Tag Archives: journeys

Dunger – Joy Cowley

DungerDunger – Joy Cowley

At first I wasn’t quite sure, when I started reading Dunger. It is a story told in two voices. There is 11 year old Will, and there is his 14 year old sister, Melissa. Like any brother and sister worth their salt, they argue – a lot! Will is a bit of a brain, and enjoys using big words, whereas Melissa has three brain cells. One for fashion, one for boys and one for texting all of her friends who also have only three brain cells. Obviously this is Will’s perspective on the issue, and he doesn’t mince words:

‘The world is full of calamity: famines and wars, birds choking to death on oil spills, earthquakes, tsunamis, and Melissa – my disaster of a sister. Reading this, you’ll probably say, what’s wrong with this kid? Is he a bit paranoid? My response is that all tragedies are relative to their context and as far as domestic upheavals go, this one is about eight on the Richter scale.’

I’ve had to work hard to get my young Des Hunt fan to move beyond that, I can tell you. In fact, the first time I read it, I put the book down, poured myself a wine, and wondered what I should read next.

Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right place for a clever, challenging 11 year old demanding my attention…because it’s worth persisting. It really is. I think ‘Dunger’ could well be a great class read aloud, and I’m going to try it out. The writing is sensational because it has an ease to it, as well as a truth and simplicity. And there is plenty of room for fun with characterisations, if you’re going to read it aloud. I can’t help thinking that the grandparent characters are some of the best grandparents I’ve read: funny, grumpy, wise and a little bit dangerous and unpredictable.

Will and Melissa are slightly conned by their parents into staying with their grandparents at the bach. This is a real Kiwi bach, the like of which very few exist anymore. We’re talking no electricity, no shops, postal services twice a week, no cell phone reception and a long drop, complete with possums and spiders, out the back. They are two and a half hours away from the closest town.

The track takes us down to the edge of a bay that is half in sunlight and half in dark shadow. On the shadowed side there’s a stand of old macrocarpa trees. Grandpa pulls over and stops. Neither he nor Grandma says a word.

‘Are we here?’ I ask.

I already know it. Inside the circle of trees is a wooden hut with a brick chimney, a verandah, a water tank and a corrugated iron garage. The grass and scrub around them have grown almost as high as the hut’s windows.

This is the famous bach of my father’s childhood.

It’s a bit much for these two modern young things. But with good old hard work, no useless praise, bread baking, recipes that remind me of my mother’s (how much?  A slosh. What’s a slosh? You know, when it looks right. What does right look like?) fishing and swimming, they start to learn a few life lessons. And a more generational perspective of their family.

Grandpa says his grandfather was only the second man in town to own a car, a Buick, he says, shiny black with big running boards and velvet seats, really posh except that he was accustomed to his horse and cart. So when Grandpa’s grandfather drove to church with the family he forgot it was an automobile he was driving, and to stop it he called out, “Whoa! Whoa!” and pulled on the steering wheel. The Buick stopped alright, halfway through the wall of the shop next to the church.

“Does Dad know that story?” I ask.

“Yep, he’s heard it.”

”Why hasn’t he ever told it to us?”

“People remember what they need to remember,” says Grandpa, rubbing his chin exactly the way Dad does. “The rest slips through, which is just as well or our brains would self-destruct. Your Dad was always quiet. Me and your grandma wanted a whole heap of kids but we just got this one boy, kind of gentle, always thinking. Don’t know where he got that from.”

I’m about to agree with him but I’m not sure how he’ll take it, so I just nod. Besides, I wish he’d say more about the flattened grass that looks like newly cut hay.

Their grandparents are just as good at bickering as they are, which Will and Melissa find uncomfortable.

‘I never said there were sharks!” she glares at Grandpa. “He probably told you. Silly old fool, he’ll say anything for a laugh.”

“Be blowed if I did!” he said.

“Be blowed if you didn’t,” she replied.

He leaned over the table towards her. “Woman, you’ve got a tongue in you so long, the back doesn’t know what the front is up to.”

I look at Will who shuts his mouth tight, glaring at me to remind me that I’ve started one of their useless arguments.

And this is one of the real strengths of the book. One of the reasons it’s worth a read. However, rather suddenly, something happens which means everybody needs to work together to prevent disaster.

