Kids’ Books: bulk review

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Bathtime for Little Rabbit – Jörg Mühle
Published by Gecko Press – available February 2017

Another gorgeous board book from Jörg Mühle, featuring our friend, Little Rabbit. There’s something so appealing about the simplicity of this book; the illustrations are adorable, with clean lines and simple concepts that are beautiful and endearing. I love the interactive style (blow-drying Little Rabbit’s ears was a lot of fun!), and the gentle responses it elicits from my rambunctuous four-and-a-half-year-old. He loved Tickle My Ears, and Bathtime for Little Rabbit has quickly become a favourite. I know of a few little people in my life who will be getting this book for their birthday!

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The Lost Kitten – Lee (illustrated by Komako Sakai)
Published by Gecko Press – available March 2017

This book is, quite simply, a work of art. Sakai is considered one of Japan’s leading illustrators, and it’s not hard to see why. In The Lost Kitten, she has captured the innocent curiosity of a child, and of a small kitten, so perfectly that each page almost feels alive. My boys were both completely absorbed in this book, and I was in no hurry to turn each page; the story feels so real. As such, it’s also a story I don’t think we’ll tire of, it is such a pleasure to read. My youngest was a bit upset when we first read that the kitten was lost, but fear not, there is a happy ending!

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Bruno – Catharina Valckx (illustrated by Nicola Hubesch)
Published by Gecko Press – available March 2017

This is a delightful comic-like collection of six linked stories about Some of the More Interesting Days in My Life So Far. Bruno is a cat who makes the most of every day, always finding something good or interesting about them all. He has a hilarious little group of friends who bring joy and silliness to his days, and my boys think they are all wonderful. Tweety the canary is a particular favourite; “All done, cinnamon bun” is cackled a number of times each day in our house. I think the main appeal of this book is that it takes rather ordinary moments in time, and turns them into adventures that are always quirky and funny. The humour is aimed at kids, and my two found it hilarious. They get the jokes, and the silliness, and I love seeing what cracks them up about each different story. The lines are so dead-pan, but brilliantly delivered, and the illustrations are bold and perfectly detailed to enhance the text. One of my favourite books aimed at a wide age range, but especially enjoyed by four-and-a-half- and six-and-three-quarter-year-olds!

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Helper and Helper – Joy Cowley (illustrated by Gavin Bishop)
Published by Gecko Press – available February 2017

The thoughts of a six-and-three-quarter-year-old*:

“It’s a chapter book, but with pictures, which makes it interesting. The story is about some friends…some of them are best friends, and some of them are just ordinary friends, but they all want to help each other which is kind. Snake thinks she’s cleverer than Lizard, but they are best friends anyway. Squirrel is a bit nervous but I think she always tries her hardest to help. The book is called Helper and Helper because that’s the job Snake and Lizard do. They argue a lot but never stay cross at each other for long. It’s a good book.”

*At the time of writing, I hadnt actually read the whole book, as it was taken firmly from my hands by my biggest!

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Book Review: Runemarks

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Runemarks – Joanne M. Harris
Published by Hachette New Zealand, 2016

In a world where magic and mystery are outlawed, Maddy has always been an outsider. With the strange marking on her hand and her unusual abilities, she’s mistrusted and feared by ‘normal’ folk.

But Maddy’s life is about to change. From learning about the ways of the old gods, to travelling into World Below and meeting the infamous trickster, Loki, Maddy must embark on a journey the likes of which she has never imagined.

As the powers of Chaos and Order prepare for a war to end all wars, it is Maddy who unknowingly holds the key to the Worlds’ survival.

I have a few Joanne Harris novels on my bookshelf: Chocolat, Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters of the Orange, Coastliners and Holy Fools. All are quite different and quirky, but there’s a similarity in tone or plot that links them, in my mind, to each other. However, none of them are like Runemarks at all; if you’d covered the author’s name and asked me to guess at who wrote it, I certainly wouldn’t have guessed at Joanne Harris.

But here’s the thing: I loved romantic, whimsical Chocolat, and found Blackberry Wine tantalising in its point of view (first person, as a bottle of wine)…and was so gripped by Runemarks that I read until close to midnight on more than one occasion. Very different genres, very different styles, and very different stories, but with one thing in common: very, very good.

With Runemarks, Harris has created a world – nine, to be exact – full of magic and mystery, where a host of characters from Norse mythology mingle with common folk who are terrified of magic. I have a basic knowledge of Norse mythology, so felt familiar with the main players (specifically Odin, Loki and Thor), and found it interesting to learn more about them. I especially liked Harris’ Loki, the Trickster; he was one of those characters that I was instantly drawn too, despite his history of treachery and deceit. I found Maddy, our common heroine, to be far more mature than her 14 years should suggest, but her character was likeable if a little predictable at times.

The story started out slowly, but picked up pace about five chapters in and then raced along at heart-stopping, breath-quickening pace. It was exciting and compelling, and nerve-wracking in parts; a page-turner that I struggled to put down because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. There were a few predictable plot-twists, but some that I didn’t see coming until they were about to happen. It was a cleverly crafted story, and has left me wanting more (which I will find, in the form of Runelight, and The Gospel of Loki). Fantasy isn’t usually a genre I go for, and I’ve certainly not read many mythical fantasy novels (if any!), but Runemarks was a pleasant introduction and a happy surprise.

Thank you to Hachette for my review copy, and for the opportunity to experience so many amazing books over the past couple of years!

Book Review: All I Ever Wanted

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All I Ever Wanted – Lucy Dillon
Published by Hachette New Zealand

Catlin’s life is a mess. Her marriage to a man everyone else thinks is perfect has collapsed, along with her self-esteem, and breaking free seems the only option.

Nancy, her four-year-old daughter, used to talk all the time; in the car, at nursery, to her brother Joel. Then her parents split up. Her daddy moves out. And Nancy stops speaking.

Nancy’s Auntie Eva, recently widowed and feeling alone, apart from the companionship of two bewildered pugs, is facing a future without her husband or the dreams she gave up for him.

But when Eva agrees to host her niece and nephew once a fortnight, Caitlin and Eva are made to face the different truths about their marriages – and about what they both really want…

If you need a last-minute gift idea for someone this Christmas, I suggest you race out now (or click here) to buy a copy of All I Ever Wanted. Or if you’re looking for a good book to take to the crib/bach/beach this summer…buy a copy of All I Ever Wanted. I thought it might be a bit “fluffy”, a bit of romcom chick lit, but it is so much better than that. It made me cry, and it made me smile, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable, compelling read that I didn’t want to put down.

The characters are written so well, and through the course of the novel, we get to know each of them quite well through their interactions and relationships with one another. The only characters we merely skim the surface of are Patrick, Catlin’s husband, and Alex, Eva’s friend, yet we still get a sense of who they are. Caitlin is complicated; she appears outwardly confident but constantly battles with self-doubt and regret over what she hasn’t done with her life. Nancy is full of spark and is rather perceptive for a pre-schooler; her brother Joel exudes energy and drama, but is sensitive to everything going on around him, and is fiercely protective of his little sister. Auntie Eva thought she was happy with where life and circumstance had taken her, but spending time with her niece and nephew allows her to see what her heart has always desired: children of her own. Patrick comes across as a busy professional, focused on his career, desperate to live up to an impossible standard he incorrectly recalls from his own father; he is the character who reveals little of himself, until it’s almost too late, and then he became one of my favourites.

And Bumble and Bee, the pugs…well, never have I thought so highly of a pair of fictional pets! They are an integral part of the story, and Dillon has a magical way of bringing them to life. Upon finishing the book, I decided I need pugs.

