Book Review: Release, by Patrick Ness

cv_release.jpgAvailable today in bookshops nationwide.

The novel explores relationships in all their complexity through the character of teenager Adam Thorn, taking place over the course of a single day.

Ness said he was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. ‘I feel like I can’t write a good book unless I scare myself, and what’s scarier than taking your inspiration from one of the finest novels ever written in English? The intense focus of Mrs Dalloway, its psychological power, seemed an unexpectedly superb way to portray a YA character.’

And so it has transpired. This is a remarkable – and remarkably different – offering from the awesome Patrick Ness.

There will be no spoilers from this reviewer – but the book deals with the tangled mess of family and personal relationships, homophobia, sexuality, religious bigotry and murder just for starters.

As with all of Ness’ work, there’s much more going on than the surface story. I want to say ‘the secondary plot’ but in fact the ‘other’ story clings and twines its way around the novel until the strands finally come together – a bit like the tendrils of a creeper winding up a host plant until they reach the top, and join. So not really a secondary plot at all, but an integral part of the story, woven and meshed throughout the day-long events that make up Adam’s complex and demanding day.

The characters are wonderfully written – in particular the depth of friendship between Angela and Adam is brilliantly drawn – and credible.

The struggles that all of us face at some time in our growing-up and developing into the adults we want to be are there with all their attendant complexities; Ness has the ability to make the reader think and reflect on significant moments in one’s own life, with compassion and understanding. Even the bleakest situations can be viewed thus, even though the thoughts and actions involved may not be supported.

The tensions in relationships, the heartaches and thrills of first loves, the humour, the depth of understanding of young people discovering their sexuality – all of these are written with immense understanding and compassion. Patrick Ness is reconfirmed as a truly wonderful writer.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

by Patrick Ness
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406331172


Book Review: See You in the Cosmos, by Jack Cheng

cv_see_you_in_the_cosmosAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

This book centres on Alex, an 11 year old (but “13 in responsibility years”) who is fascinated by rockets and life on other planets. His mission is to launch his own rocket complete with his iPod on which he has recorded his comments about life on earth and what it’s really like for him.

It’s fair to say that Alex is not your average 11 year old: his dad is dead, his mum has a raft of issues of her own, and his older brother does not even live in the same town, so Alex is pretty much left to his own devices.  He is very resourceful, and very responsible. He sets out, without permission, because his mom is having one of her “days when she stays in bed and does not respond, to go to the South West High Altitude Rocket Festival taking along his dog Carl Sagan – named for his hero – and his rocket. This is where it turns into a road trip – and what a trip – there’s a zillion twists and turns and potential disasters and that’s before he even  gets to the festival.

It’s on the whole strangely credible, even if at the same time quite unlikely, and it gives the reader a great deal to ponder on about resilience, bravery and the importance of family. It helps that all the total strangers Alex meets up with are helpful, responsible and willing to take him as he is, which is probably somewhere on the autism spectrum. I don’t think that is particularly realistic but it does keep the momentum up. Faced with all the challenges which Alex encounters, most of us would give up and find a quick way home, but it’s part of the delight of this book that he doesn’t. It also shows an awareness on the author’s part of the challenges posed to, and by, kids on the “spectrum”, and the single mindedness which so often accompanies this.

I think it is an excellent story. It’s well-constructed, funny and sad sometimes at the same time, and Alex and the rest of the main characters (who cover a very wide range of the odd and the particularly peculiar, all good-hearted as can be) are quite credible.

Highly recommended for those who loved “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “Wonder”, but also for anyone who loves a story where challenges are confronted,  analysed and resolved through good will and compassion.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

See You in the Cosmos
Jack Cheng
Published by Puffin
ISBN: 9780141365602

Book Review: Awatea’s Treasure, by Fraser Smith

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_awateas_treasure.jpgThis book is a great delight to read.

Awatea, the main character, has been sent to stay with his grandparents and uncles in the country because his dad is not well. The story is set in the far north of New Zealand, and the atmosphere created by Fraser Smith’s writing is very credible and evocative of life in a reasonably remote area.

I was drawn in to this book from the outset. The uncles, prone to fairly rough practical joking, were scarily good and set the scene well for the development of the book.
It has everything – the already mentioned scary uncles, relaxed but firm grandparents, an empty – possibly haunted – house next door, and beaches and forests to explore, neighbours (a long way away) with a nutty parrot and an unseen son. Magic, adventure, what’s not to like?

It’s an excellent story and I don’t want to give away too much detail, but Awatea finds a tree house with some things which surely belonged to the boy who built it – but who is he? Where is he? Is the treasure really valuable? And where does the guy with the horse fit in?
Just read it! I am sure that like you won’t put it down till you have finished.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Awatea’s Treasure
by Fraser Smith
Huia Publishers 2016
ISBN 9781775502944

Book Review: The Severed Land, by Maurice Gee

Available now at bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_severed_landIn a welcome return to writing fiction intended primarily for younger readers, Maurice Gee has definitely pulled it off. This is an excellent book.

It’s set in a time where,as in many dystopian novels, there has been a breakdown of civilisation. However, I hesitate to label it as dystopian fiction, as there is greater depth and more hope than in many books of that genre.

So instead, I will call it an adventure. It brings to mind the Salt trilogy, which was such an excellent series, but it’s not at all the same. It also made me think about The Chimes, although again there are not really similarities – I think that it’s about the feeling these books create in the reader which makes them feel somewhat familiar.

But what an adventure: power, thievery, slavery, acts of immense courage and bravado, and a definite nod to an underworld of violence and cruelty. It’s all managed brilliantly.

