Book Review: The Three Bears… Sort of, by Yvonne Morrison, illustrated by Donovan Bixley

web_three bears sort of coverThe Three Bears…Sort Of is a finalist in the Picture Book Category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. 

Nearly anyone who reads books to children regularly will be familiar with the scenario being played out in The Three Bears… Sort Of. Rather than being a passive listener, like most children the child in this book gets involved – asking questions and challenging the grown up teller of the story. And this is a particularly precocious child.

Unwilling to accept the fiction of a family of bears living in a cottage, eating porridge, talking, and failing to catch a small human child, the listener forces the storyteller to adapt and explain the familiar Goldilocks and the Three Bears story, sometimes with a reasonably plausible scientific explanation, and sometimes with an exasperated ‘just because!’ And by the end, we know certainly know a lot more about bears than the original fairy tale ever told us.

The book is written as a dialogue between the adult storyteller and the child listener. On the page this is quite clear, as the font and speech bubbles clearly show which character is talking. It is a little more problematic for one person to read aloud, however. I found this with 2010 Children’s Choice winner Baa, Baa, Smart Sheep too, which is written in a similar style. Perhaps the best way to read this story would be with a relatively confident young reader taking the child’s lines, and reading it together. I read it aloud to my nearly 6-year-old and found the easiest way on my own was to use two different voices. This worked okay, but I’m not sure she always knew which character was talking.

The Three Bears… Sort Of is a delicious picture book grown-ups will love as it is familiar – the frustration of interruptions and difficult questions – and also makes you laugh at the implausibility of the original fairy tale in a way most of us have probably never done before.

My main issue with the book is that the level of sophistication required to understand what’s going on in this story is beyond the level that the style and execution of the book indicate it is for. I imagine a child of 9 or 10 would get most of the jokes and understand why it is funny, but it looks more like a picture book aimed at a 5 or 6 year old. Having said that, most kids movies these days have as many jokes for the parents as for the kids, so why not books too?

The illustrations, by Donovan Bixley, certainly deserve a mention. They are in a mixed media style and are absolutely gorgeous, and like Baby Bear’s porridge are just right for the story.

My daughter enjoyed listening to the story but on questioning she did not really understand the concept behind the book, although she has fairly sophisticated comprehension for her age. I imagine it is a book we will keep coming back to, however, and I like the fact that it encourages critical thinking, questioning and curiosity. And, much like Jill Mansell’s Five Minute’s Peace, it allows adult readers to poke gentle fun at their child audience, without the little darlings ever being aware that it’s happening.

Reviewed by Reneé Boyer-Willisson

The Three Bears… Sort of
by Yvonne Morrison, illustrated by Donovan Bixley
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775430681

Book Review: Half Bad, by Sally Green

Now available in all bookstores. 

For the Council, the world is definitely cv_half_badblack and white. White witches are good, lawful and to be protected. Black witches are bad, wild and to be hunted down and brought to justice. Fains, non-witch humans, are essentially irrelevant, although there are many witches who are half fain, half white witch. And then there’s Nathan.

Born of a black witch father and a white witch mother, Nathan is a half-code and the only one of his kind. According to the Council, he is a dangerous anomaly and must be closely monitored to see which of his halves will win out. As he approaches his seventeenth birthday, when he will come of age and discover his “gift”, the Council interferes more and more in his life, until he winds up literally caged, which is where we meet him in the opening chapter of the book.

It soon becomes clear, however, that what the Council wants more than anything is to use Nathan as bait to catch his father, Marcus, a notorious and wanted black witch. However, while the Council might see the world in black and white, it is pretty clear that the self-proclaimed “good” white witches are often as bad as their “bad” black witch foes, and the distinction between killing for “good” and killing for “evil” is very tenuous.

Initially it seemed like this book was going to be an allegory about race in the vein of Mallory Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series. White versus black, discrimination and persecution based on colour are all quite obvious themes in Half Bad, but as the story developed I got less of a sense that “race” was what it was all about. Instead I got the sense that this was more a comment on authority and the dangers of self-proclaimed righteousness – a sort of teenage-fantasy version of Orwell’s 1984.

Being based around witches, Harry Potter comparisons are likely inevitable, but Nathan’s world is certainly no Hogwarts. Darker, and with more adult themes, Half Bad is more likely to appeal to Hunger Games fans.

I enjoyed the structure of the book, which played with time and point of view to good effect. It opens in the little-used second person narrative, which works well to both unsettle and drawn in the reader, but switches back to the more familiar first person a couple of chapters in.

