Book Review: The Big Block of Chocolate by Janet Slater, illustrated by Christine Dale

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_big_block_of_chocolateAn oldie but a goodie, this book has sold over 250,000 copies and it really is no wonder.

Beautifully illustrated, easy to read, it tells the delightful tale of a block of chocolate and it’s journey from a shopping basket to a group of delighted ants. Along the way we meet a group of characters, whose one desire is to gobble up the chocolate all by themselves – until the Sun makes it’s appearance and changes everything…

This book has a number of lessons to share with it’s readers, the most decisive being the joy of sharing and not wanting something all for yourself.

This is a book that makes a great shared read and a great independent read, the words are descriptive and rhyme beautifully, the book flows and there is a delightful twist, children from preschool on will love it.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

The Big Block of Chocolate
by Janet Slater, illustrated by Christine Dale
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775434900


Book Review: Leap of Faith, by Jenny Pattrick

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_leap_of_faith_bigPattrick, an experienced New Zealand historic novelist, brings the Volcanic Plateau to life in her latest book Leap of Faith.

Set in 1907, Pattrick takes the reader on a journey on what life may have been like for those drawn to the area by the railroad work, to construct the Makatote viaduct. This pioneering work made it possible to travel the whole length of the North Island, from Wellington to Auckland, by train.

Working on the railroad is somber and tough, with co-op gangs incentivised by targets to ensure the railroad is completed on time. It’s also a harsh and, at times, perilous environment. Despite these conditions, the railroad attracts a variety of characters.

At the heart of the novel is young and impressionable Billy, only 14 years old when he goes to join the camps at Makatote. He’s later joined by his siblings Maggie and Freeman, and quickly becomes good friends with Ruri, one of a few Māori working on the railroad.

It’s not long till Billy is swept up by the gospel and charm of Gabriel Locke, a preacher with a dodgy past, who passes through the town hoping to build a community of dedicated followers. Gabriel also quickly charms Amelia Grice, a prohibitionist who is determined to figure out who’s supplying sly grog to the workers.

This novel develops over two years switching between perspectives of the different characters. It also switches between past and present, which I found a little confusing at times. The pace of the book is fairly slow but finally picks up a quarter of the way into the book when an unfortunate event ties several of the characters together. This helps to move the plot along and adds some suspense to the novel – in such a small community, secrets don’t last long.

Historical novels aren’t a genre I read often and with this book I longed for more of a connection with the characters. That being said, I admired the amount of research Pattrick has clearly done. Pattrick shows a deep knowledge of not only the area but also in the construction of the railroad and the time period. She expertly weaves New Zealand’s native bush and unique rural landscapes throughout the novel:

‘The mountain appeared for the first time in months, while majestic at the head of the valley. Woodpigeons erupted from what was left of the bush, flying from ridge to ridge flashing their blue-green wings’.

Anyone interested by the New Zealand railroad or with connections to the area will find this an intriguing and enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Sarah Young

Leap of Faith
by Jenny Pattrick
Published by Black Swan – PRH
ISBN 9780143770916

Book Review: The March of the Foxgloves, by Karyn Hay

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_march_of_the_foxglovesThe March of the Foxgloves is a carefully crafted work set in the late 1800’s, mostly in New Zealand but also with some key scenes ‘back home’ in England, following protagonist Frances Woodward. We follow Frances’ footsteps as she escapes a restrictive and troubled existence for the chance to start afresh in the antipodes. Frances is a keen and technically savvy photographer – an enjoyable aspect of this text – and Hay has satisfyingly researched and written an authentic artistic voice with the internal dialogue and third person understandings of Frances’ art.

Karyn Hay has an excellent ear for dialogue. Her characters’ interactions are clear, crisp and believable. When main character Frances talks to the children of her hosts at Dunleary in Tauranga, Hay creates convincing and sometimes madly humorous conversations. She obviously has children of her own and one can assume that she has partaken in many such maddening back-and-forths. After taking a photograph, agreed on by both adult and child, one interaction goes like this:

“What shall we call it?”
“What shall we call what?”
“The photograph.”
“What photograph?”
“The photograph I’ve just taken.”
“Can I see it?” Tussie asked eagerly, running towards her.

This Monty Python-esque exchange between the Frances and Tussie suggests that maddening conversations with the young are not, at least in Hay’s mind, restricted to the 21st Century. In fact, the dialogue presented around the children is one of the most enjoyable aspects of Hay’s novel.

A lot of the book moves at slow pace. The plot seems incidental to the finely crafted characterisations and moments – almost vignettes – which are accurately and deliberately described. Minor character Wolf’s descent into the opium den (‘ … behind their eyelids all vision was purely chimerical.’) and Marshall Harding’s feelings for love-sick hostess Hope and his fiancee Callista (‘Her aperture was more compelling than a plate of mutton stew to a sailor.’) are well-crafted moments, but the rhythm of these anecdotes moves the story with unusual rhythm. By the end of the book, though, I hardly cared: the final sections make up in pace and structure for the slow build, as Frances becomes a true heroine and seemingly random moments are shown to be anything but trivial.

There is no doubt that Karyn Hay can write very well. I’m looking forward to seeing what she puts her finely-honed ear to next.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

The March of the Foxgloves
by Karyn Hay
Published by Esom House Press
ISBN 9780473365820

Book Review: This was a Man, by Jeffrey Archer

Available now from bookshops nationwide.

cv_this_was_a_manThis is the final volume of the Clifton Chronicles. I felt rather sad when I finished reading this book as it was like saying good-bye to old friends.

Jeffrey Archer is a master story teller with many awards and accolades under his belt. This was a Man continues the story of the Barrington and Clifton families during the 1970’s.

The trigger is pulled and the victim dies instantly. Two bodies fall but one survives as she only fainted. Karin Barrington is lifted onto a stretcher and airlifted by helicopter to a private hospital in Turo.

Giles Barrington is informed of the shooting and told that John Pengelly, Karin’s “father” is no longer a threat. John Pengelly’s blackmailing of Karin and the hold he had over her are gone.

Emma Clifton is campaigning for Margaret Thatcher at the next election. When Thatcher wins, a surprise is in store for Emma – a very flattering offer that she can’t turn down from the newly elected Prime Minister. Emma has spent 10 years as Chairman of the Bristol Royal Infirmary and the experience she has gained, stands her in good stead for the new appointment and the challenges ahead.

Sebastian and Samantha Clifton’s very talented daughter Jessica is admitted to the Slade School of Fine Art and soon becomes infatuated with a fellow student Brazilian Paulo Reinaldo. Where does this leave Jessica?

Lady Virginia Fenwick continues to wreak havoc wherever she goes. Trying to raise funds for her continuing extravagant lifestyle she hones in on the newly widowed Duke of Hertford. Her wiliness and ingenuity is unbelievable as she limps from one financial crisis to another. She engineers the Duke into proposing and marrying her. However, her financial woes don’t stop there. Lady Virginia’s personality is one that attracts trouble wherever she goes.

Reading this book over the Christmas/New Year break I found it hard to put down, but I had to as having family to stay it would have been incredibly rude to have ignored them all so I could find out “what happens”. A fitting and sad end to a great series.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

This was a Man
by Jeffrey Archer
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781447252245

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts One & Two (Special Rehearsal Edition)

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_harry_potter_and_the_cursed_child_1and2The announcement that J.K. Rowling was releasing an eighth instalment of the Harry Potter story was greeted with massive excitement worldwide. Another rollicking adventure with our much loved, familiar, favourite characters! Let’s rejoice!

Let me disabuse you of those notions now. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is 1) a play, and 2) not actually written by Rowling herself. Instead, playwright Jack Thorne wrote the script, based on a story written by Rowling, Thorne, and the play’s director John Tiffany. Furthermore, the action takes place nineteen years after the events of Deathly Hallows (essentially carrying on from that novel’s Epilogue). As such, the beloved characters of Harry Potter are present in Cursed Child, but in rather different form. Harry, Ron and Hermione are all grown adults, with jobs and kids and adult pressures and responsibilities.

Harry in particular is not the sometimes troubled impulsive teenager from the books. Instead he’s tired, overworked from his Ministry job, and perplexed by his inability to connect with this son Albus (who seems to have taken on the mantle of ‘resentful “woe is me” teenage boy’, so ably presented to us by fifteen-year-old Harry in Order of the Phoenix).

In general, I found the changes in the characters understandable and refreshing without being jarring. It was quite nice to see that grown-up Ron no longer has the emotional range of a teaspoon, and it was understandable to me that Harry would be at a loss as to how to parent his resentful son; plenty of parents would be, and Harry, being an orphan, would be at a particular disadvantage since he never had a father on whom he could base his own parenting. The overall theme of the play was, indeed, fathers and their children—how to be a father, and the struggle to shake off and live up to the shadow of your own. As such, the play was also thematically more grown up than the books.

