Book Review: Lenny’s Book of Everything, by Karen Foxlee

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_lennys_book_of_everything.jpgI was at the apex of this book as I sat eating my lunch on the Wellington waterfront one beautiful day, and I swear to god somebody could have had a vicious fight a metre away and I would not have lifted my head. This book is an immersive joy to read.

Lenny is small, pointy and unremarkable. She is a few years older than her brother Davey, who is perfectly normal for five years. Until he isn’t. Overnight, he goes from being a perfectly normal size, to 4’ 3”. Lenny and Davey live with their mum, and she works evenings at a rest home to provide shelter and food for them.

Around the time Davey starts growing, the family enter a competition to win a full set of Burrell’s Built-it-at-Home Encyclopedias, delivered monthly over three years. They win, thanks to their mum’s slight stretching of the truth, and so the structure of the book is set – the things the kids learn from the fervently awaited parcels of knowledge creating a narrative backdrop to the world of Davey and Lenny as Davey grows, and grows, and doesn’t stop.

Author Karen Foxlee has skilfully created the most fantastic character I’ve read in awhile – and I read A LOT of books, particularly those aimed at smart 8-12 year olds. Lenny observes everybody around her with a clarity that gives you a full sense of what their character is – Mother, Mrs. Gaspar of the glorious dreams, the suspicious Great-Aunt Em and the creepy Mr. King from the fruit store.

As a result of the Encyclopaedia, Lenny is obsessed with beetles, and wants to become a coleopterist. ‘That day in class I counted the notches on a Goliath beetles legs in my head. I imagined them and I counted them and it calmed me…. Goliathus goliatus, I repeated, again and again in class that day after Davey went home with growing pains. They were words. …And words felt good and solid.’

Both Lenny and Davey live from story to story, and new fact to new fact, but as the facts of their unique situation overcome them, they devise a way out together: they will go to Great Bear Lake, where Davey will build a log hut, something he is certain he knows how to do thanks to the Encyclopaedia.

‘The L issues brought ladybugs and lacewings, larder beetles, leafwings and leatherbacks. I had dreamed of the family Lampyridae, the fireflies, and I was not disappointed. For Davey, L contained log cabins. Davey drew log cabins…He borrowed How to Build a Log Cabin from the library again and again.’

The book is punctuated with dates and a measurement for Davey. It is also punctuated by letters from Lenny’s Mother to Burrell’s Encyclopaedias – the fact they try to get her to pay for the covers for the encyclopaedias turns into personal correspondence with Martha Brent, who bends the rules throughout to get Davey his favourite letters – E for eagles, F for falcons. ‘I thought I would send all the H issues at once, for Davey, because I know he is sure to like hawks and perhaps hummingbirds.’

One book I can think to compare this to is The Book Thief. There are secrets and shared stories that become the spaces where hope grows. There is tragedy, and levity, and joy and humanity. It is a wonderful story, and one I’d recommend to anyone.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Check out the book trailer now

Lenny’s Book of Everything
by Karen Foxlee
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760528706

Book Review: House of Dreams: The Life of L. M. Montgomery, by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Julie Morstad

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_house_of_dreams.jpgWhat a wonderful biography, of the girl known as ‘Maud’, who was the wonderful writer behind Anne of Green Gables. As well as many other novels, a couple of biographies, and countless poems and stories.

Sometimes you are so secure in your own world, you forget about our collective history as women. That once, women were expected to be no more educated than was required for the purposes of keeping a household in order. And that it was seen as perverse if a woman required any further education, let alone needed money to achieve this end. When relatives died, money was not left for the education or keeping of a female relative, but to the boys in the family.

Reading Maud’s story made me cry several times. Her mother died when she was only two, so the family moved to Cavendish, her mother’s parents’ grand house in Prince Edward Island, where she was raised by them as her father departed to make his fortunes elsewhere in the new country of Canada. Her grandmother showed very little emotion nor love, but cared for her in her own way. Her grandfather is rarely brought into the biography by Rosenberg, except to say ‘no’ when asked for money towards Maud’s education.

Rosenberg portrays Maud’s real love as her writing, and secondly, her friends. She had many deep and lasting friendships, both on Prince Edward Island and later, on the mainland. She was very tied to her home, and was immensely aware of the beauty of the world around her.

This biography puts forward the idea that Maud was manic depressive, and had seasonal affective disorder. Rosenberg uses past biographies, alongside letters and diaries to build this throughout the book, which is told in beautiful prose, balanced with a biographers’ eye for information worthy of inclusion. There were no parts of the book where I couldn’t see the purpose each paragraph played in telling the story of Maud. This is the mark of an excellent biography.

