Monday, February 20, 2017

Reo Pēpi

Reo Pēpi, Kitty Brown (illustrator Kirsten Parkinson)
This second resource series from Dunedin Te Reo Māori publishers and advocates Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson comes in beautiful board format.  I find these look sharper than their predecessors (still lovely) in a very clean matte white.  These are bilingual (as opposed to Māori language only), with the Māori text in a bold, larger font above its translation.  The illustrations are warm and darling, without edges.  I think the final pages in each book are a great addition, with each featuring a related glossary and pronunciation guide.  I'm a little sad that -- like most pronunciation guides for Māori phonetics -- it only works for readers with a New Zealand accent, but that's not a predicament unique to this series!  For scale: these are the same size as The Gruffalo board book. I hope frequent reading of these in families may incite improvised play thereafter, because there's definitely plenty of potential for extension of these.  The boxed set would make a beautiful gift for a baby shower, first or second birthday or Aotearoa arrival, but a single pukapuka would also be lovely.  Haki has been reading these to all three of our daughters, and Esky (age 7) has been equally happy to listen (and play along) as Mia (3).  Check out the close-ups on these lovely covers:

I'm pleased these books are helping to fill a gap in the early childhood Te Reo Māori book market, as there is quite a range of early readers (5years+) in paper available, but nothing that so aptly blends tough, simple and classy as the Brown-Parkinson offering.  You can pre-order these direct from the creators here (available in March) along with a range of other related products OR if you're in Dunedin, swing by The University Book Shop to pick up your limited edition.
Review copy received from Reo Pēpi.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Blood Key

The Blood Key, Vaun Murphrey
Fun but flawed;
  • The dialogue is playful.
  • Fast start, pretty steady pacing.
  • The characters have spunk.
  • Some sentences seemed stilted or confused, with multiple cases of missing articles, confused subjects, incorrect grammar or weak metaphors.  When I re-read sentences in this book, it wasn't because I was relishing them, it was because I went, "What?!"
  • Things are pretty predictable.
  • There is nothing subtle or careful about the love interest situ.  The male is kind and protective (rather than a jerk spouting jerkiness our heroine can't get enough of -- thank goodness -- too many of those out there!).
  • There's moderate swearing and teenagers lusting after each other and making out.  There's also allusions to sexual abuse but no explicit recounts of this.
  • The narrative is far-fetched...but it works, because The Blood Key establishes itself as entertaining SF.  It develops a goofiness, as the story progresses...much like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, only less overt from the outset.  More than once I also thought of Infinity, Spark and Dangerous.
Overall:  It was an easy, fun read, but I wouldn't purchase a paper copy.  A book I could only recommend if someone said, "I feel like a goofy YA sci fi novel." 

Review copy via NetGalley.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Separation Anxiety Book

A Kissing Hand for Chester Raccoon, Audrey Penn
I hadn't read The Kissing Hand (original title) or heard of the concept, but I like the idea and the heart-warming final illustration proving Chester's got it down.  This story is very short and simple, but introduces a practical strategy to deal with separation anxiety before events such as starting school or spending nights sleeping over away from parents.  That said, you could read it and introduce the idea yourself without having raccoons model it for you without losing a lot...

Review copy received via NetGalley.

Thursday, February 2, 2017


Penguin, Polly Dunbar
I'm pleased I reviewed this 10th Anniversary Edition.  Penguin has a gentle kind of funny going on.  It feels like a classic.  It didn't make me laugh out loud, but it made me smile, and the girls agreed it was "nice" and a keeper.  It is a semi-tantrum book (I think most of you know how I feel about those), buuuuut I've concluded it's more of an exasperated-book than tantrum-book.  And some consequences in the story imply the quasi-tantrum is not cool.  I also love how the hard-edged realism, so gently told and illustrated, is then undercut by a magical realism turn.  Lovely twist.  Has this slipped outside your radar range for 10 years too?  If yes, you may have seen Dunbar's Tilly and Friends books or her illustrations for Margaret Mahy.

Review copy received from Walker.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Taken: The Role Switch Edition

