Book Review: Gabriel’s Bay, by Catherine Robertson

cv_gabriels_bayAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

At 426 pages, Gabriel’s Bay is a book that promises to fill a good few hours of reading time. So well written are the characters and the lives they lead, that I read it in just one and a half days. Catherine Robertson tells us in the book’s accompanying media release that she decided, after three hilarious chick-lit style novels, to try a new tack, focusing on what she feels good at: humour, characters and dialogue. As these are the things that most interest me when well executed, I can say that Catherine has succeeded in her stated aim.

I like that the novel is set in a recognisable New Zealand. The character who holds the whole cast together is a young man from the UK who, after making a shambles of his life at home, answers an ad for a home help in the small township of Gabriel’s Bay. Unlike some books of similar ilk, the people who live there are not cheerfully stoical and determinedly positive. They are a more realistic portrayal of the people who live in the little townships down the road from where you live, or perhaps, even, your next door neighbours in your own little township.

We get to know the characters well as as the young man becomes involved in the fabric of the village throughout the novel. Issues that we are familiar with in our own lives are dealt with in a way that fit into the story being told without dominating it or detracting from the tension the reader experiences.

Not all the ends are neatly tied at the finish just as they never are in real life, but the author has written a book that is so well tuned to real life that I, as the reader was satisfied that the characters had ended their tales on a note of optimism. I identified with each and every one of them, even the not so nice, and to me that is the mark of a story well told.

New Zealand can be proud of the work of our authors and poets. Catherine Robertson has written a novel that testifies strongly to that. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Gabriel’s Bay
by Catherine Robertson
Published by Black Swan
ISBN 9780143771456

Book Review: Book of Dust Vol 1: La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_book_of_dust_la_belle_sauvage.jpgIn 1995, Philip Pullman’s novel, Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass) was released. The trilogy that followed has won numerous awards, including the Carnegie Medal and Whitbread Book of the Year, as well as spawning a (rather disappointing) movie, and capturing the hearts and imagination of thousands of older children, teenagers, and adults alike. It took us to an alternate universe, where every human has their daemon – an animal companion that is an extension of your soul made flesh. Whilst a child, daemons are fluid shape-shifters, but once matured, they settle into the form that most truly reflects their human’s personality.

Now, 17 years after the release of the final book, Pullman invites us back into Lyra’s Oxford, and once more immerses us into her world. There is an aspect of an origin story here, with Lyra being a baby, on her journey to Jordan College. Our hero is Malcolm Polstead – an eleven-year-old who works in his parents’ inn. When he hears world that the local Priory of St Rosamund has taken into their charge a baby, his interest is immediately kindled. Meanwhile, the appearance of imposing and frightening outsiders within their small village is causing conflict and fear. Children are encouraged to spy on their parents, and it is difficult to know whom to trust.

Everything draws to a dramatic climax when a terrible flood strikes the village, and Malcolm is cast adrift, in the company of Alice, an older, outspoken girl with whom he has a strained relationship, and with little Lyra in their care. They flee across the country, facing a series of challenges: some natural, some supernatural, all the while being pursued by a charismatic scientist and his foul daemon.

With elements of fable, La Belle Sauvage is a spell-binding return to a world we can never forget, with a new cast of characters – and a foul villain – whilst many familiar faces, and hints at what the future will bring. Whilst one can read it independent of His Dark Materials, I believe the events will hold a greater gravitas if one has already enjoyed that series.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Book of Dust Vol 1: La Belle Sauvage
by Philip Pullman
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780857561084

 

Book Review: Earthly Remains, by Donna Leon

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_earthly_remainsDonna Leon shows mastery in sewing together this delightful crime thriller Earthly Remains which is set under the vivid heat of the Venetian sun. With an engaging and charming narrative, the 26th Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery will add intrigue to a sun-soaked holiday or transport you away on a lazy rainy day.