All I Ever Wanted is very clever – in a subtle, “Oh, I see, and like, what you’re doing here” kinda way instead of a “Wow, I didn’t see THAT coming” kinda way. It’s an extremely satisfying story – the ending was so good! – and thought-provoking, realistic and moving at the same time. It’s not your typical romance novel, especially where the crumbling relationship between Caitlin and Patrick is concerned, which is very refreshing.

I will be sharing this book around my Village mums, for sure.

Thank you to Hachette NZ for my review copy.

Book Review: Songs of a War Boy

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Songs of a War Boy – Deng Adut with Ben Mckelvey
Published by Hachette New Zealand

The true story of Deng Adut – Sudanese child soldier, refugee, man of hope.

This is the true story of a childhood stolen by war, of a young boy’s life ravaged by politics and tribal greed, and of a brother’s fierce love which endured all of the atrocities of war.

The word “inspiring” doesn’t seem adequate enough to capture how amazing this book, and this man, are. To overcome such adversity, to face such horror, to travel halfway across the world for a new chance at life, and to grab that chance with both hands and run with it…I can’t think of a better word, so inspiring will have to do.

The prologue of Songs of a War Boy begins with a poignancy that is echoed throughout the rest of the book:

Songs are of great importance to my people, the Dinka. They’re our avatars, and our biographies. They precede us, introduce us and live on after we die. They are also how our deeds escape our villages, and they pass on our code of morality, culture and law.

When I was a boy I dreamed of having my own songs, but now I am a man, and I have no songs. It’s likely I never will, in the traditional sense. For the Dinka, these songs are only for me. In the eyes of my culture, I am still a boy.

When I should have been going through the rituals of manhood, I was caught in a vicious war. By the time I was returned to my people, I was very much a westerner. My feet straddle the continents, and also the threshold of manhood.

Deng Adut’s story is not easy to read, in that it is difficult to imagine the horrors he had to endure when he should have been playing in his village with his family. It is powerful and heart-wrenching to read his first-hand account of the South Sudanese conflict; there is no glorification of war, and in his own words, Deng Adut is “…proud of some things I have done, and ashamed of others, but I own all of it, and I’ve reconciled with all of it. That’s why I am whole.”

This is an incredibly poignant, remarkable, inspirational story, and one that will tug at you for days after you’ve read the final page. It’s amazing how a child could endure what Deng Adut endured, yet as an adult, is able to see that life is a gift, and is able – and willing – to go on to do such brilliant things for himself, and for others.

Songs of a War Boy is more than one man’s story about the war that tore his country apart; it is the story of many, and as such, is full of hope not only for Deng Adut’s future, but the potential futures of refugees around the world. At a time when refugees are constantly seeking safety and opportunity far from their natural shores, this is a book that might make some people stop and change their attitudes towards others; reading a first-hand account of the difficulties in transitioning into a new culture will evoke sympathy where before there was perhaps none.

This book is incredibly thought-provoking, hopeful and (I know I’m  repeating myself!) inspiring, and with Christmas fast approaching, would make an excellent gift for the reader(s) in your life.

Thank you to Hachette NZ for my review copy.

Book Review: Archangel’s Heart

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Archangel’s Heart – Nalini Singh
Published by Hachette New Zealand

Archangel’s Heart is the ninth novel in Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series, and the first that I have read. To say I’m keen to go back and read the first eight is an understatement; as soon as I’ve cleared a bit of a bedside-table-backlog, I’ll be hitting the local library to get my hands on the rest of this series.

That’s not to say I feel I need to read them in order to understand the concept – I want to read them. That’s the skill in Singh’s writing: she has written a novel that stands alone and can be enjoyed as such, but that makes you crave more.

It took me a few chapters to come to grips with the characters and the relationships between them (something that will no doubt become clearer once I’ve read the predecessors), but then I was hooked. I thought the characters were well-written and believable (for immortal beings!), and their relationships echoed that. The romantic in me adores the relationship between Archangel, Raphael, and Consort, Elena, even though the realist is scoffing a bit in the background. However, that realist can just be quiet, because the one of the strongest messages in this book is that love is the strongest power in the world (this one, or Singh’s imagined one). There is something immediately appealing about Elena. She’s tough and determined, smart and more than a little stubborn, all which make for a likeable female protagonist. If I had daughters, I’d think she was a suitable role model.

