Book Reviews in 'The Source'
Trevor Agnew, of Christchurch, is a respected reviewer and tireless advocate for and promoter of children’s and young adult literature, particularly books by New Zealand authors. He recently reviewed a bunch of OneTree House titles for The Source (owned and run by Magpies Magazine), an extensive online database of children’s and young adult literature from Australia and New Zealand. Read them below.
For all reviews of OneTree house titles visit our Reviews page.
Deadhead by Glenn Wood
'It was a good night for grave-robbing.'
Glenn Wood wrote his first novel, The Brain Sucker (2012), in a rare genre, the humorous adventure fantasy thriller, which he made into great reading fun for young people. Now he has added horror to the mix with Deadhead.
A YA novel that begins with a 13-year-old grave-robber digging up the corpse of a murdered policeman might not seem palatable fare but Glenn Wood knows his zombie legends and has a light touch.
‘Grave borrowing; not grave robbing.’
Bright young tearaway Spencer Langley wants a bodyguard drawn from the living dead, and the fresh corpse of Constable Garret Hunter seems ideal.
‘The living are unreliable, need sleep and want to be paid. The dead work for free …’ Spencer soon has Garret’s corpse fitted with an electronic system that makes him operate as a big fleshy robot. The writing style here can only be described as cheerfully gruesome.
‘I put a gyroscope in his brainstem, so he self-corrects.’
Spencer’s hard-case friend Regan is a rebel against authority mainly ‘because I’m not in it.’ She also takes a sceptical attitude to Spencer’s wilder ideas, so the pair have some interesting arguments, especially when Regan’s pet rats are around..
A strong character (in both senses of the word) is Constable Cadence Green, the only person who realises that Garret was murdered and so finds herself up against a criminal gang, Death’s Disciples, led by the murderous Undertaker.
The other characters are all in the great comic tradition: simple, sinister or stupid. My favourite is rich, dim Carl who plans to be a yakuza (although he seems to be thinking of ninjas rather than gangsters) under the impression that owning a sword makes him leader. His bumbling gang provides a comic contrast to the serious criminals, including a real yakuza branch which doesn’t appreciate competition.
The plot lurches along so quickly that there’s never time to question Spencer’s remarkable range of technical skills. (Regan tries.) His remote-controlled zombie policeman lurches out effectively against Carl’s trainee yakuza but things quickly become more complicated. And darkly amusing. An electrical charge fires Garret’s brain back into action and gives him control of his body and the ability to talk.
‘There‘s something seriously wrong with you kids,’ complains Garret, whose sole aim is to protect Cadence by getting rid of the Undertaker’s gang, so that he can get back to his grave and get on with dying.
Garret may be dead but he has all the best lines. ‘They’re just kids, Cadence. Brilliant, deeply disturbed, intensely irritating kids.’ He also has the moral compass which the others lack and is thus able to provide a poignant conclusion to a complex and sometimes gory story.
Scott Pearson provided the skilfully-drawn ‘graphic replays’, the double-page comic art panels which offer brief summaries of each section of the story about every three chapters. These black and white illustrations are in the best traditions of the horror comic format
Deadhead is not for the faint-hearted but offers lively dark humour and stylish writing. It is ideal for someone with a 14-year-old sense of humour
Neands, by Dan Salmon
‘I was young but I knew what was going on. Dad had taught me what to look for.’
The young narrator, Charlie Rutherford, is attacked in class by Luca, a former friend who has changed physically and mentally. ‘His temples had become thick and exaggerated … his body had been thickening and he was growing stupid and angry with everything.’ Luca is only one of many of people who Charlie realises are becoming Neands, a term used for the growing number of violent, unreasonable people.
The attack on science and reason, which had cost his scientist father his job and his life, is now world-wide. Ignorance and unreason rule. Soon Charlie’s mother has vanished and he lurks alone in his home, fearful of his neighbours.
An escape is offered by Ngaire, his mother’s old friend, who takes Charlie to her estuary home, where she lives with husband Alan and two girls, Pru and Ivy, who have had similar experiences to Charlie’s.
Their school is dominated by bullying Neands. At lunchtime, the ‘normals’ climb up trees for safety. Charlie uses the remnants of knowledge on the internet and in surviving books and magazines to understand the change. Is it an epidemic? A virus? A genetic development?
Alan and Ngaire have alarming secrets to disclose to Charlie, so that he finds himself following the path that brought disaster to his father.
Gradually Charlie finds support from his new family and realises there is an underground resistance to the Neands. Yet with knowledge and learning being destroyed, can they hope to turn the tide of brutish ignorance? The conclusion is exciting and sad but optimistic.
This novel was written before and published during the Covid19 pandemic. We have since seen demonstrations by anti-science groups around the world which give an uncanny prescience to some of the scenes in Neand.
