Book Review:  Taupo Blows! by Doug Wilson

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_taupo_blowsI will be honest with you.  I did not want to read this book at all. The title is the stuff of many of my childhood fears; after learning about volcanoes at primary school, staying at my nana’s home with its view of Lake Taupō during school holidays was never again a carefree experience. I don’t know how many nights I lay awake wondering if my number was up.

Thankfully, Doug Wilson hasn’t written that story. Instead he’s had Mt Ruapehu erupt, with young Rachel and Sam home alone when a second eruption throws a strange visitor onto their doorstep. Guld lives under the mountain, and needs Rachel and Sam to help him put things right before the whole volcanic plateau blows.

With the plot moving along at a cracking pace, Wilson introduces Rachel and Sam to a variety of odd characters to help them on their quest. The children must overcome their fears and find their inner strength to save the North Island from a cataclysmic eruption.

Taupo Blows! reminds me of the Maurice Gee classic (and nightmare-inducing) Under the Mountain in terms of setting, and Suzanne Collins’ wonderful Gregor the Overlander series in terms of characters and themes. This is high praise, and has Wilson keeping very good company. I’d recommend Taupo Blows! for readers from about 9-10 years, and I look forward to Wilson’s next offering.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Taupo Blows!
by Doug Wilson
Published by Bateman Publishing
ISBN 9781869539672

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Book Review: The Magic Pencil, by Ben Spies

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_magic_pencilWhat an extraordinary accomplishment for a ten-year-old. To write a story is hard, to write a long, novel length story is even harder. And yet that is exactly what Ben has done. As it says on the cover, his story is an action-packed adventure where the hero and his friends blitz from one dangerous situation to the next on a quest to save the world from destruction.

It all starts when Bob finds an innocent-looking pencil (innocent but for the piece of tin foil attached) which turns out to be magic – anything it draws becomes real. Which in turn means a gang of bad people want it for their own dastardly plans. Bob is soon on the run to keep the pencil safe, aided by his friends and a strange but helpful Old Man.

Their adventure is full of rockets, explosions, time travel, dinosaurs, rescues and space travel, and along the way the adventurers meet the Queen, a pharaoh and Einstein.  Eventually they return home just in the nick of time to prevent the baddies from destroying the planet. Whew!

Full of imaginative scenarios, this is a children’s story written by a child and as such features much of the things they love – action, narrow escapes, good guys and bad guys, and lots of high energy.  When it comes to writing, a lot of new writers tend to forget that they need a plot with a beginning, middle and most importantly, an end, however this is not a trap that Ben has fallen into – his plot follows a good thread with mounting action and a nicely closed loop at the end. He has also done a fine job of dealing with multiple characters and keeping them all in the right place at the right time.

The book is self-published with illustrations by Ben’s father, Robert Spies. The cover is well designed, brightly coloured and eye-catching, and overall the design and finished product are great, showing that a lot of effort has gone into creating this project. Kudos to Ben’s parents for encouraging and supporting his writing passion by turning his work into a real, live book.

As an author, Ben has made a very good start. It takes a massive amount of commitment to see a story to the end and to have done it twice is fantastic. It is wonderful to see a young boy who loves writing and this enjoyment shone through his work. My advice to him is to keep reading, keep learning and please, please keep writing.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

The Magic Pencil
by Ben Spies
Published by Spies Publishing
ISBN: 9780473377779

Book Review: Miniwings – Oceana’s Kitty Catastrophe, by Sally Sutton, illustrated Kirsten Richards

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_miniwings_oceanas_kitty_catastropheSophia is a little girl with a very special secret. She has six miniwings that come to life only when she is around. Her little sister Clara is the only other person who knows. The only problem is they keep getting Sophia into trouble.

Sophia and Clara’s parents decide to go on a date and to drop the girls off at their grandparent’s house. Their grandparents run a cattery. An inspector is due to come, and of course those darn miniwings had to cause trouble. Can Sophia get herself out of trouble and solve the problems that they create?

I turned up at my daughter’s place to stay and gave our granddaughter 6 ½ year old Abby this book to read. She ran into her room, shut the door – hours of peace. Sometime later she comes out, book in hand and says – ‘I really liked that book Grandma, can I keep it, I’d like to read it again.’ What she particularly liked about it was the mischief the miniwings created and Sophia’s solution.

Make believe is something that most children indulge in. Our daughter, being a teacher, actively encourages this through play and books.