The main character, Fliss, is an escaped slave who lives in a part of the country Galb which is separated from the rest by an invisible – and generally unbreachable – wall. On her side of the wall there used to be The People who were instrumental in creating and holding the wall, but only one, the Old One, remains. His urgent need is to find and bring through another who has the ability to hold the wall together even if only for a while.

Fliss is a remarkably-drawn character. She is gutsy, determined, brave, and sure of herself. A good role model, one might say, except for the knife which she can use when necessary! One could fantasize that, put in a similar situation, one would be brave enough to use that knife.

The other main character is Kirt/Keef, who was once a member of one of the ruling families in Galb. His circumstances changed dramatically and at the start of the book he tries to escape and but for Fliss, would have been killed. I don’t want to give away the whole plot, so if you want to find out you’ll have to read this for yourself!

But I will just say – who is the Nightingale? Can she be saved? Will the wall hold up for long enough?

It goes without saying really that this is well-written – I honestly don’t think Maurice Gee could write a bad sentence if he tried – and the characters spring from the pages.
It also goes without saying that it may have been aimed at younger readers, but that like any really good book, its audience is in fact anyone who loves a great story. Of course it’s not as complex as it might have been were it written with an adult readership in mind, but sometimes less is more!

And while the story is complete, it’s possible there could be more – I guess we’ll just have to hope.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Severed Land
by Maurice Gee
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143770244

Book Reviews: The Hamster Book, by Silvia Borando and Dog on a Digger, by Kate Prendergast

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_hamster_bookIt’s a little while since I was deeply immersed in preschool or picture books, so it was great to get these two from Booksellers NZ for a bit of an update!

The Hamster Book is a cute little number, with bold pictures and unfussy layout. However there is a lot of text compared to illustrations and I think it’s this that I am not quite so sold on.

I think the story – let’s wake up the hamster and encourage her to do her trick – is fine; but the two-colour text (one colour for the actual story, one for the instructions to the kid as to what we should do next) to me feels just a bit heavy-handed.

I’ll be interested to see what readers with pre-schoolers to test this on think.

cv_dog_on_a_diggerDog on a Digger, however, grabbed me from the first drawing. It helps that I do love dog stories, but this is a real delight. Not a word, only pictures. I love this kind of book as it’s wonderful to share with littlies who can put their spin on what happens, and who often see things we might miss.

The dog in this one is just like my dog – at first light, it’s clearly time to move! The digger dog gets his owner, the digger driver, up and off to work, and before they get on the digger they have to put on their safety gear – yup, the dog as well!

The story moves along nicely, and the pencil drawings are enlivened by one colour – yellow – for the digger cab, and the safety gear, and mostly importantly for extra clues as the tricky incident develops. It’s a lovely story and the second by the author/illustrator about this clever, unnamed dog. I hope she writes more.

The dog of course is the hero of the hour – and I won’t give spoilers, but I do thoroughly recommend this book to parents, caregivers, uncles, aunties, teachers…you won’t go wrong if you buy this one. You could even keep it for yourself; that’s what I intend to do!!

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Hamster Book
by Silvia Borando
Walker Books
ISBN 9781406367720

Dog on a Digger – the tricky incident
by Kate Prendergast
Old Barn Books
ISBN 9781910646144

Book Review: New Zealand Jazz life, by Norman Meehan

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_new_zealand_jazz_lifeThis is a great read for anyone who is even remotely interested in the NZ music scene, but particularly for those who are keen on jazz. As I look around the Wellington jazz club gigs, I can usually count the number of people under 40 on the fingers of one hand but I KNOW that out there are many who find their jazz kicks at other venues. They should read this book!

Norman Meehan is a jazz musician, teacher, writer, who has interviewed about 40 NZ jazz musos. His criteria were that the interviewees had to be NZ-born, and have produced at least one album.

So it’s a slightly unusual take, in that many of our very talented musicians have left for other countries where, sometimes, it’s easier to make a living from your passion.
That said, the book is about the state of jazz in NZ – how it got to where it is, is it in a good place, where is it headed, is there a New Zealand sound in jazz? All questions to which the interviewees give insightful and varied and highly personal answers. I really enjoyed reading this, as all of the musicians in the book are well-known, and I have listened to many of them live both in NZ and elsewhere.

The passion for making music comes through from all of them, but so does the difficulty of making a living at music in NZ – pretty well impossible to do just from gigs. There are one or two who have managed it, but on the whole NZ jazz players have to have a day job as well. That makes it much harder and that tension and struggle is well-documented in this book. But what comes through most of all is the sheer joy of playing jazz – in whatever form it takes.

There are some wonderful photos by Tony Whincup -sadly not of all of the subjects, as Whincup passed away before the book was completed.

If I have any quibble at all, it’s with the proofing of this book. There are far too many typos which should have been corrected, unusual for publisher VUP.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

New Zealand Jazz life
by Norman Meehan
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560929

Book Review: The Wish Child, by Catherine Chidgey

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_wish_child_nzI don’t quite know where to begin – this book is a tour de force, a work of art, an insightful commentary on the horrors and pointlessness of war and violence, a love story, a shocking peephole on to the Nazi modus operandi and so beautifully written that it hurts.

I found that I was by turns immensely saddened, then amused, horrified, having moments of “Oh, I know THAT person”, and caught up in the stories of the main characters and the enigmatic voiceover who pulls it all together.

I don’t want to give any spoilers at all, it’s far too good a novel for that.

However I will tell you that the stories are told through the voices of the children, Erich and Sieglinde, who live with their families in Leipzig and Berlin respectively. Chidgey’s descriptions of life under bombing and destruction is a poignant reminder that in war everyone suffers, regardless.

Catherine Chidgey has written a novel which is gripping from start to finish, which has twists and turns and surprises, and which I consider to be one of the best novels I have read this year. Actually, maybe one of the best novels I have read, period.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Wish Child
by Catherine Chidgey
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560622