Frankie Potts #3 and #4, by Juliet Jacka, illustrated by Phoebe Morris

If you haven’t read the Frankie Potts series yet, then you’re definitely missing out. 7-10 year olds I’m talking to you. Funny, awkward, sometimes challenging and always a bit batty. Wellington writer Juliet Jacka knows how to engage her audience – and more importantly, she does it with a local flavour.

Frankie Potts & the Postcard Puzzle 
cv_frankie_potts_and_the_postcard_puzzleThis is part three in this mystery and detective series. Frankie Potts has red hair, a super dog called Sparkplug and a mate called Mac. They love mysteries. And with a family like Frankie has there is always a mystery.

The family has hidden secrets. So, when Frankie finds a postcard sent to her mother saying “dearest Tania I do think we should give it another try, don’t you? Gideon xxx” Frankie’s methodical brain goes into over drive. What could all this be? A long lost lover? Does Father know? To solve the mystery Frankie and her gang jump on the bus to Giggleswick to search for Gideon.

What they find is going to unleash a horde of family secrets. All is revealed at a family dinner with the Marvellous M, Frankie’s Grandma and her menagerie of animals which includes a parrot called Firefly who says “Potamus-otamus-hippo-whatamus”.

Frankie Potts & The Wicked Wolves
cv_frankie_potts_and_the_wicked_wolvesThis is part 4 of the series. Frankie has found her long-lost grandad, Sparkplug’s girlfriend Tinkerbell has just had 7 puppies, her grandmother the wonderful The Marvellous M has entered a competition with her dogs, and Frankie’s mother is expecting twins. On top of that, blue-faced dancers the Wicked Wolves have come to the village of Tring.

Initially, it’s all very exciting but Frankie can smell a rat. Something’s not right. There’s a mystery afoot. Who are these Wicked Wolves? How come Marvellous knows them? Why does she want to fight them?

In the meanwhile, there’s puppy chaos at Frankie’s house and Grandma M is planning to give half of them away. Frankie must make sure that they go to good homes. She’s not happy about this at all.

To add to this, Ralph Peter-McGee, Frankie’s arch-enemy, has his eye on her favourite pup Kettle Thomson. Can Frankie stop Ralph getting the pup? And why are those Wicked Wolves sniffing around the puppies? Set against all this is the inaugural Tring Talent Contest. The show is rapidly approaching, and Frankie has some serious detecting to do. But maybe not all the clues are quite as they seem …


My own 8-year-old loves these gentle mysteries. She found the writing easy and simple to follow and the story engaging enough to stay up and read the whole thing in a single Friday night. Mixed with Phoebe Morris’ clever and quirky black and white drawings, some including paws across empty pages, she was quietly giggling away to herself at times.

Moreover, the story was memorable. There are hints of the old-fashioned English children’s books like Famous Five here. Children have some freedom to roam and think for themselves. There are no mobile phones or iPads or any other modern trappings, unless they are essential for the plot.

But to my daughter, the gentle uncluttered plots and strong, likable characters were the real appeal. Frankie has flaming red hair and an insatiable appetite for solving mysteries. Plot-wise they are bizarre enough to intrigue and simple enough to remember. My daughter had no trouble reciting the whole thing back to me on the walk to school. A winner, at least in our household.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Frankie Potts & the Postcard Puzzle
by Juliet Jacka and Phoebe Morris
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143770206

Frankie Potts & The Wicked Wolves
by Juliet Jacka and Phoebe Morris
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143770459

Book Review: The Lost Kitten, by Lee, illustrated by Komako Sakai

Available in March from bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_lost_kittenThe Lost Kitten is Lee’s first story, but Sakai has over a dozen books on offer, with most of them on initial release in Germany and the UK. She has won awards around the world, including the Japan Picture Book Prize, a Golden Plaque at the Biennial of Illustrations in Slovakia, and a Silver Griffin in the Netherlands. Her style is a cross between photographic realism and messy charcoals. A sort of soft focus treatment. It’s a delightful way of approaching what is really a very simple tale.

This thirty-six-page book is the simplest of stories, so readers must inject their own personality and interpretations between the words. Lee offers no background or clues about the identities of these characters. They are as thin as the chalk and wash on the page. To make them three dimensional you have to add your own personality. Sometimes, it’s what’s missing that gives you the substance.

