Book Review: Snot Chocolate, by Morris Gleitzman

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_snot_chocolateSeriously, who could resist a book called Snot Chocolate? Certainly not me or other Morris Gleitzman fans. Each story is told with just the right amount of humour to convey the overall theme of the book, which is a collection of nine short stories focussing on kids handling a significant moment in their lives.

The range of characters include a medieval peasant suddenly made the king, a lawyer’s daughter trying to help her mother, an overly zealous bacterial wiper, a sibling helping to deal with a troll, a diary-writing dog, a girl giving away hot chips and a boy who meets his demolition fairy.

The kids featured in the stories are every day kids who are just like the nice ones in your school or who live in your neighbourhood: caring, smart, and learning about themselves and the world, and how to deal with a variety of social and personal problems. I love how Gleitzman gives each one a chance to shine, allowing them work out and face their problems with courage and kindness. At the end of each story, each character has grown and developed, giving readers encouragement to be able to do the same.

Entertaining and thought provoking at the same time, every story is well paced and expertly written, with authentic character voices and engaging plots. A short story anthology is a great way to encourage reluctant readers, as they can approach one story at a time if they wish, or can equally plough their way through all of them.

Whether the tween-ager in your life is an avid Gleitzman fan or they haven’t yet read any of his books, Snot Chocolate would make a wonderful summer read.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Snot Chocolate
by Morris Gleitzman
Penguin Random House, 2016
ISBN 9780143309222

Book Review: The Chocolate Tin, by Fiona McIntosh

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_chocolate_tinAlexandra Frobisher is a modern thinking woman hoping for a career in England’s famous chocolate making town of York. But it is 1915, and Alex’s father states, “Association with the factory floor will not do – not for a Frobisher girl”.

Alex has turned down a number of ‘suitable’ marriage proposals much to her parents displeasure but she agrees to marry Matthew Britten-Jones, who promises to allow her the freedom she craves and even encourages her in her dream to establish a chocolate-making business.  With his family connections in the railway which transports chocolate from Rowntrees chocolate factory, Matthew enables her to be introduced to the management and taken on a factory tour.

They agree to take Alex on as a factory tour leader but before that, she get as a day working in the Chocolate Tin Room, where special tins of chocolate are being packed for sending to the troops in France. At the end of the morning packing tins Alex picked up a pencil and a scrap of paper and “scrawled a quick message. Come home safely. With love, Kitty” and placed the note in a tin. The author takes the reader to France where the note is found, and so begins and intriguing search for the writer of the note.

I loved this book, it is a real page-turner and anyone who enjoys a family saga with a strong female character will find the book a great read. It has a good balance of history and romance blended with some controversial secrets and mystery, all ingredients for a stimulating read.

Fiona McIntosh has written a number of books and her meticulous research into the story background has seen her become one of Australia’s most popular modern writers. In her acknowledgments at the rear of the book McIntosh thanks the historians who worked with her in York and also the battlefields in France helping her to “get the sense of place right for this book”.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The Chocolate Tin
by Fiona McIntosh
Published by Michael Joseph
ISBN 9780143797067

Book Review: The Dyehouse, by Mena Calthorpe

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_dyehouseWritten in 1961, The Dyehouse has been republished by Text Classics, who are in the business of reintroducing readers to books that could be considered classics but have faded from the collective consciousness. The Dyehouse has themes that are as true today as they were at the time of writing.

If you’re looking for a light read, some fluff, then this book is not for you. The interwoven storylines, set in a fabric dyeing factory in 1950s Australia, highlight issues of worker exploitation, the plight of the working poor and some rage-inducing sexism (in this reader, at any rate). It’s beautifully written, but definitely not light.

At the heart of the story lurks thoroughly unlikeable Renshaw, the factory boss. In his world, workers are dispensable, regardless of expertise or length of service; and women are there for his entertainment, but only if he considers them worthy. We meet the workers: pretty and naïve Patty, talented and dedicated Hughie, efficient Miss Merton, cock-of-the-walk Oliver, and late-in-life dad Barney. Their interactions with Renshaw and each other are flesh of the story, built upon the bones of the underlying themes.