Half Bad is the first of a series and while it is not startlingly new or original it is well-written with interesting, well-developed characters and thought-provoking story line. Fans of young adult fantasy will certainly find a worthy new writer in Sally Green.

Reviewed by Renée Boyer-Willisson

Half Bad
by Sally Green
Published by Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN 9780141350868

Book Review: The Last of Maui’s Dolphins, by Maria Gill and Bruce Potter

cv_the_last_of_mauis_dolphinsAvailable now in bookstores nationwide.

As a resident of Raglan, one of the last places Maui’s Dolphin can be found, I was keen to get this book for my five-year-old daughter, to help her understand the importance of protecting these unique and beautiful animals.

The book consists of two parts: a fictional story about a young Maui’s dolphin, Hiriwa, and a couple of reference pages at the end with factual information about the dolphins.

Hiriwa’s story was easy to read and follow, and thankfully the writer did not fall into the trap of trying to rhyme, which many educational children’s books do, usually poorly. This is not one of those children’s stories that is a particular delight to read – the sentences are short and prosaic and the vocabulary basic. The story is also basic, and there are no real surprises or twists in the tale. However, it does what it sets out to do – it explains in an engaging and age-appropriate way the plight of the Maui’s dolphins, and the reasons for their being endangered.

The illustrations are appropriate and interesting, and help tell the story well. The dappled effect of light coming through water is particularly well captured.

My daughter enjoyed listening to the story, and asked lots of questions about the dolphins and how we could help them. It helped that we recently had “Maui’s Dolphin Day” in Raglan, so it tied in nicely with that experience, and helped me to explain to her what the day is for and why it is important. It’s not a book she has reached for over and over again, but she is happy to listen to it whenever I offer it.

Hopefully one day we won’t need books like this, as our waters will once again be teeming with plenty of beautiful native species, but until then I applaud the efforts of the writers and illustrators writing environmentally themed children’s books. Maybe my daughter’s generation will get the message and do something before it’s too late.

Reviewed by Renee Boyer-Willisson

The Last of Maui’s Dolphins
by Maria Gill and Bruce Potter
Published by New Holland
ISBN 9781869664107

Book Review: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch is available in bookstores tomorrow.

Thirteen year old Theo Decker likes to watch people. Certaicv_the_goldfinchn interesting characters catch his eye and he finds himself wondering about, even obsessing over their lives – what they eat, where they live, what they keep in their bedside drawers. He’s not sure this obsessing is normal, or even healthy, but it does save his life.

Visiting an art exhibition at the Met with his mother, on an impulse to escape the rain, Theo spots a girl about his own age: red-haired, thin, carrying a flute-case. She is accompanied by an old man, possibly her grandfather, and something about the two so intrigues Theo that he follows them back into a gallery instead of going to the gift shop as he had intended. When a bomb explodes just outside the gift shop, Theo escapes the worst of the blast, though many around him are not so lucky. Coming to, trapped by rubble, Theo finds himself near the old man, who has been severely injured and is drifting in and out of consciousness and delirium. With his last gurgling breaths, the old man urges Theo to escape and to take two things – a gold signet ring, and a painting from the exhibition, The Goldfinch.

One of the few surviving works of Fabritius (right), who was himself killedCarel_Fabritius_-_Zelfportret and most of his works destroyed by an explosion in a gunpowder factory in Delft, the eponymous Goldfinch, along with the ring, and the red-haired girl, Pippa, will shape the course of the next decade or more of Theo’s life.

Fans of Tartt’s two previous novels, The Secret History and The Little Friend, will not be disappointed by this, her third. In a similar vein to The Secret History, the story opens with adult Theo in some sort of predicament in Amsterdam, and then spends the next 600-odd pages showing us how he came to that point.  Not a “who-dunnit” as such, the story is woven through with intrigue, a cast of beautifully flawed characters and, ever present, The Goldfinch.