Oceana’s Kitty Catastrophe is a lovely story and one that will hopefully activate your little one’s imagination. Miniwings aren’t a million miles from My Little Pony, so this relationship could well see this series become a hit with a lot of little girls.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Miniwings – Oceana’s Kitty Catastrophe
by Sally Sutton, Illustrated by Kirsten Richards
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775434856

 

Book Review: The City of Secret Rivers, by Jacob Sager Weinstein

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_city_of_secret_riversWho knew there was a maze of secret magic rivers flowing underneath London’s streets? Certainly not Hyacinth Hayward, the young heroine of this contemporary fantasy adventure. When she ‘fixes’ the plumbing and inadvertently releases a single drop of magic water she finds herself caught in the middle of a centuries old struggle for power.
A knock at the door reveals the strange Saltpetre Men who work for the Royal Mail. Slow moving and sibilant, they are the first of many strange characters she encounters in her race to recover the magic droplet and save her mother.

Aided by her neighbour, the elderly and feisty Lady Roslyn, the pair escape down into the sewers and into an underground escapade full of twists, peril, surprises, double crosses and riddles. Hyacinth has to trust her instincts in order to work through the situations she finds herself in. As her adventure progresses she uncovers a family connection to the magic which adds to her determination.

The story is full of clever plot points, many of which relate to real London monuments and events in the city’s long history. The characters are funny and unique; from the charming huge pig who communicates via printed cards, to the Saltpetre Mailmen and some who are seen here in a totally different guise than normal – I’m talking to you, unicorn!

Readers who enjoy magic and adventure will surely enjoy The City of Rivers and will be drawn into this engaging and well-paced story. The ending, while closing off this adventure, leaves you with a hint of further mysteries and questions to be answered in a follow-up sequel, which I am hoping is in the pipeline (pun completely intended!).
Now that we have been introduced to the magical world existing below the city streets, a visit to London will never be the same again…

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

The City of Secret Rivers
by Jacob Sager Weinstein
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406368857

Book Reviews: Dinosaur Trouble: The Lava Melt Shake & Dinosaur Trouble: The Great Egg Stink, by Kyle Mewburn, illustrated by Donovan Bixley

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_dinosaur_trouble_lava_melt_shakeIf you are trying to get girls or boys interested in reading and they just won’t budge, then have a go at these. Short, punchy and full of gross references like farts, dinosaur poos and eating vomit this series is about as kid-friendly as it comes. Better still the plots are mind numbing and dumb and completely without morals, scruples or any hint of a message of any kind.

These two are the first in the series, with plenty more to come I expect. They are short ‘incident’ stories featuring Arg (a very clever cave boy); Hng (his teen-dumb sister); Shlok (Arg’s BFF); and his mum and dad.

The Lava Melt Shake: When the ground begins to shake and volcanoes spew flames, Arg’s tribe is in danger! Arg is confined to barracks (i.e. his bedroom) to sit out the lava-storm. But does he listen? Of course not. After all there’s dinosaurs to fight and triceratops snot to content with. Plus a heap of other gooey and sticky situations. Against the dumb advice of the adult, Arg and his friend Shlok save the day, but in a very messy way. I Really enjoyed the way that Mewburn stacks gross event upon gross event. They wants us to bring up our lunch! Throwing in something cringeworthy and icky at every turn they can. After all living in the dinosaur age was pretty ‘basic’ and er, ‘base’. I think the boys of my 6 year old’s class would be rolling upon the carpet after listening to this one. My little one was too!

cv_dinosaur_trouble_the_great_egg_stink.jpgThe Great Egg Stink: This one is more of the same. Arg our smart wonder kid discovers his breakfast when mum brings home a dinosaur egg. His food is too cute to eat. But saving his new friend gets mega-messy! And so we get to meet Krrk-Krrk, a cute and loveable microceratops, who has all the charm and manners of a new puppy. Arg has to hide the critter from his family so he won’t get eaten. But that’s not an easy task. Sticking him down his top the lil’ dino farts, wees and even eats vomit – eeeew! Cool, eh? Not exactly the way to stay inconspicuous. You’ll have to read the book to find out how Arg gets away with it.

Both of these books fit the Scholastic Books template to a T – they are designed to get kids, and I suspect mainly boys, reading. Even if they are giggling over the gross bits it’s better than burying their nose in a tablet or XBox game. With Bixley’s trademark cartoon humour and Newburn’s short snappy sentences these short chapter books are good gateways to other material like Andy Griffith and Terry Denton’s XX-Story Treehouse series, which in turn could lead toward David Walliams and even Roald Dahl. Who knows. Either way, it’s a good thing.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Dinosaur Trouble: The Lava Melt Shake
by Kyle Mewburn
illustrated by Donovan Bixley
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 9781775433675

Dinosaur Trouble: The Great Egg Stink
by Kyle Mewburn
illustrated by Donovan Bixley
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 9781775433668

Book Review: The Battle of Hackham Heath, by John Flanagan

cv_the_battle_of_hackman_heathJohn Flanagan is most well known for his Rangers’ Apprentice series, featuring Will, a young man apprenticed to the mysterious ranger, Halt. In this series, Rangers’ Apprentice The Early Years, we join Halt in his early years of training, and see how Will’s world was formed.

