Book Review: Yours Sincerely, Giraffe, by Megumi Iwasa, illustrations by Jun Takabatake

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_yours_sincerely_giraffeI’ve never met a Gecko Press book I didn’t like. Yours Sincerely, Giraffe is no exception.

The premise is deceptively simple. Giraffe is bored, and seizes an opportunity to write a letter to someone over the horizon. The recipient writes back. Each letter writer wonders about the other. Eventually they meet.

The story is so much richer than my plot synopsis indicates. What are letters (a valid question, in this day and age) and why would you bother? What do you do when you’re bored? How can you describe yourself to someone who can’t see you, or a photo or picture of you? How do you find out what something means when you’ve never heard of it before? How do you react when something doesn’t turn out quite right? Why is the ocean blue? Where does the horizon stop?

This is the sort of book that parents could read to their children and have a lovely time together; but a confident reader of 6-8 could easily read it by themselves. The opportunities for conversation are huge – and as a teacher, this makes me really excited. I can imagine using this book in lots of different ways in the classroom – letter writing, character descriptions, art, science, drama, dance … it really lends itself to lots of great ideas.

Translated to English from the original Japanese, Yours Sincerely, Giraffe is what teachers and librarians describe as “early chapter books” – rich with gorgeous illustrations in this case, and with not too much text on the page. One of my favourite 8-year-olds, Rosa, enjoyed this book as much as I did, and devoured it in one sitting. When I asked her who should read it, she said, “if someone doesn’t have a sense of humour, they definitely shouldn’t read it.” I agree – and I’d add this is the perfect book for curious readers and creative teachers, as well. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Yours Sincerely, Giraffe
by Megumi Iwasa, illustrations by Jun Takabatake
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781447250944

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Book Review: Tanya Bakes, by Tanya Burr

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_tanya_bakesTanya Burr is, by all accounts, a British You Tube vlogging star. I’m about 20 years too old/ too resolutely unhip to have heard of her, so I figured I would take her second book, this time a cook book, on its own merits.

It’s a very nicely produced book, with lots of colour photos, and the end results of her baking are stylishly shot. The recipes all start with a nice personal explanation of the recipe’s provenance – some from her childhood, some her current favourites, recreations of baking she’s had at restaurants and cafes that she’s enjoyed, and some recipes reproduced from her favourite famous bakers like Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver and Mary Berry.

I think when I’m reviewing a cookbook that it’s only fair to try a few of the recipes. I am a pretty good baker, so felt confident to try my hand at most of the recipes. The range of recipes feels pretty Nutella-heavy – not my favourite taste, so I avoided those. I largely chose recipes that I could prepare for my regular contribution to the fantastic work of charity Good Bitches Baking, so my trials were mostly on the biscuit/slice side of things.

First up I tried Cornflake Choc Chip Cookies. These are sort of like a caramel Afghan biscuit, but chewier. I had to reduce the heat as the first batch burned at her recommended time and temperature, and I shudder at what Burr thinks is a reasonable portion size – the recipe stated “makes 12 large cookies” but I made more than double that, and the cookies were the size of my palm – so pretty generously proportioned. The unburnt ones were very tasty and had a nice texture, as promised.

Next I tried Kate’s Mum’s Lemon Slice. To Kiwi home bakers, this is our very familiar Citrus Slice. Again, Burr’s serving size freaks me out – the recipe says serves 10-12, but it’s double the quantities of any Citrus Slice recipe I found in NZ cookbooks or websites, and I cut it into at least 50 decent size squares as it’s pretty full on as baking goes and a little bit goes a long way. I also adapted her method, melting the butter in the traditional Kiwi way with the sweetened condensed milk, rather than using softened butter. It was extremely delicious, and very popular with the multitudes who got to share the mega-batch.

I then tried the Earl Grey Tea Loaf, a fruit loaf that Burr recommends serving spread with butter and a cup of tea. I followed the recipe faithfully. While a delicious result ensued – it really was very tasty – the mixture felt too wet and sure enough, it didn’t rise at all in the tin, so was kind of stodgy.

Lastly I tried Burr’s Oat and Cinnamon Health Cookies for another GBB bake. I really wish I hadn’t, because I had high hopes for these wheat-free biscuits. The method looked reasonable enough, so I stuck to her instructions. There was no promised spreading of the cookies, they fell apart as they baked, the raisins burned at her recommended temperature despite me pulling them out early when I got the tell-tale whiff of over-caramelisation, and despite smelling deliciously of honey and cinnamon as they baked they were exceptionally bland when I tasted them. That batch went straight in the bin.

