Book Review: Snot Chocolate, by Morris Gleitzman

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_snot_chocolateSeriously, who could resist a book called Snot Chocolate? Certainly not me or other Morris Gleitzman fans. Each story is told with just the right amount of humour to convey the overall theme of the book, which is a collection of nine short stories focussing on kids handling a significant moment in their lives.

The range of characters include a medieval peasant suddenly made the king, a lawyer’s daughter trying to help her mother, an overly zealous bacterial wiper, a sibling helping to deal with a troll, a diary-writing dog, a girl giving away hot chips and a boy who meets his demolition fairy.

The kids featured in the stories are every day kids who are just like the nice ones in your school or who live in your neighbourhood: caring, smart, and learning about themselves and the world, and how to deal with a variety of social and personal problems. I love how Gleitzman gives each one a chance to shine, allowing them work out and face their problems with courage and kindness. At the end of each story, each character has grown and developed, giving readers encouragement to be able to do the same.

Entertaining and thought provoking at the same time, every story is well paced and expertly written, with authentic character voices and engaging plots. A short story anthology is a great way to encourage reluctant readers, as they can approach one story at a time if they wish, or can equally plough their way through all of them.

Whether the tween-ager in your life is an avid Gleitzman fan or they haven’t yet read any of his books, Snot Chocolate would make a wonderful summer read.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Snot Chocolate
by Morris Gleitzman
Penguin Random House, 2016
ISBN 9780143309222

Book Review: Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy, by Cassandra Clare et al

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tales_from_the_shadowhunter_academyTales from the Shadowhunter Academy is a collection of ten short stories set around Simon, Clary’s best friend, training to become a Shadowhunter. It connects the timelines between the first six Mortal Instruments books and the Dark Artifacts series, fleshing out some of the background and helping develop (and explain) some of the backstory for Lady Midnight. To create this collection, Cassandra Clare has enlisted the assistance of some other writers: Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson and Robin Wasserman. The stories are fun, kind of tongue-in-cheek, but do feel somewhat like official fan-fiction.

This review will contain some spoilers from the Mortal Instruments series. If you haven’t read it but intend to, I suggest you continue no further.

Simon Lewis was first introduced as Clary’s best friend, spent some time as a vampire before his humanity was restored, but his memories fragmented in the process, so that he is no longer the hero his friends remember. This, as you may guess, leads to feelings of inadequacy and confusion. Thus, Simon decides to train as a Shadowhunter, drink from the mortal cup and, hopefully, ascend. Along with a number of Shadowhunter teenagers (the “elites”) and Shadowhunter-hopeful humans (the mundanes or “dregs”), Simon travels to Idris to attend the newly restored Shadowhunter Academy. It has fallen into an almost comedic state of disrepair, the meals are disturbingly unpleasant and random rodents occupy the walls. Not only that, but there is a distinct line in the sand drawn between the so-called Elites and the mundanes. Simon quickly makes friends, specifically with his Scottish room-mate George Lovelace (Shadowhunter in name, but mundane by birth) and the two experience a rather delightful bromance, filled with hearty banter and wit.

As the tales were released individually, there is a small amount of re-capping and reminding at the beginning of each “episode”, and the different authors lead to variation in the writing styles. Alongside the various experiences of Simon, George and the other Shadowhunter students, there are intermingled tales from “guest stars”, explaining in further detail select events from that character’s past: we get to read about Clara’s mission to track down Jack the Ripper; are delivered some insight into Valentine’s past, through the eyes of Robert Lightwood; and learn more about the Blackthorns, such as the half-fae older children, Helen and Mark.

The concept of writing short stories, further exploring the background of characters and helping to develop the backstories of side characters is a crafty idea. Not only does it help the author to get a stronger grasp on their characters (albeit with the assistance of other authors), but it provides additional information on the characters that are beloved to the readers but do not get a great deal of “screen-time”. Whilst it is not compulsory to read Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy, it is an enjoyable read, written with enthusiasm and affection, and should provide enlightenment for the dedicated fans, giving us something to read whilst we await the sequel to Lady Midnight.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy
by Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson and Robin Wasserman
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406362848

Book Review: Tail of the Taniwha, by Courtney Sina Meredith

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tail_of_the_taniwhaThe gold hardcover of Courtney Sina Meredith’s short story collection, Tail of The Taniwha, catches the light in a magical way. The writing inside is just as beautiful. Meredith’s lyrical style stems from her background in not only prose but also poetry, and she’s not afraid to push at the boundaries between the two. In her story The Coconut King, Meredith tags the beginning of each line with a slash in a way that’s reminiscent of poetry, while retaining the kind of full-formed narrative expected of prose.