So when I say this book is like Taken, with roles switched, you should know I've never seen the movie Taken.  You know why?  Because I'm so sure it's not for me.  So you can probably guess where this review is headed...
  • This was one of my sampler review copies.  I didn't opt in.  It's important to understand that, because when I do raise my hand for a book, it's because I find the jacket copy appealing and think I'll enjoy reading it.  I don't read books for the sake of knowing what's inside every new-to-market title.  So when I picked this up, I wasn't enthused.  I decided I'd read it anyway -- to expand my horizons -- for the sake of coverage...  I did not enjoy it.  The good news here, is that this has no bearing on how you'll feel about the book if you're a Taken / Girl with a Dragon Tattoo fan; if the post title enticed you here, there's a good chance you're exactly who this book is meant for. 
  • I was open to the possibility of surprise.  The protagonist knew a bunch of languages and was clearly haunted.  I was moderately interested in her.  Then there was a slap-fight between her and a rich girl at school.  I can push past some tropes, but they just. kept. coming.  Insta-like, check.  Mentor fight-trainer who gets you world-ready in a few sessions, check.  Freshly-trained-teenager who is able to outsmart criminal masterminds for whom crime has been their business for decades, check.  Heroine *must* dress up in an evening gown for one of the missions/operations/heists, checkety check check.  I could have swallowed any one of this things.   The quick succession of trope-punches made for my head turning into a speed ball.  
  • It didn't help that I had so recently read Whose Afraid Too which was similarly afflicted with a case of Hypertropeosis.  When I found myself on the sparring mat in yet another new city with another new mentor I had a mental double-take.  When protag hits the mat and shares an exchange, breathless, with her trainer, it felt like 100 movies and other books.  I'm not in the mood right now.  Maybe you're craving that?  You're in luck.  I wasn't...and I needed a lot more spunk to make it work, but sadly...
  • I found protag Gwen unlikable. I found her selfish, assuming and cocky.  Have I liked selfish, assuming and cocky characters before?  Yes, I have (Let's see; Ronan Lynch, Manon, Kaz Brekker, Caldenia, Kvothe...need I go on?).  What those characters had that Gwen lacked was spunk.  Gwendolyn wasn't smart, funny or quirky.  She wasn't generous, charismatic, or compelling.  She was flat.
  • When I try to think of examples of YA male authors who have respectfully or beautifully-written a strong female lead, few come to mind; Markus Zusak leaps out as a phenomenal exception.  It's possible.  But more often than not, I cringe through men writing lead women.  Am I reading Bergstrom's novel through a gendered, skeptic's lens? I don't think so.  I think what I read unfortunately (and I hope unintentionally) revealed a denigrating sexist tone.  When Gwen receives wolf-whistles on the street she thinks "they love this," meaning her school uniform and legs.  She also attributes the wolf-whistling to her recent weight-loss (she had to become a mean, lean, warrior machine, right?  I mean, she wasn't overweight before, but she really deserves wolf whistles now she is thinner).  In Bergstrom's defence, this is his first book...John Grisham's written wheelbarrow-loads in the adult fic realm and I haven't found a single female lead I've enjoyed there either.  It's hard to sell your way into YA's female-dominated genre, but I'd say it's harder when your female protags fall terribly short. 
  • She wasn't the only character I didn't enjoy.  I didn't care for anybody.  It felt like the book was more focused on spotlighting the shady underbelly of the criminal world than building relationships or characters.  I read for relationships and characters.  Crime?  Small doses, please.
  • I found numerous narrative devices were used in a way I found lazy or clumsy.  Characters foreshadow action explicitly in speech (e.g. ~"You will be betrayed and you will betray others").  Hmmmm.  Unless there's a jedi, magic, or some supernatural element involved, I don't want my characters to spout the future like that.  It was weird, and it happened more than once.  There's frequent and ugly swearing which didn't add anything to characters or action -- this isn't to my taste.  It was often at its worst with those who weren't criminals (I would think the latter might more reasonably be typed to be uncouth).  Gwen is given a clunky inner monologue to explain how she metamorphs from quiet, educated and well-travelled to bold, daring assassin extraordinaire suggesting this sleeping giant was inside her all along.  Except...without such a metaphor or real explanation at all.  I didn't appreciate, understand or believe her change.  Instead I found her inner-workings were grasping after something innate yet a book free of magic or science fiction.  This hobbled along lame, for me.
  • The plotting felt forced and foreseeable.  So many conveniences were wince-worthy.  There were big leaps in belief suspension regularly.  The end is a second book set-up (*gag*). 
  • And yet...there is an extreme level of accuracy in setting details.  We are always told the exact restaurant that is on which road after riding which subway line.  The juxtaposition and inconsistency in the details for setting versus plot, character and relationships only made what was missing from the essential parts more apparent.  I wish these kind of details filled in the glaring blanks with Gwen's change, her relationships, and plot leaps.
 There's a very strong chance Bergstrom's new series will find its mark with people other than me.  Sadly, I don't have a lot of good things to say about this book -- but bear in mind, I didn't think I would, but gave it a go anyway.  Overall?  Cruelty reads like a conscious attempt to cash-in on the female-dominated YA market through a smashing mash-up of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo and Bourne Identity...which is sadly carried by a half-baked heroine.  Based on Bergstrom's dig, in-text, he doesn't even think cracking into the market is hard to do (yup, he insults YA dystopian lit in-story).   Yup, YA is a diverse field with quite a quality spectrum -- ranging from high literary art to simple's okay to poke some fun...buuuut....I think Cruelty has verged a little on the arrogant side* and sadly falls short of being at all better (or even equal) to most of the contemporaries.   So it's clear, I'm not a fan.  But I doubt I'll dent book sales much (this comes out next week), considering this is only the beginning of a six-book deal and Paramount's applauding!  If you've been reading this post and thinking, "That sounds like all the things I like!" you'll be so happy!  YAY!

I cannot resist sharing these two excellent tweets:
Don't just take my word for it!  Or the words of my stranger-pals, carefully selected from today's echo chamber... see what another devoted YA fan has to say about Cruelty; Stella read advanced copy too.  You can check out what she thinks here.

*Bergstrom's interview did little to support any contrary opinion on this verdict...see Tweet 2, above.

Review copy received from Walker
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