The plot is: a small kitten, the runt of the litter, is abandoned at the door of Hina and her mother. They slowly fall in love with the kitten who is not expected to get well, but she does. Then mother leaves and the kitten runs away. Hina sets out to find her new little friend. It was here that my five-year-old, reading the story for the first time, started to add her own interpretation of the facts. What if she can’t find the kitten? Or…? And so, the magic unfolds slowly over the next pages as we read further, discussing scenarios and discovering more of the plot on every page.

The book’s simple language works well for early readers – about year 2 – and for caregivers who love to read out loud. It’s the kind of simple hardback that will make a wonderful gift for a young child. But remember, it’s not just the book you’ll be giving: you must also be around to read it, to make it more than just words and pictures on the page. Then you’ve found something really special.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

The Lost Kitten
Written by Lee, Illustrated by Komako Sakai
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571260

The Girl Who Beat ISIS, by Farida Khalaf, co-written by Andrea C. Hoffman

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_Girl_who_beat_ISISIt’s the Northern summer of 2014. Most teenage girls in the West are planning beach holidays, buying swimwear, nagging their parents about sleepovers or signing application forms to work at McDonald’s and KFC. But it’s not like that everywhere. Elsewhere a ground swell of jihadi rebellion swirls like a tempest above a mountain. Spurred on by the publicity around Al Qaeda and the success of the Arab Spring it forms into its own self-styled “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL or ISIS) and unlike the many other similar groups, it is amassing unstoppable support and undeniable power to do immense harm. In a very short time many of ISIS’s fighters will sweep through north and central Iraq, once the contentious lands under Saddam Hussein and now in the power vacuum left after the departure of invading UN and American liberating forces. They progressively overtake much of the northern territories, including the country’s second largest city, Mosul, and despite backing from the USA, and superior numbers, the official Iraqi forces are overwhelmed.

As Westerners, we follow these distant events in the news. We listen to ill-informed ‘experts’ trying to make sense of this highly complicated conflicts as if it’s all some simplistic chess match. The reality is much, much more complex. In Northern Iraq one 18-year-old girl, Farida Khalaf, also tries to follow the events. She also watches the news. She also listens to the experts. The difference is that the ‘events’ are happening only a few miles from her front door. In fact, her father, a soldier in the Iraqi army, is directly impacted. Although he candy-coats it, he cannot disguise the horrors or the imminent threat occurring just over the border in neighboring Syria.

Khalaf, through German-born journalist Andrea C. Hoffmann, describes her home, in Northern Iraq, and her home life as a complete paradise. But she’s not naive, or dim. She speaks in a clear and concise voice about her dreams to be educated and to succeed as a teacher in her peaceful village of Kocho. Her dreams are supported by her family and her father. In her world, girls have opportunities, partially inspired by Saddam Hussein’s education programme. There is not really any animosity of support for any political movements. Her family are Yazidi, members of a 700,000-strong Kurdish minority who follow a faith based on pre-Islamic traditions. But in the eyes of the puritanical ISIS (or ISIL) this equates to devil worship and therefore it is perfectly rational that these people must be enslaved or worse, exterminated.

I was quite impressed how calmly this rationale and position was delivered. What results, though is an incredibly harrowing story. Hoffmann has crafted an almost neutral account from a series of meticulous interviews with Khalaf. She chooses not to inject her opinions or values into the text. Only Khalaf speaks, so you get a real sense of her voice in this first-person narrative, talking directly to the reader. But make no mistake, that is as gripping as it is appalling. This is not the plot of a Hollywood movie. No soundtrack or happy endings. But there are plenty of many extremely dangerous and heartbreaking moments.

ISIS arrive in Kocho to round everyone up and force them to convert to the jihadis’ brand of Islam. Those who refuse – like Khalaf’s father and oldest brother – are killed, and the unmarried women and girls, including Khalaf and her best friend Evin, are taken to the slave market of Raqqa, in Northern Syria. Girls of 13 or 14 are quickly purchased by high-ranking rebel fighters. At 18 and 24, Khalaf and her friend might be older and less desirable but are, nevertheless, sold. Khalaf risks her life constantly, fighting off rape attempts. She is beaten relentlessly for trying to kill herself. She tries to escape many times. All this while dealing with epilepsy.

