastical collection of interconnecting stories, starring the children of Tui Street and taking a modern and quirky twist on traditional fairy tales. With short chapters and quirky stories, this collection should readily engage the junior reader (ages 8-10). I also enjoyed the New Zealand flavour, which incorporated wildlife, and the occasional phrase in Te Reo.

The collection opens with Jack and the Morepork, introducing us to the first two children, Jack and Tim. The boys begin by discussing their teacher, Mr Tamati’s latest assignment, the fairy tale project, in which they have been challenged to find fairy tale themes in their own lives. Scientific research is the key, and the two boys begin seeking evidence to prove some extraordinary theories – including the possible existence of a giant living in the enormous tree at the end of Jack’s drive. In not-too-subtle terms, the nature of using fairy tales to solve difficult situations is explored, and the traditional outcomes challenged.

Ella’s mother died, and she has difficult relating to her new stepmother and sisters. Instead, she spends her time alone, sorting out the recycling from the rubbish (and the dead river rats from the rest), whilst clinging tight to her grief. Her fairy godmother comes from an unlikely source, but can she help bring Ella out from herself, and teach her better how to relate with her new family and friends?

Harry and Gemma live a life divided between their mother, and their father and his new partner, Lula. When they are forced to change schools, into the very upmarket and prestigious “Visions”, the children struggle to adapt. Harry is pushed just a bit too far, and the two children begin a dangerous journey – making their way back to their “true” home of Tui Street. However, Lula has her wicked eye on them…

As a school project, Ella, Tim and Jack, vow to rejuvenate Waimoe, the dried-out creek behind their house, and appease the angry Maero that haunts the neighbourhood. Before they can plant the trees to bring Waimoe back, however, they must face Mr Thompson, the grumpy old man whose family were responsible for the creek’s disappearance.

Louie is lonely, all but trapped inside his neat and tidy house by a mother wrought with worry for his well-being. His only friend, Cloudbird, the tui who sings to him from the tree outside his window. When issued with Mr Tamati’s challenge: for every kid in the class to walk to school for an entire month (thus cutting down the traffic congestion and danger of accidents around the school), he is faced with a terrible dilemma: to disobey his mother, or to let his entire class down.

A story-teller and a dreamer, Lucy learns about topiary, and helps her father by trimming their hedge into a shaggy dog. But topiary is for royalty, and soon the children of the street find themselves visited by an unruly princess in a madcap, wild and weird ride that does, indeed, contain some elements of a shaggy dog tale.

Soccer-playing Terri is the star of the final story. Her aspirations at her sport make her the envy of another player, who takes her jealousy to social media and gossip. Will the support of her new friends, the wheelchair-bound soccer team she is coaching, give her the confidence she needs to beat the bully and succeed?

Tui Street Tales is cleverly executed, allowing children to experience the familiar and adding in a touch of magic, whilst also offering them solutions for their own fairy tale-esque dilemmas. An enjoyable read, that I would also recommend as an easy collection for tales for both parents and teachers to read aloud.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Tui Street Tales
by Anne Kayes
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775434726