Book Review: A Well-Behaved Woman, by Therese Anne Fowler

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_well-behaved-womanHello, my name is Rachel, and I am addicted to historical fiction. Probably 60-70% of my adult library is historical fiction, with another 15% historical biography. For me, the sign of a good historical fiction book is one that sends me searching for more information, and A Well-Behaved Woman certainly fits the bill.

The riches to rags to obscene-riches tale of Alva Vanderbilt (nee Smith, later Belmont) is the focus of Fowler’s novel. After the American Civil War her family was left in dire financial straits, and to avoid abject poverty Alva needed to marry well (or more to the point, she needed to marry wealthy). She set her sights on William Kissam Vanderbilt, and won, entering into a world of wealth and privilege that defies comprehension.

Life wasn’t all smooth sailing (both literally and figuratively) for Alva after her marriage. The Vanderbilts were ‘new money’ and found it hard to gain acceptance in the top tier of New York society. Alva worked tirelessly to gain acceptance for the family and a lot of the novel’s plot follows her efforts to become part of the New York crème de la crème, as well as her married life with William.

Alva’s character – strong, determined, well-educated, rebellious and creative – is a gift to an author, and Fowler has made the most of it. The book is well-researched and moves along at a good pace, and successfully transports the reader to the luxurious world of Gilded Age New York, Newport and Europe. It’s a very enjoyable read, and the only thing missing for me was a Vanderbilt family tree – fictional Alva struggles to keep track of them with their reuse of names when she first meets them, and she at least had the benefit of seeing faces. As a reader it was even harder to keep track.

A Well-Behaved Woman sent me in search of one of my favourite book adaptations, the BBC’s 1995 version of Edith Wharton’s unfinished The Buccaneers, set at the same time as much of Alva Vanderbilt’s early story, and certainly appearing to be based on some real life characters (you can find it on YouTube). I also spent some time skimming my long-forgotten copy of Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, enjoying the photographs of the novel’s protagonists. And this is why it’s easy for me to recommend A Well Behaved Woman to others who enjoy historical fiction and/or strong and interesting female characters – I was completely satisfied with the novel, but my interest was piqued and it sent me looking for more.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

A Well-Behaved Woman
by Therese Anne Fowler
Published by Two Roads
ISBN 9781473632516

Book Review: Spirit, by Cherri Ryan, illustrated by Christina Booth

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_spiritWith beautiful illustrations and rich vocabulary, Spirit is an analogy – a little boat that embodies a little girl’s spirit, tackling bigger challenges, and dusting itself off when things go wrong.

Told in first person, a little girl describes how she made a little boat, and took it to see if it could float. When it did, she aimed higher – could it traverse the creek? Could it traverse the river? She dreams of it every night, looking after it and getting it ready for the next challenge.

The boat Spirit is supported by gorgeously illustrated carp on its adventures – I’m choosing to interpret this as a visual metaphor for all the people who support each of us on our life journey.

When things go wrong, the girl is sad, and allows herself to feel sad for a little while, before making Spirit stronger than ever, and trying again.

I can see Spirit being very popular with teachers. There’s a big focus in education on helping children to develop their grit and resilience, and this book, with some guided discussion, could definitely pave the way for encouraging children to think about how they meet challenges and cope when things don’t go their way. It’s also simply a lovely book, and for that reason it should find a place on bookshelves in homes too.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Spirit
by Cherri Ryan, illustrated by Christina Booth
Published by Black Dog Books
ISBN 9781925381771

Book Review: Wake Up, Bear by Lynley Dodd

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_wake_up_bearI have to make a disclosure here – I have actually read Wake Up, Bear before. More times than I can count, in fact. First released in 1986, it was on my daughter’s bookshelf during her early years in the mid-late 1990s. Lynley Dodd was always a huge favourite of ours – we both loved the luscious language, the pace and humour, and the gorgeous illustrations. That was 20-some years ago, and while I still think Lynley Dodd is fabulous, do today’s six-year-olds still revel in her stories in what feels increasingly like a device-driven world?

The short answer is, yes. Children still love a well-written story, and I’ve yet to read a Lynley Dodd story that doesn’t qualify. My class were learning about seasons and life cycles at the time I read this story, so they were full of shared knowledge about bears hibernating and were actively predicting where the story might go. They loved joining in the refrain and were delighted and surprised by the joke at the end, which caused Bear to wake up.

Wake Up, Bear might be 32 years old but it is still as fresh and lively as the first time I read it. The illustrations are still delightful, the language is still rich and vibrant, and like all of Dodd’s books it is absolutely perfect for reading aloud. In an era when junior school teachers are in despair about the increasingly low levels of oral language of children starting school, I offer the following prescription: Some Lynley Dodd, daily. At least one book, more as demanded by the child. It would go a long way.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Wake Up, Bear
by Lynley Dodd
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143772569

Book Review:  Nanny Mihi and the Bellbird, by Melanie Drewery, illustrated by Tracy Duncan

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_nanny_mihi_and_the_bellbirdNanny Mihi and her grandchildren make friends with a bellbird in the garden, but then in spring the bellbird disappears. They’re puzzled by the disappearance, and try to entice the bird back. Then in the summer, they get a lovely surprise…

Nanny Mihi and the Bellbird is a gentle story about appreciating nature and whānau. The illustrations are beautiful, particularly of our native birds and plant life, vivid and almost hyper-realistic. It’s a great read-aloud story, and my class of 6-year-olds enjoyed it very much, and enjoyed predicting where the bellbird might have disappeared to.

