Book Review: The Diamond Horse, by Stacy Gregg

cv_the_diamond_horseAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

THIS BOOK IS AMAZING!! Stacy Gregg has, once again, left me gobsmacked. After reading one of her previous novels The Princess And The Foal, I was excited to read this one. Gregg has put an extreme amount of research into this novel, and I felt as if I had been transported halfway across the world, experiencing this story first hand next to Anna.

The Diamond Horse is based on a Russian girl, Anna Orlov, whose father breeds animals and works for the Empress Catherine. When Anna’s father buys a new horse Anna is the one to break him in, but after the horse dies, Anna’s father orders that his son, a three-day-old foal is killed because of his unique appearance. When Anna’s mother dies she gives her a black diamond necklace that holds a secret.

I really enjoyed the persistence and courage that Anna showed throughout the novel, and would recommend The Diamond Horse to anyone who loves horses or anybody between the ages of 7 – 10.

Reviewed by Isabelle Ralston (age 14)

The Diamond Horse
by Stacy Gregg
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780008124397

Stacy Gregg will be in-store at Paper Plus Bethlehem for NZ Bookshop Day.

Book Review: Working Class Boy, by Jimmy Barnes

cv_working_class_boyAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Jimmy Barnes says of his writing this account of his early life: “the time I have spent writing this book has caused me a lot of pain.” He was born in Scotland, one of six children. His father was an alcoholic who drank away his wages, and the children learned to fear the violent rows that ensued when his mother confronted him each time she was faced with having to scratch to feed the family. The area of Glasgow where they lived was mired in poverty, and drunken fights and mindless violence, even amongst the children, were horrifyingly common. Jimmy, at four, survived a life threatening attack by boys not much older than he by running away as fast as he could. His friend wasn’t as lucky. The youngster was pelted with rocks and bottles and finally set on fire. He ended up in hospital for a long time and Jimmy still carries guilt for leaving him behind.

The family eventually became “ten pound tourists,” so called because that was what it cost for such ones to emigrate to Australia to become Australian citizens. Arriving in the “lucky country” in 1962 when Jimmy was five, things went from bad to worse. Dwindling money, fraying tempers and too much alcohol gave way to more violence and finally, despair. The mother who had sworn she would never leave them, left one night without a sound. The children woke to find that they were effectively on their own.

The loneliness of the young boy as he struggles to deal with the neglect and the chaos makes for hard reading, but Jimmy, the adult, tells the story with a candour and humour that imbues it with a sense of hope. Many times that hope would have been difficult for Jimmy and his siblings to imagine, especially as they grew into their teens in the hellish conditions of the Adelaide suburbs where drugs and alcohol-fuelled violence in the streets as well as in the home.

Jimmy left his home to join a band and that’s where his account ends. It’s not where his story ends though, as those of us who have listened to his songs over the years know.

Reading about his harrowing early life gives a greater understanding of both the belting lyrics and the softer, sometimes haunting, music he has produced. As Sam Neill writes in his own review of this book, “Remarkably, out of all this bedlam one of the best men I know emerges – a great artist, a terrific friend and – how does this happen- a devoted loving family man.”

This moving account of Jimmy Barnes’ early life is an example of how a terrible childhood doesn’t necessarily doom one to a life of misery. But it also shows in grim detail the enormous effort Jimmy had to put in to become the man he is.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Working Class Boy
by Jimmy Barnes
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781460752135

Book Review: Acts of Valour: The History of the Victoria Cross and New Zealand, by Glyn Harper & Colin Richardson

Peace, not war, shall be our boast,
But should foes assail our coast,
Make us then a mighty host,
God defend our free land.
Lord of battles in Thy might,
Put our enemies to flight,
Let our cause be just and right,
God defend New Zealand.

cv_acts_of_valourThe seldom-sung third verse of “God Defend New Zealand” is a poignant reminder to all of us what it means to be a New Zealander. These words struck a chord when I read them on the first page of this book.