My overall verdict, I’m afraid to say, is that Tanya Bakes is a triumph of style over substance. I will probably make the first two recipes again as the results were tasty once I adapted the instructions, but I’m reluctant to try any further recipes except perhaps the ones from other bakers. I just don’t have the time and energy to adapt her methods so that they’ll work every time.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Tanya Bakes
by Tanya Burr
Published by Michael Joseph Ltd
ISBN 9781405928199

Book Review: My Dad Used to be So Cool, by Keith Negley

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_my_dad_used_to_be_so_coolThis is a pretty special picture book that I’m sure will appeal to many dads, regardless of what their children think of them!

The narrator of the story is a young boy, observing that his dad had had an interesting youth, but now seems pretty “normal”. He wonders what has happened, and why his dad changed. While some parents manage to hang on to all their passions despite the pressures and realities of parenting, many parents will see something of themselves in this story.

As the story progresses, the boy acknowledges that his dad is still fun, if in a different way than he might have been in his pre-child life.

There’s a lot of truth in this story –children often see the adults in their lives one-dimensionally, and that dimension is solely within the child’s experience of their relationship. I was asked by a five-year-old yesterday if I slept in the office at school (they were surprised to learn that I lived in a house) – and I have had children freeze when they see me in the supermarket then run away, because they were so surprised to see me out of context. And there are many stories from life before being mum that my daughter has no idea of – and I’m sure the same is true for my own parents.

The illustrations use a bright colour palette, and are quite engaging. They work on a level for both children and adults, pairing well with the narrative, and the fold out surprise pages are a wee treat.

I read this to a class of 5-and-a-half year olds, wondering if the story was a little old for them. I needn’t have worried, as they were really engaged and told me lots of stories about their dads, particularly the tattoos their dads have!

I also sought the input of Rosa, an 8-year-old who I love sharing books with as she’s always got an interesting perspective. She enjoyed the book, and promptly told me a surprising fact about her dad that I hadn’t known. I’m firmly of the belief that any book that gets children engaged and talking is a good one – and I can promise all the dads whose secrets got revealed in the making of this review that they are safe with me!

With Father’s Day coming up, this would be a neat gift for the dad in your life, as well as for children aged 5-9. It’s a lovely book for sharing.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

My Dad Used to be So Cool
by Keith Negley
Reviewed by Flying Eye Books
ISBN 9781909263949

Book Review: Lying in Wait, by Liz Nugent

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_lying_in_waitThis page-turning thriller set in Ireland will keep you guessing till the last chapter or two. Told from the perspective of the three dominant characters, you see the story from multiple points of view, but I was blindsided by the final twist.

Lydia is a reclusive, snobbish suburban housewife, desperate to grow her family, and hiding a dark secret from her childhood. Her son Laurence is 18, devastated by a late change in his schooling due to a downturn in the family finances, bullied at school and smothered at home. Karen is a working-class girl working in a dry cleaner’s shop, despairing over the life choices her beloved sister Annie is making.

Fear, desperation and greed combine into a tragedy for all three characters. The old saying about “what a wicked web we weave when we practice to deceive” springs to mind – the lies pile up on top of each other until it’s hard to see the truth underneath.

Nugent slowly reveals the characters’ motivations and backgrounds, and each revelation keeps you slightly off-balance. You can see the web of lies, and gradually you realise the nature of the spider lurking in the shadows, but you’re never quite sure how things will resolve till the very end of the story (what I was sure was going to happen was miles off – and much worse that what I had anticipated.).

If you’re going to start a novel with “My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it,” you’re going to set high expectations for your readers. Mine were certainly met, and I kept reading long after my eyes were telling me to close them, so that I could get to the story’s resolution. Recommended.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Lying in Wait
by Liz Nugent
Published by Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN 9781844883639

Book Reviews: Kākahu – Getting Dressed; Kararehe – Animals; and Kanohi – My Face, by Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson

Available now from selected bookshops nationwide.

I have reviewed lots of books for Booksellers NZ now, and I know that it’s a good one when I go and talk to our school librarian Sam about them. We both love reading good novels and share recommendations; we also enjoy great children’s books, and Sam, bless her, will often take my recommendation from a review and order a copy for school.

 


I took these three books straight to Sam to ask her to order a set. I’d just read them to three 5 year-olds in our Te Reo Māori immersion class to test out an age level for them. Being board books, even though they were really engaging to me as a reader and language learner, I wondered if our youngest learners would think they were babyish. They most definitely did not.

