Review: Wake by Elizabeth Knox

Knox, E. (2013). Wake. Wellington, NZ: Victoria University Press. [Fantasy]


Wake is set in Kahukura, a small fictional town in Golden Bay, not too far from Nelson.  In Kahukura there is a small fishing wharf, an expensive luxury resort, a native bird reserve for endangered kakapo, an old folks’ home, and a new subdivision is being built.  The place is so familiar to a New Zealand audience that you can almost smell the sea air and recognise all of the locals.  That is what makes what happens there so jarring.

An illness suddenly descends upon the town, turning all its inhabitants into murderous zombie-type creatures.  The illness lasts until every last person is killed.  Except for 14 survivors.  These 14 people happened to be out of the town limits when the illness hit, but returned to town as an invisible ‘No Go’ zone surrounded Kahukura.  Now they’re trapped there – there is no escape by sea or land, and, by the looks of the Air Force personnel they find splattered on a roof, there’s no way in or out by air either.

The survivors then go about the business of surviving.  There’s a big clean up to do to stop the spread of disease, they need to keep themselves fed and healthy (in mind, as well as in body), there is a whole lot of untended animals left behind, and some very rare birds that need to be kept alive.  And then there’s the long term goals: how can they contact the outside world? how are they going to get out of the zone? what is this zone and what is it for? and who is the black man that watches them so intently but runs from any contact?

I know this book is a fantasy, and so the reason for the illness and the zone are fantastical, and requires you to suspend your disbelief.  But by making the setting so real and so contemporary, Elizabeth Knox has made a really creepy story!  The resolution may not satisfy everyone, however, the story is such a creepy, compelling, page-turner, and asks such good questions about the ethics of survival and what makes us human a lot will be forgiven.


Review: Dear Vincent by Mandy Hager

Hager, M. (2013). Dear Vincent. Auckland, NZ: Random House. [Realism]

rsz_dearvincentTara’s life is not so good at the moment.  She’s had to stop going to school in the afternoons so she can work part-time at an old folks’ home.  Tara’s mum needs her help to pay the mortgage on the over-priced house that is slowly rotting around them.  Her dad is housebound by the stroke that paralysed him six years ago, and when Tara’s not at school, or work, she’s caring for him and running the house so her mum can work night shifts.  On top of this, Tara had to move to a school that her mum could afford and she hasn’t made any friends.  And after recently discovering the truth behind the death of her troubled older sister five years ago, it has all become a bit much.

If this all sounds a bit bleak – it is.  However, there are brushes of light in the story: the growing friendship with Max, one of the old folks Tara cares for, and his grandson; the introduction of philosophy to her life; the connection with her family back in Ireland; and, perhaps the greatest cause for hope, Tara’s talent and passion for painting.  Through her art, Tara is able to express the emotions that she feels unable to verbalise – and those around her are able to see the pain she’s in and offer the help that she is incapable of asking for.

I got a bit frustrated with Tara at times.  Yes, she’s got it tough, but when others try to reach out and help her she shuns them.  And then when some of the girls at her school offer her sympathy and share some of their troubles, she thinks that must be unpleasant for them but no one has it as bad as her.  However, Mandy Hager is such a good writer she walks this thin line really well.  The book is bleak, but not too bleak; Tara is a bit frustrating, but you still care about what happens to her and wish her well.

I won’t be putting a ‘seniors only’ sticker on this book in our school library, however, I will be lending it with care.  It needs to be read by students who are robust enough to hear the bleak story, but not be seduced by the idea of suicide.  It should give students food for thought about how destructive suicide can be on a family.  And hopefully make them be a bit more forgiving towards the adults in their lives – you don’t always know the full story of those people closest to you…

Review: Trouble in Time by Adele Broadbent

Broadbent, A. (2014). Trouble in time. Auckland, NZ: Scholastic. [Fantasy]

rsz_trouble_in_timeTwelve-year-old Ben is grumpy that he has to move out of his bedroom into a caravan in the backyard.  In fact, he’s almost as grumpy as the 91-year-old great-grandfather that has displaced him from his room.  Ben knows right away they are not going to get along.

But then Ben gets a bit of a fright.  One day, after school when no one else is home, the old man is not moving in his chair – and he doesn’t respond when Ben calls out to him.  Could he be…dead?  When Ben goes to shake his great-grandfather to check his status, he suddenly finds himself transported back to 1935, and face to face with 12-year-old George, his future great-grandfather!

The two relatives begin to enjoy their time slipping for different reasons: Ben enjoys participating in the rural activities that are not available to him in his modern city life, while George enjoys reliving his youth and his body feels younger when he returns to the present.  However, it is not all positive when time travel is involved.  The two quickly learn that what they do in 1935 has consequences in 2014; they need to take care with what they do, limit the visits they make – and they certainly shouldn’t tell anyone else what they’ve been up to.

There soon develops an understanding, respect, and friendship between the two generations.  Especially when they discover that someone else is time slipping – and that their intentions may not be so benign…

I really enjoyed the interplay between Ben and George.  The time travel has a neat explanation, and timey-wimey plot holes are avoided.  This book really makes me hope that when my 94-year-old grandmother appears to be dozing, she has actually time slipped back to Mackford Farm up the Mokau River and is having a grand old time making mischief with her sisters.  Thanks for this, Adele 🙂

I got my copy of Trouble in Time from Napier Boys’ High School Memorial Library.

If you’re not allowed to take our books out try Napier Libraries.

Review: Monkey Boy by Donovan Bixley

Bixley, D. (2014). Monkey boy. Auckland, NZ: Scholastic. [Historical fiction]

rsz_monkeyboyposter1I’ve said Monkey Boy is a historical novel, but in reality Donovan Bixley has created a genre-defying book.  It’s part history, part war story, part ghost story, part coming of age story, part graphic novel and all action!

