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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!

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Earth Dragon, Fire Hare – Ken Catran

COV_EarthDragonFireHare.indd

This is the second to last of the books I am reading for the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards.

Ken Catran is a very experienced writer of books for children and young adults, and writing for Television.  This means that this novel feels very assured. To learn more about the author, click here.

The story begins in Singapore,1942, after the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbour.  Phillip Hayes is a civilian engineer on his way back to New Zealand to rejoin his wife and son.  Unfortunately, he meets an Indian infantry, treats them with terrible supremacy, and dies for it.

Am I to be shouted at like a dog? wondered the subedar.  There were three bullets left in his revolver.  He fired them all, watching without pity as the man collapsed by his car, his shirt stained red.

Part One begins, still in 1942, but in New Zealand, where the young Peter Hayes is playing war games with Barry, ‘a natural leader’ Peter is trying to impress.  The ‘Japanese’ are the local Marist boys on their way home from choir practice.  The flawed logic for their battle, developed by Barry, is brilliant in the way that it conveys the terrible and apparently simple arguments for any kind of prejudice and the apathy or willing blindness to its wrongness that supports it:

After all (he said) it was a known fact that Catholics obeyed the Pope – who was Italian.  That Italy, Germany and Japan were the enemy was a known fact, too (Barry said).  And Barry’s family had been bombed out when the Germans flattened Belfast; his granny and sister dead in the ruins of Cromwell Road.  And (he said) the Irish Catholics had made that happen because they took their orders from the Pope and Hitler – and weren’t the IRA blowing up public lavatories in London? So it was alright to pretend the Catholics were Japanese so they would be ready if the invasion came.

Peter thought there were some flaws in Barry’s argument, but did not point this out.

The second chapter begins the narrative of Ng, a fourteen year old Malaysian boy who is fighting a very real battle in the jungle of Malaya, staying alive by joining the communists who are battling the Imperialists.  This is a stark contrast to the previous chapter, where the game of war is ended with the sharing of humbugs behind the Presbytarian church.

Silence, then dark figures advancing warily out of the black afternoon shadows; men and women, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil, dressed in an assortment of tattered clothing.  As they picked up the rifles and ammunition pouches from the crumpled bodies, one man walked up to Ng.  He was Chinese, short and thickset, with heavy, strong features, and he wore a ragged army shirt and patched baggy shorts.  He had a British Army belt and revolver, a sandal on one foot and a two-toed Japanese boot on the other.

He looked down at the quivering Eurasian, then gestured to Ng to get up. ‘Why did the patrol stop you?’

Northern Malay-Chinese, Hakku perhaps, thought Ng.  There was a dull splashing sound behind them as the bodies were thrown into the paddy.

Ng is forced to follow a leader, in a very different way to Peter, ‘Chengsai, the ironwood tree, hard enough to defy even the voracious white ants: a good nickname for a tough leader.  Chengsai might be a Communist, but Ng had already decided what to do, even though his father would not have approved.  So he followed Ahmed into the dark, humid forest.

As might be expected, Ng and Peter’s stories follow a trajectory that finds them both on opposite sides of the 1948 – 1954 Malayan ‘Emergency’ – the colonialist term for this war.  There is an inevitability to each story that means that the reader does not take sides.  Both characters are drawn with strengths and faults, and are products of their heritage.

The complications of war became a barrier for me, but I suspect would not be so much of an issue for those readers who find the strategy and battle of war good plot narrative.  Also, I know very little about this conflict and the factions involved, so this became confusing for me as well.

The biggest barrier for me was that I did not like Peter as a character, at all.  So, I didn’t really care about his story.  There were confusing elements that were probably supposed to show a more sensitive side to his nature, such as his love of poetry and drawing – but they never really contributed to who he was.  They were very much side issues which had to be drawn to our attention every now and then.

As for Ng, he never allowed us to really know him.  Appropriately for the plot, Ng had to be a little chameleon-like, to survive.  And, although he had some great moments in the story, we only ever got to watch him, rather than become acquainted with him.

I read this book just over a week ago, and left writing a review about it because I hoped that it would reveal more to me as I thought it through.  There are some very good elements to this book, and it is well constructed and well written.  For me, it was not engaging, but I think there are many people that would find it engaging.  I have put some links below to other reviews that perhaps have more connection to this book.

NZ Boooksellers Review

Bobs Books

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Snakes and Ladders – Mary-Anne Scott

Snakes and ladders

I have just finished ‘Snakes and Ladders’ by Mary-Anne Scott, nominated for the YA section of the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards, 2013.  Scholastic have put together a set of teacher notes for the book, which may be valuable for those intending to incorporate it into a Secondary School English class. I hesitate to post a less than enthusiastic review, especially of new New Zealand books, however, in my opinion, this book was just OK – 2 – 2.5/5 stars.

Finn Fletcher lives in small town, Waimea.  He has a somewhat strained relationship with Anne, his mother, who seems to spend a lot of time anxiously trying to make things good for Finn.  Valerie, his grandmother, and Anne want Finn to move to an elite boarding school in Auckland, ‘This is a great opportunity to broaden your horizons’He intended broadening his horizons that very evening, if things went to plan.’

His father, druggie Duggie, lives in a filthy shack, plays drums in a band, and grows marijuana.  Finn drops in on his Dad occasionally,  ‘Something acid was burning his throat and the smell of unwashed bedding in this pigsty wasn’t helping.  It was years since Finn had been in his father’s bedroom and the loneliness and poverty of his life seemed to be seeping out of the walls.’ 

His grandfather, Poppa has an orchard and Finn does the bookwork once a week for him.  ‘Well done, Finn.’ His grandfather tapped the side of the computer screen. ‘It’s remarkable how quick you are on this thing.’  A reluctant surge of love ran through Finn and he tossed his grandfather a rare, heart-stopping grin.’

Poppa’s housekeeper, Mrs P, adores Finn, ‘She was always patting and mauling Finn and this morning her dimpled flesh was enough to trigger an overreaction. He pulled away.  And, when she tries to pop some pikelets into the glove box of the car as he leaves, ‘he felt like jamming her fingers in the compartment door.’

Finn has a girlfriend, Alison, who seems (to be quite honest) far too good for him and a group of friends she describes as ‘drop-kicks’, which might be a bit harsh – but only a bit…

So, life is pretty much on a normal track at the beginning of the novel.  He’s playing sevens, which he loves, he’s coasting at school, he’s got things working pretty well for him, at a pretty minimal effort.  Every adult is treated with the great teenage contempt, girls are for seeing how far you can get, and Saturday nights are for parties and drinking.  Then, one morning, after an especially drunken night the night before, Finn discovers that his father is in serious trouble.  He is accused of having hit and killed a girl.  In the face of the great small town rumour mill, Finn decides to go along with his Grandmother’s idea of sending him away to an elite Auckland boarding school.

Life at boarding school, with the very rich, creates a whole new set of challenges for Finn, including learning how to deal with bullying and meeting a whole new kind of girl.  He also makes two good friends in Hobbsie and Andy – although he consistently treats them pretty badly.  It’s hard to see what they get from the friendship. Everything leads up to the ever important Ball, and the after-party.  This leads to a tragic event that forces Finn to confront his past, and to take some steps towards putting things right.

Ultimately, this novel was just too clichéd in its character,  and plot.  I found that I had lost all belief, compassion or connection with Finn, the main character, after page 2 of chapter 2.  Yes, teenagers can be self-centered and make stupid decisions, but this book never really rose above that for me.  In addition, it seemed the adults in this situation did very little to help Finn to realise the enormity of the impact of his behaviours.  They were all very forgiving, and accepting, recognising what was most important was to move on.  These were all very easy solutions.  I would be reluctant to leave teenagers with this view of the impact of their decision-making.

While I did read to the end, it was disappointing. I kept hoping for something more to sustain the plot. Unfortunately the writing presented very few treasures. Hints were clunky, and Hobbsie and Andy just did not have the credibility to sustain the story.  The heartbreak in the ending for me was the over easy solution to some unbelievably serious issues.

Sadly, this is not one I will be recommending, but I will try it out on one or two others to see what they think.

Others views can be read here:

Bobs Blog Spot

Hastings District Library

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Red Rocks – Rachael King

Red Rocks4/5 stars.  Good story.  Evocative setting with some really gorgeous writing.

‘Waves battered the beach, chattering to the stones as they receded.  Jake stood still, watching the rocks, waiting for a movement.  And there it was: a seal, with sleek, damp fur, launching itself into the water like a torpedo.  He looked for it amongst the floating islands of kelp, thought he spotted it at first but no, there it was, further away.  It’s head surfaced and it rolled onto its back, raised one flipper as if in a wave and was gone.’

Red Rocks WellingtonRed Rocks Reserve, Wellington, New Zealand.

And so begins the story of Jake, visiting his writer father in Owhiro Bay, Wellington.  Jake normally lives in Auckland with his mother, her husband Greg and their new baby, Davey.  He is spending two weeks with his father over the school holidays.  His father is busy writing a book, so Jake has quite a lot of freedom, and goes exploring on his bike.  When he is exploring the red rocks, he discovers a fissure, a small cave, and hidden in the depths of the cave is a seal skin.  For a reason  not quite fathomable to Jake, he takes it home.  Soon after, he sees a red haired woman roaming town, appearing to search for something.  Jake meets Jessie, a young girl, who is the granddaughter of an old man, Ted, who lives in a shack on the beach.  Jessie has something mysterious about her:

‘The little girl had piqued his curiosity.  The way she looked at him made him want to talk to her, to find out what was going on behind those dark eyes.  She was younger than him, so maybe they wouldn’t have much to say to each other, but maybe if she was cheeky, like Ted said, she could be fun to hang out with.  He hadn’t met many kids his own age here.’

The story develops, with some nice tension, and the windy, unpredictable and rugged coastline of Wellington being an additional character to the story.  We are introduced to the story of the Selkie when Jessie discovers that Jake has the sealskin.

‘Do you know what a selkie is?’ she asked.

‘A selkie? No. Should I?’

‘Selkies are seal people.  The seals come on land and they shed their skins so they can walk on the earth like humans do.  When they have finished their business, they put their skins back on and become seals again.’

But that’s just a fairy story,’ said Jake, who could remember something he had heard a long time ago.  A story, set in Ireland maybe, where his ancestors had come from.

Jessie stared at him, hard.  ‘It’s not a story.  It is real.  Jake, if you have stolen a sealskin, then whoever it belongs to will be stuck in human form.’ Jake was surprised to see tears form in her eyes. ‘You must put it back.’

Unfortunately for Jake, further complications arise when his father discovers the seal skin.  Stormy, stormy times…beautifully written.  Jake’s confusing age is probably OK since that is true of teenage hood!  Sometimes they want to be children.  Sometimes, independent adults.  His stormy and unpredictable relationship with his father is also quite believable.

Sadly, I felt that the story lost its path a little about two thirds of the way through.  Without going into any detail, the character focus changes, and I think to the detriment of the story.  However, by the end it is easy to forgive this, and the denouement is thrilling.

I’m going to try this out on some 11-12 year olds and see what their perspective of the story is.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to let you know!!

 

Highly recommended.  Readers of 10+.  Some mature readers of 9yrs may also enjoy it.

 

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My Brother’s War – David Hill

Dulce et decorum est

‘This item is from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit); © [Copyright notice]’.

    My brother's War

So, I finished on Anzac Day, which seemed appropriate – and here are my thoughts.

I did really like this book.  Quite a lot. If I could give a 4.5…..

This book is an amazing journey.  Set in New Zealand, in 1917, it is the story of two brothers, and the choices they make once the  1916 Conscription Law is passed.  Older brother, William, enlists and younger brother, Edmund, is a conscientious objector.  (After two years of having their young men go to war, never to return, there were plentiful objectors to conscription, as can be seen in this  Te Ara photo and article ) Because of their disagreement, the two brothers have not spoken for over a year.

William is treated as a hero by many of the townsfolk, and Edmund as a coward – although there are people along the way who quietly sympathise with his view and support him.  Their mother and sister, left at home, have to cope with this view of the boys, and there are a few allusions to how difficult this could be, at times.

There are seven sections to the book: At First, Before Sailing, On Ship, Getting Ready, The Trenches, First Attack, Second Attack.  The boys’ parallel journeys are told in each section both with an authorial bird’s eye view from each character, and through letters from Edmund and William, home.

Something I really did like about the book was the length of time it took for the characters to begin to question their views about wars and the army.  There’s no sudden revelation, and in the end there is not one right view.

In the trenches, Edmund has been refusing to obey any army commands.  The trouble is, it is hard to decide what is a command and what is humanity and compassion.  Edmund, unlike Archie, decides that he will choose to be humane and help the stretcher bearers bring in the wounded from No Man’s Land.   One of the men asks Edmund which ‘lot’ he is with:

Edmund shook his head. “I’m a conscientious objector.  The army put this uniform on me.” The soldier who’d offered him the cigarette glared. “So why are you doing this, if you’ve got such high and might ideas about war?”

“My ideas aren’t high and mighty,” Edmund told him. “They’re just mine. And I’m doing this to try and save lives, instead of destroying them.” The man who’d challenged him was silent. 

What a time to be having a discussion like this, Edmund thought.  He almost laughed, and felt a shudder run through his aching body.  He was close to breaking point.  he and most of the others around him.  How much more of this could a human being stand?

The descriptions of the trenches and life in the army for both William and Edmund are heartbreakingly realistic.  Anyone who has read Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks – will understand the true horror of the Battle of the Somme.  And, of course it brought to mind ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ – Wilfred Owen.

David Hill says he was inspired to write this book after reading ‘We Will Not Cease’ – Archibald Baxter.  I feel the need to go and read that now.

This book will provoke some intense discussion in classrooms, no doubt, alongside the opportunity to really do some research into those who went to war, or those who stayed behind, using primary source and secondary source material.  I know it will enhance the understanding of ANZAC day for many of the people who read it, as well as encouraging some critical and reflective thinking about war.

anzac poppies

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In the Sea There Are Crocodiles – Fabio Geda

In the sea there are crocodiles

In the Sea There are Crocodiles – Fabio Geda

Translated from Italian by Howard Curtis

‘If you hold a wish up high, any wish, just in front of your forehead, then life will always be worth living.’

I’m not really sure what I expected from this story.  Initially, I was seduced by the cover of the book – whether that was the colour, or the gorgeous eyes of the young person – I am not really sure.  Then I read that it was the story of a young boy who had journeyed from Afghanistan through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Greece to get to Italy, after his mother had left him on the border of Pakistan.  This journey took him five years, in total, from when he was 10 years old, to when he was 15 years old.

And then, with a flurry, the book starts.  Now, I love a great first sentence.  And this is absolutely a great first sentence, but then it is followed by an even more remarkable sentence that lasts for almost the whole first page.

The thing is, I wasn’t really expecting her to go.

                Because when you’re ten years old and getting

                ready for bed, on a night that’s just like any other

                night, no darker or starrier or more silent or

                more full of smells than usual, with the familiar

                sound of the muezzins calling the faithful to

                prayer from the tops of the minarets just like

                anywhere else…no, when you’re ten years old

–          I say ten, although I’m not entirely sure when

              I was born, because there’s no registry office or

             anything like that in Ghazni province – like I

             said, when you’re ten years old, and your mother,

            before putting you to bed, takes your head and

            holds it against her breast for a long time, longer

           than usual, and says, There are three things you

           must never do in life, Enaiat jan, for any reason…

           The first is use drugs.

This is clever.  It almost has a fairy tale quality.  The reader knows the main ‘character’ has a quest.  His mother abandons him. He is only ten, and an innocent, relatively speaking.  She leaves him with three (that magical number) wishes, or gifts, to live by.  And then we are hurled into the reality of the story with her first wish being for him to not use drugs.  From then on, the hardships endured are unimaginable for most children who will read this book.

The book is written in the style of an oral history.  The author talks about trying to catch the ‘voice’ of Enaiatollah Akbari, and he really means voice – not some esoteric voice we talk about writers having, but his literal talking voice.  Does he manage that?  Well, I can’t be entirely sure.  It feels at times as though the voice is coming from behind curtains.  Firstly, the curtain of time; the story is told well after it happened.  Secondly the double curtain of language – Enaiatollah speaks in a language that is not his mother’s – and as the author points out, this means that some of his language is idiosyncratic.  He will describe being, ‘as tired as a meatball’ in one sentence, explaining the tradition of rolling and rolling meatballs in the palm of their hands for a long time, and he felt like a meatball because he felt as though a giant had taken him in his hands: ‘my head hurt, and my arms, and another place, somewhere between my lungs and my stomach.’  And then, not much further down the track, someone’s face looks like a McDonald’s hamburger.  Additionally, reading in English, we have the translator curtain. Using authorial asides written in italics, the author does also distinguish between when he and Enaiatollah Akbari are talking.

I found this book moving and challenging to read.  I absolutely recommend it, especially for those wanting to understand another perspective of Afghanistan.  There is a wonderful mixture of beautiful writing juxtaposing terrible ideas and events, ‘The samavat Qgazi so much a hotel as a warehouse for bodies and souls, a kind of left-luggage office you cram into and then wait to be packed up and sent off to Iran or Afghanistan or wherever, a place to make contact with people traffickers.’  There is also humour, such as in the one and only footnote in the story, explaining languages.  However, the enduring feeling I was left with was how stark the story was, even told in such a beautiful way.  The story is mostly bereft of people and relationships.  People are only a means to the next step.  In themselves they are not important, because they are temporary in the story of Enaiatollah.

This story is  a story of courage and endurance.  But, it is still a tragedy.  Please read it.

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One Crazy Summer – Rita Williams-Garcia

One Crazy Summer

WoW!  It’s been a great day’s reading…It feels like a privilege to have read this book, set in Oakland, California in 1968.  This is the time of the Blank Panthers, Sit-ins, Martin Luther King and Delpine, the eleven year old protagonist is struggling to come to terms with a mother who abandoned her and her two sisters, and who reluctantly has them to stay for a month over summer.  She is also struggling over what it means to be who she is – coloured or black, suppressed or oppressed, and how to deal with that.

Delphine is only eleven, but she is the mother that her mother is not.  She looks after her two little sisters, Vonetta and Fern with a determined resilience that is just too sad, and yet so powerful.  One Crazy Summer the girls are sent to live with their mother for a month.  Their mother that they have not seen since she walked out on them after Fern was born.  Delphine believes she left them because of an argument over Fern’s name.

In NZ the fern is a powerful image of new life and potential, symbolised by the koru.  New unfurling life, strength, potential and peace.  This feels right for the book.  That the name Cecile wanted to call Fern means mercy and protection, is also right for the story.

For me, while Delphine was a powerful storyteller, and she carried the storyline with a real dignity and truth, Cecile was the story.  Her poetry rocked!  As did Fern’s.  Strangely, while Cecile’s poem was about being the mother of the nation, Delphine symbolised and lived the self-restraint and subsuming of self that brings to mind oppression.  Delphine was the mother to her mother, the mother earth.  Cecile was the game changer, the rebellious, obstinant, bruised child.  Delphine has the strength to see many perspectives, and allow difference – to respect the different pathways to freedom.  And her strength means she can help it to happen.

This beautiful, upside down book does not resolve everything.  But it shows a pathway to understanding hurt and anger, deprivation and resilience that is ultimately hopeful, if not perfect.

I really felt that this book was not SET in the time, but OF the time.  The little touches didn’t feel forced, they felt true…I loved Delphine’s Timex watch, and the shows on TV, the music, and just so much else about this book.

I’m off to read more books by this author…

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Holes – Louis Sachar

Holes

‘If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy.
That was what some people thought.’

Stanley Yelnats is not a bad boy, but thanks to his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great grandfather, he does have some pretty bad luck.

‘Stanley Yelnats was given a choice.  The judge said, “You may go to jail, or you may go to Camp Green Lake.”
Stanley was from a poor family.  He had never been to camp before.’

But, as he discovers when he gets to Camp Green Lake, there is no lake at Camp Green Lake…

This novel has been described as ‘groundbreaking’ – I can only hope that was a deliberate pun.  What I like about this novel is its down to earth (I know, I know), spare language, which generally leaves a lot more unsaid hanging in the air, than it says. It’s eloquent in its brevity.  For example, this is the description of Stanley’s first meal and shower at Camp Green Lake:

‘Stanley took a shower – if you could call it that, ate dinner – if you could call it that, and went to bed – if you could call his smelly and scratchy cot a bed.’

It doesn’t take many pages before kids are asking, ‘What’s up with the three thing?’  Oh!  You’re asking me about literary devices, now?  Well, if you insist!

In that sense, it’s a perfect boy novel – there’s not a lot of deep talk going on.  But it’s deep, for sure.

Four stories are woven together.  The stories of Elya, Stanley’s great-great-grandfather; Kissin’ Kate Barlow and Sam the onion man; and the Zeronis are peppered throughout Stanley’s story, at seemingly random points, with little clues thrown in to gradually make the reader aware of how they connect, and some pretty powerful imagery is thrown in, to boot.

Stanley finds himself in with a bunch of youths that may well have been the kind to bully him in his previous life.  They all have nicknames like Armpit, ZigZag, X-ray and Zero – although Stanley’s not entirely sure that Zero is a nickname.  The boys each have to dig a hole a day, and if they find anything interesting they have to give it to the warden.  Stanley starts out finding the digging hard, and getting along with the boys harder.  There are all sorts of codes he needs to figure out.

Stanley’s pathway to lifting his great-great-grandfather’s curse is both complex and simple, and stunningly wrought.  The first part of the novel leaves readers feeling a little confused, on the edge of understanding what’s going on, but not quite getting it.  The second part cleverly litters little clues and the bringing together of the clues is made immensely satisfying for the reader because there is a purpose to everything in the first half – even the bits that seemed irrelevant.  So satisfying!

Everytime I read this book, I find something else to love about it.  This needs to be on everyone’s reading list, and you need to read it more than once.

This book has won a huge number of prizes.  For more information, go to: http://www.louissachar.com/HolesBook.htm

PS – the film version is one of the best book to film adaptations I have ever seen:  http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/holes/

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Filed under Children 10+, Children 12+, Classics, humour, Uncategorized, YA 14+

Wonder – R. J. Palacio

Wonder

There is no doubt about it, this book is a tear jerker.  I have to say that I really am struggling with rating it.  My initial reaction is that it was a four star book – I really liked it.  Then, when I come to write down what I liked and what I struggled with, I realise that there was a lot that I struggled with in this book, but there was a lot I liked too.  So, I am going to be kind and stick with my initial four stars, and I’ll explain why it could have been three stars.

August is 10 years old.  He has a terrible facial abnormality, which has meant serial surgical procedures for most of his short life.  Because of this, he has been homeschooled up until now.  August lives with his Mom, his Dad, his sister Via and his family dog, Daisy.  At the beginning of the book Auggie finds out that his Mom and Dad have been going through the process of enrolling him at a school, because Auggie needs to learn more than his Mom can teach him, and she’s not just talking about fractions:
‘”We can’t keep protecting him,” Mom whispered to Dad, who was driving. “We can’t just pretend that he’s going to wake up tomorrow and this isn’t going to be his reality, because it is, Nate, and we have to help him learn to deal with it.  We can’t just keep avoiding situations that…”
“So sending him off to middle school, like a lamb to the slaughter…” Dad answered angrily, but he didn’t even finish his sentence because he saw me in the mirror looking up.’

EVERY parent who reads that is going to be thinking about their own ‘letting go’ challenges.  All of us have had those moments where we are sending our children into the unpredictable and not necessarily kind world.  We know the instinct to protect, for just a little while longer, even as we know that we should let go.  How much harder is that choice in this case?

Readers in their early teens will know how hard it is to start a new school, wanting to get things just right, wanting to make the right impression.  How many books have been written about just that?!

Doesn’t it make us all feel a little bit ashamed of the days we haven’t wanted to go out in public because it’s a fat day/a big zit day/a bad hair day/an I said a stupid thing yesterday day…We all know that moment when we have to brace ourselves, be a bit more courageous than we want to be, and get on with it.  Most of us are dealing with something much less significant than Auggie, and yet we recognise an element of it.

That’s where this book has it over us.  Because, ‘whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.’  We are, like Via, on the moral back foot.  Via is four years older than Auggie, and she can only remember glimpses of time without him being around.  Her story is equally as compelling as Auggie’s.  Via tells the story of what it is like to be Auggie’s sister.  It is hard for her to admit that she has needs, when – always – Auggie’s needs are greater. But moments of self-pity, and let me say that self-pity is normal for a teenager, when she sees Mom standing outside Auggie’s door late at night just looking in and wonders if Mom has ever done that at her door, paint a realistic picture of feeling a little bit less loved than her brother, of getting less time and attention.  However, when she gets to go to a new school, where the kids don’t know about her little brother, she revels in her anonymity.  She becomes Olivia, and makes some new friends, including a boyfriend.  None of this is without some fairly normal teenage challenges like learning to cope with not being in the popular group, and how friendships change.  All of which have been the MAIN storyline of many a book, but are peripheral in this one.  As Via says, ‘August is the Sun.  Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun.  The rest of our family and friends are asteroids and comets floating around the planets orbiting the Sun…But this year there seems to be a shift in the cosmos.  The galaxy is changing.  Planets are falling out of alignment.’  Hmmmm…a useful, but well-worn, metaphor.

The story of Auggie’s settling in to school has its highs and lows, as might be expected.  Some fairly predictable plot devices are used, like the quirky girl who could be in the popular group, but chooses to sit at Auggie’s lunch table, the boy who struggles between peer pressure and conscience, and the boy who fakes nice in front of the adults.  I felt that the age of these kids was really indeterminate…they wandered from sounding between 8 – 10years (for example, Auggie often calls Mom and Dad Mommy and Daddy) and 12 – 14years.

I’m not sure, either, about some of Mr Browne’s ‘precepts’.  They felt contrived, and I’m not sure they entirely worked as a plot device.  Subtlety would have been better than smacking us in the face with the morals of the story.  And I didn’t even know how many of them I really agreed with, or felt like they were worth a month’s scrutiny.  For example, ‘When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.’  Ummm…since when could you be unkind and be right???  So then, are we supposed to be ‘kind’ (read patronising) to Auggie.  Since when is that kind?  Doesn’t he deserve true kindness, which would always be right.  For that matter, don’t we all?  I’m still struggling with that one.  So, maybe it is worth a month’s scrutiny!

Another plot device that seems to be popular at the moment, is the multiple perspectives device.  This works when all the voices are unique.  Books like ‘Bluefish’, by Pat Schmatz and ‘Because of Mr Terupt’, by Rob Buyea, do this really well.  In ‘Wonder’ the voices just don’t feel significantly well characterised, although it does allow the reader the chance to review scenes in the book to learn a little more.

But a good book provokes, doesn’t it?  And this book did provoke thought.  And I am sure it would be a great book to use in class, although it is somewhat clumsy with its morals.  Great discussion could be had over so many elements of the story.  So long as it doesn’t slip into being patronising, or over simplified.  This book had some heroic attempts at reminding us that we are all human, and we struggle to make the best decisions we can with the resources we have, and that we won’t get it right all the time.  And that’s a great message to remember.  I wish that had been a Mr Browne precept.

So, all in all, I liked the book.  Maybe I even really liked the book, but it wasn’t without its challenges.  Ultimately, though, I am still inclined to err towards a four star rating.

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My Name is Mina – David Almond

 

‘My Name is Mina’, published in 2010, is a prequel to ‘Skellig’, published by David Almond in 1998.  I read Skellig a very long time ago, and remember loving it, which is why I gave this book a go.
It is the story of Mina McKee – the way Mina plays with words in this book, it’s not too far a leap to hear her name in a ‘minor key’. The book is written as her journal, and it is presented with different typefaces for different experimentations and playings with words.  I wasn’t sure I liked this at first, but it actually works very well.  I like the way perspective is played with in this book.  Instead of there being more than one character’s perspective, we are told the story through Mina’s eyes, but she changes perspective at times, writing about herself in the third person.  Events are not told in a linear way, but as and when Mina feels she can tell them.
Mina is being homeschooled at the moment, because of an incident at school on SATS day. Mina is very open about her memory being slightly selective and admits to some embellishment of the incident.  I love the way that this means that we have to read it with our peripheral vision, in a sense – we cannot look directly at the scene to know what happened.  We need to look at the edges and the hints.  This lovely reveal/not reveal leaves scope for interpretation.  The incident involves her teacher, Mrs Scullery, and THE HEAD TEACHER, a piece of writing called, ‘Glibbertysnark’ and Mina’s mother being called in to school.  We are not told, but that must make Mina about 11 years old, since in the UK the SATS are tested at Year 2 and Year 6.
Mina’s father died many years ago, so that her memories of him feel, at times, like dreams…’I half-remembered the smell of his breath and the stubble on his cheek as he kissed me goodnight, the slight roughness of his skin as he stroked my cheek, his voice as he whispered me his Good Night.  And I lay with the books around me and the strange half-vague, half-intense memories* inside me, and felt very small indeed.’  The asterisk is for a footnote – I am not quite sure how I feel about these.  Sometimes they feel like they were written by an older Mina – sometimes they feel a bit contrived -but actually I think that’s OK, since this is Mina’s journal, and she is very much experimenting with language and who she is, and what everything means…and that can sound contrived at times.
Like one or two other readers of this book, I feel that I didn’t fully engage with Mina until about halfway through the book. She doesn’t make it easy for you.  While I felt her mother was presented as a loving and wise person, I really felt she was not developed at all as a character.  Again, this is appropriate – in the sense that children don’t question who their parents are, as characters, or their motivations, apart from how they affect the child.  There was one moment where we caught a glimpse of Mum’s real life, when Mina reflects on her day at Corinthian Avenue (an alternative school), where she ‘saw’ her father, and she realises it’s just possible her mother may have spent some time with Colin Pope.  ‘When I look back now, I suspect that Mum had her own secret that afternoon…I remember seeing her smile to herself as we drove across the river.  Was it Colin Pope?  Had she taken the chance to be with him that day, freed from her weird daughter?  I suspect she had.’ 
Once you do engage with Mina, she’s kind of stuck like glue…she’s very hard to get out of your head.  It is well worth taking the time…this is a great read.  In many ways I would like to give it five stars, but because it is so hard to get to the point where you commit to the book, I feel I can only give it four.        

 

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