The Drover’s Quest by Susan Brocker

Over on the Christchurch Kids Blog (Christchurch City Libraries’ blog for children aged 8-12 years) our June Star Author, Susan Brocker has just released a fantastic new book called The Drover’s Quest.  It’s filled with Susan’s favourite things, including history and animals, and it’s set in New Zealand in the 1860s.

Rumour is flying around the west coast gold fields that Tom McGee has struck it rich and found a nugget of gold as big as a man’s fist. So no one is surprised when next his campsite is found wrecked and abandoned. Men have been killed for a lot less on the tough goldfields of 1860s New Zealand.

But one person is convinced Tom is not dead. His headstrong daughter, Charlotte.  Solving the mystery is not her first task, though. First, she must get to the coast. A skilful horse rider, she disguises herself as a boy and joins a cattle drive across the Southern Alps. To survive the dangerous drive over Arthur’s Pass and to keep her identity hidden from the vicious trail boss, she’ll need the help of her dog, her horse, and her father’s friend, Tama. She knows she can do it – she has to – but what will she find? And will her new American friend, Joseph, help or hinder her quest?

Charlie is in for the ride of her life – and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

If you love stories set in the past, stories about animals or stories with lots of adventure then The Drover’s Quest is the book for you.  The story starts in Christchurch and the characters travel over Arthur’s Pass to Hokitika on the West Coast.  These are my favourite parts of our beautiful country and I’ve travelled the route they took many times so I could see it clearly in my head.  It’s a route that is very quick and easy to travel today but was very rugged and dangerous in the 1860s.  There is a very tense part in the book where the drovers are taking the cattle down the Otira Gorge (it had me on the edge of my seat).

I really liked the characters, especially Tama and Joseph who bring different cultures into the story, and Scar because I couldn’t figure out whether he was good or bad.  The animals are also important characters in the story and they are incredibly loyal to their masters.

Check out the Christchurch Kids Blog throughout June to find out more about The Drover’s Quest from our June Star Author, Susan Brocker.

5 out of 5 stars

New Zealand at war: New books from Ken Catran

Ken Catran is one of New Zealand’s most prolific authors for children and young adults.  He’s an incredibly flexible writer because he writes for different age groups and in different genres.  One of my favourite books by Ken Catran is the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards 2011 finalist, Smiling Jack.  A lot of Ken’s books deal with war and the way that it affects those both at war and at home.

Ken has recently had two new books published which focus on New Zealand’s role in war. These two new books focus on two wars that most New Zealanders know very little about, the second Boer War (1899-1902) and the Malayan Emergency (1948-60).

When the Empire Calls – published by Scholastic New Zealand

It is 1899 and the Boer War has just begun in Africa. The Boer War is the first overseas conflict that New Zealand as a nation is involved in. Young men and women are eager to sign up to help the British Empire. Patriotism sweeps through New Zealand, even reaching small farming communities like Huia.

James McDonald is a teenage boy who lives on a farm in Huia with his parents and brothers and sisters. When his two older brothers sign up James is left to help his father run the farm. Left behind by his brothers and two sisters who are training to be nurses James has to assume extra responsibility and also grow up quickly. The reality of war is illustrated vividly by James’ brother Edward in his letters home and James begins to worry that he may never see his brothers alive again.

“Croaky Fred” who owns Fred’s Grocery Emporium is a person who believes that war is neither glorious nor justified. He challenges James to question his assumptions and ideas about the war. Fred’s outspoken views are considered unpatriotic by many townsfolk, who are unaware that Fred is himself a war hero who knows only too well the horrors of war. Unfortunately for James and his family, Fred’s concerns and dire predictions don’t turn out to be unfounded.

Earth Dragon, Fire Hare – published by HarperCollins New Zealand

New Zealand’s forgotten war, fought in the deep green jungles of Malaya. In 1948, Britain and her allies are pitted against Communist terrorists in a struggle for freedom. On opposing sides are Peter Hayes, a young Kiwi soldier, and Ng, a dedicated guerrilla. They are enemies but, as the bitter conflict deepens, both will ask questions. Who fights for freedom? Who is the oppressor?