The original Royal Warrant for the VC, signed by Queen Victoria on 29 January 1856 specified that the award was to be made to ‘to those officers and men who … in the presence of the enemy shall have performed some signal act of valour or devotion to their country’. By a consolidating warrant of 1920, the criteria for receiving a VC was redefined to read ‘ for most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.’

There have been more than 40 service personnel with New Zealand connections that have become recipients of the Victoria Cross for outstanding acts of gallantry; the first one awarded to a New Zealander was to Captain Charles Heaphy in 1867; Charles Upham received two, one in 1941 with his second in 1942, and our most recent one on 26 July 2007 to Willie Apiata.

Heroes come in different guises but all have one thing in common – bravery without any thought to their own safety. The stories of these brave, brave men are ones that should never be forgotten. The sacrifices they all made fighting for freedom make me proud to be a New Zealander.

The process of being recognised with the Victoria Cross is not an easy one. The Victoria Cross requires an act of gallantry to be witnessed, investigated by a commissioned officer, and written up so that it meets the requirements of the prevailing warrants. It then has to be passed through several layers of military command and various committees until it finally reaches the sovereign for his or her approval. Posthumous awards were not originally covered by the Victoria Cross warrant but this has changed over the years and in more recent times awarded posthumously to soldiers during the 1982 Falklands campaign.

The stories highlighted in this book are ones of extraordinary human beings.

This is the 10th anniversary edition of a best-selling book updated with the story of Willie Apiata and the bizarre theft of the VC medals. While I found some of the military history a bit over my head, it’s still a fascinating read and one that I certainly would recommend highly to readers.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Acts of Valour: The history of the Victoria Cross and New Zealand
by Glyn Harper and Colin Richardson
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781775540502

Book Review: Predator, by Wilbur Smith with Tom Cain

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_predatorWilbur Smith continues the story of Hector Cross, the ex-SAS officer we have met in two previous novels. Cross lost his wife to a killer he has tracked, found and returned to the United States. The book starts with Cross awaiting the news of the death of Johnny Congo, the killer. He has been given the death penalty and all is secure for this to take place. The corruption and complexities of Congo’s contacts are detailed as we await justice.

This is a fast-paced book, swinging from the African oilfields to Alaska as we follow Cross in his role as an oilfield industry Security chief. There is a little romance, fatherhood as Hector Cross now has a young daughter to care for, and plenty of uncertainty. The baddies are very bad, the goodies are flawed, but generally try to do the best they can.

At times, I was little bogged down in detail as the four different stories played out on different continents with associated groups of friends or foes. Trying to sustain the different characters and settings, while keeping the pace up, seemed to present a real challenge. Eventually, it all comes together in a storm on the high seas.

As always, fans of Wilbur Smith will not be disappointed. You will have to read it for yourself to see if Hector Cross will live to tell another tale.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

by Wilbur Smith with Tom Cain
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781460752814

Book Review: The Day the Crayons Came Home, by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers

TDTCCHOME_JKT_UK_PG.inddAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

Daywalt and Jeffers’ first collaboration saw the crayons quit, whether due to overuse or underuse, misuse or disagreements with their fellows. This time, the crayons realise that home is where they want to be – or most of them.

Both this and the previous book are works of creative geniuses creating worlds within worlds for our personified crayons. Each crayon has its own traits, and they are determined to assert their individuality, via realistic postcards sent to their owner, Duncan. Brown is upset at being used to colour … you know what; pea green a.k.a Esteban the Magnificent is off to see the world if only Duncan would open the front door; while my 5-year-old very much related to the fate of Big Chunky Toddler Crayon, bitten by Duncan’s younger brother.

My 5-year-old son and I laughed out loud at many of the superbly hand-drawn letters in this book. I did need to explain some of the more subtle ironies, but once he had it, he wanted it read over and over again. As Dan is of the mind set that only new is good, this is a good sign that this book may endure in his esteem for some time!

