Book Review: 1916: Dig for Victory, by David Hair

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_1916_dig_for_victoryAt the New Zealand Division Camp in Moascar, Egypt, Private Leith McArran, a soldier from Otago, befriends Private Tamati “Tommy” Baines. The two young soldiers have their own reasons for enlisting in the army. Leith struggles to live up to the expectations of his British veteran father, Lachlan McArran, while keeping an eye on his wounded older brother, Calum. Leith is constantly pressured by his father’s notion of war as a platform for masculine stoicism. Tamati Baines, an orphan, is determined to embark on “the Great Adventure.” It is later revealed that he lied about his age in order to enter the army.

Tensions arise between Maori and Pakeha soldiers as the Otago soldiers are merged into a new battalion, the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion. The “Pioneers” are assigned “behind-the-lines” work, which involves digging modern trenches and building roads, railroads, and barracks. Leith and Tamati make a great team, teaching each other about their cultures and aspirations, sharing in youthful dreams of romance and adventure, and ceaselessly looking out for each other on the battlefield. The soldiers of the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion travel from camp in Moascar to the clubs of Cairo, from the trenches of Armentières to the fiery battleground of the Somme. Initially dissatisfied with their humdrum tasks and craving to engage in combat, Leith and Tamati are soon exposed to the war’s powerful devastation of body and soul.

David Hair’s 1916: Dig for Victory is the third instalment in Kiwis at War, a series of historical fiction novels aimed towards teenagers. These five novels, written by Kiwi authors, narrate the Great War, spanning the years 1914 to 1918. This particular novel focuses on the familial and personal repercussions of fighting in the Great War. Narrated in third person and with interspersed letters, the novel flows in chronological order, no doubt helped by thorough research. A timeline, glossary and photographs at the end of the novel provide a detailed glimpse into modern warfare. Hair’s descriptive writing fleshes out the visceral reactions to danger and death, and the ways in which soldiers worked to maintain hope and sanity in times of conflict.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

1916: Dig for Victory
By David Hair
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 978-1-77543-278-4

Book Review: Shooting Stars, by Brian Falkner

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_shooting_starsThis story follows some well-worn tropes, but is filled out with a compelling back-story and some brilliant set-pieces from the assured pen of Brian Falkner.

Wild boy Egan has been raised by his mother, through her fear of his father, entirely in the Coromandel bush. Moma has taken inspiration from a variety of philosophies – Christian, Confucian, Hindu and more, to instill in Egan a Code of rules to live by. This Code forms the centre of all of the actions that Egan takes, and as he writes in his diary – the book is in diary format – he records the codes he had cause to reflect on that day.

When Moma goes missing near to Christmas during Egan’s 15th year, Egan is dismayed but determined to find her – he knows she would never voluntarily leave him alone. With the help of a letter and money from the lock-box in their hut, he goes to find an Uncle in Auckland. He has been living with no running water, no internet, no electricity for his entire 15 years, so to say this is a cultural clash is putting it mildly.

Brian Falkner really knows how to write action. He’s been doing this well since his junior fiction-writing days, so it is no surprise to see this continue. The thing that I felt this book lacked a little was emotion. Egan’s mother is his entire world right up until he meets J.T., a hunter, near the time of her disappearance on Christmas Eve. When she disappears, this is forced to change so quickly that Egan doesn’t seem to sit down and mourn. His actions are rational, and though this seems to be put down to living by the Code, it stretched my credulity a little.

When Egan is in Auckland, he has to learn quickly how to live in a city, sleeping in the Domain. He has his stuff stolen by street kids early on, then after a few heroics ends up part of the crew that tried to steal from him. He continues to live in the Domain, but falls in love with Reggie, the only female member of the teenage homeless kids. He has just settled into his new life when somebody in the crew betrays him, and his past catches up with him – or rather, his mother’s past.

One of my favourite parts of the book were the short stories scattered throughout it, written by Egan in the style of the author whose book he is reading at the time. This is exactly how any young writer starts out – in fact it could probably be said to be how any young writer should start out – and neatly encompasses Falkner’s reading/writing philosophy. The absence of books in a significant house later on in the story is a neatly set up harbinger of doom.

The other fun aspect of the book is when Egan meets the “real world,” as the media calls it when he becomes a media superstar. His observations are priceless – heading to Maccers for lunch, he is impressed they even give him a toy.

While this isn’t as strong for me as Falkner’s last published book, Battlesaurus: Rampage at Waterloo, which won the Book Award for Young Adults in last year’s NZCYA; it is a rattling good read that keeps you turning those pages to see how things will end. Recommended for age 11+.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Shooting Stars
by Brian Falkner
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 9781775433606


Book review: Snakes and Ladders by Mary-Anne Scott

cv_snakes_and_laddersThis book is in bookstores now and is a finalist in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.

Set in New Zealand, this book follows the story of Finn. Finn is your average teenager – or at least, that’s what he will tell you. Ever since he moved to a new, expensive school, Finn has taken on another life by keeping his previous one a secret.

After all… who needs to know that his father is on trial for killing a woman? Although Finn is skeptical about this “posh” school, he quickly makes new friends and joins the school orchestra, where he meets Mia. Perhaps his mother was right about sending him away from all of the chaos at home?