I researched ISIS’ ritualized system of sex slavery and was shocked to learn to what extent they went. It is reported that in their own ISIS publications, slave “owners” are encouraged to pray before raping a girl. Girls are then forced to take contraceptive pills, in order not to break Islamic legal injunctions against sex with pregnant slaves, and they are made to pray as Muslims. In the book Khalaf notes that her friend Evin tries to appeal to her captor’s humanity, debating the sensibilities and moralities of this policy, but it proves futile. This is one of the only times when she chooses to debate policy or dogma.

What is so tragic is the normality of this horror to the people of Northern Syria. Even as they are sold in the slave market, there are shops around them selling food and football shirts, as if there is no difference between slavery and any other form of commerce. It is just part of life, and life has no value.

But eventually, after many more adventures, far worse than what I’ve described above, Khalaf is reunited with some of her family in a bleak refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. You would think this was then end but even in freedom there is pain. As an escapee she is stigmatised by her own Yazidi community and tormented by guilt over her inability to stop the rapes and all the resulting “dishonour” to their families. Her community tries to ostracise her, and with little medical and psychological support her only option is to try for resettlement in Europe.

Periodically, I found the story is almost unreadable. I had to put it down several times, as I watched my own children coming and going, arguing about petty things – unaware of what has happened to Khalaf. I almost thought that this is a story I should never share. It was too painful. I don’t wish to shield anyone but I do wonder if this is a book for young adults. Should they be shielded from things like this or will they be empowered and driven to do something about it in the future? If knowledge is power, then there is a powder keg between these pages.

As Europe argues over what to do with the Syrian refuges or how to combat ISIS or ISIL or even if anything can be done, Khalaf waits, in hope that she can find some kind of peace and perhaps opportunity to resume her studies to become a teacher. But she can never return to her homeland. That dream is gone. She can never erase her memories, her experiences. Her testament is a chilling document of how expendable and cheap lives, especially the lives of women is in this part of the world.

Review by Tim Gruar

The Girl Who Beat ISIS
by Farida Khalaf, co-written by Andrea C Hoffman
Published by Square Peg
ISBN 9781910931028

Book Review: The Great Kiwi ABC Book, by Donovan Bixley

cv_The_Great_kiwi_ABCAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

The moment The Great Kiwi ABC arrived in the post it was devoured by my 5-year-old and whipped of to school to be shared with the class.

Bixley’s illustrations always delight. They have a particularly kiwi flavour, with just a hint of nostalgia to them. Frequently Bixley uses themes like farming, native plants and birds and rugby mixed with a cheeky humour and a sense of hide and seek. It’s his trademark to hide themed characters or illustrations on every page, so you require multiple readings to find everything. This was the premise of one of his earlier and most popular books The Looky Book. In our household we’re on to the third version, such is the use that the pages eventually get ripped or ruined from constant turning – overloving, as it were.

Like the The Looky Book, The Great Kiwi ABC is also fun for adults, as they can get just as engaged as their little ones finding all the pictorial treasures. With my older child I get her to try and spell each item or character as she finds them, to hilarious results. Who knew squid could be spelt ‘SWQUEEDDD”? Oh well.

This particular ABC book is for younger readers. Each page is dedicated to a letter, and is a mix of typed words and discoverable characters including a milkshake-making cow (a hilarious concept that Bixley uses often in his work), All Black Lambs (another common them throughout the 50+ publications he’s drawn for) a very cutesy pink and white ski-bunny and a huge salmon pink squid. Vibrancy and humour are Bixley’s signatures and they are here in abundance.

Bixley does write and illustrate for older readers, too. His newest book, Much Ado About Shakespeare, is his own special mission to bring the great bard to life 400 years after his death in a wonderful illustrated literary work. Bixley has been a regular winner of New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, and at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, his book Monkey Boy was listed by the International Youth Library as one of their top 200 books in the world.