Thirteen-year-old Theo’s formative teenage years are hardly stable so it’s little surprise that he battles with his own sense of right and wrong throughout the book as events conspire to draw him into a criminal underworld of art theft and forgery.  Ideas of right and wrong and the huge greyness in between weave through the story, and this, I think, is the key to the book. It is summed up nicely by one of my favourites of the cast of wonderful characters – Boris, Theo’s school friend and provocateur, who says near the end of the book: “What if maybe…bad can sometimes come from good actions? where does it ever say, anywhere, that only bad can come from bad actions? Maybe sometimes – the wrong way is the right way? You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be? Or, spin it another way, sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right?” (page 745)

My only gripe was with the last few pages of the book where Theo falls into exposition, and (it felt like to me) explains the metaphor of the preceding 700-odd pages. Perhaps Tartt didn’t quite trust her readers to understand what she was trying to say, but I felt like it was an unnecessarily drawn out and slightly dull ending to a punchy, intriguing book. I would have preferred the book to finish at the end of page 758, but perhaps others will find satisfaction in the explanations of the final 13 pages.

Tartt has famously quoted William Styron, who “said, when he was about my age, that he realised he had about five books in him, and that was OK. I think I have about the same number. Five,”  spurning the idea that it is necessary to rush out book after book.  There were ten years between The Secret History and The Little Friend; twelve between that and The Goldfinch, not because of any breakdown or malaise but simply because, she says, they take a long time to write. Although I suspect it will be other long wait, I am certainly looking forward to her next offering.

Oh, and for those of you who (like I was) are curious, the painting and the story of its artist’s demise are true; the explosion at the Met and subsequent events are not.

Reviewed by Renee Boyer-Willisson

The Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt
Published by Little, Brown
ISBN 9781408704950

Book Review: Sarah Vaughan is not my Mother by MaryJane Thomson

cv_sarah_vaughan_is_not_my_motherThis is in bookshops now.

The interesting thing about reading memoir, for a seasoned fiction reader, is that memoir (being life) refuses to bow to any of the rules of fiction with which we are so unconsciously familiar. In fiction, if a character has an interesting and significant conversation with, say, a taxi driver, the taxi driver will undoubtedly turn up again later in the story. In memoir though, things happen in a random series of individual events, and any attempt at unravelling or predicting what will happen next is thwarted by the untidiness of life.

In MaryJane Thomson’s Sarah Vaughan is not my Mother, this disconnect is even more evident as the main character, MaryJane herself, is in the throes of psycho-affective disorder, has been sectioned under the mental health act, and is incarcerated in a mental health facility. MaryJane spends her days surviving the monotony of the ward with nicotine and black coffee, and creating artworks on the floor of her bedroom with cold tea, fruit and Coke bottles. To shake off her dependency on illegal drugs, she is numbed instead by prescription medication which, despite its many undesirable side effects, seems to do little to quiet the voice in her head.

The voice in MaryJane’s head is one of the most interesting characters in the book, and although it’s hard to know how accurate her depiction of this might be, it is an interesting and compelling account of what it might be like to live with this type of illness. Her voice variously tells her she is the incarnation of Jesus, has been violently assaulted by pretty much every member of her family and all her friends, and that she is actually black, the natural daughter of music legends Jimi Hendrix and Sarah Vaughan, but that she was “bleached” at birth to disguise her origins.

MaryJane sometimes obeys the voice, sometimes believes it but is hesitant to act on what it tells her to do, and sometimes outright disbelieves it, and tells it so. Her reaction to the voice at any given point is a good indicator of her mental state throughout the book – the more mistrustful she is of the voice, the closer she seems to be to stable mental health.

The dialogue in the book is often quite stilted and unnatural, but it’s hard to tell whether this is the result of a writer unfamiliar with writing dialogue, or a deliberate choice to heighten the surreal nature of MaryJane’s situation. Whichever it was, I found it quite distracting, and more liberal use of contractions (e.g. “I’ve…” rather than “I have…”) and more attention to the natural rhythms of the dialogue would have increased the book’s readability.

The other thing I found unusual about the book was the portion of her story that MaryJane has chosen to tell. Rather than describe her first descent into mental ill-health, or her climb out of it towards recovery, this memoir describes a rather arbitrary section in the middle. Only the author’s note gives us any contextual information about MaryJane, and the epilogue feels a bit tacked on the end. The book itself lacks any sort of character arc, or definite beginning, middle and end, although this is another peculiarity of memoir, as opposed to fiction.

MaryJane’s story is compelling, and provides an honest but sympathetic portrayal of what it is like to be sectioned under the mental health act, suffering from a psychiatric disorder. I would particularly recommend this book to anyone who has a friend or family member going through any sort of struggle with mental ill health, or anyone who has worked in or is interested in working in the mental health sector.