Our favourite crayon character had to be bright red: this geographically-challenged crayon saw the best collaboration between the written and illustrated aspects of the book. First, he is shown looking impatiently at his watch at the poolside where he was left after a particularly hilarious picture of Duncan’s Dad’s sunburn…8 months ago. Then, he is on a camel in an image of the … Newcastle pyramids? On the way to the North Pole. The next time we check in, he is skiing in the Amazon. Dan knows where the pyramids are, and how warm rainforests are, so he was beside himself as we read these parts.

Duncan is upset to learn of the fate of each of his crayons, so he goes around and gathers them up after reading their notes, only to find they don’t fit in his crayon box any more: so he takes all their fears into account when creating a perfect solution.

After reading this book, your child will never see their crayons the same way ever again. Perhaps they will go on adventures together, and colour bravely into the future.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Day the Crayons Came Home
by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
Published by Harper Collins
ISBN 9780008124434

Book Review: The Teenage Brain, by Frances E Jensen, MD

cv_the_teenage_brainAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

The teenage brain? What sort of word trickery is that? Well, all logic tells you there is a brain of course, nestling inside the head of that child of yours, but it is not a brain, Jim, as we know it. And that is the totally bizarre thing about teenagers – after all we were all one once angst ridden, tormented, self absorbed, idealistic, misunderstood, unloved – so you think we would have no problem some years down the track dealing with our own teenager’s tormented souls. And that is the conundrum. Our brains, unbeknownst to us, moved on from being teenage brains somewhere in our 20s (hopefully), or at least by our 30s (more likely). Because our wiring is now different, we have no understanding really, about what is going on in our darlings’ brains.

This book attempts to redress this lack of knowledge and understanding to us – parents, teachers, and other significant grown-ups. Frances Jensen is a professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania. Blessedly, she is also the parent of two fine-sounding young men who were once teenagers. It would seem, from her biography blurb at the back of this book, that she is a specialist in the developing brain and age specific therapies. So, not so much a handbook on how to deal with your teenager(s), more a handbook on what is going on inside their heads, so you are able to understand this more readily. So this may seem like a medical book, and not for the average teen parent, but it is extremely readable, probably because it was co-authored with a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer who writes for the Washington Post and so well used to turning medical language/concepts/theories etc into everday language for us mere mortals.

There is plenty of brain terminology in this book – amygdala, frontal cortex, cortical map, hippocampus, hypothalamus, myelin, how they all work, how they change and interact with each other during the teen years to produce a different type of brain at the end of it all. And most importantly how all these changes lead to and directly cause the behaviours that we see so frequently in our teens – their flawed decision making, impulsiveness, inability to be rational or sensible, that boys’ brains are different from girls’ brains, why their body clock is out of whack. As I have said, Ms Jensen is a scientist, not a psychologist, so not much in this book on how to deal with teenagers. I found myself regularly referring to NZ psychologist and author Nigel Latta’s writings on parenting teenagers, with his Mad Uncle Jacks and Mad Aunt Janes, which gives plenty of advice on dealing with all this weird and alarming brain change. I think the two complement each other very nicely.

There were some sections of medical terminology and explanation when I felt my eyes glazing over, but throughout the book the authors are constantly referencing the biology with the evidence, that is what we see, and so it does all gradually come together, and I now know a lot more about the functioning of the brain than previously.

A lot of issues are covered in this book that affect teenagers differently from children and adults. How the brain learns, sleep patterns, risk taking, the effects of alcohol and cannabis, mental illness and the digital invasion. The two chapters that I found the most alarming and that I think all parents should have an understanding of are stress and its impact on teenage well-being, and the danger of sports and concussions. This book is written by an American and published in America, but many of the issues in high schools and colleges there are also in New Zealand schools. With an 18-year-old and a 20-year-old, our time in the dark, never ending teenage tunnel is thankfully nearing an end, and the light is getting brighter and closer. But there is an increasing obsession in our schools to be the best in sport and/or academics, to the detriment of the students supposedly earning that glory. As these two chapters reveal, the impact of this endless race to the top can take a serious toll on our young ones, physically, mentally and emotionally. As parents, the ones closest to our teens, we really do need to be mindful of how things can go wrong inside their heads that may take some time to actually show up.