And as for my 5-year-old’s classmates – they spent all morning trying to find animals and items beginning with the letter ‘C’ on page 4. They found three more than their teacher. One up to them.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

The Great Kiwi ABC
by Donovan Bixley
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 9781927262719

Book Review: The Death Ray Debacle, by David McGill

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_The_Death_ray-debacleDear Reader, the facts I am about to relay to you are true. Are you seated comfortably? Good. Then I’ll begin. Only one or two names have been added to embellish the story.

First of all, inventor Victor Penny is actually real. Or at least he was. By day he ran a bus company. By night he was an amateur scientist working on a top secret, government-sanctioned ‘death ray project’ during the years leading up to the Second World War. And it worked -sort of. He managed to create an electricity bolt powerful enough to set fire to a match box. Who knows, given time it may have become something more but his funding ran out, just before he got there. Major funder Auckland University were not convinced of the project and pulled their support. The dismissed his ideas as “heretical”.

The British Government actually went on to use his research material to fully develop radar and put it to use during the Battle of Britain and save England – just in the nick of time! Penny also went on to develop a electric gyro compass, which allows submerged submarines to navigate, and a prototype laser-type device. He also invented an early parabolic microphone, which went into service at Radio New Zealand. Most New Zealanders still haven’t a clue who he was.

Now before you claim I’m just quoting the plot from Herge’s Tintin adventure The Calculus Affair or an episode of the long running Dan Dare Adventure comics there is bona fide evidence that Penny did all this. The work undertaken at his Takapuna home was so successful that it copped the attention of intelligence agencies from the competing powers around the world, leading to a real-life spy drama. Novelist-historian David McGill has taken all this for the bones of his novel The Death Ray Debacle.

In this book he traces the story through the eyes of a young detective who’s following up on the assault of Penny by members of the German Club, located in a 1935 variant of Auckland’s CBD. At the time, the Auckland German Club was aggressively spying on locals, compiling lists of Jews and those of German origin to be rounded up for military service. When word got out, a police officer from the UK arrived. Penny was moved to Wellington and set up shop under 24 hour guard on Matiu/Somes Island. Every night a soldier slept in the same room.

McGill paints the scene skilfully, right down to the manky beer-stained carpets of the hotel lounge bars and the screech of tram car wheels on wet tracks. You can smell the damp tweed of the working men and the heady perfume of the society ladies. He provides many 360 degree views of the city as it was at the time, as a back drop to the story. If this is ever made into a film the director will need not look any further for an accurate chronicle.

There are moments in the book, however, when detail starts to bog down the action. But overall, it’s a fast-paced action spy story. The ending builds to a great climactic finish, making the journey all the better for the effort. This is McGill’s 53rd book, so he knows about meticulous research and has a pretty good nose for a story. The debate as to whether the tale should have just simply been reported, as opposed to made into a work of fiction, is really a matter of preference.The way it is told gives McGill licence to give Penny a voice, and the New Zealand Police too, through various characters. These are people you usually don’t hear from in historical works, so that gives another dimension to the story. Long overdue, but welcome.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

The Death Ray Debacle
by David McGill
Published by Silver Owl Press
ISBN 9780992262228

Book Review: In The Bush, by Gillian Candler & Ned Barraud

Available now at bookshops nationwide.

cv_in_the_bushMy two are keen bird watchers, and they have a good smattering of local bush knowledge, thanks to their excellent early childhood education. So when I gave them this book to mull over, they discarded it. “We already know about the birds,” they told me. But on visiting Rainbow Springs and the Redwoods in Rotorua during our Christmas break, the book was all too popular. “It was a Tui, no, a Saddleback, a Grey Warbler…. Daa-ad?” I found myself adjudicating with the help of the bird-identification card from the book, which features illustrations of 20 common local birds. Candler and Barraud’s book is not a revelation in our household, more an affirmation of our knowledge. But for others who are not so familiar with our most common birds and wildlife, it would be a great starting point.

For instance, did you know that a giant snail (Pupu) can live up to 40 years? Or, that not all bees are imports. We have a local, the Ngaro huruhuru, that lives in the ground and has no stripes, unlike the immigrants. Did you know that Grey Warblers unwittingly feed Shining Cuckoo chicks? Cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests so they don’t have to feed them – sneaky! And the creepy vine that hooks onto Supple Jacks and Birch is known as Bush Lawyer, though the reason for the name is still unknown. There are many more super-interesting facts to be found within these pages.