Other ways of telling stories are explored in this lovely collection. In Patriarch, Eldest Son, Ghost Son, Daughter, Meredith strips back the text to just its dialogue. Stylisation, such as the use of italics, is the only means of assigning parts of speech to certain characters. Dialogue is what uncovers the relationships between them. This backstory is crafted up in such a subtle way that by the time I got to the ending, I had to turn back a couple pages and read it all over again. My second reading was with this newfound knowledge of what these characters meant to each other.

I especially loved how Meredith worked with format in her story Aotahi. This story begins with five sentences, lyrical but seemingly unrelated to each other, from “You were very small, Aotahi” to “It’s like swimming back to yourself from a great distance”. However, with each page, Meredith added gaps to the story, edging out details and building up the plot. My assumptions were changed and expectations deformed. Each addition felt like a new star coming to the horizon, with all of these stars eventually creating a whole galaxy at the end, a whole new story.

The tension of this format was further evoked in the story Leaning Trees. Along with forming details about the central character, various news headlines were used to fill in these gaps. These headlines became a sort of distraction, or possibly even a solace to the narrator, who seemed to be trying to avoid the acknowledgment of her situation until the last crucial detail was revealed on the final page.

These little details brought complexity to the lives of Meredith’s characters. In The Youthful Dead, Meredith presents a girl called Ava who is dreams of someday being like her sister, of moving away from home and living her own life. Meredith crafts a haunting scene of loneliness where Ava is reduced to a shadow, forever following the orders of others. The moon becomes an eerie guardian in the sky as Ava “unfolds her bucket list in the moonlight”. “I will”, she thinks, “I will visit Greece… I will feel the sun on my face”.

Meredith’s style is poetic and beautiful, and Tail of The Taniwha is a striking collection of the many forms that the short story can take. Meredith’s style is also a voice that’s strong and fearless. In her stories, she dreams and wishes. But she is also a woman of action, who mulls over what these dreams mean, who wants to “find all the black holes”. It is a voice that is aware of what others expect of her, whilst acknowledging that she is much more multi-faceted than these expectations could ever be.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Tail of The Taniwha
by Courtney Sina Meredith
Published by Beatnik Publishing
ISBN 9780992264895

Book Review: Thirteen Ways of Looking, by Colum McCann

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_thirteen_ways_of_lookingThe novella and three short stories in Thirteen Ways of Looking each centre on a character in search of a lost connection – a lost intimacy – with another person, or God, or hope. Or, rather, the characters aren’t seeking to re-connect so much as learn to live without connection. They’re learning how to be alone, which can be lonely but not necessarily: the stories flash back through memories, childhoods and relationships. These are the parts I enjoyed the most, more than the meanderings the stories sometimes go through on the way to these memories.

It’s not a passive read, which is good. You’re presented with puzzles (the first story is a whodunit) and confronted with some morally tricky choices (some brutal abuse and the question of forgiveness), which is also good. It would probably be a great Book Club choice – it’s short and full of “things to discuss” and will “make you think”. But…

I guess here I should be upfront: I didn’t like this book very much. I found it irritating, more often than not. The writing was too close to the surface – it was Writing – and I prefer for writing to be invisible so I can get lost in the story and characters. Not that I don’t like it when writers do great or interesting things with language – I love words! and language! and experimentation, sometimes! – but, hmm. Something about these stories made it seem like they were writing exercises rather than stories. And because each of them dealt with quite hefty issues – Issues – it all felt a bit heavy-handed to me.

I’m sure there are dozens of readers out there who’d disagree with me. In fact, going by the boatloads of fancy accolades on the cover of the book, I suspect I’m a bit too much of a grumpy or cynical reader for this writer. (I could barely stop myself from rolling my eyes at the earnest, black & white, gazing-out-the-window, chin-on-hand, scarf-wearing author photo inside the back cover. In fact, I think one look at that photo sums the book up – if you’re on-board with its tone, give the book a go; if it gives you the giggles, step away.)