And then a chance horoscope links them … to meet in battle. Destiny also decrees that Peter and Ng will become unlikely comrades. But in this treacherous and bloody war, nothing is as it seems – not even trust. The path to honour and the search for peace promise to be hard-fought and come at the highest cost. EARTH DRAGON, FIRE HARE is the ultimate tale of war.

Enter my Anzac books giveaway to win a copy of When Empire Calls and Earth Dragon, Fire Hare.

Picture Book Nook: The House That Jack Built by Gavin Bishop

If I had to pick one picture book that is quintessentially New Zealand, I would choose Gavin Bishop’s The House That Jack Built.  Gavin’s multi-layered story, based on the traditional rhyme, contains our history within it’s pages, told from both a Maori and a Pakeha perspective.  It is a picture book in which you discover something new or get a slightly different meaning from each time you read it.  Now, thanks to the wonderful Gecko Press who have reprinted the book in a stunning new format, a new generation of New Zealanders can enjoy this important book.

On the surface, it’s the story of Jack Bull, who travels to New Zealand from London as a new settler in 1798.   This is one of those brilliant picture books where the words tell a completely different story from the illustrations.  The end papers show us the reality of Jack’s life in London in 1798 and we see him with his cart of possessions and the red door that comes to symbolise Pakeha society.  In the next few pages we follow Jack’s ocean voyage on a map and see the list of goods that he has brought to trade with the natives.  Throughout the rest of the story Gavin portrays the effect that Pakeha colonisation had on the local Maori, from trading land and food for clothes and weapons, to the loss of culture and the deaths in the New Zealand Wars.

The House That Jack Built is a book that should be in every home, school, and library around New Zealand.  It’s an important book to help us remember who we are and where we’ve come from.  For those readers not in New Zealand the story will also be relevant as it applies to any colonial history.  Gavin Bishop is our master of the picture book and this is the best example of how he gets his message across visually.  He weaves the Maori and Pakeha strands of the story together and shows us through the illustrations, how Maori were assimilated into the Pakeha world.  The publisher, Gecko Press, deserves a huge amount of praise for, not only bringing this book back into print, but also for producing a gorgeous edition in a larger format than the original and printed on high quality paper.  Buying a copy of The House That Jack Built and sharing it with your family is the perfect way to celebrate Waitangi Day on 6 February.

5 out of 5 stars

The House That Jack Built is being published to coincide with Waitangi Day (6 February) and will be launched at the Porirua Festival of the Elements on Waitangi Day 2012 with author/illustrator Gavin Bishop.

Blood Runner by James Riordan

The best authors can put you in their characters shoes and experience everything that they do.  You can empathise with the characters and feel all their emotions.  James Riordan is one of those authors.  I still remember how I felt when I read his book Sweet Clarinet (about a boy badly injured in World War II) many years ago.  His latest book, Blood Runner, puts us in the shoes of a boy growing up in Apartheid South Africa, who fights for his people’s freedom in the only way he knows how.

Samuel is growing up in a South Africa divided into blacks and whites.  Samuel and his people have to carry passbooks in order to move into the whites-only zone, but a group of men in Samuel’s town don’t think that it is right they should have to carry them.  This group stage a peaceful protest by walking to the police station, and many of the other residents of the town, including Samuel and his family come to watch what will happen.  In a display of their force, the police arm themselves with guns and tanks, and when someone fires accidentally, all hell breaks loose.  As people try to flee, the police start gunning them down and Samuel’s parents and sister are killed.  Samuel is separated from his brothers who both retaliate by joining the anti-Apartheid movement, with guns and terrorism as their weapons.  But Sam decides to fight for freedom in his own way – as a runner.  Against all odds, Samuel strives to become the best runner he can so that he can compete in marathons, and achieve his dream of winning gold in the Olympic Games.