There is a lot of very good stuff in this book, and reading it will certainly increase your arsenal of information about teenagers, and hopefully your understanding and communication with them.

Review copy provided by HarperCollins NZ.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Teenage Brain
by Frances E Jensen, MD
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780007448319

Book Review: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, by Hilary Mantel

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_the_assassination_of_margaret_thatcher

Hilary Mantel is the first woman to receive the Booker Prize twice. The third installment of her Cromwell trilogy, titled The Mirror and the Light, is set to be published in 2015. Mantel’s recent collection of short stories, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, is not historic in the same swashbuckling sense as her well-known Cromwell trilogy. However, Mantel does at times meddle with recent historical characters, including of course ex-British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

The title story was originally commissioned by the Telegraph newspaper a couple of years ago. The topic of Margaret Thatcher is obviously polarizing. Those who grew up or lived through the 80’s will remember vivid TV footage of miner’s strikes, hunger strikes and factory closures, Thatcher’s handbag and venomous serpent teeth, and the patronizing accent. At the time, she was the most hated woman in England. She even inspired Punk.

The collection begins with an intrusion, in Sorry to Disturb. A business man in a claustrophobic Middle Eastern country bursts into the apartment of an ex-pat Brit and a ‘friendship’ develops. The final story features an intrusion of another kind, when an assassin fakes his way into a woman’s flat, pretending to be a plumber. In this, a strange Stockholm syndrome relationship develops, over cups of tea and sympathy. The IRA shooter is only interested in his quarry – but then so is the flat’s owner. She’s not really a victim and she’s not aiding or abetting either. So what is she? The story presents a simple dilemma that just seems to arrive uncontrived and leave unresolved. Like life.

The stories in the collection date back to 2009 and several have been published previously. Comma is about childhood cruelty. Harley Street has slight lesbian overtones in a professional setting. Winter Break plays out like the Madeline McCann case in reverse, with a childless couple implicated in the murder of a child in the picturesque Greek Islands. Then there’s the most disturbing story, The Heart Fails Without Warning. Mantel constructs the final image of a spectral girl holding a ghostly white dog, out of an anorexic teenager, doglike hair growing on her face. This haunting image is juxtaposed against the girl’s father’s interest in porn – featuring naked girls on dog leads. The story is perplexing. Mantel likes to twist perceptions and play with expectations. Her short stories are punchy vignettes that take the reader from Saudi to Greece, challenging our assumptions along the way.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is not just a placeholder until Mantel finishes her next Cromwell installment. Short stories are like itches that need to be scratched. And this book provides a near-perfect scratching session. It’s a fine collection – Mantel’s short stories are perfect for train journeys and lunch breaks, or for those moments you snatch to relieve intellectual irritations.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
by Hilary Mantel
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9780007580972

Book Review: Victory, New Zealand Airmen and the Fall of Germany, by Max Lambert

Available in all good bookstores from June 1 2014. 

With Victory, New Zealand Airmen and the Fall of Germany, journalist and author Max cv_victoryLambert completes an extraordinary chronicle of the part young New Zealand men played as pilots and aircrew in many theatres of the second world war.

This latest book by Lambert focusses on the period from the allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944 to the final collapse of Germany in May 1945. The book in fact is being released to bookshops in New Zealand on 1 June to mark the anniversary of the D Day landings.