Gillian Candler has a teaching and educational publishing background, a keen tramper and pest trapper, so she knows her subject. Ned Barraud is a keen natural world illustrator and trapper. He might not be Raymond Ching but his work still paints believable, empathetic pictures that lead each page. It’s his brilliant watercolours that create each scene. Even for those who can’t read yet, it’s important that the colours and scale are right. Children know this and will very quickly dismiss anything inferior.

This is the fourth book in the Explore & Discover series by Candler and Barraud, many of which have been shortlisted for national book awards. For a readership aged from around 5 years to  10 years, it’s a simple, effective book that will remain valuable as a reference book in the homework library.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

In The Bush: Explore & Discover New Zealand’s native forests
by Ned Barraud & Gillian Candler
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9781927213544

Book Review: Adventurer at Heart, by Nathan Fa’avae

cv_adventurer_at_heartAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

OK, I’ll admit it. Before reading this book, I had no idea who Fa’avae was. Not a clue. But then, his world is still something of an unknown quantity to many of us. Adventure racing (also called expedition racing) is a multi-disciplinary team sport involving orientation skills, usually over an unmarked wilderness course. Races go can be anywhere from two hours up to two weeks in length. and also involve a range of principle disciplines like trekking, mountain biking, and paddling. Some could even include climbing, abseiling, horse riding or skiing. Premier events, including the World Championships, of which Fa’avae was a three year champion, involve mixed gender teams of four racers over a number of days. Teams can rest up, but there’s no suspension of the clock, making it a grueling sport of mental and physical endurance and skill.

At the height of his career Fa’avae was certainly a heavyweight in the world of adventure racing. From loser to top adventure racer Fa’avae’s story is a humble yet proud account. Growing up as probably the only Pacific Island juvenile delinquent in Nelson he was, in his own words, a ‘little sh*t’ – petty crime, wagging school, the whole shebang! But, as the book reveals, things changed and after many failures, Fa’avae grew to take on many challenges. He has qualified for the Olympics, been an Outward Bound instructor and won three World Championships plus a stack of other titles.

This is the perfect book for anyone who wants a bit of armchair action. It’s a simple personal account, but a warm telling of his life to date (Fa’avae is only in his mid 40’s), highlighting a competitive career that began with his first attempt in 1991, as an 18-year-old, at competing at the Speights Coast to Coast Longest Day event and concluding with his swansong − captaining Team Seagate to another victory in the Iron Bound Challenge adventure race in Malaysia. That event was in October 2015. So the ink on this book is still pretty damp.

Don’t rule this book out as yet another sports hero story either. It’s not just about the wins or the endurance, although running a team in a six day event over mountains, rivers and tropical forests with virtually no sleep is pretty intense. No. The most enduring irony is that one of the world’s most respected adventure racers also suffers from a condition that’s completely at odds with the demands of the sport. Halfway through his career, Fa’avae was diagnosed with an atrial flutter − which is basically an abnormal heart rhythm, he tells us. The drama builds when he casually adds that corrective surgery in 2001 didn’t quite go to plan and unexpectedly escalates to atrial fibrillation (that’s the ‘code red stuff, folks). Subsequent procedures in 2005 should have corrected all that and Fa’avae went on to lead the Seagate team to their first Adventure Racing World Championship title in France.

Fa’avae actually began this book about 5 years ago when he first considered giving it away, or at least winding down, and was planning to make a go of the after dinner circuit. He actually shelved the idea after making an initial attempt before eventually picking it up again. It was only the untimely death of his mother that made him rethink the writing gig. He reckons it’s best to get it all down, you never know what’s around the corner. And what an adventure!

As well as telling his story, Fa’avae tells us some of the skills needed to inspire young adults, especially those who went to the Outward Bound courses, and the joys of fatherhood. Fa’avae’s book ticks the box as a damn good inspirational read, and he is a great role model for Pacific Island young men (and all young men in general). I hope he comes to my town one day, as I’d love to hear him speak. I’m googling Adventure Racing now – does it play on Sky Sport?!

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Nathan Fa’avae: Adventurer at Heart 
by Nathan Fa’avae
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9781927213629