Book Review: The Girls in the Kapa Haka, by Angie Belcher, illustrated by Debbie Tipuna

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_girls_in_the_kapa_hakaThis is a delightful picture book in the tradition of The house that Jack built – a story which builds up rhyme by rhyme until it’s complete. There’s enough in the brief text to let the reader understand how much work goes into making a piupiu, and also that it’s probably not easy!

There’s good use of Te Reo, enough for you to learn something and the rhymes are good.

I have one or two issues with the metre and continuity in the text, but overall the story builds up well.

The illustrations really to me are the stand-out – well, that’s what you do want in a picture book, after all. But the clever use of side panels on the left of each double-page spread gives a hint as to the next component of the rhyme, and would certainly keep kids looking.

It’s good also that the girls in the Kapa Haka group are diverse, and although Koro seems far too young I think that’s my eyesight and not any other kind of issue!

All in all it’s a delightful little book which should appeal greatly to preschoolers.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Girls in the Kapa Haka  
By Angie Belcher, illustrated by Debbie Tipuna
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143773870

Book Review: Andrew Down Under – The Story of an Immigrant Dog, by Anne Manchester

Available from selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_andrew_down_underThis is the second book about Andrew, but chronologically the first. It’s the story of Andrew the pampered Pekinese who used to live in Palm Springs. However his human decides to move home to Eastbourne, Wellington, and this is Andrew’s story of how that turned out!

Andrew had a fabulous life in Palm Springs, where it’s warm all year round, and virtually windless if his comments about Eastbourne are anything to go by.

He is reluctant to travel, particularly when he finds out that he has to go it alone. Not a happy camper, he manages to abscond at various points along the way, but ultimately does make it on to the plane and into quarantine in New Zealand.

The story is entirely written from the dog’s point of view, so anthropomorphic might be an understatement! However, I decided to get over that and just enjoy the story. Andrew is an engaging little dog, and Anne Manchester writes the story well. It romps along, with all of Andrew and Poppa’s tough decisions well-told, and with particularly good insight into the mind of a dog. Dog-owners will understand what I mean. Who cares where the food is, as long as it’s available?

Of course, coming to a new country is hard enough, but when you find that there are some members of your new extended family who not only don’t like dogs much, but also have a cat, then it’s a bit much for a small canine to deal with. So Andrew absconds again…

Mercifully all turns out well, and both Poppa and Andrew settle in to their new life.

I think it would be a great read-aloud to younger kids, and it’s a good solo read for independent readers.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Andrew down under: the story of an immigrant dog
by Anne Manchester
illustrated by Fifi Colston
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780995109278

Book Review: Polly does NOT want a cracker!, by Stephanie Thatcher

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_polly_does_not_want_a_crackerSo first of all, why do we call parrots Polly, and why are crackers associated with them?

It seems that as far back as Ben Jonson (17th century) or even before, there were literary references to parrots being named Poll or Polly. That name is a derivative from Moll, or Molly, in turn an abbreviated or alternative form of Mary, which was just a hugely common name and also one give to parrots generally. But asking “Mary want a muffin?” while alliterative, does not seem to carry the same feeling!

So why the crackers? Apparently this can be traced, if you believe Google, to the fact that parrots were common on board ships, and biscuits (hard tack) were a staple in the diet of sailors, so they’d get offered to parrots.

Well, there you are. It’s one explanation. Parrots, as we know, are amazing imitators of sounds including human speech, and are apparently smart enough – at least in one case – to differentiate between asking for morning and afternoon tea at the appropriate time of day.

Now, our Polly absolutely does not want crackers and is so forceful in her refusals that she is turned out of her own home. Okay, she lived in the zoo and the keeper thought she was just too rude to be kept on. So, she’s sent off to a pet shop. This did not go so well, as every visitor asked Polly the same silly question, and she responded in her normal way, at the same time terrifying all the small animals waiting to be chosen for their ‘forever homes’.

Now, I won’t give all the story away; you need to do some reading for yourselves!

The illustrations, also by Stephanie Thatcher, are delightful; who knew you could put an expression on a kitten’s face (which is about the size of an old threepenny bit)? Stephanie can!

It’s a lovely book which I think will delight readers of all ages.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Polly does NOT want a cracker!
by Stephanie Thatcher
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 9781988516592

Book Review: Sadness is a White Bird, by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_sadness_is_a_white_bird.jpg‘Everything was salt and sweat, summertime and sharpened swords’ – what an opening sentence that is. Except that it’s not actually the opening sentence, as there’s a small paragraph before chapter one which begins: ‘Oh Laith. I don’t know shit about flowers.’ That’s a pretty good opening sentence too, and in fact resonates throughout the novel.

I could not put this book down. It’s absolutely beautiful; challenging, confronting, poignant, powerful, political. It’s by turns – and also at the same time – a love story, a love triangle, a coming-of-age-story, a completely open and honest take on the hornet’s nest that is the Israel-Palestine conflict, a searching for family roots and more.

It’s honest, tough, uncompromising in its truth, and deserves to be very very widely read.

Moriel Rothman-Zecher is a young Israeli-born, American-raised writer. Middlebury Magazine says this about his writing:
‘To be an artist in the year 2018 is to be continually grappling with questions of privilege, authority, and authenticity. In his novel, Mori gives voice to an Arab grandmother, an IDF commander, a West Bank Palestinian, and a gay teenager in Auschwitz. If the only story you have permission to tell is your own, he thinks, then the abiding premise of art is dead. Still, telling others’ stories means telling them with great care. Mori asked a diverse cast of friends to be early readers; they fact-checked everything from his Arabic transliterations to the number of seats in an Israeli armored personnel carrier. He’s proud that, even when former IDF soldiers disagree with his politics, they don’t fault his rowdy depiction of life in the barracks.’

As a Jewish writer who both loves Israel and is unafraid to fault it, Mori is accustomed to attracting criticism from all quarters. He’s not getting any criticism from this reviewer.

The protagonist, Jonathan, is nearly 18 and about to do his compulsory army service. (Moriel refused to his, and ended up in a military prison for 20 days). School is over, he and his friends (who will also go into the army) are spending summer mucking around, smoking, drinking a bit, smoking other substances a lot, and generally killing time. Then Jonathan meets (via his mother’s activist work) Nimreen and Laith, Palestinian twins. They form an instant and strong connection and spend every Friday together, talking, smoking, hanging out. They believe they can have it all, but that faith is shaken when Jonathan goes to the army.

I am not going to give anything else away. I think that Rothman-Zecher has written a really remarkable novel. If you are interested at all in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, you won’t find any quick answers here, but you will find a great deal of insight into the complexity of the situation, the reality of life in the region, and the power of fiction to build bridges.

I think this book would be a great one to put into senior school libraries, but it’s not a kids’ book. I think public libraries should stock it, and I think you should all just go and get it, and read it. You cannot fail to be moved.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Sadness is a white bird
by Moriel Rothman-Zecher
Washington Square Press
ISBN 9781501176272

Book Review: River of Salt, by Dave Warner

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_river_of_salt.jpgI had never come across this Australian writer and I was pleasantly surprised. I learned that he is a musician (Bob Dylan’s favourite Aussie muso, apparently) and a ‘living treasure’. He’s also a pretty good writer!

Murder mysteries are often written to a formula, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,as you know what you are in for. While I haven’t read previous books by Warner, I am inclined to think that River of Salt is unusual in that it’s not in the least formulaic, and I cannot imagine the main character, hitman Blake Saunders, easily transferring to other situations.

This well-written and exciting mystery is set during the 1960s in a small Australian coastal town, where Blake Saunders has ended up after leaving Philadelphia and his Mob connections.

He sets up a bar/music venue in this small place, and soon learns that the local cop is a bit like a sheriff – knows all, manages most of it in his own way, is a bit dodgy himself.

Because this is a murder mystery, there’s a body early on, with a connection to Blake’s venue. He sets out to protect his patch by finding the killer. There are twists and turns, and a couple of things which stretch credibility, but that’s all part of the game.

The characters are well-drawn, and the 60s setting is also well done. I can’t tell you much more without giving away spoilers, but there’s a lot going on, and I found it an enjoyable read. In a bit of a change from many American murder-mystery writers, Dave Warner writes in proper sentences, which are well-constructed. It’s quite a lot more complex than, say, a Robert B Parker novel, and I’d recommend it to readers who enjoy a well-told, exciting story.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

River of Salt  
by Dave Warner
Published by Fremantle Press
ISBN 9781925591569

Book Review: Lonely Planet’s Best Ever Travel Tips

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

lonely_planets_best_ever_travel_tipsFor such a small volume, there’s an abundance of useful information packed in here!

Whatever your particular question about travelling well, safely, economically and with minimal fuss, you’ll most likely find the answers in this pocket sized travel companion. From how to survive a small-group tour, to which plug is for which country, to considering ‘old-school’ technology to help you through small crises – there are a lot of ‘oh, of course, why didn’t I think of that before?’ moments.

It will be very helpful, I think, for less experienced, and also solo, travellers.

There are suggestions for eco-travelling (up to a point, of course) and how to give back to local communities through supporting local initiatives while you are visiting. This includes eating local! It’s one of the simplest ways both to support and learn about the place you are in.

Hate the cramped feeling you get on long flights? There is a list of exercises you can do pretty well anywhere to help with that.

Love your food, but have an allergy or intolerance to particular things? Take diet cards (if you are coeliac, for example) and snacks for emergencies. It’s worth it.

Always take more clothes than you need? Remember there are shops where you are going – this is not a Lonely Planet tip, but my own advice – and if you spend a bit of time planning to take things which mix and match, your problems are halved.

Got scammed on your last trip? Relax, it happens to everyone but you do need to be alert, and there are tips for what to watch out for. The mantra ‘If it’s too good to be true, it’s too good to be true’ definitely holds when travelling.

Highly recommended, and only one proofreading error that I picked up – one of the headings is STAY SAVE AND HEALTHY – doesn’t work, however you parse it!

But regardless of how often, or where, you travel, I think you’ll find this a very handy little book.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Lonely Planet’s Best Ever Travel Tips
Published by Lonely Planet Global
9781787017641

Book Review: Girls’ High, by Barbara Anderson

cv_girls_highAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

This is a republication in the excellent VUP classics series.

I always thought I had read this book, and probably I have. However it came as if new, which was an unexpected pleasure.

The staff of Girls’ High are the main characters, although there are appearances by family members and the occasional pupil. Mostly those from last year’s 4F….

Having worked in a school – although not a girls’ one – I found this book hilariously funny.  Barbara Anderson must have set up a bug in some school staffroom, because it all rings hideously and cringe-makingly true of staff meetings in any school. The undercurrents, the inattention, the minds on almost anything except the matter being discussed – all there in glorious technicolour!

The power-plays, the cliques and relationships, the tensions, the stereotypical teachers are well drawn and infuriatingly accurate. You can, if you are a teacher, surely swap most of this cast of characters for those in your own staff room. Try it!

Nick Hornby said of it, when it was first published:

Even before its first page, Girls High promises freshness and originality: its contents page is simply irresistible. ‘Jenni Murphy thinks about her sexuality’; ‘Sooze thinks about Bryce’s job in the morgue’; ‘Thea Sinclair thinks about the Aerial Survey in 1978’; ‘Miss Franklin remembers the smell of pepper.’One immediately turns to the back of the book, to find a photograph of the woman who thinks about Jenni Murphy thinking about her sexuality.

Chapter headings are these days something of a rarity, but it’s wonderful just to read them, as Hornby did, and begin to wonder, before you begin to read.

It’s more a collection of short pieces than a full-blown novel, I think, but regardless it works well. Towards the end when the annual Leavers’ Play is being planned, the dialogue (always good) goes up a couple of notches and the press-ganging of reluctant staff into full support of the project is again redolent of staffrooms everywhere.

The main characters – Carmen, Sooze, Margot – are credible – but then all the characters are credible, even if stereotypically recognisable. But I don’t mean that in a negative way – it merely adds to the humour, which is clever and sharp.

This book is still a delight and if you have not read Barbara Anderson’s work, I am sure this will encourage you to read further. Highly recommended!

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Girls High
by Barbara Anderson
Published by VUP Classics
ISBN 9781776562107