I have not read the first in this series, but I found the story flowed very well regardless. Events in The Tournament at Gorlan were explained in enough detail to carry this story on and fill in the blank spaces. Having read the first few Rangers Apprentice books, Halt was no stranger to me. Hackham Heath picks up with Gorlan left off. Morgarath is exiled and in hiding, building an army by recruiting powerful wolf-apes known as Wargals, and plotting his vengeance on King Duncan. Halt is employed to uncover Morgarath’s secrets, whilst his friend Crawley is tasked with protecting the Queen and the heir she carries. Both tasks will require the young rangers to take great risks and make difficult choices, choices that will change their lives forever.

What follows is a fairly standard, albeit rather clever, medieval fantasy. Flanagan certainly knows his tactics and techniques, and creates a convincing and compelling battle (on Hackham Heath, as you may have guessed) that will keep younger readers eagerly turning the pages. There are several nods made towards the Ranger’s Apprentice series too, which should appeal to fans of the latter. Overall, a solid plot, characters that display appropriate levels of heroism, and a lot of action.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Battle of Hackham Heath
by John Flanagan
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781742759326

Book Review: Princess Cora and The Crocodile, by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Brian Floca

cv_princess_cora_and_the_crocodileAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

“Dear Grandmother,” goes the blurb on the back of this new book by Newbery Medallist* Laura Amy Schlitz, “Nobody listens to me. My mother and father won’t let me have a pet and Nanny says I don’t even want one. But I do. And I’m sick and tired of everything. Please help me. Love, Princess Cora.”

Yep, Princess Cora is in trouble. She’s totally constrained by her parent’s desire for her to be the best Princess ever! That means an eternal diet of study, physical training, etiquette schooling and absolute hygiene and cleanliness—at all times! Her life is full of exercises and regimes intended to prep her for her role as Princess. But she’s sick of running in circles around the dungeon gym. And she’s absolutely sick, sick, sick of taking three baths a day! There’s no time for play, getting grubby, reading comics—just being a kid. And she’d love a pet—a dog, a cat anything. Actually, she doesn’t really want one but she’d love the opportunity to decide for herself.

So, Cora writes to her fairy godmother for help.

However, she doesn’t expect that help to come in the form of a crocodile—a crocodile who does not behave properly (just like that rumbustious Cat in the Hat, it seems!). She becomes so frustrated that she falls under the spell of that wicked crocodile who sneaks her away from Princess duties for 24 hours. It’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for junior royalty! Well not quite. But things do get a little crazy but by the end both Cora and her parents learn a lesson. All things in moderation, in balance, a mix of what needs to be done and a time for play. A mix of the clean and the dirty. It’s a lesson for all of us. And uniquely told. How they get there, exactly, I’ll have to leave to you, dear reader. All I can say is – don’t trust a crocodile – ever!

With perfectly paced dry comedy, I found this to be a absolutely delightful adventure. A real balance between rebelliousness and responsibility. My 6-year-old could tell the difference, even offer a few cautious gasps here and there. But, on the other hand, there’s a lesson for us parents, too, to allow time for climbing trees, getting dirty, inventing, making mess and having fun! While Cora’s alter ego wreaks utter havoc inside the castle, our obliging royal helicopter parents must reconsider their ways. Before it’s all too gone. Sound like a bit of a comment on modern parenting?

As beginner’s chapter books go, this one is nicely meted out, with 8-10 pages per chapter and liberally interspersed with large, clear water colour style illustrations, courtesy of Caldecott Medal* winner Brian Floca. His simple pen and wash drawings have a slight likeness to some of my favourite English illustrators from the first half of the 20th Century (even though they are Americans). Personalities such as EH Shepard and W. Heath Robinson could ever so carefully sum up the middle classes with simple gentle humour. They always portrayed their people with pointed noses and flushed cheeks. Floca does the same with his. It’s like a throwback to the days of the Winnie the Pooh books or Enid Blyton—a time when a child’s life was less cluttered by electronica and there was more room for the imagination to grow. I’m not saying that Schlitz and Floca want to move back to that time entirely but it’s a move in that direction. As respected producers of children’s books they know what works and draw their inspiration from a classic period of children’s writing.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Princess Cora and The Crocodile
by Laura Amy Schlitz, Illustrated by Brian Floca
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9780763648220

*The John Newbery Medal and Randolph Caldecott Medal are awarded annually recognise the preceding year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children”. They are awarded to writers and illustrators by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA).