Tag Archives: family

Dear Vincent by Mandy Hager

I had quite a sheltered upbringing.  I had a loving family who cared for me and life was never tough.  When I really got into reading when I was a teenager I discovered teenagers who had a very different life than mine.  These teenagers had abusive or neglectful families or they had been touched by tragedy of one kind or another.  I have never known anyone who has suicided so I haven’t been affected by it in any way.  As a teenager I didn’t want to read books about it because I didn’t think it related to me.  When I first heard about Mandy Hager’s new YA book, Dear Vincent, I wanted to read it, but I wasn’t sure if I would like it.  It affected me so much that I was in tears for the last few pages.

17 year old Tara McClusky’s life is hard. She shares the care of her paralysed father with her domineering, difficult mother, forced to cut down on her hours at school to help support the family with a part-time rest home job. She’s very much alone, still grieving the loss of her older sister Van, who died five years before.

Her only source of consolation is her obsession with art — and painting in particular. Most especially she is enamoured with Vincent Van Gogh: she has read all his letters and finds many parallels between the tragic story of his life and her own.

Luckily she meets the intelligent, kindly Professor Max Stockhamer (a Jewish refugee and philosopher) and his grandson Johannes, and their support is crucial to her ability to survive this turbulent time.

Dear Vincent is one of the most powerful, emotionally-charged books I’ve ever read.  I don’t think I’ve had such an emotional response to any other book, both adults or YA.  The story is narrated by Tara, so you experience all the ups and downs of Tara’s life and you go into the dark spaces inside her head.  When you figure out the path that she is taking, you just want to yell at her to stop and think clearly.  You want to be the person that she can talk to and help her see sense.

Like Mandy’s other stories, the characters really resonate with me.  You understand why Tara has so much anger and hatred towards her parents, but through her discoveries you can also understand why they have become these people.  You can’t help but become completely wrapped up in Tara’s life, as you know all her thoughts and feelings.  While Tara takes you to some dark places, some of Mandy’s characters bring some light and hope into Tara’s world.  My favourite character is Max (or the Professor) who Tara meets in the rest home that she works in.  Max is a sort-of grandfather figure to Tara.  He loves art, music and philosophy and he reminds Tara of Captain von Trapp from The Sound of Music.  Right from when Tara first meets him he’s there to help her through and tries to make her see things from a different point of view.  He has some profound words of wisdom, like his metaphor on page 140. This is one of my favourite lines from Max,

‘All life is suffering.  One way or the other, damage attaches to us all.  In the end it’s how we deal with it – or don’t – that makes us who we are.’

Max’s grandson, Johannes, and Tara’s Auntie Shanaye and Uncle Royan, are others who try to help her through her tough time.  They are each incredibly loving and caring in their own ways, and they go out of their way to prove that they are there for Tara.  Even though Shanaye and Royan are struggling and they have their own issues to deal with, they are getting on with their life, and they show Tara more love than her parents ever had.  While Tara’s parents ran away from The Troubles in Ireland and were miserable, her auntie and uncle stayed and are doing the best that they can for their family.

Dear Vincent is an important story that all teenagers should read.  Thank you Mandy for telling Tara’s story. The fact that it can have such an emotional response on a reader is testament to your amazing writing.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Tara on page 249 that mirrors Max’s words from earlier in the story,

‘Hell, maybe it’s the suffering that makes us who we ultimately are.  Not just the hurdles, but how we deal with them.  Or don’t.’

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2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards Finalist: The ACB with Honora Lee by Kate De Goldi

The ACB with Honora Lee is a finalist in the Junior Fiction category of the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.  I reviewed it in October last year,  so if you want to hear all about it and find out what makes it such a worthy finalist, read on.

Kate De Goldi’s last book, The 10PM Question, was a wonderful story and won many awards.  It’s a story that’s loved by adults and children alike, and Kate’s latest book, The ACB with Honora Lee, is bound to have the same crossover appeal.  I first heard about it when Kate talked about it at the Schools Programme for the Christchurch Writer’s Festival and I’ve been dying to read it ever since.  I immediately fell in love with Perry and the residents of Santa Lucia.