If you’re going to read something with this title, I’d suggest the Wallace Stevens poem, which opens each chapter of the novella, for showing new ways of looking at familiar things (and it’s shorter). Or if you’re interested in writing, seek out the excellent documentary about Wellington’s creative writing school, IIML.

Reviewed by Jane Arthur

Thirteen Ways of Looking
by Colum McCann
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408869840

Book Review: The Lost Landscape, by Joyce Carol Oates

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_lost_landscapeThis book is a compilation of pieces, most of which have already appeared in various publications. The author describes it as “a writer’s coming of age”.

At the beginning of the book she makes this statement: “We begin as children imagining and fearing ghosts. By degrees, through our long lives, we come to be the very ghosts inhabiting the lost landscapes of our childhood.”

It’s not a linear progression of memory, so it does not fit neatly into what we expect of a memoir, and because it’s a collection, or at least I imagine that this is the reason, there is quite a lot of repetition. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and even occasionally serves to reinforce some aspects of Oates’ early life – particularly her relationship with her stern Hungarian grandparents.

Some of the pieces are a tad too whimsical, in particular the one written from the viewpoint of one of the chickens. Others hint at the much darker side of life that Oates experienced growing up in a small town in New York state. Life in the 1940s and 1950s in rural America was not easy and the differences observed and described between wealthy and poor families, the somewhat awkward and unbalanced relationship between Oates and some of her schoolmates, and the descriptions of what we would now term dysfunctional families are quite telling. You get a feel for the kind of life she had without her having to spell it all out in detail.

The book covers a huge amount of ground, and I think brings together many of the events and memories which have shaped Joyce Carol Oates as a writer. She clearly wrote from an early age, and was a voracious reader. The detail she applies in description, along with wonderful use of language generally, makes this collection interesting reading.

I wanted it to be more cohesive than it is, but overall found it a satisfying read, and I think now I may go and try something else by her.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Lost Landscape
by Joyce Carol Oates
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN 9780008146597


Book Review: Rich and Rare, edited by Paul Collins

Available in bookshops nationwide.cv_rich_and_rare

Rich and Rare is a hefty tome, chocka-block with delightfully tasty reads from a plethora of Australian authors. There’s a little of everything in here: humour, magic, mystery, adventure, and more, certainly a tale to tantalise the taste-buds of any young reader. It is helpfully divided into sections, with similar themes grouped together, but I read it easily from cover-to-cover.

Now, I’m not usually a short story fan – prefering a novel that I can sink my teeth into and characters I can get to know and love (or, in some cases, loathe). There is a certain art to managing to engage the reader within as few words as possible. The majority of these authors managed this very well indeed – although some (especially those with cliff-hanger endings, grrrr) made me eager for more. With no story being longer than about a dozen pages, these were perfect for my three-minute commute to work.

Stand out favourites for me include:

For science fiction, “Music of the Pod People”, in which an aural virus threatens the world. In the soul-stirring ghost story, “Angelito”, a boy’s trip to Mexico and the Day of the Dead delivers him a spirited companion. The dark fantasy, “The Black Sorrows”, introduces us to an orphan girl, who is willing to face death to save an angel. There’s a few with fun twists too: “A Fate Worse than Death” and “The Bad Boy”.

An engaging collection, with a tale to fit any mood: whether it be the melancholic and heart-warming, the humorous or slightly crazy. A rich selection indeed!

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Rich and Rare
Edited by Paul Collins
Published by Ford Street Publishing
ISBN 9781925272116

Book Review: The Red Queen, by Gemma Bowker-Wright

This book is available now in bookstores nationwide. 

This collection of short stories is the first book for Gemma Bowker-Wright.cv_the_red_queen

She’s a good writer; the stories are well crafted, with a quirky humour apparent in even some of the bleaker works. I read the book almost at one sitting, and some of the stories stayed with me for quite some time. That’s unusual for me. I found myself going back to make sure I was remembering correctly.

There is a great depth to some of the stories – and a feeling of immense generosity of spirit, but then again of sadness in some of them also. This may be what I took from them, rather than an intention on the part of the writer. Two which typify these feelings are ‘Cowboy’ and ‘Katherine’.

‘Cowboy’ is in essence a story about a father and son, long separated. Father from time to time remembers he actually has a son, and arranges something which generally suits his purpose rather than that of his child. But despite this, the story ends on a positive note and I found that a huge surprise, not at all what I expected.

‘Katherine’, in the story which ends the book, has Alzheimers. The picture drawn in this story is very well-done – the apparent normality of many days, and the total irrationality of others points out the awfulness of the illness and the difficulty inherent in managing anyone who is a sufferer. Gemma Bowker-Wright manages to bring the characters of Katherine and her husband to life most effectively and with poignancy.

I found this, overall, to be a really good collection of stories, with a very New Zealand flavour. I look forward to more work from this young author.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Red Queen
by Gemma Bowker-Wright
VUP 2014
ISBN 9780864739209


Great Kiwi Classic recommendation: Just One More by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Gavin Bishop

Just One More was put together by Gecko Press in 2011, and comprises Joy Cowley’s cv_just_one_morebest short stories for children, mainly from educational publications such as the School Journal. It is one of the best books for children that I have had the joy of reading aloud to my 3-year-old.

This collection stories has witty takes on monsters, pirates, cowboys, trolls, grumpysauruses, and dragons. There is a grumpy king who steals smiles, and a tiger who eats cakes. The dragon lives in a library because he likes to read about his kin. There is even a ‘Gonna bird’ who reminds me of several people I know.

We are voracious book lovers in our household, but only the best books stand the test of time (ie. Beyond the week-long excitement of a new book) – and Dan has been asking for at least ‘one more’ from this book for two months solid, every single sleep time. He loves choosing his own, which he can do thanks to the images on the slipcover relating to each individual story  – thank you illustrator Gavin Bishop and designer Spencer Levine. Dan is quite sensitive, but faces his fears as he listens to stories about monsters and trolls, and well, that tiger.

The other important part of a book of short stories for young children is the length of the stories. As anybody with young children knows, if you are reading five stories a night, you have to be wily about how you let them select them or you can be there for hours. These stories are a perfect length to be read aloud, or for young readers to read to themselves. They are also as enjoyable to read as an adult, as they seem to be for Dan to hear.

I am so proud that we have storytellers and illustrators the calibre of Joy Cowley and Gavin Bishop in New Zealand. It also bears mentioning that this collection was beautifully published and edited by Gekco Press.  We are very lucky.

Reviewed and recommended for anybody, by Sarah Forster

Just One More
by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Gavin Bishop
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781877467868 (HB)

Book review: Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash

cv_nothing_gold_can_stayThis book is in bookshops now.

Too often, the trouble with books of short stories is the constant feelings of shortchangedness (you’re just getting into a narrative when it ends) and novelty-fatigue (multiple waves of new characters and new settings to get to grips with).

However, in his new volume of short stories Nothing Gold Can Stay, US author Ron Rash counterbalances this effect. Although the stories are all separate, with varieties of tone as well as of settings and characters, they are connected by a strong sense of place and history. Rash draws on his expertise as Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University, as well as his finely developed skills as a fiction writer, to bring the land and people of Appalachia richly to life.

Rash’s use of language is masterly and a joy to read. His prose is controlled and spare, crafting vivid stories from clean lines and precisely placed, striking images.

I keep coming back to the third story in the book, “Something Rich and Strange”. Rash delivers one extraordinary sentence in particular, a page long, wherein a little girl drowns in a river. The shattering of her consciousness is beautifully compared to a prism breaking light into its component colours, and her death becomes a holy act: “…the prism’s colors [sic] are voices, voices that swirl around her head like a crown, and at that moment her arms and legs she did not even know were flailing cease and she becomes part of the river.”

The stories in Nothing Gold Can Stay have been set out deliberately, and I recommend reading them in order. The book opens with “The Trusty”, a deceptively simple tale of a convict carefully engineering a situation whereby he can use a young woman to help him escape. Tension builds in the expected manner – will she help him? will his plan work? – but Rash denies us a simple ending. There are no good guys or bad guys, no neat conclusions, no just deserts. “The Trusty”, like its eponymous protagonist, does not live up to its name. We are thrown off balance and tumbled into the world of Rash’s Appalachia, a very human place of violence and desire, boredom and grace.