Maud was let down quite severely by many in her life, but never her Grandmother Lucy, for whom she was named (the L is Lucy). Grandmother gave her hard-saved cash from the household fund to help her achieve her two stints at University, as well as helping her to get a job to earn the rest of the cash.

Maud’s success in writing was self-made, and she was extremely driven. After being a teacher for a couple of years, then a journalist (thanks to a suitor getting her a job), she returned back to Cavendish to look after her ailing grandmother, and stop her being kicked out of her home by her uncle John. That is where Anne took seed in her mind, and there is a site nearby the original home, that is labelled as being Green Gables.

There are lovely line-drawings at the front of each chapter, summarising the topic of each chapter – the passions, the depressions and more of Maud as her life plays out. The illustrator is Julie Morstad, and they feel deliberately similar to the turn-of-the-century illustrations of Anne of Green Gables.

I finished this biography with many things to thank feminism and the study of psychiatric medicine for. The ability as a woman to work full time, and have children; the ability to get pills for ailments of the mind; the ability to live independently of a man should I so wish. Rosenberg has brought a truly fascinating story to life with her own writing gift. I’d recommend this to anybody who wants an insight into the life of a writer, and the life of a woman over the turn of the century.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

House of Dreams: The Life of L. M. Montgomery
by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Julie Morstad
Published by Candlewick Press
ISBN 9780763660574

Book Review: Sports are Fantastic Fun, by Ole Könnecke

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_sports_are_fantastic_funMy sports-loving seven-year-old, who incidentally grew up with both of the other big books by Ole Könnecke that Gecko Press has translated, was over the moon when presented with this book.

Sports are Fantastic Fun begins with a short rejoinder reminding us exactly why sports exist, then launches into the fantastic fun of football.

The style of the text is quite to-the-point, generally beginning with a statement about how fun it all is, then exploring the broad rules of each sport and how one could win. For football, for example: ‘When a team scores a goal, everybody is happy. (Actually, only the team that scores is happy. The other team is annoyed.)’

The sports represented vary widely, though I would point out there are considerably more ‘male’ looking figures playing the sports than female figures (they are all animals). Possibly as a balance, whenever there is a pronoun used, it is usually describing a female. Everything from rhythmic gymnastics and athletics, to skiing and mountain climbing, horse riding of all types, dirt bike riding, golf and racquet sports, as well as fishing, boxing and rugby are shown.

One of the most interesting pages to me was that about ice hockey, mainly for this description: ‘Sad but true: sometimes ice hockey players fight. That’s one reason an ice hockey game has up to four officials to make sure the players follow the rules.’ On reading further, I realise these fights are sanctioned and indeed, part of the game. I guess it’s not too far removed from rugby at times!

The illustrations, as always for Ole Könnecke, are an absolute delight and the highlight of the book. The athletics page is hilarious, with the elephant doing a shot put, the penguin doing the long-jump, the cow doing a balletic high jump, and the octopus throwing the javelin. Then there is the giraffe on the pole vault. The illustration of her getting distracted by a butterfly halfway up then falling flat on her back makes you wince and laugh at the same time. ‘This time, the giraffe approaches faster than before. This should work. Too late she notices that in the excitement she has forgotten her pole. That wasn’t good either.’

The illustrations are also innovative in where they have sports being performed – in the case of swimming, he shows frogs doing the breaststroke, the freestyle and butterfly in a goldfish bowl, complete with goldfish.

I’d recommend this book for sports lovers of all ages. It is a great primer for ideas of what sports might be played, and would work for kids aged 3 and up. As always, the pictures can be read without the words, by a younger child reading alone. Sports are indeed, fantastic fun, when written and illustrated by Ole Könnecke and published by Gecko Press.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Sports are Fantastic Fun!
by Ole Könnecke
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776572014

 

 

Book Review: The Kitchen Science Cookbook, by Nanogirl Dr Michelle Dickinson

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_kitchen_science_cookbook.jpgI was absolutely delighted to receive a copy of this beautifully designed book by Dr Michelle Dickinson. As soon as I tweeted about it though, I had a school librarian wondering if it was designed for kids – understandable, as it is Nanogirl herself on the cover, with no sign of kids.

The contents of the book itself though, are superb. There are 49 experiments, utilising science concepts from transpiration, to capillary action; thrust, to solar energy, to chemical reaction. Each experiment is laid out with a cute title, a list of equipment and ingredients, detailed instructions, then ‘the science behind’, then an explore further segment. There is a brief explanation of which principle it is proving at the top right corner, and at the bottom left there are icons giving you more information on what type of experiment you are undertaking.