Perry’s mother and father are busy people … they’re impatient, they’re tired, they get cross easily. And they think that only children, like Perry, should be kept busy. On Saturday mornings Perry and her father visit her gran, Honora Lee, at the Santa Lucia rest home, but Gran never remembers them. ‘Who is that man?’ Honora Lee asks when Perry’s father leaves the room. After movement class is abruptly cancelled, Perry is allowed to go to Santa Lucia on Thursday afternoons. She discovers her Gran has an unconventional interest in the alphabet, so Perry decides to make an alphabet book with the help of Honora and the others. Soon everyone is interested in Perry’s book project.

The ACB with Honora Lee is a quirky story about an unusual girl who finds friendship in an unlikely place.  The story is brimming with humour, joy, wisdom, and a cast of colourful characters.  It’s set in the Beckenham loop in Christchurch (where I live) and I only wish that I could go and meet Perry, Honora Lee, Dorris and the rest of Kate De Goldi’s characters.  Perry is a unusual girl, who acts and sounds older than her 9 years.  She seems quite lonely when we first meet her.  Her parents are wrapped up in their own problems and don’t seem to have time for her.  They don’t take much notice of her and enroll her in after school activities that she doesn’t really enjoy.  Even when she really enjoys going to visit her gran and the others at the rest home, her parents don’t understand.  Perry makes lots of new friends at Santa Lucia, including her gran’s friend, Doris, and Stephen and Audrey who work there.  The fact that her gran doesn’t remember her doesn’t seem to worry Perry, she just reminds her who she is each time she visits.  The thing that I like the most about Perry is her love of words.  If she hears a word she doesn’t understand she has to find out what it means.

Perry’s gran, Honora Lee, is a real character.  She may not remember who the people around her are, but she remembers songs and lines of Shakespeare.  As one of the characters describes her, she’s ‘crabby as an old apple,’ but she comes out with some hilarious lines.  I especially like it when her and Perry are playing I Spy, because she always gets it around the wrong way.  Here’s a great example, ‘I spy with my little eye,’ said Gran,’something beginning with fat.’

It’s Kate De Goldi’s whole cast of wonderful characters that make The ACB with Honora Lee such an enjoyable read.  Their interactions provide some funny, embarrassing and touching moments.  It’s a story that will be enjoyed by the young and the young at heart and it will leave you with a smile on your face.

4 out of 5 stars

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Guest Author: Melinda Szymanik on A Winter’s Day in 1939

Today I’m joined by the wonderful Melinda Szymanik, author of the powerful new book, A Winter’s Day in 1939.  Based on her father’s experiences during World War II, A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a story of family, the harsh realities of war, and the fight for survival against the odds. Melinda has written a really interesting post for My Best Friends Are Books about why and how she wrote A Winter’s Day in 1939.

Why and How I wrote A Winter’s Day in 1939

When the Soviet soldiers come and order them out, Adam and his family have no idea where they are going or if they will ever come back.  The Germans have attacked Poland and the world is at war. Boarding a cattle train Adam and his family embark on a journey that will cover thousands of miles and several years, and change all their lives forever. And mine too. Because Adam’s story, the story told in my new novel A Winter’s Day in 1939, is very much my Dad’s story.

I often heard fragments of this story from my dad when I was growing up.  It was shocking, and sad, and amazing.  My Dad’s family was forced out of their home and taken to a labour camp in Russia. It was freezing cold, and many people died from disease or starvation. Even when the Soviets finally let them go, they spent weeks travelling around the USSR , were made to work on Soviet farms and were still hungry and often sick, with no idea of where they might end up next.  As a child growing up in a peaceful place like New Zealand it was hard to imagine the real dangers and terrible conditions my father experienced.