Following a foolhardy reaction in the interrogation of a slippery suspect, Commissario Brunetti finds himself on a prescribed hiatus from duty. Questioning his judgment and contemplating a change in lifestyle, Brunetti gladly banishes himself to the empty house of a distant relative in the Venetian laguna for some time out. The house, on the island of Saint Erasmo, is tended for by gentle caretaker Davide Casati, who Brunetti quickly befriends. Forged over ten days beneath the stifling sun, the two men form an easy friendship based on a shared passion for rowing and an unspoken mutual respect for one another. Casati appears a man of grace and radiates a strong sense of morality, yet Brunetti soon notices hints of a markedly different man lingering in Casati’s past. When Casati suddenly goes missing, Brunetti is compelled to unravel the loops and ties sullying his new friend’s disappearance.

Leon weaves Brunetti through the laguna with a beautifully economical narrative that lets the reader feel the oppressive swelter of summertime Venice and taste the richness of the Italian alfresco table whilst nimbly unravelling the truth behind Casati’s disappearance. On the small islands where ‘there are no secrets’ Brunetti must now follow his hunches to uncover the mysterious past of a man he barely knew. But the truth is not quite ready to give itself up.

Serving as my introduction to Donna Leon’s mystery series, I sincerely hope Commissario Guido Brunetti discovered reinforcement for the job he so loved over the course of Earthly Remains: I will be keeping an eye out for more in the series in airport bookstores as the perfect accompaniment to a holiday.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

Earthly Remains
by Donna Leon
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 9781785151378

Book Review: The Spy, by Paulo Coelho

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_spyThe Spy is written by prolific author Paulo Coelho. It is in some ways a re-imagining of the life of Mata Hari, using news reports and letters between Mata and her lawyer. Voiced as though Mata is narrating her own life, we are privy to her thoughts as the events of her life play out.

The story is mostly told from the perspective of Mata – and as such I think it may have partially lost its way. Paulo Coelho presents her life and thoughts using the fiction of her being ‘out of her time.’ The tag line for the book is “Her only crime was to be an independent woman.” It is in some ways a challenging read, as the reader is required to use that basis as the motivations of the character. Mata is presented as a sexually liberated dancer and prostitute, who is somewhat ahead of her time. This leads to her later conviction for spying. It seems to overlook some of the realities of her life – a young, abusive marriage, being forced to abandon her children and then having to support herself in Europe as it moved towards war. I couldn’t decide if this was an intriguing example of the ‘unreliable narrator’ – the character trying to portray herself in the best possible way. Is this genuinely how the author saw her story? Quite an intrigue.

Like similar books in this genre, it is a very easy to read overview of a particular period in history. Mata’s interactions made me quite reflective about what people do in difficult situations. What would you do to survive during wartime? What wouldn’t you do?

Mata’s internal voice is very flowery and somewhat poetic – there are some beautifully written passages such as “I was an exotic bird traversing an earth ravage by humanity’s poverty of spirit” and it concludes, sadly with “I am the nightingale who gave everything and died while doing so.”

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

The Spy
Paulo Coelho
Published by Penguin
ISBN: 9780143783404

Book Review: See You in the Cosmos, by Jack Cheng

cv_see_you_in_the_cosmosAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

This book centres on Alex, an 11 year old (but “13 in responsibility years”) who is fascinated by rockets and life on other planets. His mission is to launch his own rocket complete with his iPod on which he has recorded his comments about life on earth and what it’s really like for him.

It’s fair to say that Alex is not your average 11 year old: his dad is dead, his mum has a raft of issues of her own, and his older brother does not even live in the same town, so Alex is pretty much left to his own devices.  He is very resourceful, and very responsible. He sets out, without permission, because his mom is having one of her “days when she stays in bed and does not respond, to go to the South West High Altitude Rocket Festival taking along his dog Carl Sagan – named for his hero – and his rocket. This is where it turns into a road trip – and what a trip – there’s a zillion twists and turns and potential disasters and that’s before he even  gets to the festival.

It’s on the whole strangely credible, even if at the same time quite unlikely, and it gives the reader a great deal to ponder on about resilience, bravery and the importance of family. It helps that all the total strangers Alex meets up with are helpful, responsible and willing to take him as he is, which is probably somewhere on the autism spectrum. I don’t think that is particularly realistic but it does keep the momentum up. Faced with all the challenges which Alex encounters, most of us would give up and find a quick way home, but it’s part of the delight of this book that he doesn’t. It also shows an awareness on the author’s part of the challenges posed to, and by, kids on the “spectrum”, and the single mindedness which so often accompanies this.