My three young friends – all learning to read and speak Te Reo Māori – really loved the books. They enjoyed using their own knowledge of reading to work out the phrases by looking at the pictures and matching the words. They spontaneously acted out some of the phrases. They were excited to be able to actually be able to read new books.

Because these books are bilingual – Te Reo Māori and English – they will be accessible to most readers in New Zealand. It’s a great idea to make some simple vocabulary and phrases available to readers who only have a smattering of Te Reo Māori with the English translation underneath, and there’s a really helpful pronunciation guide with phonetic spelling at the back to help.

The illustrations are just gorgeous. The children look like real Kiwi kids, cheeky and mischievous and full of spirit; you feel like you could stroke the animals. And being board books, they are robust enough to grow with a baby or toddler into a child’s first year of school; although I think the books are too lovely to be chewed on!

I will be buying these books as gifts for newborns, and for early birthday presents – I think they’d be great for children who are up to 5 and a half. I think these are such a valuable addition to the wonderful pantheon of homegrown books that speak of New Zealand; every early learning centre should have the set. I really hope that Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson will produce more!

Reviewed by Rachel Moore (New Entrance teacher)

Kanohi: My Face
by Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson
Published by Reo Pepi Tapui Ltd
ISBN 9780473331504

Kararehe: Animals
by Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson
Published by Reo Pepi Tapui Ltd
ISBN 9780473331511

Kākahu: Getting Dressed
by Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson
Published by Reo Pepi Tapui Ltd
ISBN 9780473331528

 

 

Book Review: The Eye of the Sheep, by Sofie Laguna

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_eye_of_the_sheepJimmy isn’t like other kids. Wise and naïve both, he sees things other people don’t, and misses social cues that other people wouldn’t think twice about. His mother is fiercely protective, his dad frustrated, and his brother Robby is growing up too fast.

Sofie Laguna does a remarkable job of getting into Jimmy’s head – we see the bewildering adult world through Jimmy’s eyes. And the world he inhabits is not just bewildering, but frequently horrific. Jimmy’s dad drinks; and when he is on the whisky, he lashes out. School is “enemy territory”, with teachers lacking in empathy and no friends. The only safety he has is his loving but over-protective mother. How will Jimmy cope when a crisis shakes his world to its very core?

By page 20, I knew this book would break my heart. Tales of domestic violence aren’t what I read for fun. But by the same point in the book, Laguna already had me hooked with her words. The way Jimmy describes his world, what he sees and what he feels, made me want to keep reading, to cheer him on, and to hope that by the end, things would have worked themselves out. Jimmy is such a compelling character that everything else got ignored for the next 200 pages – I couldn’t stop till I knew how things turned out.

The Eye of the Sheep won Laguna the Miles Franklin Award in 2015, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. It stands with other books like We Need to Talk About Kevin, Dark Places, The Lovely Bones and Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha that deal with extremely uncomfortable subjects in such a compelling way that you just have to keep reading, even as you’re wondering if you should stop. Because of the subject matter, it won’t be for everyone, but if you can cope with it, I highly recommend it. Jimmy is a delight, and is going to be staying with me for quite a while.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

The Eye of the Sheep
by Sofie Laguna
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760292799

Book Review: The Princess in Black #3, by Shannon & Dean Hale, LeUyen Pham

cv_princess_in_black_hungry_bunny_hordeAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

This is the third instalment in the Princess in Black series that I have previously raved about here and here. Once again the authors, illustrator and publisher don’t disappoint.

In Episode 3, Duff and his herd of goats are besieged by a horde of cute purple bunnies. The Princess in Black and her trusty horse come to save the day, but the Princess is bewitched by the ravenous bunnies and doesn’t know how to conquer them and their life-is-a-buffet attitude. Luckily Blacky the horse works out what to do – but will he be too late?

The story remains pacy and well written, the illustrations engaging and witty, and Candlewick Press has yet again treated their young readers with respect, printing in hardback, on high quality paper with full colour illustrations. I had the assistance of my book reviewing sidekick Yaya, newly turned six, with this review, so I will let her have the final word:

“It was really funny. I thought the bunnies were monster bunnies. Blacky saved the day with his super cute listening powers, and rescued the Princess in Black, as well as Duff and his goats. I thought this was as good as the other books.”

Yaya and I both hope the next book in the series comes out quickly – we’re looking forward to enjoying it and discussing it afterwards.

Recommended for readers 5+ (readers under the age of 7 may need to be read to/with, depending on their ability)

Reviewed by Rachel Moore and her sidekick Yaya

The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde
by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9780763665135