I didn’t get to know the full story until I was grown up with children of my own and was regularly writing stories for children.  I wrote a short story, also called A Winter’s Day in 1939, based on a single event I knew fairly well  from my Dad‘s childhood – when Soviet Soldiers first come to order them off their farm, the only home my father had known up till that point in his life. The story was published in The Australian School Magazine.  I showed the short story to the publishers Scholastic who liked it too. They wondered if I could turn it in to a novel.  This was a chance to tell my father’s story. By now I knew it was an important story that should be shared

Luckily my Dad had made notes about his life during World War Two; about twenty pages all typed up.  However I know people’s real lives don’t always fit into the framework of a novel and I knew I would have to emphasize some things and maybe leave other things out.

I read and researched to add the right details to the story. And asked my parents lots of questions. How cold was it in Poland in January 1940? Who or what were the NKVD? What were the trains like? What are the symptoms of typhoid? How do you make your own skis? Some information was hard to find. Some of the places that existed in the 1940s aren’t there anymore. And people didn’t keep records about how many people were taken to the USSR from Poland or what happened to particular individuals. But what I wanted to give readers most of all was a sense of how it felt to live that life.  So this then is the story of a twelve year old Polish boy in the USSR during World War 2 that all started on A Winter’s Day in 1939.

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Back to Black Brick by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald

Sometimes a story can come along at exactly the right time.  It can mirror something that is happening in your own life and really strike a chord with you.  Back to Black Brick is a story about a grandfather who has Alzheimer’s Disease and his grandson, Cosmo, who tries everything he can to stop him losing his memory.  My nan has early stage dementia so I can completely understand how Cosmo feels.  Cosmo, however, does something that I can’t do – he travels back in time to meet his grandfather as a young man.

Cosmo’s brother Brian died when he was ten years old. His mum hides her grief and Cosmo lives with his grandparents. They’ve been carefree days as Granddad buys him a horse called John and teaches him all he knows about horses. But the good times have to come to an end and although he doesn’t want to admit it, Cosmo knows his Granddad is losing his mind. So on one of the rare occasions when Granddad seems to recognise him, Cosmo is bemused that he gives him a key to Blackbrick Abbey and urges him to go there. Cosmo shrugs it off, but gradually Blackbrick draws him in… Cosmo arrives there, scared and lonely, and is dropped off at the crumbling gates of a huge house. As he goes in, the gates close, and when he turns to look, they’re rusty and padlocked as if they haven’t been opened in years. Cosmo finds himself face to face with his grandfather as a young man, and questions begin to form in his mind: can Cosmo change the course of his family’s future?

Back to Black Brick is a captivating story about families, the secrets that they keep, and the pain they hold inside.  Sarah Moore Fitzgerald wraps this all up with plenty of mystery, a dash of history, and time travel.  It’s a time-slip story but quite different from similar stories I’ve read.  When time travel is involved the characters generally have to think about how their actions in the past will affect the future, but Cosmo does everything he can to try and change the future.  He wants to try and stop his grandfather’s memory from fading when he’s older, so he tells him about things that he’ll need to remember for later in life.

As soon as I heard Cosmo’s voice I knew I would really like this character.  Cosmo is a loner who has been affected by the death of his brother, the abandonment of his mother, and his grandfather’s worsening condition.  From the first few paragraphs you know how much Cosmo loves and admires his grandfather.  He wants to do everything he possibly can to help stop his grandfather losing his memory and would hate for him to have to go into a home.  So when Cosmo gets the chance to meet his grandfather as a young man he believes this is his chance to change the future and make things right.

There were several things that I really loved about Back to Black Brick.  I thought the characters were very well developed and you felt like you were part of their gang.  I especially liked the way that you could see the personality traits mirrored in both the young and old version of Cosmo’s grandfather, Kevin (like the ‘Ah, fantastic’ when he’d drink tea).  The other thing that I loved about the story is the way that Sarah explains how the time travel happened and the way that Cosmo’s visit to the past affected the future.  I like the way that this explanation rounds off the story but still leaves you with a sense of mystery.