Pleased to have a fresh start, Finn continues to keep his secret – but soon it becomes clear that he is not the only one who knows. As rumours begin to spread, Finn struggles to keep the truth under cover. Will he manage it, though? Can he cope with the pressure of living two lives? Is it worth this much effort to tell his friends so many lies? When Finn attends a party after his school ball, everything is changed.

Readers will be impressed by the believable characters that carry out the story of Snakes and Ladders; they each seem so unique yet so easy to imagine. Finn, Mia, Eddie and all the others are the sort of characters that readers will root for, despise, pity and love.
Snakes and Ladders is written with a subtle but clever sense of humour, as demonstrated here:

“That sucks!” Mia sighed into the phone. “What sort of work?”


“Ohmigod! How much do you take off?”

“All…well, as much as we can reach, but we’re supposed to strip completely.”

“Who pays?”

“The guy who owns the orchard, obviously.”

While the humour and tension of Snakes and Ladders makes it a novel well worth reading, be warned; the book progresses very slowly, making it a bit difficult to get into. That said, you will love the strong amount of suspense!

If you want a read that you will enjoy reading over and over again, try Snakes and Ladders – you won’t be disappointed.

Reviewed by Tierney Reardon.

Snakes and Ladders
by Mary-Anne Scott
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 9781775430407

Book review: A Winters Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

cv_a_winters_day_in_1939This book is in bookstores now

It’s always interesting when you read a book about a well-known event and an entirely different perspective is presented that makes you pause and think. As the cover of this book suggests, it is set in World War II and the narrator is Adam, a 12 year-old Polish boy whose family are uprooted and relocated to various labour camps in Russia.

Reminiscent of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the main character, an adventurous boy named Adam, has no idea what is actually happening to him; the political background remains unspoken. Of course, as readers in 2012 we know the unspeakable terrors of World War II are not far away.

I really like the authentic voice that this character has – he is undeniably his age, and he never quite comes to grip with why the events that unfold in this book (and his life) actually happen. It’s easy to believe in this young character, who is in fact the author’s father.

Melinda Szymanik has skilfully managed to recreate her father’s young persona and avoids any temptation to preach, inform, or explain this war. Adam never becomes bitter and jaded, he still notices the small wonders of life and is resolute in his will to survive.

The book opens with the family’s idyllic life on a farm awarded to Adam’s father for military service. They are hard working, and enjoy a comfortable and fruitful, if not wealthy, life. But the new authorities have decided the farm should be re-gifted to another man and rather suddenly, the family are ousted from their farm and find themselves heading to places unknown. Their imposed long train journey starts in a cattle wagon and finishes in what appears to be a concentration camp albeit without the gas chambers. Disease, death and hunger accompany this family through their enforced journeys through a vast area we would know as Russia and Persia.

Weeks, months and years pass. The end, when it comes, is thrust upon Adam’s family as suddenly as that first train trip was thrust upon them. This plight of displaced persons during World War II makes a sobering read, but this is a tale of survival and although Adam’s family is changed beyond recognition through their experience, there is a happily ever after.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

A Winters Day in 1939
By Melinda Szymanik
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 9781775430308

Book review: Dinosaur Rescue – Dako-snappysaurus by Kyle Mewburn

This book is in bookstores now.

Achim, aged seven says;

“I have read other Dinosaur rescue books and enjoyed them, so I was excited when this book arrived and I saw the cover. The cover of a book is really important to me because when I am in the shop or library looking for a new book, the cover catches my eye. This cover is good because it has a clear picture of the animal the book is going to be about. It also has the Dinosaur Rescue title at the top so I knew it was in a series that I liked.

I also like reading the blurb of a book to help me decide. This one was very short but it asked a question which got me interested and I knew I would have to read the book to find out the answer. I also like that the back has a colour picture of the main character – Arg, on it to help me imagine him better.

Inside the book there is a really cool map, this is useful when you are reading to help you work out where the places the book talks about are. There are actually lots of useful pictures and diagrams in the book and this helps you understand who the people and animals are as well as making it more interesting than just plain text. Sometimes the pictures are of things that are happening in the book but a lot of times they are to explain facts or things we should know about the prehistoric and jurassic periods, like how to tell the different types of teeth that different dinosaurs have.

I like the names of the people and animals in the book. They are good names because they sound like that person might talk or the noise the animal might say. For example, Arg’s pet Microceratops is called Krrk Krrk and I like saying that word. So reading the book to mummy was good fun, especially when she read it out loud too and made the different noises. We laughed lots.

The story in this book was really good – it made me want to keep reading until I reached the end as I couldn’t guess what was going to happen. It had some suspense in it and so it wasn’t boring. I also liked the funny bits in it, and I kept laughing when I was reading it. The descriptions in the book were brilliant, I could imagine exactly what things looked like. This was good when I was reading about the dinosaurs and the people, but it wasn’t so good when the writers described someone being very sick!

I liked this book because I could read it more than once, and each time, I would see something else in one of the pictures or a detail somewhere that would make me interested again or laugh more. I also liked the facts in it because I wrote about some of them at school and got the days best writing for it.

