April 19

griEVE by Lizzie Wilcock

Every now and then it seems that YA book publishers publish a string of titles on the same theme. A few year’s ago it was teenage pregnancy, or school bullies, or World War 1. About the middle of last year it seems the ‘in’ theme was dealing with grief.

Eve is a normal happy girl, the only daughter of two loving parents. The her mother stops enjoying life, staying in her room, content with TV. And then one day when Eve returns from school, there is no Mum, just a note on lavender stationery, simply saying EVE. Mum is gone, Dad won’t talk about it, and Eve is left to mourn and puzzle out what happened. She is also left to become the homemaker, because Dad starts working longer hours and often away from home. Suddenly an ordered life has become chaos, and a young girl who should have nothing to worry about but her social life, has more responsibilities than many adults.

This is a warm and wonderful story about love, loss, pain and hope, but most of all hope. Thank you Lizzie.

April 19

Grief girl by Erin Vincent

Warning – strong emotional content. Do not read this book if you, or a close friend has been recently berieved. I made that mistake, and as a result I found this book shattering.

That is probably because it is a true story. At age 14, Erin Vincent was alone in the family home for the first time. When her parents were late returning, she began to worry. Finally the phone rang, a stranger, ringing at the request of her father. An accident, her mother was dead, her father badly injured, dying before he left hospital. Suddenly the family consisted of Erin, 14, her baby brother, 3, in the care of 18 year old Tracey.

This rivetting story follows Erin through her troubled adolescence, her confusion, her sadness and her joy. Tracey is portrayed through Erin’s eyes, not always positively. The depth of Erin’s grief defies help from counsellors, teachers, or any interested adult. And the extended family does not help. The portrayal of the uncles who controled the children’s finances is ugly.

This is a very powerful book, but an important story beautifully told.

April 19

Stealing Water by Tim Ecott

Regular readers of this column will know that I rarely read non-fiction. If I want to read for entertainment, then I would far prefer imagination. Stealing Water is different. It’s a memoir of a young English man who truly is a citizen of the world, growing up in the Far East, Africa, and Ireland.

In 1977 the Ecott family moved from a staid middle class existence in Ireland to South Africa. The move was motivated by a continual threat from the IRA, a wish for warmer climate, and what looked to be a grand employment opportunity. All their friends and family left behind pictured the family living well, with a grand house, servants and all manner of luxury. In reality life was quite different. The family was bankrupt within a few months. Father was unemployed, the bailiffs took everything they could find, and the family was living in the streets even stealing water. They all had to survive by their wits, and fortunately Mum could. She started selling their personal possessions, eventually funding a small secondhand shop in the wrong shopping district. But customers could get what they needed there, if it was a thief in need of a fence or even some falsified identity papers, Mum had the contacts to help. Father was an ex SAS soldier who never should have left the Army, but he thought he could make a living as a security advisor, especially in troubled areas of the world.

I found the book fascinating. The stories about Mum are told with sympathy and humour. All the various characters who frequented the shop have their individual charm. And it is important to let the world know that not every white man in South Africa during apartheid was as ‘superior’ as the media would have us all believe.

However, I do have two comments. Firstly, it would be much easier to read this book if the story was told in some kind of chronological order, or even just some logical order. It appears that Ecott wrote the book as the memories popped into his head, one chapter about Mum and the shop, the next about life in Ireland, the next about the first few weeks in South Africa, and then the next about the trip to Malaysia, and then school life in Ireland, then back to Mum in the shop, and then to Dad and the IRA… Are you lost yet? I was. Secondly, the photo on the front cover of the cute boy standing next to a crystal clear inground swimming pool has nothing to do with the story. It may be a family photo, but really ….

April 18

Restless Spirit by Susan Brocker

It is always good to find a ‘horse’ book written for girls older than 8. This book is a wonderful modern incarnation of all those mustang books that I used to read when I was very young.