4 out of 5 stars

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Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

If you have read Annabel Pitcher’s debut novel My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece you’ll know what an amazing writer she is.  My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece was one of my favourite books of 2011 and I’ve been dying to read Ketchup Clouds ever since Annabel first started talking about it. Ketchup Clouds, is every bit as extraordinary as her first book and it will stay with you long after you reach the end.

Fifteen-year-old Zoe has a secret – a dark and terrible secret that she can’t confess to anyone she knows. But then one day she hears of a criminal, Stuart Harris, locked up on death row in Texas. Like Zoe, Stuart is no stranger to secrets. Or lies. Or murder. Full of heartache yet humour, Zoe tells her story in the only way she can – in letters to the man in prison in America. Armed with a pen, Zoe takes a deep breath, eats a jam sandwich and begins her tale of love and betrayal.

Ketchup Clouds is an utterly beautiful, heart-breaking story, told in an original and very clever way.  The whole book is a confession of what Zoe has done, to someone who she knows will understand, but won’t be able to do anything.  I don’t want to say too much about the story for fear that I’ll let some important detail slip. Annabel gives you enough detail that you know vaguely what has happened, but you just have to keep reading to find out exactly what happened and to who.  She leaves you hanging on every word and dreading what is inevitably going to happen.

There are several things that I really like about Annabel’s writing.  I really like the way that she ties up the story at the end, bringing everything together and showing you how the characters have turned out.  Like her first book, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, you feel completely satisfied at the end and you’re left amazed at how her characters have developed over the course of the story.  I also like the way that Annabel portrays the parents in the story.  The parents have their own problems that they are dealing with in their own way, and they’re not always the best parents, but deep down they love and care for their children.  They are important parts of the story and Annabel portrays them as real people, not just characters in a book.

The main reason I loved Ketchup Clouds was the relationships between the characters.  The relationship between Zoe and Stuart was really interesting, because even though we never hear from Stuart, Zoe’s tone changes the more she writes to him.  At the beginning she calls him Mr Harris, and by the end she’s calling him Stu.  She seems to get more comfortable with Stuart as time goes by and becomes less formal with him.  Zoe and her sister Sophie have quite a close relationship and they talk quite openly with each other, especially when it comes to talking about their parents.  Zoe’s relationships with Max and Aaron are quite different and Annabel does an excellent job of portraying Zoe’s conflicting emotions and the tough decisions she has to make in their relationships.

Annabel Pitcher is one of those authors whose books I’ll read no matter what they’re about, and I certainly can’t wait to see what she will write next!  I’m sure I’m not the only person who wonders if we’ll ever get to read Bizzle the Bazzlebog.  Grab a copy of Ketchup Clouds from your library or bookshop now.

5 out of 5 stars

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The Boy in the Olive Grove by Fleur Beale

Fleur Beale has written some great novels, both for children and young adults.  My favourite books of hers are the award-winning Juno of Taris series.  Fleur’s latest book, The Boy in the Olive Grove, is a about a girl living in present day New Zealand, whose past lives resurface and turn her life upside down.

On the night of her seventeenth birthday Bess Grey sees images of a witch-burning unfold in front of her as if in a movie. She also sees images from a different time — lovers, and the girl, she’s sure is — was – herself. When she meets Nick she recognises him as the boy. There’s an immediate connection. However when her father nearly dies from a heart attack there’s no time to brood as Bess tries to save her father’s business. She falls in love with Nick but her difficult mother interferes, forcing Bess to make the hardest decision of her life. She must decide whether to lose her mother or the boy she loves.