While this novel is bulky, the title odd and the cover unappealing, Dan Salmon has created a story which has interesting characters and a fascinating theme. It deserves to be read.
Note: As the author points out, the term Neanderthal is often inaccurately used to suggest a grunting brutish person. Recent research suggests this is not an accurate description of the real Neanderthals, whose genes many of us carry in our DNA. Dan Salmon stresses that Neand is a work of invention ‘which exists in its own world with its own set of rules.’
I Love Bugs, by Elspeth Alix Batt
‘I love grubs. They’re so wrinkly and wriggly.’
In this picture book the author’s colour illustrations are as lively as the text. The unseen narrator lists all the insects they adore and explains why in cheerful rhymes.
‘I love spiders. They’re so jumpy and jiggly.’
The double page colour illustrations of flies, earwigs, mosquitos, gnats, crickets, beetles and some of our other six-legged friends are surprisingly endearing as well as scientifically accurate. (The eyes are exaggerated but young readers won’t mind.) Each scene, with its skilfully painted native plants, is perfectly matched to the insects in it. The night forest scene, with the ‘dizzy and dithery’ moths waving their feathery antennae in the moonlight, is very atmospheric.
There is a magnificent surprise ending as the reader finds out the identity of the insect-loving narrator. (Closer scrutiny of the pictures will reveal a carefully-concealed Where’s Wally?-type clue in each illustration.) The concluding section of the story is a tongue-twisting challenge which will make reading aloud fun for all.
A factual section at the end of the book gives details of all the creatures in the book.
Daddy Monster ABC, by Diana Neild, illustrated by Emily Walker
This picture book may be seen as a companion to the same publisher’s Mummy Monster (2020) by Stephanie Thatcher. In both books we have a young person’s humorous view of a parent at bedtime appearing as a cheerfully un-threatening monster. This time it is the father. Diana Neild has presented her story in the framework of an Alphabet book. (Those who have encountered her amazing rhymes and rhythms in the Piggity-Wiggity series will know what to expect.) The story begins, of course, just at bedtime.
‘A.B.C. Scary monster chasing me.’
The monster is quite clearly a father gathering up toys at bedtime but Emily Walker’s clever angles and perspective make the father look amusingly sinister. His pajama-clad son eludes capture.
‘O, P. O, P, Q. Monster’s close. What shall I do?’
Wearing his super-hero cloak (and with a little help from his father) the boy swoops through the air to land safely in his bed – with his teddybear.
‘Zooming down with letter Z …
me and monster safe in bed.’
The colour illustrations, by a promising new illustrator Emily Walker, really capture the spirit of the story. Sharp-eyed young readers will spot the significance of the blocks scattered over the floor.
Ngā Otaota ō Aotearoa: Plants of New Zealand, by Christine Dale
This beginner picture book is in a boardbook format, so that young children can have early contact with words and pictures related to the world around them. Offering both Maori and English language names, Christine Dale has selected aspects of six New Zealand plants which children will easily recognise – usually their flowers or berries. The plants are karaka, harakeke (flax), mānuka, pōhutukawa, kowhai and Ponga (fern). She has also provided the Maori and English names for each plant’s distinctive colours. Thus:
He putiputi Pōhutukawa
The illustrations are clear and sharp in outline to help young eyes to focus and recognise shapes. Of course, the colour names are printed in their own colour, which is also a key element in the picture. Attractive Maori designs form the borders.
The last two pages have photos of the plants and a bi-lingual key to the colours. The result is a well-thought-out and well-executed introduction to the worlds of books and plants for young readers-to-be.
Aotearoa New Zealand, by Christine Dale
This picture book has been produced in boardbook format so the youngest of children can enjoy it. Research has shown that babies can focus on clear sharp images and this can help their minds develop.
Christine Dale has created crisp, bold pictures of seven familiar New Zealand creatures with distinctive shapes. They are the wood pigeon (kererū), tuatara, fantail (pīwakawaka), sheep (hipi), scallop (tipa), frog (poraka) and eel (tuna).
Both names are printed in clear type opposite their image.
The visual impact of the illustrations is increased by the clever use of a single colour, such as the green background behind the white sheep. The borders of each page feature attractive Maori designs.
This is an ideal book to launch a young New Zealander’s lifetime reading journey.
Share Said the Rooster, by Pamela Allen
This new edition of Pamela Allen’s 2006 classic is now re-issued in a board book format. As with all Pamela Allen’s books, her words and pictures are inextricably intertwined. Her neat little rhymes match her charming little pictures of two thoroughly pugnacious little men, whose names inevitably are Billy and Ben.
‘This is story number one
of the two little men
and a pink sticky bun.’
Since there is one bun and two men, the obvious option is so simple that even a fowl can work it out:
‘Share,’ said the rooster.
‘Share,’ said the hen.
Rather than share the bun, Billy and Ben prefer to fight (thus leaving the bun for the monkey to eat). Learning nothing, the little men delight readers through five mini-stories, stubbornly refusing to share an apple, a pair of boots, an umbrella and a boat. Each picture is elegantly framed by the animals offering sensible advice, but Pamela Allen’s little quintet of fables can only have one ending.
Two angry little men, ignoring good advice, and nearly losing their lives, probably present a good symbol for our times. Young people always delight in finding someone who is bigger than them but knows less. Thus Billy and Ben are the poster people for the perils of non-cooperation. All children will find joy in feeling smarter than the little men, and will feel that the men thoroughly deserve what is coming to them by the end of story five.
Having Share said the Rooster available again means that young people will be able to thoroughly enjoy thinking about the merits of sharing through reading one of the best examples of the 20th Century Cautionary Tale. Pamela Allen has given them something to get their teeth into.
SS Penguin SOS, by Adrienne Frater
‘Aunt Ada is the tallest woman I know and the strongest.’
SS Penguin SOS is a historic novel about a tragic New Zealand shipwreck. In the aftermath of the Influenza Epidemic, young Jack Cook, the narrator, is sent to Wanganui [now Whanganui] to live with his widowed Aunt Ada Hannam and his cousin Wally in their boarding house. When Jack has to write an essay about Heroes and Heroines, Wally suggests his mother as a subject. Ada is a dour figure, who usually says little about her past but Jack’s enthusiasm persuades her to tell the two boys what happened.
We learn about the 1909 wreck of the ferry steamer Penguin, as Ada relates it, piece by piece, over the days that follow. An ominous note is struck on the first day as Wally, an only child, realises that he once had two brothers and two sisters.
Jack starts writing his essay, so that we have two views of the same events.
‘I imagine Uncle Joe with her and the four children staggering along the ship’s corridor.’
Routines at school and helping with the boarding house occupy much of his time, so it is only gradually that Jack (and the reader) can gain the whole picture of the impending disaster.
‘Her story is like an unfinished jigsaw. Although it is so sad, I’m impatient to finish it.’
Ada describes the terrible events with great simplicity: the ship striking a rock in foul weather, the lifeboat accident which drowned three of her children, and her struggle to survive with her youngest child, Ruby, in the bubble of air under the overturned lifeboat. With Jack worrying about his essay and Wally breaking his leg at football, the tension is maintained in true Arabian Nights style, but by the end of her remarkable story, we can see why Ada Hannam is a true hero.
In learning more about his Aunt Ada, Jack has also learned more about himself. The book includes historic photographs inserted where they occur in the story, as well as two helpful maps.
Note: This novel, published posthumously, was written by Adrienne Frater, who died on 21 February 2020. She was the author of Pet Palace (2006) and many other titles for young readers, as well as short stories and Take Heart (2018), an account of her treatment for a rare heart condition. SS Penguin SOS was her last book. Adrienne was the great-niece of Ada Hannam, and Jack was her father.
Fantastic Mr. Bean, by Mary-anne Scott, illustrated by Lisa Allen
If he were still alive Roald Dahl would have been 100 on September 13th 2016, while his Fantastic Mr Fox turned fifty years old in 2020. To celebrate, Lachie’s class is going to perform Fantastic Mr Fox as a play and Lachie is determined to have the role of Mr Fox.
‘I’m the best choice because it’s my favourite story,’ Lachie declares.
His older brother, Frank, helps Lachie practise for the role, and also creates a handsome tail made from a bottlebrush plant. After auditions, Lachie gets the role but his stubborn refusal to say any of Mr Fox’s romantic lines to Mrs Fox leads to difficulty.
‘You know I’m not saying stupid soppy stuff,’ Lachie declares.
Sticking to his convictions, Lachie lets Chad have the role of Mr Fox, while he becomes Mr Bean, the repulsive fox-hating farmer. ‘There’s nothing soppy to say in Mr Bean’s lines,’ says Lachie, ‘And I pick my nose.’
It is clear to everyone in Lachie’s family that he really would rather be Mr Fox, but Lachie immerses himself in Bean’s personality, becoming scruffy and rough in his ways.
On the night, the play goes well and Lachie acts the curmudgeonly Bean very well. Then a sinister possibility threatens Areta, the girl who is playing Mrs Fox. Only Lachie spots the danger, and he is brave enough to break character and save Areta from harm.
All thus ends well, especially for Lachie and Roald Dahl fans. This young novel has a lively cast of characters, some gentle humour and a moral.
The graceful line illustrations are by Lisa Allen.