Flying in Lancasters, Halifaxes, Blenheims, Sunderland Flying Boats, Stirlings, Mosquitos, Buffulos, Glider Planes, Typhoons and even unarmed Dakotos, the young kiwi pilots, some even teenagers, created a history of service and fortitude that Lambert has managed to research with skill and present in a no nonsense narrative of the kind you would expect from such an experienced and acclaimed journalist.

There are stories of aircrew who came through unscathed. There are more, unfortunately, where the tiny black cross against their names in the index, indicates that they did not survive. Many were wounded, some taken prisoner, a number lost without trace. The latter are all remembered at the Air Forces Memorial at Runneymede.

Some of the New Zealanders were involved in the heavy bombing of Germany’s industrial centres and cities such as the Ruhr, Dresden, Hamburg and Berlin. A training crew in a Sunderland Flying Boat depth charged and sank a U-Boat off the coast of Norway, while it was on its way to impede the allied landings.

Pilots were often told to steer clear of the air above the massive invasion force because the “navy is not good at aircraft recognition” and there was an ever-present danger of being shot down by friendly fire.

Les Munro, aged 23, the kiwi pilot in the famous Dambusters raid earlier in the war, flew as second pilot to the famous squadron commander, Wind Commander Leonard Chesire. They were leading the squadron in the highly skilled dropping of “chaff”, strips of aluminium that helped confuse German radar − leading them to believe that the landings were going to be at the Pas de Calais instead of Normandy. Other kiwis, West Coaster Terry Kearns, 23, and John Barclay, also 23, from Dunedin were also involved in that vital exercise.

Many of the battles which the kiwi airmen played a part are familiar, D-Day Landings, Arnhem, the crossing of the Rhine, even the landings in the South of France. He also touches on the surrender of German forces. But Lambert’s book traces all of these through “new eyes”, those of aircrew who were far from their country but played a very significant part in World War 2.

It is not only the accounts of key battles and events which are recorded by Lambert. The backgrounds and personal details of many of the kiwi aircrew are also included along with very interesting, sometimes scary, sometimes funny, accounts of their exploits.

Many families in New Zealand may well find Victory can be added as an important addition to other memorabilia recording the roles their forebears played in history.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Victory, New Zealand Airmen and the Fall of Germany
by Max Lambert
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781775540434


Finalist Interviews: the origin of A Necklace of Souls, by R L Stedman

If you have ever wondered where authors get their ideas, this is your chance to find out.rachel stedman

We have asked our fantastic finalists for the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children
and Young Adults all about their work, and they have been very generous in their responses.

A Necklace of Souls, by R L Stedman (HarperCollins NZ) is a finalist in the Young Adult Fiction category of the Book Awards

Thank you to Rachel Stedman for her generous responses:

1. As an author, you must have a lot of ideas floating around. How did you decide to write this book?
You’re right, I have so many ideas that sometimes I can’t sleep – it’s kind of like hearing voices, all the time.

The idea for A Necklace of Souls developed from a dream of a girl fighting in a forest. She fought so beautifully that when I woke, I wanted to write her story. So the entire book is really leading up to that one scene.

2. Tell us a bit about the journey from manuscript to published work. What was the biggest challenge you faced in publishing this book?

Finding time! What people don’t realize – what I didn’t realize, anyway – is the manuscript accepted by the publisher is only the first step in the publishing process.

COV_Necklace.inddAfter acceptance, the manuscript goes to an editor for a style edit. The style edit looks at structure. I was really lucky, because I had a wonderful editor, Helen Chamberlain, who lives in Melbourne, and we emailed each other, usually late at night, about the changes that were needed. The first email I got from Helen said ‘I loved A Necklace of Souls but…’ and she went on to say that it needed another seven chapters. Which was a little overwhelming. But the extra chapters weren’t too hard, and Helen was right, they did improve the story.

It took about three drafts with Helen to get Necklace to the point where we were happy with it, and then the manuscript went back to HarperCollins. Anna, my editor at HarperCollins, did a copy edit, looking for things like spelling errors and consistency. I had to check this edit again.