Lara is a new girl at the school, and friendless. She meets and gradually becomes friends with Kahu, outwardly confident but filled with self-doubt. Kahu teaches Lara to ride and together they visit a wild brumby heard roaming a wilderness area in New Zealand. So far, just a lovely story about friendship.

But the politicians decide to cull the brumby heards. And one of the hunters is notorious for his cruelty. He is determined to find the white stallion and bring it under control. Lara and Kahu decide to get involved in an attempt to protect the stallion.

In years past, the story would continue that the two children managed to protect the stallion and his heard from harm and eveyone lived happily ever after. But we all know that in the real world, children don’t often stop adults bent on a plan of action. Brocker protects the reality of her story. The children do not prevail, horses are caught and even die. But in the end the future of the brumby heard is assured.

This was a quick and simple read, but not childish.

April 18

Yo, Shark Bait by Vicki Simpson

New Zealand is producing some wonderful literature with a huge variety of themes and subjects. Vicki Simpson has won an award for this outstanding novel by a first time author.

Yo, Shark bait! is about exactly what the title indicates, fishing. Actually it is more a coming-of-age story, but don’t tell any reader that or they will decide the whole idea is boring. Rory is a mad keen fisherman, but one day while fishing with his father, he goes overboard and is greeted by a shark once he hits the water. Suddenly fishing isn’t quite so great. To make things worse, his school friends find out what happened and the teasing is unbearable. Just to make life a little worse, a teacher nominates Rory to run a fishing competition. But Rory can hardly stand the thought of fishing…

I found this book surprisingly good. The characters were strong and the situations believable, if at times the mystery was a little contrived.

April 18

Diego, run! by Deborah Ellis

Deborah Ellis. What an amazing woman! I met her after reading Parvana, and her social conscience just blew me away. Since then she has written books about children in Africa (orphans of the AIDS epidemic) and now she is looking at the exploitation of children in South America.

The story begins with a young man who is actually growing up in a prison. His mother and father have both been imprisoned because a package of cocaine was found taped underneath the bus seat they were sitting in. Diego and his sister are living the the women’s prison with their mother, but visit their father regularly. Diego is old enough to earn a small income running errands for the other prisoners and therefore support his mother.

Then one day one of Diego’s friends hears of an opportunity to earn money, lots of it. He talks Diego into going along with the scheme, and together the two of them end up enslaved and forced to manufacture cocaine. The working conditions are hazardous and once the boys can no longer work, they are killed.

The story ends once Diego has escaped from the work camp, but he is still lost deep in the jungles of Bolivia. Obviously this book is intended to be the first of a series, much like the Parvana series.

Ellis was originally an investigative journalist. As a result her books are all thoroughly researched and graphically accurate. All over the world she has raised awareness of the plight of refugees in her Parvana series. With this series of books she will do the same with the children working as forced labour.

Once again Deborah Ellis has written a book that will challenge young people in a comfortable Western society to consider the lives of children who happened to be born elsewhere.

April 18

Time to Smell the Roses by Michael Hoeye

There are days when I love my job, and often those days are when I find a new author to enjoy. I would never have picked up a book by Michael Hoeye, simply because the covers are often childish and the blurbs sound silly. However, this book appeared on my mandated reading list, so I was forced to give it a go. Now I am prepared to admit I was wrong.

This book is the fourth in the Hermux Tantamoq Adventures, so I entered the story in the middle, not always the best place to start. The story is a tale of industrial espionage and its consequences, but dressed up as animal fantasy. Fans of the series will know that the chief detective is a mouse. In this book the main action happens around a family of squirrels, and everyone knows how silly they can be.

The use of animal characters forced the book to maintain its lightness and atmosphere of unreality. As a result, even the dark and dangerous plot developments maintain a sense of fun. Hermux is not afraid to laugh at himself, and the whole subplot about the wedding organisation provides a opportunity for comedy.

This is an ideal book for those children who are beyond the classics of children’t literature, but not yet ready for the angst often found in novels for young adults. This is an important section of the reading public that needs new literature. Thank you Hoeye.