Reviewed by Renée Boyer-Willisson

Sarah Vaughan is not my Mother: A Memoir of Madness 
by MaryJane Thomson
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781877551802 (paperback)
ISBN 9781877551819 (e-book)

Book review: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

This book is in bookstores now

In 2312 Kim Stanley Robinson creates a vivid and richly imagined picture of our world 300 years from today. It is obvious that he has thought about this world in great detail, but this becomes one of its weaknesses as well as a strength.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to go back in time to 1712 and to not only explain what the world is like in 2012, but also how it got to that point over the 300 years in between. This is essentially the task that Kim Stanley Robinson sets himself in describing the world in 2312.

The premise, in a rather large nutshell, is thus: Earth has become almost uninhabitable – the ice caps have melted, the sea has risen seven metres and much of the previously inhabited land is now underwater. However, mankind has conquered all of the solar system’s other planets and many of its moons – from using advanced terraforming techniques to create a liveable atmosphere on Mars to creating a domed city on tracks on Mercury, always moving to keep ahead of the scorching sun.

A divide has sprung up between the spacers (the ‘haves’) and the majority of Earth dwellers (largely the ‘have-nots’) – the Earth dwellers resent the spacers for bailing out on Earth, while still relying on the space colonies for resources; the spacers nostalgically long for Earth, while at the same time find the planet heavy, both literally (in terms of g-force) and metaphorically – all the techniques that have transformed space either will not work or are not allowed to be tried on Earth. Meanwhile, the politics between the planets is as bad, if not worse, than that between Earth and space.

Humans have also achieved much greater longevity, comfortably living beyond 150 years. This was one aspect I found very interesting about the story, as one of the ways in which longevity has been achieved has been through a blurring of gender definition. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ are no longer exclusive or the only gender descriptors, with people further defining themselves as hermaphrodite, androgyn, gynandromorph, womb-man and more.

Marriage between two people has become the exception, with all sorts of different unions forming, including a type of crèche model where a group of people form as a family and raise children together, individuals taking turns to be mothers and fathers, both biologically and otherwise, to the resultant progeny. Sex is both more complicated and less complex than now, in that there are more choices of partner, and more ways the act can take place, but fewer social constraints on the way in which people choose to do it. I wondered whether Robinson was making comment on the short-sighted arguments many people are currently giving to reject the idea of people of the same gender marrying.

“Young” people in 2312 no longer rebel by getting tattoos or piercings – instead they are able to implant things into their brains and bodies to allow them to purr like a cat or sing like a bird, amongst other things. Artificial intelligence has evolved to create qubes – quantum computers, which are like a super-Google implanted in a person’s head or arm, or detachable and worn like a watch.

The story’s protagonist, Swan, is a planet-creator – people travel between the planets on terraformed asteroids in which life is recreated in whichever way its makers wish. Swan was one of the early and most successful terraformers, although she doesn’t do much of this now. Her grandmother, Alex, who dies in suspicious circumstances just before the beginning of the book, had plans to “save” Earth, as well as having serious concerns over the behaviour of qubes. Throughout the course of the story, Swan is drawn into the continuation of her grandmother’s projects in a variety of ways.

Swan and her love interest Wahram are interesting, as are many aspects of the story. The main issue I had with the book was that 2312 doesn’t quite know what it is trying to be. The love story gets lost in the ‘who-dunnit’ aspect of the story (which I haven’t even touched on in the précis), the mystery gets lost in the environmental warning; the warning gets lost in the ‘brave new world’ idea, which in turn gets lost in the social and political commentary.

I found the pace of the book slow, and got frustrated at times by the intrusion of the ‘excerpts’ and ‘lists’ which attempt to explain the history (and in some cases the future) of the events of 2312. There are some lovely cinematic scenes, like the ‘reanimation’ of Earth, where the planet is repopulated by animals floated down from space in aerogel bubbles, but in general there was just too much information and too many ideas fighting for attention within one book.

I’m known among my friends for being a word-geek, but I found myself reaching for my eDictionary on a number of occasions, which got irritating. As someone with a good general knowledge, but no specific science/engineering background, I also found myself at times overwhelmed by technical detail. Conversely I imagine that an engineer would find themselves picking holes in the theories behind the book’s technologies.

Robinson is clearly passionate about the world he has created, and in the end that, along with the brilliantly flawed character of Swan made the book worth the slog through to the end. However, I think that with a tightened focus or perhaps by making this into a series rather than a single novel, 2312 would be able to reach and entertain a much wider readership.

Reviewed by Renée Boyer-Willisson

by Kim Stanley Robinson
Published by Orbit
ISBN 9781841499963