If I had to give this book to someone I would give it to a boy or girl (because my sister likes dinosaurs too so it isn’t just for boys) who liked reading lots and wanted an adventurous story to keep them interested. I wouldn’t give it to someone who didn’t like jokes about vomit or farts though. I am 7 and think it is a good book for people my age and even grown ups because Mummy liked it too. Sometimes reading about history like the stone age isn’t exciting but this book is exciting.”
Ilona Hanne, Achim’s Mum says,

“This book was a great book to share with my 7 year old. He and I both read it together, as well as him reading it several times on his own. The language was descriptive without being boring and the vocabulary used extended him nicely.

I loved the fact that the story is interspersed with facts about the Stone Age, for example, a couple of pages explaining the history of time and how it is measured. The way the facts are presented means they are likely to be retained by the reader – over the past few days my son has volunteered all sorts of facts that he has garnered from the book. Did you know for example, who invented the first fire brigade? My son now does, and so does anyone who has recently spoken to him!

The writing is presented nicely, with the text broken up with line drawings and diagrams. This kept my son’s interest and helped him imagine the scenes better. he also enjoyed looking at the maps and drew his own, adding to them as the story developed.

There is enough humour in the book to keep an adult entertained as well as a child and it is great fun to read out loud.

I would recommend this book to anyone with a child in the age 7 – 10 reading range, and knowing there are more in the series is great, as is the fact you don’t have to read them in order – they all work as stand alone books too. The subject matter of dinosaurs and similiar creatures is perfect for this age range, and the Neanderthal boy, Arg, is a relateable character.

All in all, both Achim and I thought this was an excellent book and both of us have enjoyed it. We will be reading more by the same authors in the near future.”

Dinosaur Rescue – Dako-snappysaurus
 by Kyle Mewburn
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 9781775430988

Book review: The Frog Footy Player by Chris Gurney

This book is in bookstores now.

Tucked away in a pile of cushions and beanbags on a chilly winter‘s afternoon in a busy school holiday programme was where I donned my test pilot gear to review this book.

Fifty four, 5 – 13 yr olds with their humour and honesty would be a pretty good guide.

Judging the book purely by its cover the majority vote from the group was that it was likely to be a story that perhaps the 5 -6 yr olds would love and not cool for anyone else. By the time the first three pages were read, wider appeal was obvious with a drop in the noise level, a decrease in the jiggling and wriggling of bodies and some older children, snuggling in closer to get a good look at the illustrations.

It was proving to be a story that related well to children who already had an interest and connection in their own lives to rugby, nature, farms, mud, food, fishing, family and our mighty All Blacks. Such strong connections creatively threaded together in rhyming, witty words are this book’s real strength.

At the end, when we had all munched on our own chocolate fish that I had tucked in my bag, the votes were in. 53 children scored it 8 or more out of 10 and it would probably appeal mostly to 5 – 9 yr olds.

The one other vote was a zero, as there was a determined opinion that the main character should have been a boy…

Reviewed by Julie King

The Frog Footy Player
Written by Chris Gurney, illustrated by John Bennett
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775430575

Book review: Ransomwood by Sherryl Jordan

This book is in bookshops now.

Ransomwood by Sherryl Jordan has been an absolute pleasure to read.

The author’s very descriptive and emotive writing style immediately swept me up into the beautiful if harsh small town of Grimblebury, a seemingly sad farming community full of mean spirited and spiteful gossips.

I immediately fell for Halfwit Harry, especially after his very funny, very insightful conversation with his mother about being the last man on earth! He may speak rather slowly and not always understand people’s inferences but he is a very likeable and funny character, and by the time Harry finally finds his tongue and gives Gwenifer a well deserved lashing, I was a little in love with him! Halfwit Harry is adorable, and a true friend to anyone if just given the chance.

Initially I was unsure if I was going to like Gwenifer or not, but once I read about her life with her despicable and lecherous Uncle Caleb and his equally hateful family, my heart melted for her.

She really just wants to escape the tormented life she’s been forced to live and mistakenly falls for a cad’s sweet words of love. Openly rude to both Harry and Mother Dorit, it doesn’t take long for Gwenifer’s standoffishness to melt away, showing us her tender, caring side.

Ransomwood really is a well-written and lovingly told tale of sacrifice, friendship, and self discovery. And with a little help and insight from the ‘old witch’ Mother Dorit, who because of her blindness really see’s into a person’s soul – see’s the truth behind lies, Gwenifer and Harry start to see the hidden depths in each other that they both try so hard to keep hidden from the world.

Sherryl Jordan’s story writing is smooth throughout and paints such a clear and real picture whilst reading, that time just slips away. Filled with a diverse and colourful cast of characters, and set in a primitive and unforgiving land, Ransomwood is a brilliant story that readers of books both young and old will fall in love with.

A beautiful and sweetly engaging story, Ransomwood gets a well deserved 5 stars from me.

Reviewed by Cath Cowley who tweets as Book Chatter Cath

by Sherryl Jordan
Published by Scholastic New Zealand
ISBN 9781775430445