Book Review: Flying Furballs: Dogfight, by Donovan Bixley

cv_dogfightAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Since winning the Junior Fiction prize for Monkey Boy at last year’s NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, Donovan Bixley has not stopped working*. He appears to be the busiest illustrator in the country at the moment, because not only can he illustrate, he has proven now that he can also write. Not only that, he can write brilliantly well, and book awards judges agree.

Flying Furballs is Bixley’s new solo series, set in 1916 Europe, with DOGZ standing in as Germans, and CATs as the allied forces. Dogfight introduces young Pilot Claude D’Bonair and his hilarious counterpoint Syd Fishus, seeing them work together – with the help of Manx the flight engineer – to save the hero of the CAT forces, Major Tom, who is missing in action. Claude escapes calamity by the tip of his tail more than once as he flies through the air in this action-packed adventure story.

There are more puns and idioms than you can shake a paw at, and many of the characters have very familiar names. There is Major Tom of course, and the scion of the flying CATs, The Red Setter. There is also a General Fluffington, a Commander Snookums, and Mr Tibbles. Plenty of levity to ensure the adults reading this to their kids are as entertained as the children themselves.

It’s hard not to compare this directly with the series’ that Bixley has illustrated previously with Kyle Mewburn’s writing, and there are similarities in tone and target age group. Both the Dinosaur Rescue and Dragon Knight are also highly recommended. What I think sets it apart is the freedom of space that having a whole book to himself has given Bixley. He can illustrate each page as lavishly as he wishes, with the result that the book is a riot of joyfully drawn (personified) animals.

Five-year-old Dan really enjoyed being read this book, and it was the perfect length to allow us to read a couple of chapters a night and still be finished within the week. He was ready for more as we finished, so I think we will be snapping Flying Furballs up as they come out, for the next few years.

This book is great fun for lovers of action-packed books – adults who grew up on a diet of Tintin, Peanuts and Biggles, with a side of Top Gun, will love it just as much as their kids.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Flying Furballs: Dogfight
by Donovan Bixley
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 9781927262535

*Actually even before then, as by my count, there were upwards of 20 books illustrated or written and illustrated by Donovan Bixley released since the start of 2014. Phew!

Tim Gruar – delegate of this year’s Father’s Day Present Committee

Dear 6-year-old daughter,

As the self-appointed delegate of this year’s Father’s Day Present Committee, I feel I should confide in you my gift preference for this year. Before I do, though, I wanted to tell you what an absolute joy it has been watching you grow in your own reading. Only a year and a half into the primary school system and you’ve already mastered the basics of reading.

cv_bad_jelly_the_witchI’ll be the first to admit that English is not exactly the easiest language. There are many words with similar meanings and spellings and even some words that are simply confounding. Of course, I can claim only a small part in your education. School has taken a major role in your reading development but I’ve always loved your passion for stories and reading to you every night has been an absolute pleasure and will be for some time to come. I remember your love of Dr Seuss, Richard Scarry and Spike Milligan’s Bad Jelly the Witch. It’s always fun to shout ‘Stinky Pooh, Knickers, Knickers, Knickers!’, despite what Mummy says.

cv_the_looky_bookOver time your tastes have changed, of course. Your love of Margaret Mahy and Donovan Bixley’s Looky Book and the Rainbow Magic Fairy series – your first chapter books. I was so proud when you chose a paper back copy of Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at that tiny back alley bookshop in town one night. We just finished eating at a street food stall when you drifted off down to that nifty old bookshop crammed to the ceiling with books and bizarre ephemera. You had a long, extrapolated conversation with the owner before settling on your choice. Then you took your precious purchase home to read under the covers until way past bed time.

cv_cigars_of_the_phaeraohAnother time, in your classroom, you chose to read me one of my childhood favourites: Hergé’s Tintin: The Cigars of the Pharaoh. How did you know this? Did Mummy tell you? I’ve always loved the mix of colourful illustrations and the layering of politics, espionage and quirky characters. Rasterpopulous, Snowy, Captain Haddock. The story still holds up today but it was somehow much more magic sharing it with you. Your interpretations of the plot take me right back to my first impressions of the story. And there’s also a special magic listening to all the stories you read me from your library visits.