The opening sentence shows Calthorpe’s ability to add richness to her words without becoming flowery. “Miss Merton came to the Dyehouse one windy afternoon when smoke from the railway-yards drifted darkly over Macdonaltdtown.” You get drawn in, you can almost smell the factory, and the depth of her writing helps you to keep reading despite the cycle of drudgery that the protagonists are seemingly trapped in.

The other thing that kept me reading was a strong desire to see Renshaw get his. He’s just so casually villainous he made my blood boil. Other readers may find redeeming features in him, but I couldn’t. What was particularly frustrating was that Renshaw’s world view still exists in some people, more than 50 years after he was created. And just like real life now, and probably then, there are no Hollywood endings.

The Dyehouse is a pretty gritty read, and tough going at times because of its themes. It’s totally worth it, though, and deserves the wider audience that Text Classics will be hoping for. Recommended.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

The Dyehouse
by Mena Calthorpe
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355758

Book Review: The Good People, by Hannah Kent

 

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_good_peopleHow do we know that our lives are ours to lead? What if bad luck arose from a past wrong? These are the questions at the heart of Hannah Kent’s new novel, The Good People.

Nora has lost her daughter and is raising her grandson. The boy, Micheal, was once a thriving toddler, but at four he is paralysed, twisted and incoherent. Then her husband also dies and she is left alone to struggle against the growing rumours of evil, faeries and unseen spirits.

Here is an old tale, but told in poetic language which evokes the mists and lanes of Ireland. It is a bleak existence where the community in the valley live close and watch carefully. The Priest, a man of Christian virtue and upright morals, has no time for discussions about the Good People. He offers little support to Nora, condemning her from the pulpit each week, but not prepared to support her. So Nora turns to the wise woman. It is Nance Roche who births the children and heals the ills of the valley folk. So it is Nance who offers what support she can – and it is Nance who pays the price.

Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites, was well received in her native Australia. This, her second book, will not disappoint her readers. Evocative language beautifully captures the landscape: “Samhain Eve came upon the valley, announced by a wind that smelt of rotting oak leaves and the vinegar tang of rotting apples”. So we see decay is here to stay.

Likewise, Kent captures the language of the people with the twists of phrase and the lilt of the Irish. “But the people here do be having a spiritual temper, Father. Sure we all have faith in the things of the invisible world. We’re a most religious people.” So says the wise Nance to the Priest.

While at times the story moved slowly, I think this accurately communicated the twists and turns of life in the valley. It is a sad tale and things move with the seasons, in their own time. This is a beautiful read from an author who knows the landscape, the people and the history of Ireland in the 1820’s.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Good People
by Hannah Kent
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781743534908

 

Book Review: Girl Stuff for girls 8-12, by Kaz Cooke

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_girl_stuff_for_girls_aged_8-12Kaz Cooke is a very accessible and humourous Australian author and cartoonist who specialises in writing books on health and well being for women (and girls). I can still remember her hilarious descriptions of pregnancy in Up the Duff, which were fantastically described in both words and pictures. Her Kidwrangling guide to raising children was a natural purchase for me once I had children, and I now find myself in the position of having a child in the right age bracket for her latest book, Girl Stuff 8-12.

The first chapter leaps right on in with changes in your body during puberty. All descriptions are factual, simply explained and occasionally humourous. Kaz is very careful to ensure that the book outlines the wide variety in body types and experiences of puberty. My daughter found this chapter very interesting (actually, I did too). I particularly liked her suggestions on responding to comments from people about body changes. There are some excellently pragmatic comments around periods, and I sincerely wish that I had read this book when I was younger!

Later chapters deal a lot with social issues – such as friendships and bullying as well as ‘not-so-happy families.’ There is a great chapter on confidence, and positive self talk. I found her list for parents and girls regarding online safety useful and I will be adopting some of the tips for use. The back of the book has a very useful ‘more info’ section with really good websites and phone numbers (including New Zealand numbers). There is a theme throughout the book of getting good advice and information – such as avoiding advertising messages or asking adults how to manage privacy settings.

My daughter and I read the first chapter on body changes together. I knew that the book was hitting the mark when my daughter took off with the book and finished reading it very quickly by herself! She particularly liked the ‘real life’ comments made by girls throughout the book. When I spoke to her about it afterwards it was clear that she had understood the content, so I think that the book is well written in that respect.