Jimmy Grimholt is the youngest and smallest sailor aboard the warship HMS Fury, as it heads out into the English Channel to fight off Napoleon Bonaparte and his army.  Jimmy’s job is to be a powder monkey to the gun crew of Blasting Betty, a 32-pound cannon.  The powder monkey’s main task is to run to the magazine store, the most dangerous place on the ship, and retrieve bags of gunpowder to enable his gun crew to charge their cannon.  A dangerous enough task when walking, but a potentially deadly duty while running during the heat of battle and the ship is being peppered with enemy cannon shot.

The main action of the novel revolves around the warship’s wait for the inevitable battle with Napoleon.  However, there is added action through the use of time slip, as we learn more about how Jimmy ended up in the Royal Navy at such a young age.  There is also conflict with the other powder boys on board, his superior officers, and a ghost or three lurking on the ship.

This book should appeal to a wide range of kids, with its humour, historical fact, gross out moments, great cast of characters and Bixley’s perfect use of illustration – which add tension and detail to the story without a lot of extra text.  Recommended for ages 10 and up.

monkey boy inside

Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green

Green, J. (2005). Looking for Alaska. New York, NY: HarperCollins Children’s Books. [Realism]


Miles Halter has decided to move schools.  He’s heading to Culver Creek, a co-educational boarding school in another state, in search of the Great Perhaps.  Miles seeks a world where things are possible and finds this world opened up to him when he meets his roommate the Colonel.  Along with the Colonel and his friends, Alaska, Takumi and Lara, Miles becomes involved in illicit smoking and drinking, acts of revenge against other students and the greatest prank that Culver Creek has ever seen.

And then it happens.  One of the friends dies.  This causes Miles to ask big questions about love, life and suffering.  He obsesses over how this death happened and the part he played in the tragedy.  Miles questions his friendships and what happens once you’ve gone.  He questions his interest in collecting people’s last words and what the point of the Great Perhaps is.

This book doesn’t shy away from the tough things in life.  It explores friendship, love, grief, redemption and hope without flinching, but it does it with humour and without patronising or belittling young people.  There is some coarse language and sexual content in this book.  It is not gratuitous or explicit in nature, however, it may shock more sensitive readers.  Recommended for ages 15 and up.

I got my copy of Looking for Alaska from Napier Boys’ High School Memorial Library.

If you’re not allowed to borrow books from them you could try Napier Libraries.

Review: Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

Smith, L. (2011). Grandpa Green. New York, NY: Roaring Book Press.

Grandpa Green

I picked up Grandpa Green from Napier Libraries when I saw it was by Lane Smith.  I have previously read, and loved, Smith’s It’s a Book (and its awesome book trailer), so selected this newer book with great anticipation.  It did not disappoint.

Grandpa Green is told from the perspective of an unnamed child describing his great-grandfather’s life.  While the text seems simple on the surface, it combines perfectly with the illustrations to add depth to the story.

The illustrations have a limited colour palette, with various shades of green predominating.  However, rather than create dull pictures, this serves to highlight the amazing topiary creations that the grandfather has made.  The garden sculptures illustrate events in Grandpa’s life, with occasional splashes of red adding drama to the pictures.

Grandpa Green

Being an adult, I didn’t pay much attention to the front cover which meant I missed a clue to the story.  I thought the boy in the book was Grandpa when he was young, rather than the narrator, and it wasn’t until I was halfway through that I realised my mistake.  I then went back and looked for all the hidden clues in the illustrations that I had missed – I imagine children would love finding these hidden objects which foreshadow what is to come.

Grandpa Green is a book about memory, growing old, and what people do to remember.  While it is a serious topic, Lane works with a light touch and a splash of humour.  This book would work well with primary school children.

Review: I Am Rebecca by Fleur Beale

Beale, F. (2014). I am Rebecca. Auckland, New Zealand: Random House. [contemporary realism]

I am Rebecca

I Am Rebecca is the sequel to Fleur Beale’s hugely popular novel I Am Not Esther.

It continues the story of the Pilgrim family – though this time the story is told from the point of view of Rebecca, one of the 13-year-old twins that has been born and raised in the strict fundamentalist Christian sect called Children of the Faith.  The story begins with the family and the rest of their community moving to the South Island to join a larger group, allowing the community to become more independent and separate from their “worldly” neighbours.

We follow Rebecca, her twin sister, Rachel, and their friends as they go through the exciting, yet nerve-wracking, time of becoming betrothed at the age of fourteen.  An exciting time because the girls wish to fulfill their godly duties, but nerve-wracking because they know they have no choice in who they will be ordered to marry.

This novel is a harrowing read for feminists, as the Children of the Faith use selective teachings from the Bible to maintain control over their followers.  They also use “The Rule”, a set of laws developed by the leaders, to keep order – though these rules seem mainly concerned with controlling the minds and bodies of women.

However, the beauty of this story being narrated by Rebecca is that the details of life in the sect are never presented in a judgmental way.  Rebecca is simply stating the way things are – it is all she knows – so it is not a better or worse way of life, it just is.  This is also what makes the struggle Rebecca goes through so poignant.  She has lived by “The Rule” and believed in the sect’s teachings, yet that is not enough to protect her from them.

The novel’s ending is perhaps the most powerful part of the book for me.  I could just imagine the impact this scene would have if it occurred in real life.  And it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up just thinking about it.

I highly recommend this book to everyone – in fact, I think it should be compulsory reading so we can develop a society more understanding and empathetic of difference.

Thanks to Random House for supplying me with a copy of this book.

Note: this review was first published on the Random House website and my Goodreads page.