Award winning author Melanie Drewery brings us another lovely visit to Nanny Mihi’s house. A very welcome addition to the Nanny Mihi series of stories (last added to in 2006), Nanny Mihi and the Bellbird is the perfect sort of picture book for a child of New Zealand – a blend of both English and Te Reo Māori language with a focus on our native bird life. Readers who are unfamiliar with the Te Reo Māori phrases in the story will find a translation at the bottom of each page to help them.

The perfect gift for Christmas, I’ll be buying copies to send overseas as well.  It’s a lovely showcase of the things that make New Zealand special.  Recommended for children 3-8 years.  There’s also a fact sheet about bellbirds available for curious children or classroom use on the publisher’s website – a lovely touch!

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Nanny Mihi and the Bellbird
by Melanie Drewery, illustrated by Tracy Duncan
Published by Oratia Books
ISBN 9780947506360

Book Review: Ping vs Pong, by Mauro Gatti

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_ping_v_pong.jpgEdamame beans may not be what you first think of when you want to explore themes of turn taking, resilience and empathy, but bear with me – you might find yourself as pleasantly surprised as I was.

Ping and Pong, the aforementioned edamame beans, were born on the same day, and share the dream of becoming world champion table tennis players. With hard work and perseverance, they achieve their goal, but then decided they need to go one further – which one of them is the best?

Of course, when someone has to be the winner, someone has to be the loser, and feelings get hurt. This is not the end of the story, of course …

With vibrant, engaging illustrations, my class of 5-7 year olds enjoyed the story, and were able to see the lessons in it. This isn’t a hard-hitting moralising story, quite light in fact, but it’s always a good thing when young children can see to the heart of a story.

Recommended for 4-8 year olds who are learning to take turns and mind other people’s feelings.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Ping vs Pong
by Mauro Gatti
Published by Flying Eye Books
ISBN  9781911171386

Book Review: Badjelly the Witch, with audio CD, by Spike Milligan

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_badjelly_the_witchIn the interests of full disclosure, I grew up on this story. I used to listen to Dick Weir’s radio show for kids on weekend mornings (morning TV wasn’t a thing until I was a bit older), and it was always a great day when he played Badjelly. I also raised my now-adult daughter on the story of courageous siblings who are searching for their lost cow, and meet a cast of interesting characters along the way. I am, as you can already tell, a fan.

What I wanted to see was if today’s kids would still appreciate Badjelly in all its un-PC, analogue glory. So, roll on up, my 5-7 year-old students: welcome to a piece of your teacher’s childhood.

I read the book in chunks. Milligan helpfully broke the text into sections, so I stuck with this and read the story over a couple of days like a mini-novel. The kids loved it. They laughed at the funny bits and gasped at the tense bits. They enjoyed the pictures (in colour, no less!) and were impressed that Spike Milligan had actually handwritten his story, just like they do.

What I was really looking forward was watching the children listen to the CD. I didn’t own a copy of the book until I was an adult, so my memories are aural. I’ve probably listened to the story about a hundred times … I’ve heard it so many times that when I read it aloud, I can’t help but read it in my best Spike Milligan imitation.

The kids enjoyed the CD, but couldn’t listen to the whole thing in one go … I’m not sure if it’s the “attention span of today’s yoof”, or just that classroom floors after lunch don’t foster the same cosy feelings as my childhood lounge floor in my PJs.

In hardback and in colour, with the CD, this has got to be the definitive version of Badjelly the Witch. If your household has small people in it, you need a copy. If you know small people, they need a copy. If you’re like me and grew up in the late 70s, you probably need a copy too, for nostalgia’s sake.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Badjelly the Witch, with audio CD
by Spike Milligan
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143772286

Book Review: Rosie Joy: Here, There And Everywhere, by Sophie Siers, illustrated by Judith Trevelyan

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_Rosie_joy_here_there_and_everywhere.jpgRosie Joy: Here, There And Everywhere, is a sweet story about a young girl named Rosie Joy who dreams of being an explorer. Rosie finds herself embarking on an exploration sooner than she expected when she decides to take on the responsibility of hatching her own ‘tiny, yellow, fluffy and cheepy’ chicks. Along with her family and her best friend, Polly, Rosie makes all sorts of new discoveries about nature, knitting and things that are of paramount importance!

The soft pencil and water coloured art displayed front gives you a glimpse into the feel of the story to come. It is easy to see that the author, Sophie Siers is a farm girl at heart as this heart-warming story portrays the hard work, satisfaction and joy of family-farm life.

Siers has also done a wonderful job of capturing the thoughts and feelings of how we expect a 9-year-old girl might experience life: overwhelming excitement, big dreams, impatience and frustration and an insatiable curiosity about the world. This story includes all the ups and downs of Rosie’s journey into hatching chicks. As well as getting an insight into how to hatch chicks the natural way and a lesson in female explorers, the reader will also learn the definition and use of some big words, like paramount and circumnavigate!

Rosie Joy would be a great inspiration and source of information for any young person thinking about hatching their own chicks or someone who just loves a good feel-good story about farm life and growing up.

Reviewed by Alana Bird

Rosie Joy: Here, There And Everywhere
by Sophie Siers, illustrated by Judith Trevelyan
Published by Millwood Press
ISBN 9780473402402