Book Review: Jade’s Summer of Horses by Amy Brown

Jade's Summer of HorsesJade’s Summer of Horses by Amy Brown, Harper Collins,  RRP $19.99, ISBN 9781869509224, Available now.

The pony books I read as an impressionable youth starred rich girls in a parallel universe of jodhpurs and gymkhanas. Jade’s Summer of Horses is still a fantasy, but a much more relatable one. (The exception to the problem of unrelatable pony stories is The Pony Problem, a classic I must have read ten times.)

Both the setting of Jade’s Summer of Horses – small-town New Zealand – and the characters – Jade’s single-parent dad, a very prickly aunt, and a pretty-much homeless neighbour – are different to what I remember in horse books. The plot’s a little different too: Jade has to sell her lovely old horse, Pip. Luckily, she finds the perfect buyer in her friend’s very prickly aunt, who happens to own a riding school, and would love to have Jade and her friend stay for a Summer of Horses. Jade makes friends with the aunt, the horses, and the next door neighbour who lives in a shipping crate and brings about the book’s – spoiler – happy ending.

There’s an awful lot about horses in this book. Jade goes riding around the paddock, in the sea, along the beach, and in the forest. It sounds rather exhausting, but she seems to enjoy it, as presumably, does our young reader. There’s instructions in the back of the book on How to Mount and Hold the Reins, which rather suggests that the audience isn’t the type of child who takes riding lessons, but the type of child who would very much like to.

It’s easy to dismiss horse books as nonsense written for girls, but Jade’s Summer of Horses takes care to introduce a variety of characters, in between loving descriptions of horse riding. Brown doesn’t speak down to the reader: there are lovely long words scattered about, and the more interesting characters are described perfectly matter-of-factly.

I especially enjoyed the loving descriptions of the food. In true Famous Five fashion, the characters eat regularly, and with great gusto. There’s pipis, fish pie, pancakes, toasted marshmellows, and “steaming hot, aromatic bread, on which the butter melted deliciously.” It’s great that the book is set locally – it’s always nice to see the place we live reflected, and especially as the beach is far more accessible than Platform 9 and 3/4s.

The only thing better than a good horse book is a series of good horse books. This is the 4th book in the Pony Tales series, all of which star Jade.

All in all, Jade’s Summer of Horses is a very solid pony book. Highly recommended for the pony-crazed young reader in your life.

Game of Thrones Open Thread

Game of ThronesGame of Thrones! Have you read it? Have you seen it? I hear the second season premiered somewhere the other night.

So, I have questions. Did you see the TV show or read the books first? Do you think it’s better to read the books before you see the adaptation? (Also, we need to talk about The Hunger Games, but I need to finish the series first, so shhh.)

Some people believe that coming to the books from the adaptation taints the experience. Do you agree? Do you think that’s realistic? Is my reading of Game of Throne lesser for having seen the first four episodes of season one before reading the books? Is my reading of Dune coloured by playing the computer game before reading it? Or, did these adaptations lead me into books I never would have read otherwise? Can you really discover an older work without being introduced to it, anyway? (Yes, I found The Dice Man in a second hand book shop and it continues to blow my mind.)

Also, who was your favourite character in Game of Thrones? I liked Sansa, but only from the books, because her character develops, but maybe I identify too much with that princess-in-a-tower shtick. From the TV show I like Jon Snow because mmmmmm.

I declare the thread open! Answer my questions, if you like, or add thoughts of your own. Please say if you’re going to Spoiler, because some people haven’t read the books, like the ending of book four, when it turned out [character] had become a [something] and I was all: NO WAY.

I’d love to hear your thoughts – I’ll be here all Easter to respond!

Book Review: Total Blueprint for World Domination by Jolene Stockman, ISBN 1466359307, Available now.

Total Blueprint for World Domination by Jolene StockmanTotal Blueprint for World Domination by Jolene Stockman, ISBN 1466359307, Available now.

Total Blueprint for World Domination turned out to be a self-help book: it’s a guide to ruling your world, not the world. (But I think we can all agree that this BookieMinion shouldn’t rule the planet, so that’s probably for the best.)