Blood Runner is an inspirational story that portrays the hardships and prejudice that black people, like Samuel, faced in Apartheid South Africa.  Through Samuel, James Riordan shows us that people can face extraordinary circumstances but still have the strength and determination to fight for what they believe is right.  James Riordan also shows us, through other people Samuel meets, that not all white people shared the same views, that many of them wanted everyone in South Africa to have the same rights and freedom.  James also provides a basic history of Apartheid at the end of the book which would be a great teaching tool.  If you like authors like Elizabeth Laird, Deborah Ellis or Sally Grindley then this is the perfect book for you.

4 out of 5 stars

Guest Author: Michael Pryor on The Extinction Gambit

It’s exciting to begin a new series. It’s like taking a first step through a secret door leading to places unknown with tantalising prospect of adventure awaiting. The release of ‘The Extinction Gambit’, the first book of ‘The Extraordinaires’, is just like that.

I also have a strange sensation that comes from leaving a series behind. In May 2011, ‘Hour of Need’ – the last book of ‘The Laws of Magic’ – was published. I’d worked on this series for more than eight years, and having it finally coming to an end was most peculiar. I’d lived with those characters for a long time, after all. I’d worked with them, I’d known their hopes, their dreams, their fears – and they’d been very patient with me as I subjected them to the bizarre, the dangerous and the embarrassing. Waving goodbye to them was sad. It was as if they were leaving home, going off and having more adventures and I wouldn’t be there to write about them.

And so, to ‘The Extinction Gambit’. Like ‘The Laws of Magic’, this new series is set in a world that is delightfully old-fashioned. It’s a world of manners and decorum, of society and class, of being dreadfully proper – and of some of the most stylish clothes you’re ever likely to see. Top hats anyone? Gorgeous lace? Silk capes and gloves?

Unlike ‘The Laws of Magic’, ‘The Extinction Gambit’ isn’t set in an alternative Edwardian world. It’s set fairly and squarely in London in 1908 – the time of the first London Olympic Games. The Olympics form the backdrop to a dizzying adventure that mostly takes place in the Demimonde, mysterious world that lies side by side with the ordinary world. The Demimonde is a world of magic, of lost legends and of sinister plots, of inhabitants who are startling, shadowy and highly unpredictable.

The main characters in ‘The Extinction Gambit’ are Kingsley Ward and Evadne Stephens. Kingsley is a young man, seventeen years old, who has decided to put his studies to one side and pursue a life in the theatre. He has always had a dream to be a stage magician. More than that, he wants to be an escapologist, one of that special breed of magician who escapes from handcuffs, from locked trunks, from straitjackets suspended over a pit of crocodiles. At his first ever professional engagement he meets Evadne Stephens, an astonishingly beautiful, outstandingly talented juggler, who also happens to be an albino and an inventor who delights in building frighteningly lethal weapons and other machines of destruction. She also makes an excellent cup of tea.

When Kingsley’s foster father is abducted, Kingsley hurries to find him. Evadne insists on coming along and soon proves her worth as they plunge into the Demimonde. They flee through drains, tunnels and along London’s long lost underground rivers. They battle ancient magic and strange devices. They encounter the last surviving Neanderthals who are fanatically determined to wipe out the human race. They are assaulted by a trio of immortal magicians who want Kingsley as part of their plan to enslave the world. They are assisted by a famous author who seems to have an agenda of his own.

None of this was what Kingsley had been imagining when he stepped onto the stage of the Alexandra Theatre, and it’s made more difficult for him as he constantly has to struggle with a side of him that is wild, uncontrollable and undeniably wolfish. This is only natural, of course, since he was raised by wolves as a young child.

In short, ‘The Extinction Gambit’ is a helter-skelter fantasy comedy adventure with sandwiches, at the appropriate time.

