Book Review: Grandma Forgets, by Paul Russell, illustrated by Nicky Johnston

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_grandma_forgets.jpgDementia is a very real issue for many families these days and younger members of any family would find it a very difficult thing to cope with. Grandma Forgets tells the story of a young girl, who has a outlook and wisdom that belie her years, dealing with her Grandma’s dementia. Instead of focusing on the negatives of the situation, the book is built on memories of earlier times, shared experiences and strategies cleverly inserted into the story that would benefit any family dealing with this issue.

Particularly appealing about this book is it’s attitude of kindness and gratitude for what once was and how much value is placed on a Grandma who can’t remember their names, love for Grandma is weaved like a thread throughout the story.

The story is illustrated with a fine hand, one that was able to match the words, feelings and unspoken thoughts in a way that brought a poignancy to the story, soft pastels, dark greys, everything fitted beautifully. This book needs to be in every library and on every bookshelf, it is so relevant in this day and age where so many struggle to guide their families through this issue, it is a enjoyable read and a great resource.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

Grandma Forgets
by Paul Russell, illustrated by Nicky Johnston
Published by EK Books
ISBN 9781925335477

Book Review: This Census-Taker, by China Mieville

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_this_census_takerChina Mieville is best known for his phantasmagoric world-building. Many of his books have given me nightmares, but I still go back there for more. This Census-Taker, which is a novella, isn’t quite in the same vein of most of his books, but it is a beautifully drawn book that carries a message about familial loyalty, and the intersection of law and decency.

The moment the book begins, you are running with the boy into the village. Mieville makes sure of it, using mixed third and first person point of view, taking the place of both runner and witness. His mother has killed his father. No, perhaps it was his father that killed his mother. Certainly, somebody killed another body, and he witnessed it. A team of men dispatch from the town, with guns and weapons, to ascertain the truth of the matter.

The setting feels like a reckless land. A far-flung village, sparsely occupied, with very little vegetation: brown soil, brown grass, brown seeds. People are living hand-to-mouth, with ragged orphans roaming around the streets, our protagonist becoming one of them for a period during the book. The thing this setting has in common with his other, urban settings, is an overall feel of despair. People are killed and disposed of without compunction, sacrificed to a spirit in a cave.

The boy’s father is a key-maker. Not of keys for doors, but of keys that solve problems. People come up the hill to see him and ask for a key, and the boy has noticed that none of them ever seem to return. They live high on the hill, among the ascetics and hermits, and magic-doers. It doesn’t occur to the boy that perhaps they are also magic-doers. The boy’s father is foreign, that much the boy knows, from finding scraps of paper with words in a foreign language lying around. The boy’s mother is from not far away. They may, or may not, be hiding from someone – possibly related to the Census.

There are fragments of the book that are written in the past tense, as the boy writes down his history in the census-taker’s book. We don’t completely understand this section, but neither does the boy. He isn’t sure what he is reading there, what it means yet, but perhaps that will come. I wonder whether it is his mother’s writing we are reading. We meet his line manager/ colleague in his first-person narration of his past, soon after the third time he runs away from his father thanks to witnessing some heinous depletion of humanity.

I don’t frequently read novellas, so I’m not sure if the sense of completion that I felt I was missing was a normal thing for a novella. While there is a narrative arc, the ending was the beginning of a new story, perhaps one for a novel set in the same world. I’m dying to know what the keys the father made did, and what it is that is so poisonous about the census-taker, besides the fact he works for the government. Definitely recommended, and worth a second read.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

This Census-Taker
by China Mieville
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781509812141

The ACB with Honora Lee, by Kate De Goldi, adapted by Jane Waddell

Circa_TheACBWithHonoraLee_website_hero_940x270px_1.2-940x270I was lucky enough to go along to the world premiere of the Vivien Hirschfeld Season of The ACB with Honora Lee on Saturday night. Originally published as an award-winning junior fiction novel by Kate De Goldi in 2012, it was adapted in 2014 for a radio reading by Jane Waddell. The relationship between Perry and her grandmother Honora Lee struck a chord with Waddell, and led to her creating a play from the book.

Perry does piano on Monday, after-school tutoring on Tuesday, clarinet on Wednesday and music & movement (M & M) on Thursday, at least until her teacher for M & M hurts her back and it is cancelled for the rest of the term. Perry and her Dad visit Honora Lee, his mum, in her new nursing home on Saturdays, and Perry has the great idea that she should visit Honora by herself on Thursdays. Honora has Alzheimer’s, and her mind is scattered – but with each word she loses, Perry creates a new entry in the ACB that she is writing with the old folks at Santa Lucia.

The staging, graphics and music were perfect. The first thing you see and hear is a bee, then Perry, drawing a bee in her book. The first conversation her parents have as they join her is about how many bees are around, dead and dying, this summer. The theme of bees carries through the play, as Perry and her nanny’s son Claude keep a collection of dead bees that they examine regularly.

cv_A_B_C_with_Honora_leeWaddell has adapted the book extremely faithfully, down to the lines that each character says in many places. Perry’s frustration with her busy parents – “Only children must be kept busy” – was obvious through her Tourettes-like outbursts, whenever she was frustrated. Lauren Gibson played Perry extremely well, making her age clear and her showing her eccentricities perfectly. If you are reading the book in preparation to see the play, you will note a couple of discrepancies from the source, but they add to the play’s drama.

Perry’s relationship with Honora Lee (Ginette McDonald) was believable and natural, and the other characters from Santa Lucia are fantastic for adding comic and dramatic tension. I particularly enjoyed the male characters played by Nick Dunbar. The graphics of the alphabet as Perry creates it with those at Santa Lucia Nursing Home, are just right for a 9-year-old girl, and added to the story well.

