Monday, March 20, 2017

Operation Rhino: Book Review

Operation Rhino, Lauren St John
I read this aloud to the girls (ages 3, 5 and 7).  The elder two were very into it, from the outset.  Horses AND wild animals?  Horses and wild animals for your very own?  Horse and wild animals racing each other?  They were smitten!  Esky appreciated being reunited with the white giraffe she knew from the book so named.  Meanwhile, Mia's feet were ceiling-ward and her hands were animated characters.  Alas, the reading went on (with minimal murmuring from the listeners about the static).  We read this as part of an Africa Inquiry (Home-school) Unit, and as always, the fiction text generated more questions than any of the non-fiction offerings we have out from the library; "What's 'Zulu'?" and "What's 'a reserve?'"  I think they're much more likely to remember the answers given the fiction-based context too.   Unfortunately...I really didn't care for the writing style or story much at all, myself.  My greatest pet peeve was how there was very little distinction between character and narrative voice...children uttered lines I couldn't buy into and there wasn't varied personality between characters.  I wanted this book to be over!  Sooooo...I recommend this for readers around 10 years of age who rip through books, who are interested in hard topics like poaching receiving treatment for a junior audience with a sprinkling of rhino and African trivia.

Review copy received from Hachette.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Laini the Weaver

Strange the Dreamer, Laini Taylor
This, my most anticipated book of the year, arrived --  a bound proof accompanied by a vial of golden glitter and themed crepe wrapping.  When I reported its arrival to friends and the quickening that was taking place in my chest I was met with the reply, "Tell us how you really feel."  I get it.  I wax on fairly strong when it comes to Laini Taylor.  I think its warranted.  Her latest book elicits familiar beauty-aches.  I savoured every carefully-spun page.  Let the waxing begin;
  • I've read the prologue five times so far.  Wow.  
  • I spent the first fifty or so pages in awe and gratitude, thinking, "I've missed her style.  I've missed her characters.  And oh, the dialogue!"  I breathlessly thumbed through the remaining pages more than once thinking, "How can she maintain this caliber...for all this!?"  Awe and gratitude, awe and gratitude.  What a beautiful retreat this book is.  Though loaded with figurative language, it never feels a burden to read -- instead, it's this decadent treat I can't believe is mine for the consuming.  (And for the record, the writing stays strong to the end, although I would argue the first half is a notch above the second.)
  • I loved the central character so quickly.  When I met briefly with Laini in Auckland during DOGAM's promotional circuit she told me: "Every character deserves a great entrance."  She went on to explain that when we meet a character for the first time in a story that character deserves to be shown in his/her element, allowing him/her to shine.  She gave some examples, and I've read differently since (not just her books, but all books!).  I'll take a moment sometimes to internally remark, "Now that's a great entrance."  This book's protag has a great entrance.  I desperately wanted his dreams to be realised and I was overcome with enthusiasm knowing I was in such good hands -- a worthy arc was sure.
  • The rest of the characters rarely proved to neither be wholly bad or good -- something Laini's already proven swell at.  Even those we love to hate and the archetypal heroes evoke moments of contrary sympathy.
  • This felt epic within 20 pages (perhaps by the end of chapter 2, if you're a cynic).  I felt like I was on the cusp of a truly grand tale very early.  I was right.  There are quiet reprieves that remind me of Frodo and Gandalf and sweeping action scenes that resemble Greek epics (or modern adaptations of ancient Norse or other god stories).
  • There are references to sexual violence and there is some moderate steaminess (mostly kissing and longing to be physical although sex is alluded to having taken place or being likely).  
Overall:  I'm already a fan.  You get it.  But if you, like me, are also eagerly awaiting a chance to return into a rich world with layered characters and intelligent dialogue, you can rest easy all will be delivered here.  If you are yet to sample Laini Taylor's writing for one reason or another, this would be an excellent place to start.  Pre-order your copy now.  On sale 28 March 2017.

Watch this space: I'll soon be posting my interview with Laini about this bombshell of a book!

Review copy received from Hachette.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Rock Pool Secrets

Rock Pool Secrets, Narelle Oliver
Oliver's linocuts steal the show in this little treasure.  It's a lovely touch to see the flaps are cut along the edges of features within each illustration, making them a seamless part of the scene -- one of my favourite details.  My older girls were hoping for a challenge in finding the secrets within the pictured rock pools (the text suggests it might be), but agreed even though it was "easy for them" they appreciated the effect of each creature visually belonging to its home.  For me, the greatest disappointment in reading this book (and others like it -- although none can match on artwork!) is that I'm yet to find a rock pool in New Zealand that boasts the diversity and life I find in its pages!

Review copy received from Walker.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Giving Maisy a Chance

Maisy Goes to the Bookshop, Lucy Cousins
I've mentioned before, I'm not a big Maisy fan.  I find the brights and bolds lend themselves well to a few subjects, but an anthropomorphic mouse and the style combined have never drawn me in.  But April's promo box from Walker contained "A Maisy First Experiences Book." I gave it a fair shot.  The girls thought it was nice, but they didn't ask for it again...perhaps they detected my lack of enthusiasm.  I think a risk with modelling / representing a first experience is that the things that aren't universal jump out at you so quickly...such as how Maisy's bookshop visit features an in-shop cafĂ© (something not possibly in any bookshop in our city).  Ivy is a fan of books with a narrative (rather than poems, lists, or rhymes for rhymes sake), so this ticks that box.  If you're already a Maisy fan, you'll be delighted by this series, I'm sure (out April 1), but if you, like me, have never felt called to them previously this probably won't change your tune either. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Trans-Siberian Express Refugee Story

Under the Almond Tree, Laura McVeigh
Under the Almond Tree tells the story of one refugee family fleeing conflict and war in Afghanistan in the 1990s as they travel towards freedom and safety.  Published by Hachette's Two Roads imprint.  Two Roads publishes strong, narrative-led stories of amazing lives.
  • When I first read over the list of character names I thought I was going to have a difficult time keeping tabs on all the players.  It was a pleasant surprise to discover the opposite -- in fact -- I could have coped without the name list.  Similarly, local terminology and place names weren't overwhelming.
  • A map is also among the introductory pages, and I think this is an excellent inclusion (and nice design).
  • It took me a chapter to adjust to McVeigh's long, complex sentences (half-paragraphs, often).  Her language is rich enough that there are super-low frequency words now and then, but not so rich it made for slow reading.  
  • This story employs bold imagery and a narrative device that divides fan and foe among readers.  I was a fan.  I thought it was executed well.  It'd be spoiling to specify.
  • The narrative alternates between flashbacks and the present, but there is only one proper narrator (occasional embedded alternative narrators the central narrator encounters, but these are all very manageable) and never became irritating.  I think it made the book better.
  • This story is truly harrowing, guys.  We all know from the synopsis we're in for harrowing.  There are shards of hope and obvious pointers to how people coped through such an ordeal (which allow readers to cope with it all too), but there is also disturbing content and sorrowful moments.
  • There are no sex scenes, but there are references to sexual violence taking place.  No swearing.  Brief, disturbing violence.  Presence of guns.
  • Hailing from Ireland, I was impressed with how much work McVeigh had put into her research. 
Overall: I'm always in favour of people reading things that are other, from their own experience.  In the case of Under the Almond Tree, I would hope those people were 16+ and braced for a reality check, because my First World white privilege was seriously oppressive while I read this one.

Official Publication Date: Today (28 February 2017)
Review copy received from Hachette.
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