The Monster Hunter: The Adventures of Benjamin Gaul by Kit Cox

The Monster Hunter cover imageThe Monster Hunter: The Adventures of Benjamin Gaul by Kit Cox, Book Guild Publishing, ISBN 9781909984943

Monsters, kids, steampunk, Victorian, orphans – The Monster Hunter seems to hit every touchpoint that’s big right now in storytelling. Fortunately it’s also a fun and intriguing read, and one that will leave you looking forward to the next title in this new series.

Benjamin Jackson Gaul (great name) has to leave his home in Ceylon after his mother is attacked and killed by a terrifying creature in a tea plantation. With an unknown English soldier father, he’s sent to an orphanage in Kent, England. There he discovers that strange creatures, scary monsters and evil can be found anywhere…

The Monster Hunter is nicely original, with some very unique ideas and I loved the weird and creepy creatures. Kids 13+ with wild imaginations will love it, and Cox does a good job of capturing the more real problems of childhood that readers can relate to and combining them with the fantastical elements of the storyline.

I’m not entirely sure the timing of the plot is spot on – the middle of the book dragged a little and the ending then felt a bit rushed – and the nature of this as the first book in a series meant that perhaps there is a little too much that felt unresolved at the end. But to be fair these are only middling criticisms. I thoroughly enjoyed The Monster Hunter and I am definitely keen to find out what happens next to Benjamin Gaul, what creatures he will next face and how Major Jack Union will fit into it all!

Also I think we can all agree that Kit Cox, the author, has a brilliant moustache.

Kit Cox photo

From www.kentonline.co.uk

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line: Veronica Mars 1 by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

Veronica Mars book cover imageThe Thousand Dollar Tan Line: Veronica Mars 1 by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham, Allen & Unwin, ISBN 9781760112363, RRP $15.99

It seems like I should start this with a declaration. No, I was not a Veronica Mars TV series fan. Not that I was a disliker or an active anti-fan, I just never got into it. But people I like and respect rave about it and one day I might sit down and see if I’ve missed out.

So I didn’t read this book with expectations of any kind, other than what I usually have when I read a book. I did find it interesting that this is billed as a double author act – Rob Thomas, creator of Veronica Mars the series, gets top billing, and Jennifer Graham, author, gets somewhat smaller billing. And, this is total conjecture, but I suspect that Jennifer Graham, author, actually did pretty much all the work.

I’m going to say this up front: this isn’t a good book. The writing is okay but suffers from too many clichés and too much Veronica-reflects-on-her-life-so-far exposition. The story is a bit blah and for a mystery there is a distinct lack of suspense or tension.

Maybe it would be more meaningful if I was a fan but I found little to care or like about any of the characters. The central character, Veronica, had a worked up back story, with the aforementioned exposition on what she’s been up to since high school, but as a reader I never got the sense of any of that experience being a part of her as a human character, it all just seemed like background narrative.

I hope that this wasn’t written/published with the attitude that “the fans’ll like anything” because that would be such a shame. My general impression of Veronica Mars, the TV series, was it was smart and engaging. Unfortunately Veronica Mars, the book, was neither.

Three new picture books from Book Island

When it comes to children’s books Book Island is by far the most interesting small press in New Zealand. The books are original and always beautifully produced, and I really like the idea that they are all European books being published into English. Here’s three new titles from them – all perfect Christmas gift ideas for book lovers of any age.

Follow the Firefly cover imageFollow the Firefly and Run, Rabbit, Run! by Bernardo Carvalho, ISBN 9780994109828

A wordless picture book, so perfect for exploring and making up your own story. Follow the Firefly has a special bonus too – once you get to the end you can start reading it back the other way, and it becomes Run, Rabbit, Run! Then when you know both stories you can look out for both characters. I love books that have fun little twists like that.

Originally published in Portugal, the illustrations are bright and busy.

Rabbit and the Shadow cover imageThe Rabbit and the Shadow by Mélanie Rutten, ISBN 9780994109804

A slightly longer picture book but still just as perfect for reading at bedtime. With a cast of characters and a slightly melancholy storyline that will tug at the heart strings of adults, The Rabbit and the Shadow follows our little rabbit as he learns and grows up. The production values on this book are gorgeous, the illustrations are colourful and unique. I loved this book.

Page image from The Rabbit and the Shadow

The Big Question cover image

The Big Question by Leen van den Berg and Kaatje Vermeire, ISBN 9780994109842

Elephant has a big question. It’s a difficult one too, so she’s going to ask at the annual meeting. The Big Question is a big book, which makes it great for reading out loud, one on one or to a group. The illustrator of The Big Question also illustrated Maia and What Matters, and this has a similar beautiful artistic look. The text is nice and big for early readers and the storyline will have everyone feeling warm fuzzies.

A round up of picture books

It’s prime Christmas shopping time, people! And for the little kids in your life I recommend picture books. There are some beautiful examples out there, and here’s three recent favourites.

Mix It Up cover imageMix It Up! by Hervé Tullet, Allen & Unwin, ISBN 9781760110956

A very cute and lively book for the young ones. Tullet uses colour and energy to tap into the imagination of readers. Mix It Up! is the perfect book to read out loud but be warned – this isn’t a bedtime story and you will need to have paints on hand for afterwards. The first thing I wanted to do after reading was break out the finger painting!

The Fairytale Hairdresser cover imageThe Fairytale Hairdresser and Father Christmas by Abie Longstaff and Lauren Beard, Random House, ISBN 9780552570527

Where would we be without the Christmas themed picture books? Not Christmas time, anyway. The Fairytale Hairdresser combines different fairytale characters with good old Father Christmas, in a cutely illustrated tale (with extra sparkles!). Perfect for bedtime reading and the kids will probably enjoy just looking at it on their own too – some of the illustrations have Richard Scarry-esque little details.

The Moon Dragons cover imageThe Moon Dragons by Dyan Sheldon and Gary Bythe, Random House, ISBN 9781783440559

I really enjoyed reading The Moon Dragons because it has quite an old-fashioned feel. It reads very much like an adaptation of a classic fairytale, in the Grimm or Andersen mold. There are kings, queens, villagers, dragons and a brave girl, determined to show everyone she’s right. The illustrations are also quite classic, like beautiful paintings.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

This review first appeared in the NZ Herald on Sunday, 23 November 2014.

Dear Committee Members cover imageDear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (The Friday Project)

A hilarious take on academia, Dear Committee Members is an epistolary novel (in other words, written in letters). Professor Jason Fitger is constantly called upon to write letters of recommendation for students, fellow academics and former girlfriends. The professor complies but turns every letter into a masterpiece of cynicism, digression and outrage, increasingly maddened as the book progresses. The ending is unexpected and movingly gentle. It’s hard not to cheer the professor on.

Run Thomas Run by Kate Carty

Run Thomas Run cover imageRun Thomas Run by Kate Carty, Escalator Press, ISBN 9780473295240

Novels about Assyrians, Iraq and the 1991 and 2003 wars/invasions/emancipations(?) aren’t exactly a “genre” for New Zealand writers but Kate Carty is uniquely set up to have produced this novel. According to her bio she married into an Assyrian Iraqi family which probably explains why Run Thomas Run feels so immediate and emotional.

This is a family story, following Thomas Odishu, his wife and son and particularly his daughter Ramina. They are Iraqi Assyrians, not necessarily a safe thing to be in Saddam’s Iraq. Carty does a good job of quickly conveying this and showing them “flying under the radar”, used to living life in a state of constant alertness, taking us back to an incident in Thomas’ childhood that is obviously implicit in his decision to raise Ramina as a “good Iraqi” and unquestioning support of Saddam.

This tension is what puts the family on a course to devastation and takes us, the readers, on a journey with them as they try to right wrongs, fight fear and deal with the long-reaching implications of events beyond their control.

Carty isn’t afraid to explore the contradictions within this family, created by the political environment they live in. So Ramina is sheltered as a child, by her parents letting her become inculcated in the Saddam regime’s propaganda but in the end this doesn’t protect her in any way. Thomas is desperate to protect his family, and he does this in any way possible but in the end he has to face the proven fact that no way is possible. His family may do everything right and still be brought low by a random and corrupt society.

Run Thomas Run is a wonderful read that evokes a range of emotions through a strong story.