The initial information is very thorough and provides a good grounding for what is to come, though the audience for this section a bit muddy – I think it is assumed that an adult will be involved for this part of the reading. That is fair!

I did a few of the experiments with my kids, and the Static Powered Dancing Ghost worked beautifully. One thing I felt was missing was – and perhaps this could be in a link to online – tricks for fixing experiments that haven’t quite worked. While there are leading questions about them on each segment, I would have liked to know what the most likely causes of failure were. My 7yo was put off the book entirely by the semi-failure of two experiments. (TBH with his current feeling towards failure, he’s probably not going to be a scientist!)

I would very much like to have seen a larger font size used throughout, and less emphasis on the big photos used throughout the book. It’s very beautiful, but the font size and light grey colour is not friendly for either kids who are only just learning to read well or parents with poor eyesight.

The photos are great though, with lots of kids from all types of cultural backgrounds having fun with experiments with their parents. I look forward to trying some more of these experiments as my kids get less afraid of failure.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Kitchen Science Cookbook
by Dr Michelle Dickinson
nanogirl labs
ISBN 978473425975

 

 

Book Review: I’m the Biggest, by Stephanie Blake

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_i'm_the_biggest.pngSimon is now so big he has his own self-named Netflix series! This little rabbit has taught our household how hilarious the words Poo Bum are, how brave you can be when wearing a cape, and how to negotiate swapsies with friends. He even went to school at around the same time as my youngest son.

So now it’s time for sibling rivalry. Simon has grown – but he hasn’t grown as much as Caspar (alias: Gaspard), and he’s not happy. The catch-phrase in this title is ‘No Way’. He accuses his mum of feeding Caspar more, then gets sent to his room for being cheeky, where he swears revenge.

They go to a park, where Simon is asked to keep an eye on his brother. He spots a big kid from his class trying to bully him, as he scores a goal in soccer.  Will he let it keep on happening? Or is he going to pretend like nothing is happening?

As a self-appointed connoisseur of Simon books, this one fell flat for me. First – modern parenting doesn’t look like this. I don’t send my kids to their room for saying ‘No Way’. If I did, they’d never be in the lounge (they say much worse, at times). And ‘No Way’ just doesn’t have the shoutability the previous catch-phrases have had.

That said, the rivalry between brothers certainly rang true, especially in the area of height. My youngest recently lost his 8th tooth, so they are now even in the number of teeth that have fallen out, to the chagrin of the elder brother! And they have the same size feet. And I could totally see the eldest seriously considering letting his brother be menaced, to get him back.

If you are a collector of Simon books, add it to the collection! But if you haven’t started on them yet, start with Poo Bum, and don’t forget A Deal’s A Deal. And if you want your kids to learn a bit about empathy, try 2017 title, I Can’t Sleep!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

I’m the Biggest
by Stephanie Blake
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776572021

 

NZF Writers & Readers: Ursula Dubosarsky – Through a Child’s Eyes

Tara Black reviews in pictures, while Sarah Forster reviews in words, Ursula Dubosarsky – Through a Child’s Eyes at NZ Festival Writers & Readers, on Sunday 11 March. 

NWF18 Ursula D

Chair Lydia Wevers noted at the beginning of the session that three months ago, she had never heard of guest Ursula Dubosarsky. She has since rectified this and become increasingly embarrassed not to have read her work previously, noting ‘Ursula is a brilliant, satisfying and haunting writer,’ also noting to her ‘Awards grow on you like mushrooms.’

Lydia began the session with a question about writing – what comes first for Ursula – character or a story. Ursula told us a few stories about how she writes, which as for many writers, is a summation of experiences she has had over her lifetime. In the case of First Book of Samuel, for instance, she’d first heard the name of Elkanah at a kibbutz, describing somebody who was very charismatic and damaging; much later she realised the name was biblical, so this character was born and brought the story with him.

She also told the origin of The Red Shoe, which was from a talkback radio show that saw a caller ring in to talk on the death of the wife of Vladimir Petrov, the caller noting she lived next door from them and the Australian Diplomatic service would give her and her sisters a ride to school each morning.

Ursula says ‘All you need is a hair and some blue solution – something has to stick.’ The intuition is the hair, and this refers to an experiment she did at school where they grew crystals on a hair.

Lydia noted that over her career, Ursula has become more preoccupied with historical realism – at some point there was a shift in focus. The Blue Cat, Ursula says, came out of an editorial her dad wrote during the war for his school magazine (this was a surprise in itself as her father, when asked about school, would state it was ‘brutal, sadistic and cruel.’) The book itself includes several historical documents, including this editorial, and focuses on a Jewish immigrant to Sydney and the friendship a young girl creates with him despite their language barrier.

