August 31

The Night of the Burning by Linda Press Wulf

I’m back. Just because I haven’t written anything here for a month does not mean that I have stopped reading. Now I just have to get caught up on the reviews.

It is unusual to have a book for children, and I would count this as a book for the preteen, set in such an unfamiliar period of history. The Night of the Burning is set in post-World War I Russia. The Jewish village where Devorah and Nechama live has been devastated by the war, mustard gas, influenza and finally the Cossacks burn the village to the ground. Only the two sisters survive and set off on an amazing journey.

The two sisters start off looking for relatives in other villages, but find that many of these places are also destroyed. Eventually they end up in an orphanage and in the care of South African philanthropist Isaac Ochberg who is recruiting 200 orphans for adoption by families in South Africa. Nechama is determined to go, and Devorah as the older sister, believes she must as well.

Even a week after finishing it, I am still undecided about this book. The story of their life in Europe and their struggle to escape the terror was riveting. But once the two girls arrived safely in South Africa, the book became a boring narrative about who’s family is best.

August 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling

It seems that everyone in the world has read this book, or plans to read it, or is on a waiting list for a borrowed copy. And they will read the book regardless of what any reviewer says.

In fact I’m not even going to attempt a plot summary. I think everyone knows about the young wizard raised by non-magical relatives who is whisked away to a wonderful boarding school full of young wizards. Harry’s arch-enemy, Voldemort, is out to destroy Harry in every book of the series, but somehow Harry and his friends prevail.

I’ll just say that the book is even more than I expected. At the end of book 6, I would have predicted that I knew the plot of book 7. Destroy the Horcruxes, with all kinds of danger and action in the process, and then one final battle with Voldemort. But the finale was far more than I expected. The introduction of the Hallows set up a wonderful dilemma for Harry which added drama and tension to the text.

Everyone seems to have a different opinion about the deaths. Several of them are very sad. But I believe they give the story an edge of realism. I doubt the book could retain its credibility if Voldemort and his army was destroyed while everyone on the side of good survived happily ever after.

And then there is the last chapter. I thought it was important to include the epilogue for two reasons. Firstly it will make it very difficult for publishers to press Rowling for more Harry books. Secondly, it helps vanquish Voldemort completely. Good has been victorious, and the victory was for the long term.

Some have called this book ‘Days of our Lives’. But I think just the opposite. Well done, Jo Rowling and enjoy a lovely long holiday while you dream up your next book. Thank you for the years of pleasure you have provided for so many of us.

August 1

A Watery Grave by Joan Druett

This review has been published in Buzz magazine.

A Watery Grave is the first book in Joan Druett’s Wiki Coffin series of books. On the cover they appear to be a seafaring adventure along the lines of Master and Commander or the Hornblower series, but once you are into the story the reader discovers that it is another old-fashioned murder mystery like hundreds of others before.

However, Wiki Coffin is a very unusual sleuth. He is half Maori and half American, raised within his Maori tribe until aged 12 when he was taken to America by his Salem shipcaptain father. Sounds unusual enough but the historical period for the series is 1838. Suddenly Wiki becomes unique. He has the Polynesian origins, American education and then left home, to his step-mother’s relief, and worked on whaling ships across the world, learning practical seamanship within the civilian context. During a short visit to America, Wiki’s school friend George convinces him to sail with the United States Exploring Expedition sailing off to chart the shores of Oregon, map the islands of the Pacific, and officially (as in military) discover Antarctica.

The morning the fleet is due to sail, Wiki is on the bank of the Elizabeth River in Virginia seeking satisfaction in a duel. His opponent never shows, but instead a small rowboat carrying the body of a young woman floats by. As Wiki moves into the water to retrieve the boat, a couple of shots are fired, attracting unwanted attention. Minutes after Wiki pulls the boat to the riverbank, he is arrested for the murder.

Not a bad start. But through the book Druett changes Wiki from the chief suspect to the chief investigator. With intelligence and logic, Wiki looks at all the different possibilities, asking searching questions and eventually coming to accurate conclusions.

But the mystery is only half the story. The reader is also treated to a wonderful seafaring adventure. There are storms, ships lost at sea, tyrannical captains, cannon practice, sharks and all the trappings of a sea voyage in the 1800s. Druett is totally comfortable in the jargon of the sailing vessel, but some of her readers may need a dictionary or even a wallchart of a three-masted schooner that names the masts and sails. I managed because I have recently read the complete Master and Commander series where O’Brien patiently explains everything to us novices. Druett just assumes that if you are interested, you will look it up.

My only complaint is to the publisher. The cover shows a blonde European staring into space. Wiki is half Maori and repeated reference is made to his long black hair. How hard could it be to find a photographic model that suits?

Thank goodness the Buzz editor has also given me book two in this series. I was lucky enough to finish one and move immediately into the next. I’ll tell you about it next issue.