Throughout the play, Perry adopts phrases from her Grandma and others around her, something I remember doing at that age (I learned “Oh My God” from my grandma). So I was amused near the end when a 9-year-old girl behind me whispered to her mum “has she passed away?”, as that is one of the phrases the adults use to dissemble the death of some of Honora Lee’s friends.

You should go to The ACB of Honora Lee if you enjoy the workings of family; if you can see the light in the dark side of life (and death) and of course, if you love Kate De Goldi’s work. It is a very special experience, and one that shouldn’t be missed. I think it is suitable for kids, those aged 7 and up would enjoy it, though older kids will understand more of the subtle humour.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The ACB of Honora Lee
by Kate De Goldi, adapted by Jane Waddell
Circa Theatre 40th anniversary season
Book here for: 27 February – 20 March 2016 – tickets are available as part of the New Zealand Festival
Tuesday – Saturday 6.30pm
Sunday 4pm

 

Book Review: The Marvels, by Brian Selznick

Available in bookshops nationwide.

I pp_Marvels_StandingShothave been an avid fan of Selznick since first getting my hands on The Invention of Hugo
Cabret
. His combination of beautiful pencil crosshatch drawings and the written word is spellbinding. The Marvels tells a tale of a dragon and an angel, a shipwreck, a fire, and a family of actors who become entwined with the history of the Royal Theatre in London. The production levels on the book are extremely high – the gold edges are flawless, and the cover is incredible.

The first two-thirds of the book is told entirely in illustration, beginning in 1766 with the story of Billy Marvel, who with his brother Marcus and their dog Tar, survives the shipwreck of The Kraken during a fierce storm. Marcus dies and Billy buries him on the island at which they come ashore. After the fire Billy built for warmth catches the islands’ trees alight, he is rescued and taken to London. There he finds himself drawn to the Royal Theatre, working back-of-stage with the ropes and pullies, very similar to those used on a ship.

One evening, he hears a noise in the alley behind the theatre, and finds a baby with a note “Please someone raise my baby to be a good man in a bad world.” He names him Marcus, for his brother, and Marcus goes on to found four more generations of actors. The movement of time is handled via newspaper clippings, theatre signs and notations on official documents. The illustration is fluid and done from various perspectives – eye of god and first-person – which makes for an entrancing story.

As we near the end of the illustrated story, there is a great fire, from which we are uncertain of the characters’ survival, then we jump forward to 1990. Joseph has just run away from his exclusive boys’ school, and is lost in London, looking for his Uncle Nightingale’s house. He has never met his Uncle, and he has no idea of the reception he is in for when he finally, with the help of Frankie, who is out chasing her dog – or she wants it to be her dog.

Albert Nightingale turns out to be less than encouraging when Joseph asks to be allowed to stay. His house is set out in a very precise manner, and he wishes for it to stay that way – he doesn’t think that Joseph could understand why, and red-haired Joseph begins to piece together clues to figure out what Albert is hiding: based on some of the old portraits, he thinks this may be the history of his own family.

The written story is just as fascinating as the illustrated one, giving a sense of the immense history of London. One of Albert’s pastimes is mudlarking, and as he and Joseph draw closer he says while looking at fragments from the Thames, “I’ll guarantee you this, every fragment you see here, every scrap, once held a story.” This is apt, because this book is, more than anything, about how important stories are to humanity: how powerful they can be, if created carefully.

There is joy and sorrow in this book, pride and secrecy too. There are many life truths. It reminded me of From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle a little in the way it lifted up story to its pinnacle. Near the end of the book, Joseph is thinking about Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and he thinks about the mother being saved while the prince isn’t, and thinks “That’s what life is … miracles and sadness, side by side.”

I will be astounded if this book doesn’t garner awards – it deserves them. Buy it if you love uniquely brilliant storytelling.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Marvels
by Brian Selznick
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 9780545448680

Book Review: The Forrests, by Emily Perkins

This book is in bookstores now, and is aImage finalist in the Fiction category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

Reading this book some time after its release and well after the first reviews, I feel privileged to not be influenced by other comments. I have few expectations. Seeing comments like ‘sad, pointless lives’ and ‘nothing happens’ made me wonder, did they really read THIS book? Of course others (more like me it seems) said it was ‘exquisite, carefully crafted and entrancing’. And it was all of that and more.

The Forrests are an almost normal family that move their family halfway across the world from an affluent New York lifestyle to what ends up being a challenging lifestyle in New Zealand. Emily Perkins is a master of observation and detail. The snippets of the family’s life that are revealed are believable and delicious. My book is dog-eared from all of the times I read a sentence that I wanted to treasure. For example, when describing the first view of the decrepit house where their estranged father was living,
The no-colour paint on the windowsills and door frame was crackled…
and, ‘Evelyn unpeeled her sandwich and tweezed out the alfalfa sprouts with her fingertips and dropped them into the sea.
and, when making a cake,
In the bowl they created a separated viscous swirl with the creamed-butter mixture, the yolk trailing through the pale butter, the transparent whites floating jellyfishy around the surface.

Emily Perkins is observant beyond belief, and her descriptions based on these observations, are absorbing. Utterly so. I loved this book that led me through this family’s seemingly ordinary life in a subtle and engrossing way. The reader is drawn into family and invited to fill in the blank between the episodic narrative.  This family is neither boring, nor ordinary, but it could be yours or mine. The ending is sad, but so is the ending of most lives. Dot, the mainly main character leaves these pages in a slightly confused way, but I suspect that, too, is the way in which many lives come to the final end.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

The Forrests
by Emily Perkins
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408831496