And then it went to an external proof reader for a final check. And then, finally, it was ready to be printed.

And the whole time I was doing this, I was also writing the sequel and working and other things, too.

3. Did you tailor this book to a particular audience – or did you find it found its own audience as it was written?
I always thought it would appeal to older teenage readers, about sixteen to twenty-three years old. A Necklace of Souls is similar in some ways to books I read at that age, so maybe that’s why I had that age group in mind.

4. Can you recommend any books that you love, that inspired or informed your book in any way?
I am like a walking library. I read lots and lots of books so I really couldn’t name any particular one. But I enjoy fantasy fiction, so probably some fantasy novels crept into the story. If you enjoyed A Necklace of Souls, you may also enjoy The Belgariad by David Eddings, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, or any novel by Patricia McKilip or Robin McKinley.

I also read a lot of books about things like knife fighting and breadmaking when researching A Necklace of Souls. I have some of these (as well as short videos and other material I used) pinned to my research board on pinterest.

5. Tell us about a time you’ve enjoyed relaxing and reading a book – at the bach, on holiday, what was the book?
My dream bach would be stocked with Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer (I am a total Georgette Heyer nutcase) – preferably in the Pan editions because their covers are so bright they look like graphic novels.

Because I’m a very fast reader, I like to take lots and lots of books on holiday. So in my dream bach I’d also like to see James Herriott, Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, Lee Child, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, William Gibson, Isaac Asimov, Asterix, Tintin, Ben Aaronovitch, Neal Stephenson… anything, really. I’m not too fussy, as long as it’s funny and well written.

6. What is your favourite thing to do, when you aren’t reading or writing, and why?
Baking (and eating) chocolate brownies. I have a special recipe for a microwave brownie, it’s super easy, takes about ten minutes. Here’s the link.

And I love taking photos. I’m totally addicted to instagram. You can find me on @rlstedman

You can find RL Stedman’s social media networks below:


Book Review: The Son, by Jo Nesbø

Available in bookstores nationwide. 

I was disappointed. Because after resurrecting the cv_the_son_jo_nesbowonderful, gritty Harry Hole in his last book (Police), Nesbø drops him again in favour of what appears to be a stand-alone novel that dives feet first into the religious allegory that’s often provided the architecture for his work – especially in novels like The Redeemer. It’s not quite Dan Brown, but the symbolism is laid on with the proverbial trowel – a bit thick for the armchair sleuth, perhaps. Perhaps.

So the story goes that Sonny Lofthus, is a con with “healing hands,” someone prepared to selflessly absolve the sins of his fellow prisoners. But he’s also a hopeless junkie. He was a boy with potential, a medal winning wrestler. A model student. A proud son. But then his police officer father commits suicide. It was assumed that dad was at the heart of police corruption because after his death things clean up down at the Nick. A confessional note appears. It’s a fait accompli. Sonny hits the drugs and plunges in a web of evil. He’s encouraged to confess to murders he hadn’t committed in exchange for heroin by the corrupt prison staff, who are in cahoots with the local mafia.

Then a fellow prisoner reveals a secret that sets Sonny on a new path as an avenging angel of lethal retribution. Unraveling all of this is an ageing inspector and his young, over-ambitious protégé, who become obsessed with the case. The story spirals and spirals, intertwining into a tight-rope of a plot.

With a quick cadence, this is the perfect commuter novel. Short, punchy chapters that kept me interested and satiated through every train journey as I burrowed into the story, ignoring the conductor at my peril. It’s not a deep read. Everyone appears at surface level with only a few layers to peel back when the core plot demands it.

Still, this is the kind of book to make you feel it was well worth the time. It was disappointing that Nesbø chose to re-shelve Harry, but Sonny could be a potential replacement – albeit on the reverse side of the cards.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

The Son
Written by Jo Nesbø
Published by Harvill Secker (distributor Harper Collins)
ISBN 9781846557408