June 30

Bronco, Fi, Maddie & Me by Pauline Luke

Hmm, another book that I read quite a while ago. And as with many of these books on file, I wasn’t particularly inspired to write about it then, and even less so now.

This is a fairly typical school story. Four unlikely friends band join together to overturn the Mayor’s decision to demolish a historic building on the school campus. Using all their varied skills, but mostly an effective argument, they save the building.

Somehow I have trouble accepting this kind of story as realistic. In fact many of the fantasy novels I read have a stronger edge of realism in them. However, for junior secondary readers this is better than a great deal of the other stuff out there. In the past few years this age group has been starving for a good variety of quality literature.

 

June 30

Solo by Alyssa Brugman

Wow…I just finished this amazing book and I am still in shock. Brugman always manages to write powerful books for young adults, and this one is no exception. I knew when it first came out I wanted to read it immediately, but the waiting list was too long. Finally, a year later came its turn.

Mackenzie is an experienced liar. All the way through the book the reader is wondering which version of the story is the truth. All you can be sure of is that she is a troubled girl who has had bad breaks from the time she was a small child. She also has anger management issues, and these land her a mandatory ‘camp’ courtesy of the courts. She choses to do the 24 hours alone in the bush option, and there the demons and muddled memories catch up to her.

Fairly early the reader works out that Mackenzie is the daughter of a druggie. But she is evasive about what happened to her father and step-brother. At the end when she finally finds the courage to admit what happened the reader is caught between cheering her on, and crying that any child could truly be that alone and unloved.

As always Brugman excels in finding a strong voice for her female characters. Mackenzie is no different.

However, some readers may find this difficult to manage the conflicting stories and the minimal action. This is a book for the tearjerker, realistic fiction fan.

June 29

The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert VS Redick

Regular visitors will know that when pushed to identify a favourite genre I am often torn between fantasy and crime fiction. After finishing this book from a new young author, I’ll admit that fantasy is currently ahead.

As with many first volumes of a fantasy trilogy, much of this book is spent identifying the leading characters. There is Pazel, a young boy who was cursed with the ability to speak and understand any language he hears. The curse comes upon him for days at a time, and any new language he hears during those days will be retained in his memory forever. His best friend Neeps seems a normal boy, but fortunately, he is an experienced pearl diver. Also there is Thasha, the beautiful daughter of a retired admiral. She has been schooled to become an obedient bride, but a strong independent streak threatens disaster at every turn. Her tutor Herol is an experienced warrior, and shares these fighting skills with his pupil. And then there is the Lilliputian leader Dri.

The world invented by Redick is incredible. Essentially there are two great empires and many small independent islands. Gradually these islands are being absorbed into one or another of the empires who are themselves permanently at war with each other. Both empires appear evil, resorting to whatever means necessary to gain advantage over the other. In this book Thasha is being offered as a bribe/bride to a prince of the opposing realm. With the marraige there is a prophecy that unspeakable evil will be released on the world.

Action in the book takes place on the high seas. The sailing ship, the Chathrand is impossibly huge and powerful, carrying over 800 people in relative comfort. But within this community our heroes discover a plot to instigate a global war and attempt to thwart the plans.

This book is essentially a quest novel. But it is far outside the normal formula. Yes it sticks with the familiar medieval weaponry and there are liberal lashings of magic and mages. But many of the allies are animals. Woken animals who are able to speak and communicate with himans. The heroes are all fallible and often internal bickering threatens to destroy their alliance.

The climax is excellent. Certainly there was no putting the book down for anything once the red wolf was found. Be warned, you will need an uninterrupted block of time for the final 100+ pages.

This is the best book the Buzz editor has provided in a while. Thanks boss, and please put me down next year for book two.

June 28

Break of Day by Tony Palmer

I will admit that I read this book quite a while ago. It didn’t really impress, and therefore this review has waited.

Murray wants to escape the boredomand frustration of his life on an Australian farm. He runs away to the army during WW2. He gets sent to New Guinea, and believing that the Japanese will never get that far, his story focusses on his friendships formed in his fighting unit. Then his arch enemy from home arrives in the same unit. Murray deserts, up the Kakoda Track, where he runs into another unit fighting those Japanese that were never going to get that far.

Palmer has told this story with great historical accuracy. He should because he has made a living making documentaries for the BBC. With all the media attention about sports stars and other celebrities ‘doing’ the Kakoda Trail, I believe it is important that children have an easily accessible way of finding out why that particular part of the world is so historically important.

Thank you Tony Palmer.

June 28

Teresa Moran, Soldier by Ken Catran

I have been reading Ken Catran’s Moran series from the beginning, and this one is just as good as all the rest. However, I do question whether or not it will appeal to the same crowd.

The Moran series follows the military careers of each member of four generations. Jacko was a sniper in World War 1. Robert, his son, was in Africa and Greece in World War 2, Jimmy fought in Vietnam and now Teresa is a lieutenant in a unit headed for East Timor and from there to Iraq. Most of the books appeal to year 7 and 8 boys because of the realistic violence therein. This book is different. The wars being fought are different, and as a result this book needs to tell the story radically differently. Teresa is in command and this requires that she think about collateral damage far more than any of her ancestors.  And of all the Morans, at the end of the book you get the feeling that she will survive and go on to live a normal life after the army, something her fathers never could do.

Personally, I liked this finish to the series. However, I doubt the boys interested in the blood and guts will tolerate this book for long. It’s a shame really.

June 28

In too deep by DC Grant

I suspect there is a special arts grant to encourage New Zealand authors to write ‘books for boys’. Certainly there have been many books reviewed here in the past months. This book is obviously the one that I have found most recently.

Josh is a young man whose life is falling apart. His father’s business has gone bankrupt and both the house and his grandparent’s were mortgaged to finance a ‘survival’ package. Everything is gone. On their last Christmas holiday at the Grandparent’s property at the beach Josh’s mother volunteers him to teach another boy to surf. Combined with the fact that the school bully has also come to the same beach for a holiday, Josh is facing the worst summer holiday ever.

For the most part this book is very average. But then Scholastic specialises in average books for average kids. I did find the angry voice of Josh very convincing. At fifteen when your world appears to be falling apart, anger is going to be the most natural reaction, and here it is convincingly portrayed.

However, I do wish that someday a book for teens would provide a realistic solution to the problem of a bully. Somehow waiting until the bully is in a life or death situation and then rescuing him is not going to work for every kid.

 

June 26

Hangman Blind by Cassandra Clark

This is another first book by a new author, and this time I can find almost nothing about her on the web. Hangman Blind is the first book in a new series The Abbess of Meaux. I have been reading so many books by new authors recently, I was wondering about this as I started. I’ll say that the publishers have once again put the wrong cover on the book. The red dress on the cover is certainly not that of a medieval nun.

But to start from the beginning. Hildegarde (isn’t that a medieval name) is an widow of independent spirit and means after her husband is killed fighting in France. Rather than submit to the authority of another husband, she becomes a Cistercian nun living in a priory in the north of England. When the book opens she is seeking permission to begin a small chapter of her order that will eventually work within the community teaching and healing. She is sent to the abbot at Meaux to negotiate a suitable site with him. Through a series of circumstances too complicated for this review, she ends up at Castle Hutton, where she grew up. Like many heroes in this genre, death and murder follow them wherever they go. Hildegarde finds 6 dead bodies on her way to the abbey, and the owner of Castle Hutton is poisoned within hours of her arrival. I eventually lost track of the body count.

When I am reading a murder mystery I am looking for enough clues so that I am not totally surprised by the ending, but I want my interest held to the very end. This book certainly filled these requirements. About 3/4 through, I commented that I either had the murder solved or I was lost in a school of red herrings. Actually for a change in this genre there were several different scenarios in play, each accounting for different misdeeds. I liked that simply because it allowed a far more realistic solution to everything.

Clark opened the way for several continuing stories. What exactly is Hildegard’s relationship to Hubert de Courcy and where is it going? Is he really a spy for the French? Setting the book in the 1380s, soon after the Peasant’s Revolt also permits a wonderfully complex social commentary as well as offering opportunity for violence and bloodshed.

Most of all I really liked Hildegard. In medieval times there were surely independent women, mostly treated as property of fathers or husbands. Surely the religious orders were a haven for these souls, providing them opportunities rarely found elsewhere in society.

I look forward to the second book in the series, and I hope there are many more.

June 24

What Willow Knew by June Colbert

Hmmm… I wonder if June Colbert has read anything by Melina Marchetta. This really feels like a ripped off plot if there ever was one.

Sarah is 16 and living happily with her Aunt Willow, a relic of the 70s hippie culture, complete with conspiracy theories. Then one day Willow disappears. Sarah dragged kicking and screaming to live with her estranged father, her stepmonster and three younger siblings, including a teething baby. All she really wants is to find Willow and put life back the way it was.

Her only clue is Willow’s diary from her first year at uni. Willow pours over this every chance she gets, not easy when the stepmonster is determined fill every minute of her days. The diary details life in Willow’s shared house, complete with cryptic nicknames like Sparkle and Tiger Lily. Eventually Hawk, Willow’s boyfriend becomes real, and from there Sarah is on her way to finding out what happened to Willow.

This book is interesting in the way it portrays the youth culture of the 70s. The sit-ins, anti-war marches and even the drug use is clearly shown. Sarah’s real existence is less exciting. The reader as well as Sarah wants to jump back to the diary at every opportunity. Sorry, but I just found the family too trite.

This book has a lot in common with On the Jellicoe Road. So much in common that I believe the story could be considered pale imitation. Both have disappearing relatives, both have a conspiracy of silence and cover-up. Both have an autobiographical source of information that leads to a solution of the puzzle in the end. However, Marchetta adds layers of delicious relationships both current and historical to make her novel a far more satifying read.

June 24

The Ninth Circle by Alex Bell

How is your Dante? Any familiarity with other Apocalyptic literature, especially Christian? Mine is lousy and I suspect it needs to be in order to enjoy this first book from a new young English author.

The book opens with a middle-aged man waking up on the floor of his apartment covered in blood. He cannot remember his name or anything else about his life. Gradually he learns that he is living in Budapest. His name is Gabriel Antaeus. He speaks Hungarian and English fluently, and there is a lot of money in a bag in the kitchen.  And he can see strange monsters that are invisible to everyone else. Like the burning man that invades his dreams. Gabriel is a man frightened and alone.

After weeks and months alone in his apartment, Gabriel starts to move out into the city, just to be near normal people. He is drawn to visit churches, cathedrals and religious sites through the city. One day he is befriended by Stephimo, another man who can apparently see these strange monsters. The other person that Gabriel connects with is the young pregnant teenager living in the apartment building.

I have seen this book described as a mix of Dan Brown and Umberto Eco. I wholeheartedly agree. There is a level of gothic/supernatural strangeness that I have only ever encountered in Eco’s works.  And yet the core of the story is a thriller, much in the style of Dan Brown, the reader is asked to link the clues to uncover the conspiracy.

The publisher’s website indicates that Alex Bell wrote this novel when she was just 19. Much of the publicity for the book focuses on the fact that it is a young author’s debut novel. I can accept that everyone has to start somewhere, but Bell really needs to spend a lot of time more time in research. Just a quick glance at Wikipedia will clearly demonstrate that the title should have been The Seventh Circle.

Sorry. This book simply didn’t sit well. Perhaps, like everyone’s first novel, it needs to go back into the box. Alex Bell shows potential, but she needs to find a good editor.

June 23

The Killer’s Tears by Anne-Laure Bondoux

Every now and then you run into a book that simply will not fit into a category. This is one of them. I really don’t know that it is really written for lower secondary and a subject heading is impossible. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Paolo is a small boy growing up on a farm and the very southern tip of Chile. Is is so young that he isn’t even sure of his age. The farm gets very few visitors and the family has developed a routine of greeting them, and sending them on their way. But one day a big man arrives, sizes the farm up as an excellent hideout and murders Paolo’s mother and father before they can say or do anything. When Paolo returns from hunting snakes, Angel is unable to completely eliminate the family. A moment of weakness, humanity or just the child’s simple trust, but Angel is caught. He and the boy establish a relationship and continue to live on the farm. A while later a wealthy educated man Luis arrives and builds a shack on the property. When the shack is destroyed in a storm, he joins the others in the farmhouse. For a very long time the three scratch out a subsistence living, but eventually they are forced to go to the local village market. From the moment they arrive in civilisation, nothing is ever the same again.

The tension in the story comes from the personal insecurities and jealousy between Luis and Angel. Luis is wealthy, educated and an artist. He teaches Paolo to read and write and introduces the child to poetry. Angel is strong, tough and practical, but absolutely unwavering in his love for the child.

This book reminded me of Boyne’s The Boy in Striped Pyjamas. It can only be described as a modern fable. But the story is much more complex than Boyne’s tale. And things appear confused. Why did the author name the character who appears to be completely evil, Angel? This is only one of the questions that haunt long after the book is finished.

I will be recommending this book to others, but I am not at all sure where.