I like Singh’s dark and intense style. She weaves an intricate and magical story, set in an intricate and magical world, and I didn’t want to put this novel down. The ending was very satisfying, while leaving things wide open for the next installment…usually that annoys me, but I enjoyed this book so much, I wasn’t fazed.

I can’t think of anything I didn’t like about this book. It was a great read, and I really liked it. Simple as that.

Thank you Hachette NZ for my review copy.

 

Book Review: Ivan and the Lighthouse

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Ivan and the Lighthouse – Grant Sheehan
Published by Phantom Tree House

Ivan is happy enough at Devonport School, but he finds it hard to concentrate, because through the classroom window he can see, gleaming in the harbour, Bean Rock Lighthouse, where his father is the keeper, and that’s where he really wants to be…

Ivan and the Lighthouse is a lovely story about a small boy who dreams of accompanying his father to work as a lighthouse keeper. It is set in 1910, and “loosely based” on real events, and while it doesn’t read as a history book, it gives a great perspective on a little slice of life in Auckland at the turn of last century.

The arrival of this book was very timely, as we’d just returned home from a school holiday road trip. Our first stop had been to The Catlins, where we walked to the lighthouse at Nugget Point. We’d spoken a lot about lighthouses while we were there, and Ivan and the Lighthouse served as a great reinforcer of the mini history lesson the boys had enjoyed (?!) while we were away.

It’s well-written and the illustrations by Rosalind Clark are gorgeous and very appealing. It’s wordier than your average picture book – aimed at the 5-7 year age group – my four-year-old enjoyed it as much as my six-year-old. They loved exploring the detail on each page, and the drama of a hawk in hunt, a grounded ship, hungry sharks and Halley’s Comet was right up their alley. Virtually every page was a little boys’ dream, with boats and animals of all sorts; the illustrations are mostly double-page, and alone tell an expressive and exciting story. Paired with rich and adventurous language, this is a story that will appeal again and again with each reading.

Thank you to the team at Phantom Tree House for our lovely review copy.

Book Review: If I Was a Banana

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If I Was a Banana – Alexandra Tylee (illustrated by Kieran Rynhart)
Published by Gecko Pressto be released October 2016

I don’t know if I have adequate words to describe how much we love this book. If I simply said, “BUY IT! Buy it NOW!”, would that suffice?? No? Well then, I’ll do my best to convince you that this is a book your children need to own.

If I Was a Banana is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s beautiful to read, and the illustrations are sublime; Tylee and Rynhart are a talented duo and I hope they publish a gazillion more picture books together because they are a match made in heaven.

The story begins simply, and quite amusingly:

If I was a banana, I would be that one, all yellow and fat and full of banana.

and progresses through a wonderful train of thoughts that perfectly capture a child’s thought pattern. If I was a cloud…a spoon…a cat…a star…a fish… It’s a simple story, but packs a powerful punch, and each page offers the chance to talk about what your child would choose to be, and why. My six-year-old was able to express some really good ideas about his choices; he loved the book so much that he took it to school and read it to his class (in front of the school principal, no less!).

If I Was a Banana captures the poetic curiosity of a child, both through words and the hazy, dream-like illustrations. There’s a magic to each page, and it feels as though the reader is inside the head of the young boy as he lets his thoughts range where they will.

The ending of the story is rather poignant and quite beautiful; through all his imaginings, the boy doesn’t appear unhappy with who he actually is, and the ending shows that, sending a powerful message to little readers everywhere to be confident and happy within themselves.

This is a gorgeous story, and I’m already planning on buying it as gifts for a number of small humans in my life.

Thanks to the team at Gecko Press for our review copy.