Your little 4-year-old sister is hard on your heels. Everything you love is already on her reading list, although though her love of Hargreaves’ Mr Men series is way more serious. And your big sister has long buried herself in movie tie-ins. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is piled up on her nightstand.

So, my darling, I’ve come to my decision. For my present this year I don’t want socks, handkerchiefs or anything that buzzs, blips or blings. This year I want you to buy me a book voucher. And with that voucher we will make a trip to the bookshop where you will choose a book to read to me. I want it to be something that you and I can enjoy together, something classic, that we’ll enjoy and read again and again; something that might endure fads and trends. Something that we can share together – that speaks about you and me. For Father’s Day, the greatest gift you can give me is you time to read to me. That’s what I want.

a.k.a Tim Gruar

Tim_Gruar_daughtersTim and two of his daughters!

AWF15: Bond and Beyond, with Anthony Horowitz

Michael Williams introduced Horowitz as “a master of life and death.” Horowitz’s backlist is huge, between his TV writing and his novel writing, for teenagers, and for adults. He is best known to me as the author of the best-selling Alex Rider series, familiar from when I worked at the airport bookstore and managed the children’s section. He was the lead writer of Foyle’s War, had previously written episodes of Midsomer Murder (of which he said “I wrote seven episodes of Midsomer, before I realised that everybody in the town was already dead.”

The session was a truly dynamic interaction between author and chair – Michael Williams runs the Wheeler Centre, and is clearly a long-term fan of Horowitz. Saying that, Horowitz himself was a frenetic presence, talking at a rate of knots about his writing, and never without an answer (except when it came to future Tintin movies. “Hollywood producers are horrible and scary,” and he is not sure if anything came of the other scripts he wrote for Tintin, but as it didn’t do well enough in the USA, they are unlikely to see the light of day.

Horowitz had a terrible time at boarding school, and reading, and making up stories for the other boys in his dorm, were his escape. Many a brilliant career has been borne of this trope. He acknowledged that in writing Alex Rider he was writing the story of the childhood he never had, and posed the question of himself whether he would have preferred a happy childhood, or 96 million books sold?!

In writing in other authors’ voices, Horowitz sees his job as to be invisible. He is more than happy to follow where his favourite authors – Ian Fleming, Arthur Conan Doyle – lead him, and to merge his style with theirs. Sometimes too successfully, according to his wife, who made him take some of the sexism out of House of Silk. This is the challenge, to bring these authors up to date with current opinions, without taking way from their style, or making it his own in any way.

Williams asked Horowitz why it is we love whodunits so much, to which he answered it was to do with our desires to twitch back the lace curtains of the house next door and watch the less pleasant parts of human nature play out. Sounds like  why others watch reality TV to me!

When speaking about Tintin, Horowitz said, it was very hard to get the motion of Tintin and the suspense onto a screenplay, because Herge was such a genius with his pacing. He was never credited for his script, though he didn’t explain this beyond creative differences with Speilberg, but he did enjoy meeting Peter Jackson very much, and visiting his secret room. Horowitz was the type of child who knocked on walls to see if they were false – I wanted to yell out ‘me, too!’

Horowitz struck me as an incredibly generous writer. To be able to write for yourself, and on behalf of others (which is in a way how he approached his Bond and Sherlock stories) shows a generosity of spirit rarely seen. He had a few pieces of advice for young writers: Read everything, do something naughty but don’t get caught, and believe in yourself. He pointed out that it takes hard work (and in his case, 15 books) to get to the big time, but it is worth it if you believe in yourself.

I will be seeking out Horowitz and reading as many as I can, and passing them to my boys as they grow older.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster