Book Review: 1915 Wounds of War, by Diana Menefy

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Available at bookstores nationwide.

This is the second in a series of books released by Scholastic, and named Kiwis at War, that I have read and reviewed. The series is scheduled to be released one year at a time to coincide with the 100 year commemorations of World War I. The subtitle of this book, Wounds of War, is particularly appropriate.

The main characters are two New Zealand nurses, Mel and Harriet, who volunteer alongside their brothers. Mel and Harriet are also cousins. I like the way that the author makes the transition from excited young people embarking on the first OE, to the reality of entering and working in a war zone. The girls are caring for a continual river of wounded young men, many of them kiwis, who are replaced as quickly as they are able to hobble away. The wounds that are inflicted are both real and metaphorical.

It makes sense that your best friends are your siblings and cousins, given that you grow up spending more time with them than any others, so when you witness the injuries and receive news of their death, the impact is understandably difficult. Diana Menefy has written a compelling and emotional account of the atrocities inflicted at, and the deep sadness resulting from the ANZAC fighting in Gallipoli. There are some high points to leaven the sadness – young people falling in love, dancing with wounded soldiers, and the inner turmoil of young woman waiting for a potential boyfriend to write to her. I’m sure the emotional upheavals of teens are no different now, although more immediate through texting. The year, and book, ends with the first ANZAC day commemorations in 1916.

Menefy also touches on what many now would describe as a pointless waste of young life. The soldiers remark on the inequalities in the trenches and the, sometimes, unfathomable decisions of their commanding officers. While it doesn’t matter in a work of fiction, I’m not sure how authentic this is, or indeed whether the young men at the time understood the futility of their fight. It is likely that at least one young man dared to question the authorities, and I think that this viewpoint is particularly important for young readers. Young people of today need to understand the sacrifices that were made by ANZAC soldiers. I’m only personally starting to understand that the ANZACs might not have been in the right place, after all.

This is a very enjoyable story that takes readers on a journey through this year in history through the eyes of these New Zealand nurses, sharing the ups and downs, seesEurope through their eyes and experiences their losses. The wounds of war are indeed immense, but not forgotten.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

1915 Wounds of War
by Diana Menefy
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775432746

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Book Review: Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult

Available now in bookstores nationwide.

Jodi Picoult certainly writes a compelling book – readers all over the world can’t put her bookscv_leaving_Time down and when they finally do, they are often left sobbing. This is an emotional book, but not as devastatingly so as some of her others.

Picoult’s meticulous research really comes to the fore in Leaving Time. The central character, Alice Metcalf, is an elephant researcher who becomes obsessed with the apparently emotionally driven activities of elephants. Against her science training, and her colleagues’ recommendation, she begins to appropriate human traits upon the elephants. She documents the relationships between elephant mothers and children; and she starts to believe that elephants grieve. She sees and documents evidence of it.

Ultimately Alice’s experiences lead her to follow her other love, Thomas, who owns an elephant sanctuary, to the USA. The sad stories of these elephants – largely unwanted and traumatised circus animals – is thought-provoking. By the time we enter this world, Thomas is locked away in a mental institution, Alice is missing and presumed dead, and their teenage daughter Jenna is determined to find out what happened to her mother. She enlists the support of a disgraced TV psychic and the original police investigator of the crime.

The parallels between elephant maternal instinct and grief and the human experiences are intentional, but not forced. The mystery that envelopes the story is finally resolved in a suprising, clever way.

I enjoyed this story and wasn’t left as emotionally wrought as previously with Picoult’s books. And that is a good thing.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

Leaving Time
by Jodi Picoult
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781743317211

Book Review: The 52-Storey Treehouse, by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton

cv_the_52_storey_treehouseAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

Who doesn’t love a new Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton book? These two are masters of humour for young readers, and their seemingly simple stories have so many layers of intrigue. This book,The 52-Storey Treehouse, follows on from The 39-Storey Treehouse, and is the fourth in the series. The treehouse is a meandering series of cloud-shaped floors sprouting from a central trunk, and since the last book, another 13 floors have been added to the seemingly infinite structure.

In this series, Andy and Terry are the two main characters in their own books, alongside their publisher, Mr Big Nose. This time around, the Treehouse has a juggling chainsaw room, a smashing watermelons room, and is host to an army of ninja snails. The latter become (remarkably) important saviours for our rascal heroes, and are integral to the story. Some of the humour is too prefaced and can be a little lame, but that somehow adds to the appeal. You find yourself laughing at things that really are not that funny.