The Boy in the Olive Grove is a really unique story about a girl who is navigating the minefield of her family life, while trying to deal with the lives she has lived in the past.  In the present Bess has a horrible mother who doesn’t seem to care for her at all, a protective brother who has just up and left her, a father who is ill, and a step-mother who she feels awkward around.  When she has a visions of herself burning a witch at the stake and of a mysterious boy who she has strong feelings for, she gets drunk and nearly kills herself on the road.  This only seems to be the beginning of her troubles, as she gets expelled from her boarding school and sent home to live with her mother.  Her dad falls ill and Bess gets left to look after his struggling furniture business.  She continues to have the visions and her step-mother sends her to a psychiatrist who helps her to understand these and come to terms with what they mean.

I found the story quite unusual (it’s quite different in a way from Fleur Beale’s previous books), but the more I read, the more intrigued I became and wanted to find out how it would end.  Fleur Beale always gets inside her characters heads so we know everything that they’re thinking and feeling.  Bess has so much to deal with, from her visions, to taking over her father’s business, and dealing with her horrible mother, but she deals with everything extremely well.  I know I wouldn’t have been able to handle all that at her age!  I love the relationship that Bess has with the men that work for her dad.  After some initial skepticism they warm to her and she helps to boost their confidence.  I love the way they call her ‘boss.’

The only thing I didn’t really like about the story was the scheming, vindictive bitch that was Bess’ mum.  I don’t think I’ve met a character that I’ve hated quite so much as her, and she didn’t seem to have any redeeming characteristics.  I’d really like to know if there are mothers out there that are really like her, because I couldn’t quite imagine a mother that could be as cruel and uncaring as she was.

If you like contemporary Young Adult fiction that stands out from the crowd, The Boy in the Olive Grove, get a copy now.  If you’re a fan of Fleur Beale then this is one not to be missed.

4 out of 5 stars

You can read an extract of The Boy in the Olive Grove on the Random House New Zealand website.

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Four Children and It Book Trailer

Four Children and It is Jacqueline Wilson’s brand new book.  It’s due out this month and you can reserve your copy at your library now.  I haven’t read a Jacqueline Wilson book before but I’ll definitely be reading this one.  I remember watching the BBC adaptation of Five Children and It as a kid and loved it.  I’m sure Four Children and It will be just as popular as her previous books.

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Pop! by Catherine Bruton

There are so many different types of reality shows on TV these days, involving everything from singing and dancing, to cooking and building.  Suzanne Collins took the reality show idea and turned it into a fight to the death in The Hunger Games and in Catherine Bruton’s new book, Pop!, one of her characters has worked out the rules of talent TV and reckons she knows how to play the system.

The first round of auditions was a bit mad. All these wannabe popstars sitting around trying to look wacky/soulful/tragic (delete as appropriate) to catch the attention of the TV cameras.

At least we had a cracking back story. The story of me, Agnes, Jimmy and baby Alfie; the tears, the tragedy, the broken homes and feuding families, the star-crossed lovers. And only some of it was made up.

If I say so myself, it was genius: a sure-fire golden ticket to stratospheric stardom. Or at least that was the plan…

Pop! is a terrific story full of moments that will make you laugh, cry, cringe, jump for joy, and possibly want to slap a certain character.  The story is told from the point of view of the three main characters; Elfie, Jimmy and Agnes.  Elfie is the smart-ass who always comes up with crazy schemes that Jimmy gets roped into.  Her mum is incredibly unreliable and always walks out when times get tough, so Elfie is often left to look after her baby brother Alfie.  Jimmy and Elfie have been best friends for as long as they can remember, so Jimmy always gets involved in Elfie’s schemes.  Jimmy is a fantastic swimmer and his dad trains him hard so that he might get a chance to go to the Olympics.  It’s one day when Elfie and Jimmy are hanging out under the bridge that Elfie announces their next big scheme – they’re going to enter the Pop to the Top talent contest.  Their only problem is that they don’t really have any talent.  Then they hear a girl singing.  That girl is Agnes, the daughter of one of the ‘immos,’ the immigrant workers who have taken the jobs of local workers at the power station.  Agnes has an amazing voice and so Elfie ropes her into being in her girl band for Pop to the Top.  Agnes and Jimmy have no idea what they are getting themselves in for, and as Elfie weaves more and more lies, their lives and the lives of those around them spiral out of control.