The book does not really get into relationships or sex – there is a follow up book that covers those topics in greater depth. However, if you are after a factual book about puberty for younger girls then this is a great guide. I will definitely be getting the following book in the series.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

Girl Stuff for girls 8-12
by Kaz Cooke
Published by Viking Australia
ISBN 9780143573999

 

Book Review: The Book that Made Me, edited by Judith Ridge

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_book_that_made_meThis is an ideal book to leave around any home containing a book-lover, for idle moments while eating breakfast, while the kids are peacefully bickering about what to watch on the tablet, or falling asleep, or…

In this book, 32 authors tell their stories, in whatever form they see fit, about their love of reading and how their chosen book/s have made them who they are. When I began the introduction and realised it could have been written by me – I don’t remember when I couldn’t read, and I was well and truly into chapter books by age 6, this was a shoo-in for my reviewing pile!

My highlights were NZ writers’ Rachael Craw and Mandy Hager’s stories, not only because of their parallels with my own experiences – As a child I actually spent more years in Australia than in New Zealand – but because they each chose one book (a series in the case of Craw) and concentrated on its effect. Trixie Belden was a friend on sodden West Coast summer days for me as well as for Craw, and I remember the Sweet Valley books well, though Sweet Valley High was a bit racy for me!  And Hager’s pick, 1984, came along when I needed it, late in my high school years, changing my view of the world.

Shaun Tan’s illustrations throughout the book were ideal brief breaks between individual works, showing all creatures great and small reading, as acts of challenge, expansion, and everything in between.

Most of the authors meditate at some point on the link between reading and writing, but Simon French I think says it best. “As an adult writer, I came to understand how much the unfolding skills as an author had been indelibly fashioned by encountering so much in the way of quality reading; that reading and writing are so eloquently knotted together and dependent on one another.”

This book has seen me add  20 more books that I’d never even heard of to my reading list. It expanded  my understanding of the works of those authors I had read, and my awareness of those I might be interested in reading. And in a nice double-up effect, it made me aware of more brilliant books that are waiting out there for me to be transformed by.

I recommend this book to every bookseller, and book-lovers everywhere. It would make a particularly brilliant gift for a teenage reader. And a range of the books suggested, and those by the authors that suggested them would make a wonderful window for NZ Bookshop Day!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Book that Made Me
edited by Judith Ridge
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781922244888

Book Review: Breathing Under Water, by Sophie Hardcastle

Available today in bookshops nationwide.

cv_breathing_under_waterBreathing Under Water is a beautifully written, lyrically told tale that takes a tragic and heartbreaking turn. The language is rich and poetic, immersing the reader until they too, drown in the story. I was with Grace as she began her dark, downward spiral, dealing with her grief in a manner that was both destructive to her and the relationships and lives of those she cared for. I was her conscience, wishing she would see what she was doing to herself, wishing that someone would step in and say, “Enough!”

Grace was born 12 minutes after her brother and for her whole life she has felt to be living in his shadow. He was always the golden child, the poster boy surfer, the glint of pride in his father’s eye. But not only that, he was also the spirit, the heart of the family, the spark that kept them all together. So, when tragedy strikes, everything begins to fall apart, starting with Grace…

With its strong Australian vibes, and the passion the prose shows for the ocean, this is sure to strike a chord with teenagers down under. It is emotionally powerful, eloquently written and deeply immersive. For teenagers, I believe, it is important to see how shattered one’s life can become – but how it is still possible to begin to pick up the pieces, mend the cracks and seek renewal. It is a story of grief, and how we deal with it. It is a story of love, and what challenges it. And it is a story of humanity.

It is at times wild, and does feature drugs and sexual references (although those are fairly subtle), as well as some pretty dark themes. As such it is more fitting to a somewhat-mature teen audience – but fans of John Green and Melina Marchetta should devour it greedily. The writing style, likewise, takes a little getting used to – at times it is more poetry than prose – but I found it an evocative and compelling read.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Breathing Under Water
by Sophie Hardcastle
Published by Hachette Australia
ISBN 9780733634857