‘Dunger’ is a satisfying read. It’s impossible to read without bringing to mind ‘Bow Down Shadrach’, since there are elements that are very similar: Marlborough Sounds, parents glossing over truths, adventure and mayhem. My initial reaction was that I enjoyed ‘Bow Down Shadrach’ more, but ‘Dunger’ does have lovely moments, I suspect especially for the parents, or indeed grandparents, of the target readers. However, the subtle strength of this book is how enduringly it has stayed with me. The characters are vivid and real, and the Marlborough Sounds setting is so well drawn I feel as though I visited and remember the bach, rather than read about it. In the end, it doesn’t matter which is the better, since I think both are an important part of the New Zealand Children’s Literature landscape.

 

Read other reviews here:

The Book Bag

Bobs Books

 

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Filed under Book Review, Boys' Reading, Children 8+, Five stars, Joy Cowley, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Read Aloud

Keeper – Mal Peet (2004)

Keeper Keeper – Mal Peet (2004)

Awards: Branford Boase (2004); German Youth Literature Award (2007).

 

I bought this book because I had recently heard Mal Peet and his wife, Elspeth Graham, interviewed on Saturday Mornings with Kim Hill, NZ National Radio: http://www.radionz.co.nz/audio/player/2558762

I remembered having read Tamar, his Carnegie Award winning book, and loving it.  I also have a young man in one of my English classes who is football/soccer mad.  He has finished reading the ‘Goal!’ series and I was looking for something that might capture his imagination (and have more to follow).  And the reality is that a lot of books that are specifically written for kids who love sports but don’t love reading, are of a pretty poor quality – which is frustrating.  I believe that to get children to love reading, they need to be exposed to quality writing.  Just like you can’t expect to get a beautiful sound out of a poor quality instrument, why would someone who only gets to read pedestrian writing learn to love reading!

This book certainly didn’t start out the way I had expected.  Faustino is a sports journalist interviewing El Gato, goalkeeper of the winning World Cup team.  This is to be a front page story, and Faustino knows exactly how he wants it to go.  He wants the story of El Gato’s journey from poverty to fame and fortune.  The only trouble is, El Gato doesn’t seem to want to play the game Faustino’s way.  He starts telling the story of how he came to be the one of a kind goal keeper, with seemingly superhuman powers, that he is, and it’s a story that’s hard to swallow.  It seems that this mythical goal keeper might not quite have a secure grip on reality.

I shared Faustino’s concern, initially.  I was completely taken by surprise.  I was sceptical.  I was anxious.  Faustino was worried about the sanity of his football hero.  I was worried about the credibility of this author.  Like Faustino, I decided to play along with the story – to hear El Gato out.  Certainly I was enjoying the language.  Mal Peet writes evocatively – he draws you right into a story:

Standing there, with its back to the trees, was a goal. A soccer goal. Two uprights and a crossbar. With a net. A net fixed up like the old-fashioned ones, pulled back and tied to two poles behind the goal. My brain stood still in my head. (Don’t you just love that image?  My brain stood still in my head…Wow!)  I could hear the thumping of my blood. I must have looked like an idiot, my eyes mad and staring, my mouth hanging open. Eventually I found the nerve to take a few steps toward this goal, this quite impossible goal. The woodwork was a silvery grey, and the grain of the wood was open and rough. Weathered, like the timber of old boats left for years on the beach. It shone slightly. The net had the same colour, like cobwebs, and thin green plant tendrils grew up the two poles that supported it.

It seemed to take an age, my whole life, to walk into that goalmouth. When I got there, I put out my hands and held the net. It was sound and strong, despite its great age. I was completely baffled and stood there, my fingers in the mesh of the net and my back to the clearing, trying, and failing, to make sense of all this.

Peet says that he has long since got tired of categorising by age or genre.  And this is apparent in ‘Keeper’.  There is enough about football in this book for any avid football fan to love.  But I don’t love football – at all.  And I really loved this book.  I highly recommend it.  Somehow, the weirdness works and becomes fantastically believable…Read Jan Mark’s review at the following link:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/nov/15/featuresreviews.guardianreview3

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Filed under Children 12+, Five stars, Prize winners, Read Aloud, Young Adult

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!