In Ursula’s books, Lydia says, ‘children are not protected.’ The books are also frequently funny, with a particular strength being interactions between parents & children. This leads, for Ursula, into a discussion of her book Abyssinia. She notes first that when writing picture books, she can see her audience on the mat in front of her – it isn’t like this for novels, but she is always writing for children.

Abyssinia is about a child being left in a home where they seem to have a purpose which isn’t clear. The adults in the book say ‘for every child that is lost, a child must be found,’ then the lead character must go on a journey.  Ursula notes that this particular book is greeted by adults with a kind of fury, while children understand it more readily. It was written while she was working as a typist for Court cases, and was writing one hour every day prior to having her morning coffee and beginning her cases. She thinks perhaps her mind was in a dreamlike state – and the intuition for this book began at a dollhouse museum she had taken her daughter to.

Lydia wondered whether Ursula believed that any content in books ought to be restricted for children. She says, ‘You can write about anything for kids, it just depends how you write it.’ For instance, Golden Day as Lydia perceives it is possibly about rape and murder. But it isn’t explicit. The intuition for this book began during Ursula’s work as a Court typist, where she encountered an awful rape/murder case which involved a ‘good’ seeming person. ‘It is hard for children to recognise bad people and know what to do when they find one. It is hard for adults as well, sometimes.’

It isn’t only children that are confused much of the time in Ursula’s work – the adults aren’t having a good time either. Businesses and marriages fail, there are dramas just out of earshot of the children. It’s real life.

While I enjoyed hearing about these works, I found the session a little frustrating – there was a bit much explanation of books and what they were about, and I was amused at the most passive aggressive question I’ve ever heard being asked at the end. ‘In the programme it says you would talk about the difference in perception between an adult and a child. Can you talk to that please?’

I am looking forward to delving into Ursula’s work however, and I’ve already begun with a few books from the Unity Bookstore stall outside the session.

Reviewed in words by Sarah Forster

The Blue Cat
by Ursula Dubosarsky
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760292294

Brindabella (out 28 March)
by Ursula Dubosarsky
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760112042

NZF Writers & Readers: Blazing Stars – Hera Lindsay Bird and Patricia Lockwood

Tara Black drew this and Sarah Forster wrote out some of her notes. Image, as always, copyright Tara Black.

Patricia Lockwood is the author of 2017 memoir Priestdaddy, as well as two collections of poetry; while Hera Lindsay Bird  is a bestselling poetry author. They are both truly hilarious.

NWF18 Hera Lindsay Bird and Patricia Lockwood

Both women are masters of metaphor, and this forms the centre of part of their discussion. Hera names Mark Leidner and Chelsea Minnis as who she learned the art of dramatic metaphor from. She notes that ‘Tricia’s book was so good that you swear at each page, because you didn’t write it, and you finish off the book feeling less of a person.’ Patricia says, she loves Hera’s ‘permeability to modern culture.’

Each has had a poem go viral, and both loved the experience. They note later that they are both half-internet, with Patricia noting her early poetry experiences were formed by ‘Poetry Boards’ on the internet. Oddly, I remember these as somewhere I published my tragic teenage poetry when nobody understood me. LOL.

Another theme of the discussion was humour. Both are great humourists, and chair Charlotte Graham-McLay delved into this a little with them. Patricia was formed by Jack Andy’s Deep Thoughts, The Far Side – the modern internet humour starters as she saw them. Each agree humour is harder than it looks, but Hera notes that one of her favourite things about the internet is that you can throw a joke out there and guarantee a good percentage will get it, while 20% will be confused and take offense.

I’d highly recommend going to Patricia Lockwood’s session tomorrow. They touched lightly on themes in her memoir – as she begins the book, she sets up her family and gives her audience the understanding that they had to develop a carapace of humour to survive the strength of her dad’s personality.

I think it was Patricia who noted that linguistics in the internet age are exciting and funny. Certain punctuation is hilarious, and the ‘mum texts’ you see online are always funny – a fullstop can feel like a punch.

Patricia and Hera both struggled a little with needing now to be so close to their readers, but each of them has a different emailing audience. Hera attracts 55 year old men with Sigur Ros t-shirts, and 16-year-old girls; while Patricia usually attracts 22 year old boys that weigh 90lbs.

I’ve never laughed so much at a writer’s festival session, and rarely during a stand-up comedy session. You can catch both of them again tomorrow!

You can still catch Hera Lindsay Bird in action at Poetry International, 4.15pm, Sunday 11 March.

And Patricia Lockwood has her solo session Patricia Lockwood: Midwest Memoir at 1.15pm, Sunday 11 March.