Category Archives: humour

Dead End in Norvelt – Jack Gantos

13541514Dead End in Norvelt – Jack Gantos

Winner of the Newbery Medal 2012, Washington Post Best Children’s Book of 2011.

Middle Grade – Readers 10 – 13+

When Jack Gantos was seven, his favourite game was to pretend he was on fire and roll down a hill to put the flames out – and that explains a lot, really. There’s not a lot of time to reflect, in his novels. Usually, you’re on fire and rolling down the hill before you’ve really decided whether or not you’re going to play the game. Things happen at break neck speed, with the odd pause to get yourself back up to the top of the hill, ready to roll for your life again. (This game, by the way, never seems to wear out. I watched a group of 8 year olds playing it the other day. Do you remember the sheer pleasure of seeing how fast you could roll, how many kids you could bump into on the way, and the smell of the grass – especially if it was damp and had just been cut.)

This novel has more than an element of the ‘do you remember’ about it. It is nostalgic for  1962, small town, America. Norvelt has a special history in that it was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt (hence Norvelt) for families who were struggling financially. To be honest, at times it does feel a little self-conscious about ensuring you know when it is set – for example, ‘It was a good thing John Glenn had orbited the earth back in February.’ And, of course, JFK is still alive. But it does well to introduce a version of the early 1960’s small town America to today’s young readers. ‘My uncle who had painted the pony claimed he had seen a UFO come down over that very same hill before the drive-in was built. He was in the newspaper and said he had ‘touched’ the UFO and that it was ‘covered in a strange Martian language that looked like chicken feet.’ My dad called my uncle a nut, but it wasn’t so nutty when the army sent troops and a big truck to take the mysterious UFO away and afterward military police went door-to-door to all the little towns around here, warning people not to talk about ‘the fallen object’ with any strangers as they might be Russian spies.’ Without going into the politics in depth, the reader gets a sense of the cold war, space as the next frontier, and a more censored world, possible in a less technological era.

It is the golden rule of middle grade fiction that, if you haven’t killed off the parents, they must be incredibly unfair, and unwilling to listen to reason. Certainly they will be misguided. Maybe they are even a bit mad.  Probably they are so busy in their own lives that they barely notice the antics of the hero, who has the mindboggling challenge of needing to put the world to rights, without anyone noticing that it wasn’t right in the first place. No one must know anything is wrong, because usually it is the fault of the hero, who had a misguided moment of klutziness, whilst doing something forbidden. Things get worse before they get better, despite the best intentions of our hero, but in the end… well, I’d hate to ruin a good story, so I’ll stop right there.

Jack is not so much a klutz, as a bit day dreamy, ‘because my mind wanders in the morning my feet are always a few steps ahead of me…’ When we first meet him he is on a picnic table in his back yard, with his father’s WW2 Japanese war souvenirs, watching a drive-in war movie, using the Japanese binoculars. Jack also has his father’s sniper rifle, and the movie enemies are for target practice, ‘because Dad said I had to get ready to fight off the Russian Commies who had already sneaked into the country and were planning to launch a surprise attack.’ Jack doesn’t realise that the rifle is loaded and one thing leads to another, which leads to Miss Volker dropping her hearing aid down the toilet, and the town plumber, who is also the local ambulance driver, roaring up to Miss Volker’s house in the ambulance to help.

Mom now has Jack over a barrel, so to speak, since Dad will blow a fuse if he knows Jack has been playing with his war souvenirs, and especially that he broke the rifle safety rules. Jack is mystified as to how the gun came to be loaded, but accepts the error of his ways, and the inevitability of a severe consequence. Mom grounds him until his father returns, with the only exception being that he is allowed to leave the house to help out their eccentric octogenarian neighbour, Miss Volker. It turns out that Miss Volker needs him because, due to her severely arthritic hands, she is unable to write anymore. She has Jack scribe the obituaries of the elderly townspeople, who suddenly seem to be dropping like flies.

Unfortunately for Jack, when Dad comes back he has an agenda of his own that involves Jack mowing down Mom’s cornfield. Dad says Jack must mow it down. Mom says Jack mustn’t. The reader knows Jack can’t win this one, and feels the injustice. Jack mows down the corn and is grounded for the rest of summer, by his mother. Jack’s adventures might well make a great read aloud – if you can stand all the blood and gory bits – Jack’s nose bleeds constantly, his best friend’s father owns a funeral parlour, a Hell’s Angel motorcycle club member is flattened by a truck, and several elderly residents are found dead. Jack’s errands for Miss Volker are often dubious, if not downright dangerous and law breaking. He dresses up as the grim reaper to break into a house where Miss Volker suspects a senior citizen lies dead. She needs him to check, so that she can write the obit. He drives her car round town at break neck speed, and buys 1080 poison from the hardware store to kill the rats in her basement. There is also the mystery of why the town’s elderly are suddenly dying…

I have a couple of boys lined up to read this one over the next couple of weeks – they have already read the blurb and are keen. I’m keen to see what they think. I think it’s a great read, but I’m interested to know if there’s just a bit much history tucked into the book. As any parent knows, there are only so many green things you can hide in something yummy before it is spotted for the vegetable that it is.

Speaking of which, here’s a titbit for the Kiwi’s. Jack is reading about Kennedy during WW2.  Apparently, ‘Kennedy and his torpedo boat crew were on night patrol in the sea around the Solomon Islands when a Japanese destroyer came roaring at full speed out of the mist and sliced their boat clean in half. Eleven men survived the collision but some were burned badly from the fuel fire that took place after the crash. Kennedy had been hurled across the deck and fractured a vertebrae in his back but he could still move.

Kennedy tied one end of a belt onto the most wounded man’s lifejacket and put the other end of the belt in his own mouth and swam the breaststroke for five hours before he got the man to the island. There was no food or fresh water…(lots of things happen and many days pass but…) But just before the men lost all hope, the native islanders tracked them down. They were friendly and wanted to help so Kennedy scratched a rescue note on a coconut and gave it to the islanders, who paddled their war canoe to an Allied base. More days passed, and just when Kennedy and his men thought they all would die, they were rescued by soldiers from New Zealand.’

There is a sequel to this book, ‘From Norvelt to Nowhere’, so if this goes down well, then I may buy it.

Read some other reviews here:

Betsy Bird’s Review

Book Browsers Review

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Boys' Reading, Children 10+, coming of age, Five stars, Historical, humour, Middle Grade Fiction, Prize winners

Fortunately the Milk – Neil Gaiman

17758805

Fortunately the Milk – Neil Gaiman (Ridiculously bestselling author) and Chris Riddell (Illustrator)

Young Fiction, 7+ years, UK Author

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZFSbGY7L7g

This is a partnership made in heaven, I think. A little bit like Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake – quite a lot like that, in fact. There is an energy between the story and the drawings that means the sum is more than the parts. This book is a must have for every book shelf home and school – even if your kids are big (My 15 year old chuckled his way through it in one sitting). Or they’ve left home. Or they’re a cat and a dog. Or a goldfish. Anyone who’s been a child living with adults will enjoy this book.

I loved recognising Gaiman as Dad in the illustrations, and one of the things I liked about that was that it made the story even more believable – well – perhaps authentic is a better word…

Mum has to go to a conference, and Dad is left looking after the kids. Dad can be a bit distracted at times. We know this because a) Mum checks a list of instructions with him AND leaves them pinned to the fridge b) defrosting a frozen dinner ends up a bit of a mess and it’s Indian for dinner instead and c) well, we just know.  He’s the kind of Dad who can make a spoon sound new and exciting:

‘We can’t eat our cereal,’ said my sister sadly.

‘I don’t see why not,’ said my father. ‘We’ve got plenty of cereal. There’s Toastios and there’s muesli. We have bowls. We have spoons. Spoons are excellent. Sort of like forks, only not as stabby.’

‘No milk,’ I said.

‘No milk,’ said my sister.’

I’m not sure why, but as I read it, I heard Ardal O’Hanlon reading it – I’m pretty sure that’s the perfect voice for this book (although there is apparently a very good version of Neil Gaiman reading the book, which would be excellent, too.)  It’s a born read aloud for parents, or in the classroom – there is plenty of room to play with funny voices, ridiculous accents, spectacular pauses, and even the odd loud, scary noise.

The story is really a riff on why Dad took so long to get the milk from the corner shop, and it is story telling at its best. Most of us have someone in the family who spins a good yarn – kissed the blarney stone, so to speak.  And Dad really does tell a fantastic adventure involving flying saucers inhabited by globby snot green aliens, a professorial stegosaurus, several wumpires (or possibly vampires), and more…

Potentially a modern classic – buy or ‘borrow’ it now!

Click on the link below to see Neil Gaiman introduce the book, and watch Chris Riddell draw Professor Steg.

http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/fortunately-the-milk–9781408841761/

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Children 8+, Classics, Five stars, humour, Uncategorized

NZ Rugby World – Issue 164 – Massive respect!

WIN_20140117_094535

I had an epiphany the other day. It all began when I was at the bookstore browsing and I caught sight of the lovely Richie McCaw – not in person unfortunately – but on the cover of NZ Rugby World. It reminded me that I hadn’t bought the younger son one of these in a while, and so I handed over nearly $10, thinking ‘oh well, at least he’ll read it’ and took it home.

The day passed, and, pretty much as normal, I hadn’t heard a lot from the younger son – 15 year olds prefer cave dwelling to hanging out with the mortifying fellow house mates called family. So, I went down to explain that it was time he got off the play station and got outside for a while – when I got to the whatever room it is since we’re not allowed to call it the play room anymore – braced for battle, I poked my head in the door, and saw him engrossed in the new magazine. Wouldn’t want to stop a boy reading now, would I? So I quietly snuck away to celebrate.

A while later I called the 15 yr old for lunch. No answer. Nothing unusual there, what was more unusual was that pretty soon he was trailing into the kitchen… reading…! I politely didn’t comment and we all sat down to eat. His father reminded him it was rude to read at the table, and the 15 yr old grunted and eventually put the magazine to one side. Open.

This is when the neurons started working in my brain – it can take me a while – and synapses were firing. I’d seen this behaviour before. Somewhere – but where. As lunch continued, I glanced out of the corner of my eye at the 15yr old.  Uh huh! There it was. He was discretely reading his magazine while he ate.

Lunch ended. And it was his older brother’s turn to load the dishwasher. The 15yr old headed straight to the pantry (it’s in their DNA even when they’ve just been fed) grabbed an apple and took off back to his cave.  Nothing unusual in that. Except it was all done with his head stuck in the magazine.  Occasional snorts also emanated.

Later, when more snacks were required, he emerged again. This time slightly more sociable. Still with magazine in hand. Now, though, he was in a lighter part of the reading, and laughing, and reading aloud bits to the rest of us – which I tried to understand, and see the point of, but mostly failed miserably.

Dinner time, and he emerges, looking a little more part of our world, but still holding the magazine. Closed. But there. Next to his dinner plate.  He kept glancing at it, and I could see he was thinking about what he had read, reflecting, remembering… After dinner the retreat to the cave.

I wandered down, curious. Surely he wasn’t still reading? Half hopeful I poked my head into the cave. No – the PlayStation was on. But, what was this, the boy sees me and speaks to me, pausing his game to do so.  The world is indeed a funny place today, I thought. I’m replaying the (who knows which) game, he told me. You know, the one where…(my mind goes fuzzy at this point)…I snuck out, leaving him to it.

My epiphany, when I finally got there in the middle of the night, was that I had seen his behaviour before. In me! When I am reading my favourite, or just about any good, books. I am so lost in their world, that everything else is sideline. I reluctantly put it aside for meals, I read parts aloud to the family (and they nod in the same half interested, mostly bemused way I had earlier in the day). I carry it round the house with me. I glance at the cover and rethink.  In my mind I rewrite parts of it.

I am subscribing to NZ Rugby World, and I can’t think why I haven’t before now. I know that it is reading he loves. I understand that it is worthwhile reading. It’s just that, in my heart, I guess I still wanted his reading to be more like my reading. Until this day, when I saw that it was his reading. And not bad reading either. There is some quality writing and reporting in this mag! Funny, intelligent, carefully composed, reflective and engaging writing. I think, once he’s read them, they might make their way into my classroom – except his favourites, which are stacked up on his bedside table…. hmmm – where have I seen that before?

Leave a comment

Filed under Boys' Reading, humour, Rugby, Uncategorized

Journey to the River Sea – Eva Ibbotson

Journey to the River SeaJourney to the River Sea – Eva Ibbotson (2001)

I found this book because I was looking for something for my Year 7 classes to read that sat well with their Humanities topic, Source to Sea.  Last term their Humanities topic was Rainforests.  So, being about a girl who moves from London to the Amazon Rainforest of Brazil, this seemed to fit the bill quite well.  Sure, the main character’s a girl, but, oh well, if it turns out to be a bit girlie – the boys will just have to cope with it.  After all, they have read Boy Overboard and Kensuke’s Kingdom so far this year.  Both have boy protagonists.  So it’s time for the girls.

Mind you, the boys are not going to be impressed when they see the cover.  It’s apricot with two butterflies on it.  And it has a gold sticker, which means it’s won an award, which means it’s a ‘good’ book.  How many signs does a boy need?

And the first line’s not going to lug them in, either. ‘It was a good school, one of the best in London.’  Oh dear.  Not exactly, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,’ is it?!  I know they are going to look at me with big eyes, thinking, ‘really, Mrs OW…’  They will howl, ‘It is a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day!  We’re going to move to Timbuktu.’

And I will have to say, ‘Be still, wild things,’ just to mix up the picture book allusions a little, and convince them that even though this book is set (initially) in the Mayfair Academy for Young Ladies, in 1910 London, and even though the main character is a girl who is an orphan, whose best friend is called Hermione, who is about to meet her twin girl cousins Gwendolyn and Beatrice, they will love this book.  Even though she has a Governess.  Called Miss Minton.

I will have to remind them that they thought they were too big to enjoy ‘Eeyore’s Birthday,’ and yet when I read it to them they begged for more.  And when we were talking about The Indian in the Cupboard the other day, they suddenly realised that Omri was just like Eeyore putting the popped balloon into the empty honey jar, when he put his plastic Indian into the cupboard.

They will have to trust me, even though in their hearts they will be wondering why I am using their valuable reading time for this when they could be reading Percy Jackson, or Artemis Fowl, or for those boys who love realistic fiction, a good Des Hunt adventure!  But, like The Little Train That Could, I think I can, I think I can…

And I think I can because this is a wonderful book.  It is a real, not-old-fashioned adventure.  Maia turns out to be gutsy and intelligent, and Miss Minton, her governess does a nice turn in wryness and dryness, with enough sceptical tolerance of those too wealthy for their own good, to make her very likeable indeed.  Thank goodness there are some great boy characters in Clovis King and Finn Taverner, as well.

Essentially, the plot goes something like this (without too many spoilers, I hope).  Maia is at boarding school in London, but her guardian has been looking for family to take care of her, since her parents died in a train crash two years before.  Finally, he locates distant family living in Manaus, in the Brazilian Rainforest.  Maia is the kind of girl who tries to make the best of things, but is very human, too.  When she meets her governess and leaves school with her friends waving goodbye:

‘Doesn’t she look fierce?’ whispered Melanie.

‘Poor you,’ mumbled Hermione.

And indeed the tall, gaunt woman looked more like a rake or a nutcracker than a human being.

The door of the cab opened.  A hand in a black glove, bony and cold as a skeleton, was stretched out to help her in.  Maia took it and, followed by the shrieks of her schoolmates, they set off.

For the first part of the journey Maia kept her eyes on the side of the road.  Now that she was really leaving her friends it was hard to hold back her tears.

She had reached the gulping stage when she heard a loud snapping noise and turned her head.  Miss Minton had opened the metal clasp of her large black handbag and was handing her a clean handkerchief embroidered with the initial ‘A’.

‘Myself,’ said the governess in her deep, gruff voice, ‘I would think how lucky I was.  How fortunate.’

‘To go to the Amazon, you mean?’

‘To have so many friends who were sad to see me go.’

‘Didn’t you have friends who minded you leaving?’

Miss Minton’s lips twitched for a moment.

‘My sister’s budgerigar, perhaps.  If he had understood what was happening.  Which is extremely doubtful’

And so begins the peculiar friendship of Miss Minton and Maia.   We know they are like minded, because at the end of chapter one, when a porter goes to pick up Miss Minton’s trunk,

‘You’ll need two men for that,’ said the governess.

The porter look offended.  ‘Not me. I’m strong.’

But when he came to lift the trunk, he staggered.

‘Crikey, Ma’am, what have you got in there?’ he asked.

Miss Minton looked at him haughtily and did not answer.  Then she led Maia onto the platform where the train waited to take them to Liverpool and then the RMS Cardinal bound for Brazil.

They were steaming out of the station before Maia asked, ‘Was it books in the trunk?’

‘It was books,’ admitted Miss Minton.

And Maia said, ‘Good.’

The pacing is perfect.  We learn so much from what is not said.  Miss Minton is not your average governess and Maia is not your average Young Lady.

On the boat to Brazil, Maia makes friends with Clovis King, a young actor heartily homesick for London.  On arriving in Brazil she discovers that things are not quite as she had hoped they would be, and while not quite Cinderella, there is enough reference for even young children to see the twins as the ugly sisters.  But Maia is no Cinderella, waiting for a fairy godmother to fix everything for her.

Maia meets a mysterious young boy, when she is exploring the forest near her new home, and a wonderful adventure begins, with as many twists and turns as any good river may be expected to have.   As Books for Keeps says, ‘This is a thoroughly enjoyable yarn, veering between farce and tragedy, and peopled with highly quixotic but believable characters  It revels in the joy and the danger of exploration…Very highly recommended.’

And for someone who enjoys books to reference other literature, this one surely does.  Little Lord Fauntleroy is the play that Clovis is in.  Macbeth is also put on by the acting company on the boat, in another example of the pithy Miss Minton:

‘Mrs Goodley was Lady Macbeth of course and Maia thought she was very stirring, tottering about all over the place and muttering ‘Out damned spot’ with a terrible leer.  So she was rather hurt when Miss Minton, who had been reading, closed her book and got ready to go below.

‘Don’t you like Shakespeare?’ asked Maia.

Miss Minton gave her a look.  ‘I rank Shakespeare second only to God,’ she said. ‘Which is why I am going to my cabin.’

Later, when Maia is at her cousins, the Carters, there is a lovely scene where Mrs Carter, who loathes insects with a passion and a flit gun is chasing around in the early morning:

In the corridor, wearing a dressing gown and a turban to protect her hair, was Mrs Carter.  She had the flit gun in her hand and was carefully squirting every nook and cranny with insect killer.  Then she disappeared into the cloakroom, fetched a broom, and began to thump and bang on the ceiling to get rid of possible spiders.  Next came a bucket of disinfectant and a mop with which she squelched across the tiled floor – and all the time she muttered, ‘Out!’

It is hard not to remember Lady Macbeth, and particularly Mrs Goodley’s interpretation, and of course the foreshadowing of madness to come.

This book was second in running for the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year (2001) and the Guardian Fiction Award (2001).  As judge Anne Fine says: But we all (the judges Anne Fine, Jacqueline Wilson and Philip Pullman) fell on Eva Ibbotson’s perfectly judged, brilliantly light to read, civilised Journey To The River Sea, in which we are shown how, as one of the characters reminds us, “Children must lead big lives… if it is in them to do so.” Oh, please let her write another book as fine as this, because, in any other year, we would have handed her the prize without a thought.

Read the Guardian article here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/oct/09/guardianchildrensfictionprize2001.awardsandprizes18

This is a book well worth a read by children and by their parents!

Leave a comment

Filed under Children 8+, Five stars, humour, Prize winners, Read Aloud

Uncle Trev and his Whistling Bull – Jack Lasenby

Uncle Trev and his Whistling Bull

Finalist: New Zealand Children’s Book Awards, Junior Fiction, 2013.

For as long as I can remember, Uncle Trev stories have been around.  Uncle Trev’s a bit of a ratbag.  He’s always getting himself into some kind of trouble or another.  Set in small town New Zealand, in the early 1930’s, the wide-eyed, all believing narrator is a young lad (let’s call him Jack – I’m not sure we ever find out his name), bed-ridden for six weeks.  Uncle Trev pops in now and then, usually just after Mum has gone into town for something.  Mum and Uncle Trev don’t get along so well.  To be fair, Mum’s pretty scary, with ears so sharp she can hear the echoes of conversations, and eyes so sharp she can read the lino like a book.  Young Jack tells Uncle Trev that he’s afraid of the dark, and Uncle Trev replies, ‘Don’t go telling her I said so, but I think the dark’s probably scared of your mother.’ Mum’s also a pretty good baker, and Uncle Trev can’t help himself getting into the cake tins, even knowing Mum’s probably going to find out…

Uncle Trev spins a pretty good yarn, and each chapter in this delightful book is yet another tall tale to entertain both the child listener and the adult reader.  The tales get a little taller and a little more fantastic each chapter, until even very young children can realise that Uncle Trev might just be a little bit lenient with the truth, now and then.  Oh, how wonderful to be wiser than the boy in the book, who believes everything his Uncle Trev tells him.  I can imagine this as a wonderful read-aloud, either in the classroom, or at bedtime each night.  There’s a warm, affectionate and reassuring tone to the stories, that assures children that the adults in their lives care about them very much.  There’s also a nice amount of sheer silliness to have fun with – what a great intro into telling tall stories of your own, about your childhood.  It has the alive feeling of a story told, rather than a story read.  I always imagine a Barry Crump kind of voice for Uncle Trev.

While I really do love this book, and it is extremely entertaining, consistently well-written and just the right mix of sincere, slapstick and a tiny bit scary, for me it reads best as a series of short stories.  I have had children read it, and enjoy it, but I have also had children read a few stories out of it, put it aside and say they will come back to it later.  I think both kinds of readings are fine.

Highly recommended!

Leave a comment

Filed under Children 8+, Four stars, humour, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Read Aloud, Uncategorized

The Queen and the Nobody Boy – Barbara Else

The Queen and the Nobody Boy

This is the second book in the Tales of Fontania, with The Travelling Restaurant: Jasper’s Voyage in Three Parts, being the first.  The Queen and the Nobody Boy continues with the irreverent humour of The Travelling Restaurant, and expands our knowledge of Fontania into Um’Binnia, an underground city threatening war against Fontania.  The greedy and awful Emporer Prowdd’on, is trying to capture the Golden Dragon-Eagle, who is necessary to the passing on of magic to young Queen Sibilla, 12 years old and not quite magical yet.

This story is Hodie’s story.  Hodie is the ‘nobody boy’ who has no parents and is an unpaid odd-job boy at the palace.  He becomes disgruntled with life at the palace, not surprisingly, and makes the decision to move on:

‘Hodie’s eyes turned watery.  He was utterly sick of the Grand Palace and all its gossip. “Oo, babies not sleeping safe? We need stronger magic.” “Oo, Fontania needs a royal family that pays more attention to its magical abilities.” “Oo, what can the king be doing in his workshop? I hope it’s magical experiments.”

Magic! he scoffed to himself.  How could magic exist in a world where a boy’s father was here one day but gone the next without a word? How could it exist in a world where a boy didn’t know a thing about his mother? Well, he’d learned to live without parents, and he didn’t need the Grand Palace either – especially if the palace didn’t need him.  It was high time he left here.  He would go south.’

Only, as he is leaving, he hears footsteps behind him. ‘Hodie didn’t want company and strode faster.  The boy caught up, puffing. “Boy!” said the boy. “I knew I’d catch you!” Hodie’s mouth dropped open.  It was the Queen.”

Sibilla is fed-up with everybody watching and waiting for her magic to appear, and has decided she will leave with Hodie, whether he likes it or not.  Along with Murgott, the pirate chef from the Travelling Restaurant, who has become Corporal Murgott in this book, Hodie and Sibilla travel to Um’Binnia, overcoming danger along the way, and discovering new strengths.  Sibilla is also forced to consider a few home truths about how her subjects view royalty.

‘Sibilla kept both hands on her cap. “How would democ-ra-what improve the Emporer?”

Hodie put his hands over his eyes.  Any moment she would give herself away.  They’d all be in trouble.

“Democracy,” muttered the ogre, “is even better than having lazy King and little girl Queen.”

Murgott drew in a sharp breath and glanced at Sibilla.  The ogre continued. “Democracy is when people spend time arguing about what is best, not just say Hoorah for Emporer to his face and heaven-save-us-all-especially-ogres behind his back.”‘

The story is told with a very present authorial voice – almost a ‘story telling’, with authorial asides such as,

‘Hodie also heard that the King and Queen’s mother, Lady Helen, actually said the Royal Swear Word. (It’s in very tiny letters at the end of the book.  Nobody must see you look at it.)’

For my own part, I wonder if the tongue-in-cheek humour throughout detracts from the wonderful fantasy and fantastical inventions and settings in the book.  The reason that fantasy worlds can work is because they become utterly believable, in a suspend-disbelief kind of way.  The author’s presence in the story reminds you that she is making it all up, and the irreverent tone undermines her world a little.  This is different to the asides, for example, of Bartimaeus in the Jonathon Stroud series, where the teller of the story is a character from the story, and therefore his irreverence is entirely convincing.  But, this is just a pondering…

This book is great fun, and appropriate for children from about 8 years and up.  While it is not necessary to have read ‘The Travelling Restaurant’ to enjoy this story, it does help you to understand the characters of Jasper, Sibilla and Murgott a little more.

Nominated for the Junior Fiction Section of this year’s NZ Post Children’s book awards.

Links to Teacher Resources and an interview with Barbara Else, the author.

Leave a comment

Filed under Children 8+, Four stars, humour, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer

Reach – Hugh Brown

Reach

Firstly, I would like to say that there is not ‘a way that teenagers talk to each other’, as some reviewers have commented.  I have heard a few that actually sound quite literate – so, for me, the teenage conversation was fine.  (Perhaps I could read it as a translation of what they actually said!) The thing I found most surreal about this book was that there was not a cellphone, facebook page or electronic device involved.  Technologically speaking, this book was set in the 70’s. Evocatively.  And I liked that.

Will is a Year 12 boy who lives with his grandparents since his mother left to join a commune 5 years ago.  His father, Bill, (and yes that can get a bit confusing) parents a bit like a hawk – Will says, ‘Dad’s like that – circles around in the hills by himself most of the time, then every now and then he lands nearby, stares at you, silent and fierce, then he’s up and gone again.’  Will sees himself as a nerdy bookworm, and this is further verified when Woody (a rugby player of course) starts to bully Will at school.  At about the same time, Will meets Conway, a new girl at school, and the daughter of a Guidance Counsellor that he has a bit of an unfortunate conversation with when she queries his lateness to school each day.  In typical teenage fashion he decides to play with her a little, because he can, without further thought to how the mother of a girl he likes might interpret what he says.  Also, Will’s mother is now back in the country, and Will, having idealised her to bits, wants to visit her, feeling that she would understand him better than anyone, and help to put things right.  (We all know how that’s going to turn out, right?)  Conway appears to show interest in Will, and then backs off (mysteriously to Will, but obvious to the reader), Will learns martial arts and then one day Woody turns up…and – you get the picture.

This book is not about the plot.  It’s about the telling of the story. It celebrates language and plays with it all the time. Perky, Will’s best friend, speaks like a thesaurus, ‘A miniscule sun, a tiny luteous orb’ is how he describes a ball of earwax plucked from his ear.  When he flicks the wax, it lands on the board between red and wheelbarrow – William Carlos Williams.  Perky is quirky – no doubt about that, but as he says himself, it’s a pose – a defence mechanism, ‘Don’t worry, the dean’s very nice.  We’re great friends, though of course she is somewhat concerned about my extreme attention-seeking behaviour.  But hell, people who live in glasshouses shouldn’t shoot skeet.’

Young Will is inclined to a bit of verbal virtuosity himself, for example, when milking Hex, the cow (an hilarious scene), sounding almost Shakespearean, ‘set your foot, a hex on you, set your foot, poxy cow,’ he crooned.  In maths, a parabola turns into a poem

Why
equals rain, squared
plus sun? Cloud mountains
roil and mound.
Why equals
rai…

This book is such an interesting mix of ideas that every time I think about it, something else comes to mind.  Of course it brings to mind Atwood’s ‘The Blind Assassin’, having a novel within a novel, but also, ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’, with the dystopian, repressive society represented in Will’s journal.  Narcissus, from Greek mythology who turns into a daffodil, staring into the beautiful reflection of himself in the pond, is the tongue-in-cheek way Brown shows Will’s self-absorbed mother.  In a more ‘boy’ way, though, how can we not think of the Marvel comics – Clark Kent being brought up in the country, on a farm, with his ‘grandparents’.  It’s interesting that it is Conway, a girl, who is obsessed with the graphic novels – most books would have the boys reading the graphic novels and the girls being the book worms. But then Conway is an artist.  At times, Conway is drawn as a character from a graphic novel – when she mimics the finch-like behaviour of her mother, ‘she pursed her lips, put her head on one side and made her eyes round and glassy’ makes her sound more like a Manga than a person, or a finch!

Maybe this is a new form of fantasy writing – set in the here and now – but in a parallel universe where we still drive Valiants and Vdubs, listen to Elvis and have grandmothers who bake endless delectable delights – some of which I haven’t tasted for years.  Reading this nearly made me run for my other great Kiwi classic – the Edmonds Cookbook – to bake an Albert cake – whatever that is…and some ginger crunch (not mentioned in this book, but the best thing my mum used to bake on Saturday mornings, while Dad and my older brother were mowing the lawns.)  And this book does evoke that time.

Is it too removed from reality – I’m not sure.  After all, as this book points out in so many different ways, what is reality?  Is it what we experience, is it what people experience of us, is it the reality we build to protect ourselves, is it the reality that dawns on us piece by piece as we put the bits of the puzzle together.  This book is perhaps a meditation on life, ‘the point of meditation isn’t to get to a place where you have no thoughts, but where you aren’t involved in them.  Where you’re separate, able to observe them, or not, at your leisure.’

This book has been shortlisted for the Young Adult Section of this year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, and also won the inaugural Tessa Duder  Award for Young Adult Fiction.

I’m off to offer it as a possibility to my RR, without telling him any of this, of course.  I’m pretty sure he’ll just enjoy the story.

1 Comment

Filed under Children 12+, Five stars, humour, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Prize winners