I think it is an excellent story. It’s well-constructed, funny and sad sometimes at the same time, and Alex and the rest of the main characters (who cover a very wide range of the odd and the particularly peculiar, all good-hearted as can be) are quite credible.

Highly recommended for those who loved “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “Wonder”, but also for anyone who loves a story where challenges are confronted,  analysed and resolved through good will and compassion.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

See You in the Cosmos
Jack Cheng
Published by Puffin
ISBN: 9780141365602

Book Review: Middle School – Dog’s Best Friend, by James Patterson

Available on 6 April in bookshops nationwide.

cv_middle_school_dogs_best_friendI enjoyed this book. I think that I may have read one or two of James Patterson’s books in the past, but this is my first from this series. I really enjoyed the cartoon strips that the author and illustrator incorporated into this chapter book for preteens.

Middle School: Dog’s Best Friend is about boy named Rafe Khatchadorian who is just trying to survive middle school. In this novel he starts his own dog walking business to buy a WormHole Premium Multi-Platform Game Box (and also help out his family). But as most stories go this all turns to custard as some new kids turn up, whom he just can’t seem to get out of his mind. Along with this, he faces his sister being moved up into all his classes.

I really enjoyed the nail-biting suspense at the end of each chapter. I would recommend this book for anyone over 9 or someone trying to get out of reading so many comics.

Reviewed by Isabelle Ralston (14)

Middle School – Dog’s Best Friend
by James Patterson
Published by Arrow
ISBN 9781784753900

 

 

Book Review: Word of Mouse, by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_word_of_mouseYou might think that the intended readers for this book, ie: intermediate school kids, would be too old for a story about a mouse, indeed the heft of it alone implies they would have outgrown little animal stories. However even though there are illustrations scattered throughout, this is no cutesie chapterbook for littlies. True, the protagonist is a mouse but he is no ordinary mouse; for one thing Isaiah is blue. And he can read. And in his own words, is “… very smart, with a very advanced (dare I say urbane?) vocabulary…”. He is also a very timid and scared mouse. The youngest in his family of 96 siblings, he is separated from them as they all run for their lives from The Horrible Place and for the first time ever has to rely on his own instinct and smarts for survival.

From finding food and shelter, to joining up with a new family (did you know a group of mice is called a mischief?), Isaiah discovers he is more capable than he thought, and he determines to find and rescue his brothers and sisters with the help of his new friends. Along the way, we find out more about the mouse world, Isaiah and just why he is so different.

Call me a big kid, but I really enjoyed this tale. Isaiah is a cool little guy with a heart of gold; clever, kind and courageous, and with a charming way with words:

So, for now, I will simply tarry here in the shrubbery, sniff my dandelion and listen to her sing to herself and the bees buzzing around the rosebuds. Bees always like to hum along whenever mice sing their songs. My, what a sweet, dare I say dulcet, voice she has.

(I mean, how could you not love a mouse who uses a word like ‘tarry’?) His wisdom is shared is inspiring chapter heading quotes – gem such as: ‘Given a challenge, be like the sun: Rise to the occasion.’ And ‘A mouse wrapped up in himself makes a very small package.’ It is this wisdom, bravery and genuine kindness which sees him taking a risk and making friends with a human girl, who is also different to her peers.

A desperate escape, finding oneself, making new friends, celebrating differences, animal rights and a daring rescue – it’s all here in an entertaining, well thought out story filled with fun for kids “After a few minutes of rumbling down the road, I smell something foul. Like rotten eggs. No, it’s not Mr Brophy or what he had for breakfast.”

A prolific and bestselling international author, Word of Mouse is the latest middle grade by James Patterson, who is a regular feature in both adult and children’s bestseller lists (yes, THAT James Patterson). A passionate advocate of reading and education, he has won awards not only for his work but for his philanthropy and support of literacy. His skill at story-telling is very evident in this great read.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Word of Mouse
by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein, illustrated by Joe Sutphin
Penguin Random House, 2016
ISBN: 9781784754211