This book sees Andy (the writer), and his best mate, Terry (the illustrator), trying to get their latest book to the publisher on time. Unfortunately for them but luckily for us, all sorts of events conspire against them. There is vegetable warfare, and magic spells. Also parent-killing vegetables, although it should be pointed out that no parents feature in this book at all. They rarely do in Andy’s madcap adventures. The decision to use themselves as the two main characters in these books is fun – it allows for some self-directed humour.

Young fans will not be disappointed.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

The 52-Storey Treehouse
by Andy Griffiths &Terry Denton
Published by Pan Australia
ISBN 9781742614212

Book Review: The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton

Available in bookstores nationwide.

This is an interesting book. The setting and story are fascinating. This book is set in cv_the_miniaturist17th-century Amsterdam – a compact city that is dominated by canals, the constant threat of flooding, and a secretive society where everyone knows your business.

Jessie Burton’s book was inspired by Petronella Oortman’s real cabinet house in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. This ornate miniature house becomes a central character in this book. The inanimate objects that are created by the mysterious Miniaturist are central and ever present to the story that unfolds. The only other factual aspect to this story is the main character’s name. Petronella, or Nella as she describes herself, is a young bride arriving in Amsterdam from rural Holland. Her family have arrange for her to marry a man, more than twice her age, who leads a secretive life on the seas as a trader, and in Amsterdam as a privileged (and rich) merchant.

I struggled to get into this book at first, but eventually the mysterious characters, atmosphere, and building and suspenseful climax kept me going. Amsterdam at the time, and possibly even now, in the city where people live in close proximity, where neighbours find it easy to peer into front room windows. In fact, the front rooms are designed for such a purpose. In a world so open, people crave for privacy. And in this 17th-century Amsterdam, the teenage bride struggles to learn all of the secrets the city and the family she has joined hold dear. In fact, her fragmented experiences are reflected in the ever present but mostly absent Miniaturist.

This book takes the reader to an utterly believable world and you become immersed in that world. It’s a slightly unusual tale, but on reflection probably quite likely to have occurred in that time period. It is an original and atmospheric story (the book is set in the dark wet winter months, and at times you feel the dampness pervade your thoughts), with a fabulous mix of suspense, love and loss.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

The Miniaturist
by Jessie Burton
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781447250920

Book Review: 1914 Riding Into War, by Susan Brocker

This book is available now from bookstores nationwide. cv_1914_riding_into_war

Scholastic New Zealand have developed a series of books called ‘Kiwis At War’ to commemorate the First World War. This is the first in the series and presents the story of Billy, an underage teenage soldier, and the journey he makes with his beloved horse, Tui, to the other side of the world. As part of the mounted rifles regiment, Billy and his best friend Jack are excited to be embarking on this adventure.

Of course, what they encounter is far worse and more challenging than anything they could have imagined. Abandoning their horses in Egypt, the boys head into the Gallipoli war zone with hundreds of other New Zealand and Australian young men.

The ANZAC story will appeal to many, and it’s a great way to teach the history of this time to young New Zealand and Australian readers. But this book is also a story of friendship, fear, survival, and loss. It’s a compelling and emotional story set in a period of history that has touched many lives. I particularly liked the focus on the relationship between the boys and their horses. All too often, when we think of war we forget about the wider picture: the hundreds of horses that perished; the families at home waiting to hear of news of their loved ones; and the smells and sounds of war.

This is a great story and many young kiwis will enjoy reading it.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

1914: Riding into War
by Susan Brocker
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN  9781775432067

Book Review: Project Huia, by Des Hunt

Project Huia is shortlisted in the Junior Fiction category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. 

In Project Huia, Des Hunt has oncecv_project_huia again found a winning formula that appeals to both young readers and his own conservation interests. In this book, Logan, the young male protagonist, is thrust back in history as his grandfather Jim recalls a period of unusual excitement and shenanigans from his own young life.

Jim and Logan travel back to the origins of the story and Logan is transported back in time as his grandfather relates the story of what is presumed to be the slaying of the last known huia. Throughout the book there is an air of expectation that the remains of that bird may be found. This is spurred on by a conservation scientist named Ana, who has her own secret mission, which is only partly revealed to Jim and Logan. She needs Jim to lead her to the site where the huia was last seen. She needs Logan to convince Jim to share his story. Jim needs to revisit his past for reasons that slowly reveal themselves.

Thwarting their efforts are two local louts. It soon transpires these two troublemakers are descendants of the Carson family, a family as notorious as the Huia’s extinction is in these parts. Jim had quarrelled badly with them as a boy, and the ill feeling and heartache is still palpable today. Logan is fated to re-enact some of the tension himself.