April 18

The Real Thing by Brian Falkner

Sometimes I just need to read more quickly. I picked up this book about a week late. But maybe that is the best advertisement possible for this book.

Last week I had a year 7 boy come up to me and ask ‘Can you tell me the where the book about the thieves who stole the formula for Coca Cola is? I started reading it last time and I want to continue it.’ I had no idea what he was talking about, but it registered I needed to find that book that could keep a 12 year old hanging on for a week to find out what would happen next. So when this book finally made its way to the top of the reading list and it opened with an explanation of how the formula for Coca Cola was protected, I was keen to read it, preferably without interruption.

But before I go on. The book opens at a school fete where three friends from Glenfield High are running a taste contest. Fizzer has the best taste buds in the world. He can tell the difference between any two drinks, absolutely foolproof. This talent becomes very important when the the formula for Coca Cola is stolen and the world is running out of Coke. Fizzer is employed by Coca Cola to help recreate the formula. But naturally in any adventure story, things go wrong and Fizzer and his friend Tupai are suddenly caught up in the middle of an international crime ring and murderous villains.

OK, so this summary sounds silly. The beauty of Falkner’s writing is that he makes this apparently insane idea seem plausible. The adventure is a winner. I got so caught up in the story that interruptions were pushed aside until I finished, only about 2 hours later.

I have already said tons about Falkner in my review of Super Freak so I won’t go on again here. But I am really looking forward to finding the time to read The Super Flea, the third book in the series.

April 18

Pharaoh: the boy who conquered the Nile by Jackie French

I have been waiting for ages for a good book for all those year 7 and 8 boys who are fascinated by ancient history. Thank you Jackie French for your contribution. Can I suggest a series?

The book is set long before the pyramids were built. In fact the Pharaoh of the title actually ruled before the first Egyptian dynasty. Wikipedia referrs to Narmer as pharaoh 0, successor to the Scorpion King. And in keeping with Jackie French’s recent writings this story begins with Narmer as a boy approaching adolescence.

Although Narmer is the second son, his personality is much more suited to administration, so his father, the current king of the district, has designated him as his successor. As the book begins Narmer is learning about the responsibilities of kingship. However, the older brother is jealous and soon contrives to place Narmer in danger, where he is injured. Although Narmer recovers, he is disfigured, and an imperfect man cannot become king.

As a result, Narmer is sent away to become a trader. He is apprenticed to an old man from another tribe and sent across the desert to make his way in the world. There the story truly begins. Narmer travels with the old trader, learning about other tribes and their traditions. Eventually he returns home…..

Recently Hollywood has discovered this period of history, and popular interest has increased accordingly. Somehow I would trust French’s research more than many others in popular culture.

As with all of French’s writing, this is an expertly crafted story that contains enough complexity to hold any child’s interest. This is certainly a worthy nomination for the CBC Book of the Year award.

April 18

Black Water by David Metzenthen

Once again this is a book from one of my favourite Australian authors. And yes, I do have a lot of favourite Australian authors.

In this book Farren Fox is a young man just at the age when he is torn between continuing at school and leaving school to get a job to help the family finances. His older brother is at Gallipoli, while all the shooting is going on. His father is a fisherman based in Queenscliff. Farren is fascinated by the sea and just waiting for his chance to join the fishing fleet. But then one day his father does not return. A few weeks later his brother does, but vastly different from the older brother that went to war.

In many books this would be enough, and the story would continue about how Farren and his brother learned to manage their lives. But Metzenthen adds two more challenges to the lives of these young men. First the child Souki, the only survivor of a shipwreck, enters Danny’s world. And then the father’s boat is found and returned to the family. Suddenly the book becomes much more than a typical coming-of-age tale.

I remember finishing this book with a wonderful feeling of warmth and satisfaction. What could have become a dark and depressing story is actually very uplifting. Again Metzenthen has written a wonderfully comforting story based on events that happened during the Great War.