Catherine Bruton has created three very different characters who are all doing what they believe is right.  Even though Elfie creates these twisted versions of their lives, she is only doing so to try and win the money that she thinks will solve all their problems.  She cares so much for her dad and her little brother and wants to give them the life they deserve.  Jimmy and Agnes go along with Elfie’s scheme because they want what’s best for their families too.  At first Elfie made me laugh with her plans and her fake back stories, then she made me want to slap her, but by the end of the story she had redeemed herself.  Agnes is a really interesting character because she really grows throughout the story.  At first she’s quiet and withdrawn because nobody, apart from her family, talks to her.  Not only is she the daughter of an immo, but she also doesn’t speak much English.  She says that she is a collector of words and she picks up new and interesting words from listening to conversations.  Throughout the story she grows in confidence and manages to settle the moths in her stomach when she sings.

I absolutely love Pop! and the wonderful characters that Catherine has created. Whenever I watch a reality show now I’ll be looking out for people who know Elfie’s Rules of Talent TV.  If you love Frank Cottrell Boyce’s books, like Millions and Framed, then Pop! is definitely the book for you.

5 out of 5 stars

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Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur

Elise never really knew her parents.  Her mum died after her birth and her dad got sick and died of cancer a few years later.  Her Uncle Hugh and Aunt Bessie promised to look after her and she has lived with them ever since.  She’s been best friends with Franklin for years and they’ve always loved playing games like Knights together.  When they start middle school Elise starts to get embarrassed by Franklin and doesn’t want to hang around with him anymore.  Then there’s her locker buddy, Amanda who nicknames her Scabula and squashes her lunch every morning.  Elise starts to hate school and is afraid to go because of Amanda’s bullying.  Just when she needs it a special surprise comes along.  Her father leaves her a mystery to unlock and with each discovery a new key arrives.

Eight Keys is about a girl discovering who she is and learning about the parents she didn’t know.  When Elise is feeling lost and worried, the mystery that her father left for her comes along and helps her choose who she wants to be.  It helps her see who her mum and dad were and how much they loved her, even before she was born.  You see a real change in Elise, from the worried, confused girl at the start to the confident, happy girl at the end.  I really liked the character of Franklin because he’s funny, loyal and will do anything to help his friend.  Eight Keys is the perfect book for girls who like Jacqueline Wilson and Cathy Cassidy.  It will make you laugh and cry, but leave a smile on your face.

Eight Keys would make a great read-aloud for 9-12 year olds, especially as it deals with bullying and friendship.

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Picture Book Nook: Out of Bed Fred by Lucy Davey and Harriet Bailey

Every day Mum has to give the boys a hurry-up.  She goes through the house calling,

“Out of bed, Fred!
In your clothes, Mose!
Brush your hair, Blair!
Wash your face, Mace!
Eat your food, Jude!
Clean your teeth, Keith!
Time to go, Joe!”

However, their little sister, Shirley is always up before them, “all dressed, brushed, washed, fed, cleaned and ready to go.”  She’s the sort of sister who always  does everything right and never gets in trouble.  But one day her brothers come up with a plan to change all that.  Will it work or will Shirley outsmart them?

Out of Bed Fred is a fun story that perfectly captures the day-to-day life of a big family.  Shirley really stands out, not just because she’s the only girl, but also because of her sense of humour and the way she stands up to her brothers.  The illustrator, Harriet Bailey has given the pictures a real Kiwi feel, with the brothers wearing shorts and rugby jerseys and photos of beach holidays on the wall.   If you look hard enough you’ll also be able to spot Weetbix and Marmite on toast.  Out of Bed Fred is perfect for brothers and sisters of all ages and is a great read-aloud.

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