This is the story of adventure, revenge, bullying, and pointless extinction (of the huia). It is a thoroughly New Zealand story and the modern day action is well woven into historical and conservation aspects. It’s no surprise to me that this book is a finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Within the pages of the book, the huia, one of our most loved but now extinct birds, is brought back to life but it is also a compelling adventure and whodunit story.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

Project Huia
by Des Hunt
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN  9781775431763

John Marsden, Reza Aslan and Sarah-Kate Lynch begin a very full Sunday at the Auckland Writer’s Festival

What a day! Starting with John Marsden at 10 am and ending with a waiata from Patricia Grace’s whanau at 6:30pm. Such was the final day of the Auckland Writers Festival 2014 for me.

John Marsden (right) writes for children and young adults. Marsden_ JohnAs an English teacher, he was aware that kids were not reading enough and when he tried to find books to recommend to year nine kids, all he could find was the Flowers In The Attic series, which he described as awful and the equivalent of Twilight in its time! Whoops, my teenage persona was addicted to that series penned by Virginia Andrews. John decided that it couldn’t be that hard to write books, he was after all an English teacher at an isolated boarding school and lived in close proximity to teenagers most of the year. His first book was So Much To Tell You, which he tried out on his students and they (of course) liked it − one girl was moved to tears. That connection between reader and writer inspired him to continue.

While writing Tomorrow When The War Began he knew it was going to be really big. He just had a gut feeling. His editor was similarly optimistic, but the first reviews were awful. Really awful. But his belief in the book has been repaid over and over again. He wrote the book to show that teenagers (at least the ones he knew) were compassionate with a heroic spirit, and not the hopeless, negative, uninterested, drug-addled losers that they were portrayed to be in the media.

John Marsden gave a few insights into the type of writer he is. For example, he is never comfortable reading his work aloud, as he always feel he could have done better, and he thinks all of the best books have a change in status for their characters.

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John Marsden signs in the Aotea Centre

Next up was The Politics of Prophets with Professor Reza Aslan. Describing his mother as a sometime Muslim and his father as an atheist, this emigrant Iranian grew up in the USA and became an evangelical Christian in his early life. He became a preacher, and eventually studied religion formally at University.

Aslan_RezaAslan (left) reminded the audience that in fact neither Jesus nor Mohammed actually created religion, they were simply prophets that reformed existing religions. He describes religion as storytelling, more about identity than practices. It’s how you see yourself in the world. He described the human desire for puritanism as an attempt to purify a faith and return it to an imaginary past. All scripture is simply words on a page and requires interpretation to have meaning − scripture is infinitely malleable. He used the example of slaves and slave owners using the same bible and even the same verses to justify their opposing positions.

He reminded the audience that religion was once synonymous with citizenship, which is now more aligned on a geographical basis. Religion provided identity: a club membership, if you will. It’s the way we identify the differences and similarities between people we encounter. Shared religious sayings and metaphors deepen relationships and offer an immediacy of intimacy between people, and exclude those who don’t understand them.

Aslan dismissed questions about religious violence – in his mind the worst examples of violence are secular (eg fascism, Marxism, etc) and he concluded “The fact of the matter is that we will kill each other for any reason.” Sobering stuff.

Now for something so different, but with an equally exuberant presentation…Sarah-Kate Lynch in conversation with Petra Bagust about her latest book, Screw You, Dolores. It is a nonfiction book about her life and about happiness and, I guess, how to find it.

When Lynch (right) writes any book she aims to pp_sarah-kate-lynchsmlamuse and make people feel good: she prefers the happily-ever-after stories to the dark and gloomy novels.

The title comes from a lovely story that Lynch tells of a younger version of herself in Los Angles buying the staples of life – beer, cigarettes and Pringles – when a checkout operator, with a name badge that identified her as Dolores, in a rather shrill voice (well it was when relayed to the audience!) shrieked, “Don’t put your items on the conveyor belt until the customer before you has finished.” The young Lynch obediently scooped her selection up back into her arms. I am certain the Sarah-Kate Lynch in the room today would not have. But I digress − back in the grocery store, the whole scene was repeated a few seconds later − this time directed at the man behind Sarah-Kate. His response was to simply walk out of the store leaving his groceries on the belt, but before leaving he said three brief words, “Screw you, Dolores!” Lynch realised that was not only a great line, but a lesson for life happiness. Screw You, Dolores is an idea and method about how to feel better.

Sarah-Kate is witty and funny, but surprisingly shy. She is adamant about one thing though and that is that we need to buy NZ books, to support NZ writers. Petra Bagust referred to this book as a “A $30 investment in happiness”, and you know, she is probably right.

Events attended and reviewed by Gillian Whalley Torckler
Editors note: I have split this post in two, due to length. The second post will be up shortly!