I’ve had a wonderful time writing ‘The Extinction Gambit’. As usual, I’ve had to undertake mountains of research, but this is almost as much fun as writing the actual story. I’ve uncovered surprising details about the underground geography of London, about the organisation of the Olympic Games and about the nature of Homo Neanderthalis. Much of this didn’t end up in the book, but nothing is ever wasted. After all, we have another two books to come in the series!

Not Bad for a Bad Lad by Michael Morpurgo

Michael Morpurgo’s latest book is about a boy who is always getting into trouble.  Everyone is always telling him he’s a bad lad.  He gets caught playing on bomb sites, banging rubbish bin lids and stealing tomatoes and even a car.  He gets arrested and sentenced to a year in Borstal, which was a prison for young offenders where they could learn a trade like carpentry, painting or bricklaying.  The judge sends him there to think things over and learn his lesson.  The first few months are tough and the boys are worked hard, ‘laying bricks for hours on end in all weathers, making bread in the kitchens, weeding in the vegetable garden.’  Every morning the boys have to go on a two-mile run and the bad lad likes running past the stables.  One morning, as he goes past the stables the old man who looks after the horses calls him over and offers him an amazing opportunity to help out in the stables. This opportunity helps him to turn his life around and make his family proud of him.

Not Bad for a Bad Lad is another amazing story from Michael Morpurgo and Michael Foreman, the author and illustrator of War Horse, Kaspar: Prince of Cats and Billy the KidMichael Morpurgo often writes stories about an older person telling a child about their interesting life, and this is one of those stories.  The story is inspirational and Michael Foreman’s illustrations add perfectly to the story.  Don’t get put off by the picture of the horse on the front cover because this isn’t just a story about a horse.  This is a must-read for all Michael Morpurgo fans, but a great book to delve into if you haven’t read any of his books yet.  

Recommended for 9+    10 out of 10

The Case of the Deadly Desperados by Caroline Lawrence

Yee-haw!  Welcome to the Wild West where you’ll meet outlaws, miners, saloon owners, detectives, Indians, Celestials, Soiled Doves and a whole cast of other characters.  Caroline Lawrence transports you to the West in her new book, The Case of the Deadly Desperados, the first book in The Western Mysteries series.

The story starts with P.K. Pinkerton trapped down a mine shaft, writing about what has happened.

“My name is P.K. Pinkerton and before this day is over I will be dead.  I am trapped down the deepest shaft of a Comstock silver mine with three desperados closing in on me.  Until they find me, I have my pencil and these ledger sheets and a couple of candles.  If I write small and fast I might be able to write an account of how I came to be here.  Then whoever finds my body will know the unhappy events that led to my demise.”

So, stuck down the mine, P.K. tells his story of how he came to be trapped in the mine, starting with his foster ma and pa being killed by three deadly desperados dressed as Indians.  P.K. escapes and hops on a stagecoach to Virginia City, followed by the three desperados called Whittlin Walt, Dubois ‘Extra Dub’ Donahue and Boswell ‘Boz’ Burton.  P.K. meets many colourful characters in Virginia, some that help him, like newspaper reporter Sam Clemens and Poker Face Jace, and some that steal from him, like Belle Donne.  Will P.K. escape from the mine and the three desperados?  You’ll have to read the book to find out.

The Case of the Deadly Desperados is a fantastic story and will go on the list of my favourite books.  P.K. is such a cool character and I loved seeing him deal with different situations in the story.  At the start he tells us about his ‘Thorn’, which means that he’s not good at recognising emotions – he can only spot happiness, fear and anger.  He can’t spot whether someone is lying or telling the truth and as P.K. says, “People confound me.”  Caroline Lawrence paints a vivid picture of life in the American West and you can almost smell the drunken miners, feel the dust and grit in your eyes, and taste the Comstock layer cake.

Put on your spurred boots, grab your quick draw library card and head to your nearest dry goods store (library) to get your copy of The Case of the Deadly Desperados.  Recommended for 9+   10 out of 10