As the stories move on, and we are introduced to more troubled and complex characters, I started to develop a sense of unease – I started to dread Rash’s startling, often violent endings. By the time I reached “The Dowry”, set in the aftermath of the US Civil War, the horror of what humans do to each other had me almost turning my head away, even as the narrative had my eyes racing to get the next word. But there is a goodly dose of humour to tide the reader through the darkness, particularly in “A Sort of Miracle”, a black comedy of bear hunts and medical TV shows, and “A Servant of History”, a mischievously funny warning of where the wrong tartan will get you.

Rash brings us through a broil of human meanness and ineptitude and out the other side. In “Night Hawks”, a woman with a facial scar finds her niche as a night-time radio host: “All the while high above where she sat, the station’s red beacon would pulse like a heart, as if giving bearings to all those in the dark adrift and alone.” And in the final tale, “Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out”, two old widowers help deliver a calf. Rash opens Nothing Gold Can Stay with violent death and closes with birth, and a serene spirit of contemplation.

These stories are good – stark, vivid, exact; they are not happy. Tread carefully through Rash’s Appalachia.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Nothing Gold Can Stay
by Ron Rash
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781921922091

Book review: Gorse is Not People by Janet Frame

cv_gorse_is_not_peopleThis is in bookshops now.

One of my most comforting memories of primary school is being read to aloud. With our head on our desks, the warmth of the radiator on our backs and the smell of wet jackets filling the air our teacher read to us and let our imaginations roam.

It’s a similar feeling of homeliness, warmth and comfort I get when I read Janet Frame. I first read Faces in the Water in my first year at Art School; standing in the ground floor of Dunedin’s Central Library I wanted something to read and the name ‘Janet Frame’ seemed familiar but I didn’t know why.

As I devoured that book, then her three-book autobiography, then Owls Do Cry, the New Zealand described – particularly the southern most parts – felt so familiar and so real to me. I wanted to keep parts of these magical books so copied out passages about jars of marigolds and tiled floors of sandwiches and roses growing over carpets and fire guards into a special notebook so I could remember them and keep them close; the best parts.

Since that first reading I’ve firmly held Janet Frame as my favourite author and worked through most of her catalogue over time.

It’s with some embarrassment that I tell you that Penguin Books sent me a review copy of Gorse is Not People in August last year. And with some unashamed greediness that I admit to purposefully reading it slowly, savouring its stories and words so it might (almost) never end.

Gorse is Not People brings together 28 short stories by Janet Frame that span the length of her career. None of these stories has been published in a collection before – several are previously unpublished works in their own right and others have been published in well-known magazines such as The New Yorker.

This is the stuff of classic Frame. Rich layered writing with immediately imaginable characters – at times with a dose of fairytale and more than once with a desperate and deep sadness.
Readers of Faces in the Water will immediately identify with the grim prospects of Naida in the title story and the shabby below-par evening activity of a film showing when it’s too light to see the film – as  described in ‘A Night at the Opera.’

“So it was decided to show films in Park House itself, in the dayroom, after the more violently uncontrollable patients had been put to bed. There would be no screen. The walls, though gravy- and sausage-stained, and stuck with bits of apple pie, were of a light colour, but unfortunately there were no blinds, and the daylight at that time of year was not of a secretive nature but outspoken and honest, and preferred the company of the sky to being tucked down between hills. Our bedtime was half past six. How could we see a film in that light? ‘Your bedtime can be extended, an hour perhaps,’ the matron said graciously. The first film, it was decided would be shown in a week’s time, on a Tuesday.” [A Night at the Opera]

There’s a lot here too for fans of To the Is-land, An Angel at my Table and The Envoy from Mirror City as fuller stories and adaptations are made from pieces of these works – the story ‘Dot’ most memorably as Frame takes her childhood love for a local children’s newspaper columnist and gives it a sinister edge.

Stories like ‘The Wind Brother’ and ‘The Friday Night World’ have a fairytale quality to them – magical overtures that would appeal to readers of Grimms and Margaret Mahy. This truly is a book for all seasons and readers.

In addition to this books marvellous content, Penguin has done a wonderful job on the production of Gorse is Not People. The small, grey hardcover book with a Toss Wollaston jacket cover feels special – a book to be treasured, to be looked after and one that shouldn’t be rushed.

Five stars from me. A must for Frame fans as well as people looking for magical short stories to spark the imagination and create lasting memories of how great reading can really be.

Reviewed by Emma McCleary, Web Editor at Booksellers NZ

Gorse is Not People: New and Uncollected Stories
by Janet Frame
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9780143567707