Cursed Child is a play (or, more accurately, it’s the rehearsal script of the play—the definitive version of the script, complete with final stage directions and annotations, will be published in 2017). Since it’s a play script, Cursed Child suffers by comparison to the books. It lacks the books’ richness of detail and world-building aspects—and necessarily so. Those details would have been left to the play’s production and staging team, and as such, reading Cursed Child is like reading only half of the story. It feels a little anaemic. Luckily though, the characters jump off the page. Scorpius Malfoy, Draco Malfoy’s son, is particularly memorable, hilarious and endearingly dorky—completely unlike his father.

The plot is also compelling—a typically Rowling-esque page-turning romp, which also gives us the chance to revisit familiar people and places from the books (a clear crowd-pleasing manoeuvre, but entertaining nonetheless). One particular plot device seemed a little too convenient, but in general the machinery of the plot worked well, and the result was a script that is enjoyable and compulsively readable.

Cursed Child isn’t, however, comparable to the books—it feels limited by the change in medium, and the timeshift and subsequent change in characters may well be enough to put off some fans. Nevertheless, it’s still worth reading—not least for the little snippets of new information it reveals of the HP universe we love and thought we already knew.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts One & Two (Special Rehearsal Edition)
by J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne & John Tiffany
Published by Little, Brown
ISBN 9780751565355

Book Review: The Party Line, by Sue Orr

cv_the_party_lineAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

Set in a rural farming town in the 1970’s, under which an ugly truth smoulders, Sue Orr’s first novel, The Party Line, traces the arrival of new sharemilkers into the town of Fenward, and the disruption one particular family causes to that town’s culture of silent complicity to ugly acts.

The novel revolves around young Nickie Walker, the almost-teenage daughter of farmers, who strikes up a friendship with glamorous, charismatic Gabrielle Baxter, the daughter of a newly widowed sharemilker who has just moved to town. Gabrielle’s presence is immediately magnetic and disruptive, and it is under Gabrielle’s influence that Nickie begins to question the status quo of the town she’s grown up in. Moreover, when both girls witness something they wish they hadn’t, it is Gabrielle who is willing to do something about it, rather than to ‘toe the party line’.

Orr paints a portrait of this small farming town that is totally believable, with its Calf Club Days, its oppressively hot summers, and its clenched-fist, suspicious resistance to difference or change. There’s also a mob-mentality-like refusal to act when action is needed, and in some ways Orr’s delineation of this reflects that quintessentially Kiwi saying “She’ll be right”. In this context, saying “She’ll be right” just means ignoring a problem until it goes away, and Orr’s novel shows all too clearly how troubling such an attitude can be.

Despite the overall intense believability of the rest of the characters, I had some difficulty believing in Gabrielle, the catalyst for so much of the action in this novel. To me, her charisma and allure were not enough for me to understand her character fully, and as such, her character remained an enigma, or, if anything, a performance (multiple times she seems to pretend to cry—which confounds both the characters in the book, and confounded me!) On occasion I wondered if she was a kind of ‘manic pixie dream girl’ – a charming bundle of slightly odd characteristics embodied in a character, but not a real person. In the end, I decided that she wasn’t—she has a background, and some kind of inner life—but our access to that inner life seems always to be obstructed. The slipperiness of her character strangely dimmed my enjoyment of the book.

In contrast, I found the subtle transformation of Nickie’s mother Joy to be extremely compelling. Seen at first as something of a harridan by her daughter, Joy Walker eventually becomes a much deeper, nuanced character, who has herself become aware of the strain of nastiness that runs through the town. It is this kind of gentle, sure-footed development of characters in this novel that I found most absorbing, and, along with Orr’s well-shaped prose, is, I believe, what makes this novel such high quality reading. An assured debut novel.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

The Party Line
by Sue Orr
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9781775537557

Book Review: The Thomas Berryman Number, by James Patterson

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_the_thomas_berryman_number

Recently scurrying through Wellington Airport I was accosted by a 7-foot blow-up of Crime Writer James Patterson on the side of a bookshop wall. Appropriate, I thought, given he’s a master of the airport thriller.

