Book Review: See You When I See You, by Rose Lagercrantz, illustrated by Eva Erikksson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_see_you_when_I_see_youSee You When I See You is the fifth book in the Dani series, about a girl starting the second year of school. The previous four books set the scene for Dani, a girl whose mother is dead and whose Dad spent a long time in hospital recently recovering from an accident. Understanding this context is useful, as without it the story seems oddly complex.

Dani has a bad start to a special day when her Dad asks her if it is OK for his friend Sadie to come over and cook dinner. It is clear from the story that Dani is not happy about this.

That day it is time for Dani’s annual school trip to the Skansen Zoo. The children go on a bus to the zoo, get a lecture about what to do if they are lost and happily have close encounters with some animals. Sadly, two of Dani’s classmates are mean to her, and in her distress she runs away. She remembers to follow the instructions of her teacher, and returns to the last place she saw her class. Suddenly she comes across her best friend, Ella. Ella is at a different school and the children make the most of the happy chance to go off and play.

The books are designed for children aged 5-7 and the publisher, Gecko Press, notes that ‘The series fills a gap of good reading for five- to seven-year-olds. It gives them a proper grown-up reading experience that is accessible but also has emotional weight.’

My seven-year-old daughter very much enjoyed the book, and I could hear the voice of seven-year-old’s in the story. With a seven-year-old’s understanding, not everything in the story is explained. We both enjoyed the illustrations, which show a child’s view of the action.

Books from this series would make a great gift for young readers, particularly those who would enjoy reading their own chapter books.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford.

See You When I See You
by Rose Lagercrantz
Illustrated by Eva Erikksson
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571307

Book Review: The Ice Sea Pirates, by Frida Nilsson

Available from bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_ice_sea_piratesAre you ready for an adventure on the high seas (without Captain Feathersword?) Pick up The Ice Sea Pirates, and you are in for a treat: Siri’s adventure holds drama, unexpected sub-plots and exotic frozen worlds at every turn.

The Ice Sea Pirates is a sea opera, if you will. It has big, crazy plotlines writ larger than life that all coalesce to tell a story of essential humanity, within the bounds of a classic adventure story. Siri and Miki live with their Dad on a small island in the far North, where the sea freezes in winter. Their Dad is elderly and still suffers from the impact of a fishing accident many years earlier, so the girls need to help to get food. When they are searching for berries on another island, they are separated, and so starts Siri’s wild adventures across the wilds of the Northern Seas.

Siri knows exactly who has Miki: the Ice Sea Pirates, lead by Captain Whitehead, who shares his loot but captures young children wherever he sails. Everybody knows the stories, and most know somebody who has been lost to the Captain. But it takes a 10-year-old with a heart of gold (or at least guilt) and a mind of steel, to decide to go after them and get her sister back. She gets hired to work in the galley of the Pole Star, befriending Fredrik, the chef on the ship.

One of the strongest aspects of this book is the complex way in which friendships and relationships are described convincingly from the point of view of a 10-year-old. Fredrik’s sister was taken a decade or more ago by the Captain, and so after laying his story on Siri, he throws his lot in with her. But there is calumny, and they are separated, Siri being locked in a storehouse to ensure she misses the ship as it sails. She cautiously accepts help from a wolf-hunter of dubious moral integrity, before ending up back on the sea, then ashore again, this time becoming a surrogate mother to a merchild. Her next friendship is with the lonely boy Einar, who just wants to feed his family.

Siri’s inner life grows with every encounter, and she learns about herself and humanity through her adventures through the world. She learns to identify nastiness without a word spoken, and learns the way in which adults build up their stories to protect themselves from the truth. She also, once we reach our final destination through sheer bloody-minded tenacity, learns how quickly children can be taught through cruelty to do the same.

The illustrations from David Barrow are just perfect, and well-placed to enhance the mood of the story. The book bears quite a commercial cover for Gecko, but one that matches well the tone of the plot inside. It is dark, in tone and plot – the ice cracks with every page – so keep that in mind as you purchase.

This is an invigorating read, which delivers all the tenets of excellent story-telling, and the final scenes are unexpected and well-paced. I highly recommend it as a family read for older kids, and as a wonderful read to extend children aged 9+ with the appropriate emotional maturity. I reckon we’ll see this translation winning prizes worldwide.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Ice Sea Pirates
by Frida Nilsson
Illustrated by David Barrow
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571468

Book review: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

This book is in bookstores now.

Take the fragmented and volatile nature of 19th century European history, mix in a grand cast of real people, show how well read you are by referring to a wide range of real and fictional writing, and invent a thoroughly dislikeable anti-hero to tie it all together. The result is Umberto Eco’s sixth novel, The Prague Cemetery, a book full of intrigue, deception and betrayal, which goes back to the familiar ground of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose.

Eco’s academic credentials include philosophy, semiotics, literary criticism and media and communications. Fifty years ago he first published his ideas on ‘open’ and ‘closed’ texts, and in his novels it seems he has pushed these ideas through into practice. The Prague Cemetery certainly requires the reader to engage, and engage deeply, questioning what is being reported on the page, and by whom. To add to the complexity, readers also need to remember that this is a translation from Italian into English. That such a complex and dynamic piece of writing should retain its integrity after such a process is remarkable.

It is also clear that Eco really meant what he said in an interview with the Guardian in 2011; ‘People are tired of simple things; they want to be challenged.’ Not only does The Prague Cemetery require nothing short of your full attention, moving as it does between a narrator – we are supposed to think this is Eco himself, perhaps – the journal entries of Simone Simonini, and notes made by Simonini’s alter ego, Abbe Dalla Piccola. It also assumes the reader has a very high level of trust in the narrator, whether it is Eco, Simonini, or Dalla Piccola, to recount in great detail the complex shifts in power in 19th century European politics. Eco knows it is unlikely many readers will be as well read on this subject as he is, and spares us no detail.

But he is not just doing this to show off. Simonini is a forger, used by more than one government, or would be government, to supply ‘genuine’ documents to the other side. Who is on the other side, and who is on his side, it is hard to say. Simonini is an unreliable narrator, and it is mostly his account of his life, written nearly thirty years after the events themselves, that we are reading. We cannot be sure that anything he tells us is true. At best it is just a version – his version – of the truth. Add in the brief notes by Dalla Piccola and the interjections by the narrator and we see the world as Eco wants us to see it – complex, confusing and where we can’t know everyone’s true intentions and motivations. Just like real life.

Eco has included monochrome images of supposed engravings of the events Simonini writes about, showing us that Simonini is in fact writing a journal for publication. He is, we are supposed to believe, finally writing down the truth about his colourful life, and the role he played in producing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an account of a meeting of Jewish elders in a cemetery in Prague. The Protocols exist, and are widely held to be a hoax. That did not stop them being used by the Russians and the Nazis, and even today there are claims that they are genuine.

Eco threads layer upon layer of fiction, fact, history and humour throughout this novel. Those who are not experts in this period of European history may find the detail distracting or annoying. I’d recommend setting aside your concerns; don’t try and remember all the characters and who they are aligned with. Never heard of the Two Kingdoms of Sicily? Don’t worry about it.

Not sure who Garibaldi was? Never mind. Unclear about the sequence of events with the Prussians, Bonaparte and the French Revolution? Let it go. No-one really knows all the details. Simonini certainly doesn’t, and you shouldn’t try. There are plenty of other books you can read if you’re interested.

Instead, read The Prague Cemetery for what it is: a rollicking tale of a thoroughly unlikeable, anti-Semitic, food-obsessed murderer, at the heart of deception after deception that shaped the course of European history at the time and – in the case of the forgery that sits at the centre of the book, the Protocols – decades to come. For Europeans, especially continental Europeans, the events in this book were not that long ago. They are, still, fresh in the memory. France and Italy are proud republics with volatile political environments. In that sense, they are still very much the countries described in The Prague Cemetery. And this is a serious business; the Protocols were used by the Nazis, in part, to justify the Holocaust.

The Prague Cemetery won’t be to everyone’s taste. Simonini is a nasty piece of work, but unlike most anti-heroes it’s hard to ever feel any sympathy or empathy for him. The historical details can be exhausting. And while we know its Simonini, not Eco, being anti-Semitic, the thoughts Eco puts in Simonini’s head, and the words he puts in his mouth, are disturbing.

If you want a story about conspiracies, European history and deception where you know who the villain is because he’s an creepy looking albino priest who tortures himself, where the world is threatened and saved at the last minute, and where the hero is an American and gets the girl, Dan Brown’s the author for you. For everyone else, there’s Umberto Eco.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Prague Cemetery
by Umberto Eco, translated by Richard Dixon
Published by Vintage Books
ISBN 9780099555971

Book review: Bernie & Flora by Annemie Berebrouckx

This book is in bookstores from today.

Bernie and Flora is a delightfully illustrated children’s picture book by a Belgian author, which has been translated into English.

An initial reading of the story made me wonder about the translation – it is more formal than spoken New Zealand English, and I wondered how this would sound read aloud. Silent reading made it feel a little clunky, in part due to the use of present tense. To test it out, I read the story aloud to my class of five and six year olds, and had no issues apart from having to check for understanding on the odd word like “clipping”.

The vocabulary used in the story is rich and varied, giving children exposure to lots of different verbs, which is great.

My class enjoyed the story very much, particularly the illustrations. Several children in my class took the opportunity to look at the book again during their reading time, which is a definite vote of confidence in the story. One child commented that the book was too short, as she likes being read longer stories. I disagree with her! From the perspective of someone who does a lot of reading aloud, the story is the perfect length – particularly if reading at bedtime.

From an adult’s point of view the ending may feel a little saccharine – but it’s possible I’m just very cynical! I won’t give anything away as to what the ending is, but it does set Bernie and Flora up to have further stories told about them, which is clearly Berebrouckx’s intent. The main themes are love and kindness – and I don’t think there’s much risk of over-exposing our children to these ideas.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore – a primary school teacher who loves sharing books with her students.

Bernie & Flora
by Annemie Berebrouckx
Published by Book Island
ISBN 9780987669612