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

Boom! Mark Haddon

boom

boom! – Mark Haddon

This is a fun story by Mark Haddon, of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time fame.  Don’t expect anything like The Curious Incident, though, with this book.  Its target market is much more in the 8-12 year range.  Although, to be fair, there are several curious incidents, and some of them at night.

The origin of this book is explained by the author in an introduction to the book (which almost feels like an explanation for why the book came to be, an apology, maybe…)  ‘This book was first published in 1992 under the title Gridzbi Spudvetch! It was a ridiculous thing to call a book. No one knew how to pronounce it.  And no one knew what it meant until they’d read the story.  As a result only twenty-three people bought the book.  Actually, that’s an exaggeration, but not much.  It rapidly went out of print.’

Haddon was persuaded to update and rewrite ‘Gridzbi Spudvetch’, and the outcome is ‘boom!’.

I wish I could have read the first version.  It appears to have had a cult following I’m not sure its ‘slicker’ version will get.

I have talked before about how an author needs to ‘believe’ in what they are writing.  Okay – a big ask for Science Fiction maybe, but at least they should not be mocking it.  You get the feeling Haddon sees this book as a somewhat unruly child that he has a passing interest in, but could do without.

The book has a very teenage tone to it; it is an adolescent.  It has a confidence it hasn’t earned, an underlying ‘whatever’, and a slight impatience with having to tell the story.  It has a couple of pimples –undeveloped characters, and a thin plot.

BUT… it is a fun read.  Kids may well enjoy it for a quick read.  There are some great lines, and some quirky humour.  It would do no harm on the class library shelf.

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Filed under Children 8+, Read Aloud, Three stars

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

Ready Player One

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

I have to admit that I would not have picked up this YA novel to read, optionally.  It was set as homework for me by one of my students, at school.  While I’m not sure I think it was, ‘completely fricking awesome,’ (Patrick Rothfuss) and I admit that I don’t know if it is ‘pure geek heaven,’  (Chris Farnsworth) or not, and I am usually suspicious of any novel that uses three pages to quote recommendations for the book in its beginning (less is more, in my opinion) I found this a very readable, engaging 4/5 star novel.

If you’re not drawn in by the futuristic real and virtual world (the teenager), then you are likely to be hooked in by the 80’s references (the parent).  Basically, the novel is set in 2044.  Things in the real world are pretty bad, what with there being no oil, weird climactic conditions, over population and terrible extremes of poverty and wealth.  Most people choose to spend most of their time in a virtual world called OASIS, developed by James Halliday.  When Halliday, who becomes super wealthy, dies, he has no heirs.  The book begins…

‘Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest.  I was sitting in my hideout watching cartoons when the news bulletin broke in on my video feed, announcing that James Halliday had died during the night.’

Of course, with no heirs, who will inherit the huge dynasty, virtual and real, that he has built?  Inevitably, he sets a challenge, a quest, ensuring the winner will be someone truly worthy of his fortune, and suitably qualified to manage his world.  The quest is presented through a video message, ‘actually a meticulously* constructed short film titled Anorak’s Invitation’ (Anorak being Halliday’s Avatar).  As an aside, I can’t help but think that Anorak is a slightly unfortunate name for a socially reclusive computer geek – worrying, even.  But this classic quest is worthy of a Greek Legend.

“before I died,” Anorak says, speaking in a much deeper voice, ‘I created my own Easter egg, and hid it somewhere inside my most popular videogame – the OASIS.  The first person to find my Easter egg will inherit my entire fortune.’

Another dramatic pause.

‘The Egg is well hidden.  I didn’t just leave it lying under a rock somewhere.  I suppose you could say it’s locked inside a safe that is buried in a secret room that lies hidden at the centre of a maze located somewhere” he reaches up to tap his right temple – ‘up here.’

‘But don’t worry.  I’ve left a few clues lying around to get everybody started. And here’s the first one.’  Anorak makes a grand gesture with his right hand, and three keys appear, spinning slowly in the air in front of him. They appear to be made of copper, jade, and clear crystal.  As the keys continue to spin, Anorak recites a piece of verse, and as he speaks each line, it appears briefly in flaming subtitles across the bottom of the screen:

Three hidden keys open three secret gates

Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits

And those with the skill to survive these straits

Will reach the end where the prize awaits.

Five years go by, and none are able to crack the bad poetry – I mean – super clever code!  Enter Wade Watts, poor orphan neglected by his evil stepmother – I mean – drug addled, mean-as aunt, having to make his own way in the world.  Wade Watts navigates the straits with the kind of light bulb moments his name suggests.  Talk about the anti-hero.  Wade Watts is an overweight, super geeky, social recluse who deals with his life by withdrawing almost permanently into the virtual world Halliday created, becoming a ‘gunter’ (geeky Easter egg hunter).  With all the time he has on his hands, Wade becomes an expert on the 1980’s and Halliday.

Miraculously (Yes – I do have a slightly raised eyebrow here):

‘on the evening of February 11, 2045, an avatar’s name appeared at the top of the Scoreboard, for the whole world to see.  After five long years, the Copper key had finally been found, by an eighteen-year-old kid living in a trailer park on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.

That kid was me.

Dozens of books, cartoons, movies, and miniseries have attempted to tell the story of everything that happened next, but every single one of them got it wrong.  So I want to set the record straight, once and for all.’

I’m no technology geek.  I have two teenage sons for that.  But, I was completely engrossed in most of this story.  The plot is complex.  I love a mystery – and the clues (if not the verse) got better.  It was possible to work things out – especially if you lived through the 1980’s.  I remember when the Commodore 64 was flash.  We had a machine we plugged into the TV and I remember coding in Basic for hours to watch dots move across the screen, using IF/THEN to make things a little more exciting.  So, this book was fun to read from that perspective.

But   it also has all of the necessary elements for any great quest – the under dog/pauper seeking a fortune and perchance a princess, the arch nemesis and his army (in the form of Sorrento and the Sixers), success, defeat, Monty Python, The Tempest, Castles, Sir Lancelot and more.  It’s almost as though the author wrote down everything he knew, and somehow incorporated it into the novel.  By the way – Ernest Cline – the name is a worthy pseudonym, and I suspect he is an avatar…really…an earnest geek, a cline… (a continuum with an infinite number of   gradations from one extreme to the other)…Visit his very cool website here:   http://www.ernestcline.com/blog/about/

There were moments when the plot had too many easy answers.  There were moments when it was just a bit too geeky for me.  There were moments when I was confused by the sheer amount of information I was given.  However, this really is a good book.  A serious 4/5 stars for me.  I recommend it.  Even if there are parts you read once over lightly – a bit like a technical manual, there are other moments you will connect with and take delight in.  You might even go and watch an 80’s film or two, and reminisce.

Age group: 13+ (complex)

* meticulous   may be a slightly over used adjective, in spirit if not in actual word, in this novel.

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Filed under Four stars, speculative fiction, Uncategorized, YA 14+

The Nature of Ash – Mandy Hagar

The Nature of Ash

Go to your bosom; Knock there, and ask/your heart what it doth know. Measure for Measure – William Shakespeare. (Epigraph to ‘The Nature of Ash’)

‘It’s so bloody unfair.  If those sabre-rattling douches shut the country down, we’ll be sent home.  And once you drop out of uni, it’s damn near impossible to get back in. So much for my grand plans of doing good: there’s no way I can be a speech and language specialist if I don’t complete the full three years.  With nearly half the working population unemployed already, and all the decent jobs reserved for those who have the right contacts – the stinking rich – chances are we’ll end up slaving in some sweat shop – or, worse, signed up against our wills to fight another no-win war.  But, worst of all, back to a life as boring and predictable – and hard – as it was before.’

This is ‘the nature of Ash’ at the beginning of this action-packed, dystopian, political thriller.  As well as representing the journey of Ash from self-absorbed teenager, revelling in the boozed life of a uni hostel, to Ash – political activist, hero and provider for all – (hmmm…) the title is resonant, because ‘ash’ brings to mind so many literary allusions that is has real depth as a metaphor.

This novel is set in an unspecified future in Wellington and Whanganui.  While we are not ever directly told it is the future, we make that assumption because of the referral to relatively new buildings (Te Papa and the Cake Tin – Westpac Stadium Wellington) as being the ‘old’ museum and the ‘old’ stadium.  Kowhai Park in Whanganui is, sadly, a wreck as well.  The political world is a mess, with an evil Bill Chambers as Prime Minister, and the Western Alliance – aka WA (USA, UK, Australia, Taiwan, Malaysian Federation, Republic of Indonesia, Peru) and the United People’s Republic – aka UPR (China, East Russia, United Korea, Japan, Republic of Indochina, Fiji and Chile) being the big boys that little New Zealand is squeezed between.   There are also State-siders – citizens of the USA.  The only State-siders  referenced in the book are evil manipulators of Muru – an activist group that has been taken over by WA secret service agents (aforementioned state-siders) for their own wicked purposes.

These acronyms dehumanise those involved to the extent that they become paper-thin manipulators and manipulated, according to the needs of the plot.  Shaun McCarthy, of the CTU (Combined Trade Union) is the face of the good guys – and the book is littered with his pithy aphorisms, reminding us of exactly what a good guy he was – Freedom has a very thin veneer if you look too closely.  He is Ashley’s dad, and is killed in a bombing of CTU headquarters at the beginning of the story – but who did the bombing – and who did the manipulating become the question.

New Zealand is effectively in a state of war.  Ash has to get his younger brother Mikey, who has Down Syndrome, to a safe place, and along the way collects together a somewhat eccentric band of followers.  There is Jiao, a Chinese student whom he is initially suspicious of, since he assumes her allegiance to the UPR.

‘How the hell can they get away with this?  It’s an outright act of war.’

‘They?’ Jiao’s eyebrow lifts.

‘Come on.  Even you must see that it’s the UPR.’

She tucks the collar of Dad’s dressing gown under her chin. ‘Jumping to conclusions never helps.’

‘Conclusions?’ I bark it out before I can switch down my volume.  ‘It’s pretty bloody obvious.  They’ve been screwing with our politics for years.’

As you and every country in the Western Alliance have screwed with theirs.’

However, Ash develops trust for Jiao as he sees Mikey’s devotion to her.  And there is Travis – alcoholic and would be drama student, son of Police Officer, Jeannie Smith, who takes an initially unfathomable maternal role in the story.  And Erich, neurosurgeon turned ‘green’, and (handily) benefactor and Lucinda Lasch, dad’s lawyer, who to Ash’s surprise and admiration – Fuck me, she really is a porn star! All she needs is fishnets and a whip, was possibly his father’s girlfriend as well.  Ash is very hormonally driven – although maybe this was a little over done.  Having said that, it wasn’t unbelievable, just tiresome.

The story moves along at a cracking pace.  There is always another twist to the plot, another character flaw or strength to be revealed and another of Dad’s pithy aphorisms ‘Note to self: Dad was right. Irony is just hypocrisy with style.’  Certainly Ash is a well drawn character, and this story is exactly as self-absorbed and black and white as his character should be.  And I think that this is appropriate.  Very few of the other characters in this story are really fleshed out to any degree at all, except with their relevance to Ash, although there are a few attempts, ‘Note to self: nobody is as straightforward as they first seem – even pissheads (and big busted girls originally from the UPR)’.

There are some real strengths to this book – the plot is complex and relatively unpredictable.  There are no zombies or vampires – which is a relief.  Ash is a believable character, in many ways.  I can  see it appealing to a wide readership.  The political stance and eco-politics asks readers to reflect on how our society could end up, if we are not vigilant and thoughtful.

O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.

(Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare).

It is certainly no hardship to read.  I read it in two sittings, in under a day.  I found myself comparing it to other titles – for example, Tomorrow When the War Began.  I vastly prefer Ellie to Ash as a character, but as I reflected on the similarities and differences between the two, I realised that The Nature of Ash doesn’t brush over the politics, the politics drive the book, possibly to the detriment of character.  It kind of makes Tomorrow, When the War Began feel a little lightweight in comparison.  It is good to have provocative literature.  There were strongly  espoused beliefs in here that could do with exploration.  This should bring about many a lively discussion – I really hope so.  I give this about 4/5 stars, because there is so much that is worthwhile in it.  I see it as best suited to readers of 13+.

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Filed under Children 12+, Five stars, Four stars, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, YA 14+

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.

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