He’s a prolific writer and has producer numerous bestsellers including Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls. His online bibliography boasts 135 separate items. He’s largely known for the series about crime-fighting psychologist Alex Cross and he’s done the ‘Michael Bennett’, ‘Women’s Murder Club’, ‘Maximum Ride’, ‘Daniel X’, and Witch and Wizard books, as well as many stand-alone thrillers, non-fiction and romance novels. I learned that he’s sold more than 300 million copies and holds the Guinness World Record for being the first person to sell 1 million e-books. Phew! He is more recently known as somebody who collaborates freely with other authors.

The Thomas Berryman Number is his first novel, originally published in 1976 and now re-released in a new edition. Thomas Berryman is a hit man, a ‘Number’ being his code name for a cold, calculated assassination. The book opens with three horrific murders in the South.  Cool, calm, collected; Berryman researches his targets. In one case, he even enjoys reading their published biographies.

The story is directed loosely through the journal entries of a small town journalist who’s researching the killing of a high profile Southern politician, senate hopeful Jimmie Lee Horn. It alternates between the lens of Ochs Jones and the slithering, shadow of Berryman himself. I found the crisscrossing flashbacks somewhat diminished the immediacy and created some confusion at times.

Patterson writes at speed, his prose is quick, but somehow this plot just seems to crawl. It’s set in the Southern States of 1960’s America but is sparse on atmosphere and reference points. Unexpected reminders pop up here and there – descriptions of cars, recent events, radio shows or clothing. Yet none are truly unique to the time and I found it hard to put my head in that space. Of course, given it was written before 1976, when the story was written it was probably contemporary, but this is a failure of editing even if so. The trail of evidence presented by Jones is difficult to follow, and the essence of a suspense thriller – the ability to work out your own conclusions – seems to me to be missing. 

Given his legacy of speed to resolution, I was left wanting. If this was a library book, I would have returned it unfinished. For me, my only commitment to finish was so I could write this review. The concluding chapters were more of a relief than further suspense. As you can tell, this is not the novel I was hoping for.

But, in contemplation, it is another style for Patterson, and from a different time. Researching this one I saw many views and reviews. The camps are divided. Some want an Alex Cross prototype, others forgive his experimental approach, acknowledging the clear parallels between this and the drier literature of American novel like Catcher in the Rye and To Kill A Mockingbird. As a modern reader, in a fast-paced world, with a short media attention span, these, and this book require patience. It’s certainly a document to a very successful career. And, like Elvis, 50,000,000 fans can’t be wrong. But that is with regards his later work. On this, his first book? Well, you be the judge of that.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

The Thomas Berryman Number
by James Patterson
Published by Century
ISBN 9781780894423

Book Review: Mightier than the Sword, by Jeffrey Archer

Available at bookstores nationwide.

Jeffrey Archer has topped the bestseller lists around the wocv_mightier_than_the_swordrld, with sales totalling over 270 million copies. His novels and short stories include Kane and Abel, A Prisoner of Birth and Cat O’ Nine Tales. He is the only author ever to have been a number one bestseller in fiction (eighteen times) short stories (four times) and non-fiction (The Prison Diaries).

I have read many Jeffrey Archer books over the years, and realised after finishing this that I had read most of the earlier books in this series. This is the fifth novel in The Clifton Chronicles series, but is accessible as a stand-alone story.

A bomb is planted by the IRA during the maiden voyage of the MV Buckingham across the Atlantic. Emma Clifton (formerly Barrington) is the chairman of Barrington Shipping and between her and other board members they decide to release a story to the press that the Home Fleet were carrying out night-time exercises in the Atlantic and although they were several nautical miles away, on a clear night they would have sounded considerably closer.

Meanwhile, Emma Clifton’s husband Harry (a writer) visits his publisher in New York and learns he has been elected as the new president of English PEN. He has always been a supporter of Russian author Anatoly Babakov, who is imprisoned in Siberia, so becomes determined to use his new position to try to get Anatoly released from prison.

Emma and Harry’s son Sebastian works for Farthing’s Bank. He falls in love with an American girl, Samatha, whom he met on the maiden voyage of the MV Buckingham. We follow their relationship as it blossoms.

Elsewhere in the family, Emma’s brother, Sir Giles Barrington is a minister of the Crown. He has a number of adversaries, one being Major Alex Fisher, who once stood against him at an election.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I didn’t take it too seriously – it doesn’t really matter if you haven’t read the previous four books in this series. It’s a good yarn, Jeffrey Archer fans will enjoy it.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Mightier than the Sword
by Jeffrey Archer
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9780230748262

Book Review: All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven

cv_all_the_bright_placesBooks for teenagers which address suicide have to be really well done to succeed.

There has been a school of thought which suggests that such a topic is not suitable for them to read about. I don’t agree with that. I believe that teenagers should be able to read anything they wish – as should everyone. That said, I am still thinking about whether this is a book I’d put in my school library. I’ll come back to this thought later. (And no, in my opinion choosing not to include a book in the school library is NOT equal to censorship. The book will be obtainable from public libraries and booksellers. But that is another whole discussion and not for now!)

The book is fairly well-written. It’s witty – but this does not diminish the intensity of the story. It’s compassionate, but not overly sentimental. It’s real, but it does not try hard to get there. But there are some problems.

The protagonists, Violet and Finch, are both troubled kids. Finch comes from a deeply dysfunctional place – he’s really clever, kind, but suffers from some kind of psychiatric disorder which makes him “asleep” for long periods at a time. When he is “awake”, he needs to be entirely engaged in whatever he is doing, because “ the thing about being Awake is that everything in you is alive and aching and making up for lost time”. His family circumstances are awful, he is quite a loner, and also recognisably a troubled kid.

However, what exactly is wrong is not addressed, nor is there much help available, and I find this somewhat unsettling. Surely a book which deals with such a difficult subject as suicide could have found a way to address the underlying problems that cause this to be a possible solution.

Violet is a popular, talented girl, one of the “in-group” at school. Her family is far more functional than Finch’s, but her story is one of loss. Her older sister died in a car crash and this has left Violet bereft.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the storyline, but will say that Violet and Finch form an unlikely pair who support and indeed love one another. This makes the end of the story all the more poignant.

There is indeed a message in this book and I think that overall Jennifer Niven delivers it reasonably well. However I am left with the feeling that the message given is not one that I would endorse. To me this book – although it attempts to explain and give reasons for everything – ultimately does not succeed, for me.

I thought it was well-crafted, and could not fault it on many levels, but to attempt to explain suicide and the lasting effects on those left behind by the statement “it’s not what we take, it’s what we leave” is a vast over-simplification, and at some level I find that deeply disturbing and not particularly helpful to kids who may be at risk.

I said I’d come back to the decision about putting this in my school library. I am still deciding. I’ll give it to some of my senior students to read and take their advice.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman, Information Centre Manager, Scots College

All the Bright Places
by Jennifer Niven
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9780141357034

Ed’s note: For another book which deals with teen suicide, I recommend Dear Vincent, by Mandy Hager.

Book Review: Little Bo Peep and More…, by Donovan Bixley

Available in bookstores nationwide.

Donovan Bixley is an incredible illustrator, in terms of cv_little_bo_peepboth output and talent. He releases around four titles a year at the moment – knowing the time it takes to illustrate a book, this is seriously amazing. At the moment on the Nielsen Bestsellers charts, his take on Old MacDonald’s Farm and The Wheels on the Bus endure, and indeed they were numbers 3 and 4 respectively on the 2014 Overall Nielsen Bestsellers’ chart.

Little Bo Peep and More deserves to hang out with the others in these charts, as this is the freshest take I have seen in illustrating children’s nursery rhymes in a long time.

I dare anybody to say that these are not the most expressive and diverse sheep around. There are so many unimaginative, bland takes on how to illustrate sheep out in the world, so to see some sheep with character is pretty neat.  Donovan’s sheep are playing cricket, making an acrobatic pyramid, dancing ballet (in the case of Mary’s lamb), playing piano (in the case of the back and front covers), and bungy-jumping off bridges. These are action-men, no.8 wire, James Bond sheep (particularly when approaching Little Boy Blue), and I can see the book selling by the thousand into the international market.

It can be difficult to raise the bar to appeal to older readers in the basic nursery rhyme format, but this has also been addressed. My son Dan, who is 4, loved finding the pukeko and mouse hidden on each page. This extended a reasonably simple book into an activity-length project. My only complaint would be that in the front spread, Donovan asks us to count the sheep – Dan and I couldn’t agree on a correct number, and there was nothing to refer to!

I highly recommend this take on Little Bo Peep and her friends who love sheep to anybody at all who enjoys a well-illustrated set of nursery rhymes. Familiar and unique at once, this book is a hit.

By Sarah Forster

Little Bo Peep and More…
by Donovan Bixley
Published by Upstart Press Ltd
ISBN 9781927262085