Self help books are kind of a nebulous genre, halfway between misery memoirs and the uplifting babble that is Chicken Soup for the Soul. They have a kind of a stigma attached to them, which I think is ridiculous, because I read somewhere that they can be as effective as therapy – and who doesn’t have at least some problems? (I googled and can’t find that reference: does anyone know what I’m talking about?)

I received Total Blueprint as a PDF ebook, and read it in Google Docs because I am not currently on speaking terms with my Kobo ereader. Total Blueprint was formatted fine for screen, and looked like it would print well too. At about a hundred pages, it’s not so long that the screen will strain your eyes.

As self help books go, Total Blueprint sticks pretty close to the formula. The reader is presumed to have a problem; the author explains that this is a very common problem and can be overcome by following the steps X, Y and Z. You can do it!

In Total Blueprint, the reader is presumed to be a teen, with very average teen-issues: motivation and procrastination. The reader is not presumed to have any family issues, issues with relationships, or illness or grief. Things aren’t bad, exactly, but the reader feels like they’re drifting a little. (An aside: I am suddenly wondering why I was assigned this book to review.) Total Blueprint lays out how to find out what your passion is (hint: it’s probably animals or music), and how to make a plan to make that passion the key focus of your life. (Goal: manage a cat band, sell hits on iTunes, retire on the proceeds, spend rest of life watching cat videos. Now let’s figure out how to achieve that goal!)

The actual advice is often pretty vague, but delivered so forcefully and cheerfully that you start to believe it. Having said that, a couple of points were flat-out terrible. These two stood out for me:

- Afraid of rejection? Start seeing every “no” as one step closer to the inevitable “yes” that’s on its way!

– Hate not fitting in? Know that you are special because you don’t fit in!

The first point squicks me out because I was raised to believe that “no means no”. In the context of Total Blueprint, the tip works fine (get a job, teens! If no one wants to hire you, apply more places!). The second point is just really unhelpful to teens. Sure, not fitting in will make you a more awesome adult, but it can also make your teenage years pretty damn terrible. (Also, maybe you can’t get a job because you’re a werido?)

Having just been all mean and picky, I should say that the main thrust of Total Blueprint’s is very sound: make a list, stick to the list.

The tone is that familiar, upbeat one which is common to the genre. Short, punchy sentences! Lots of repetition of key points! Exclamation points! Bulleted lists and pages left blank to write in notes! This is annoying for a while, but it’s a trope of the genre because it works, damn it. Thirty pages into Total Blueprint, I closed my browser, and started working towards the total domination of my world.

So: the Total Blueprint worked on me. If you need to be told in the nicest possible way to get off your butt and do something with your life, Total Blueprint for World Domination is a good a place as any to start.

Use the comment section below to brainstorm some thoughts about self help books. Will you admit to reading them? Do you have a favourite? Do you follow its advice?


Book Review: Generation, by William Knight

Generation by William KnightGeneration, by William Knight, The Standing Hare Publishing Company,  ISBN 978-0-473-19682-0, Available now.

Generation is a scifi page turner that presents a horrifying vision of what the advances of science may bring.

Once I’d figured out these themes, I was comforted by the fact I couldn’t get my ebook copy to load on my antiquated Kobo at first, and the browser plug in I downloaded is clunky. (For the record, I blame my Kobo – the file loaded fine in the browser.) Whatever evil scientists are up to, they’re a way off achieving world domination yet.

(Tips for Bookie Minions: did you know you can read epub books in your web browser? I didn’t either! Google “epub reader for [preferred browser]” and see what happens. And, oh, look, you can get Generation for Kindle right this moment. That’s handy. Check your plug ins before you buy though!)

Technical difficulties overcome, I cracked the virtual spine of Generation to meet our hero, Hendrix Harrison. Harrison is a third-rate journalist hunting ghosts in the English countryside. The ghosts seem connected to Mendal, the MegaScienceCorp. (Mendal! He was that guy from the olden days that grew peas in punnet squares that you learned about in form five biology.) University professor Dr Sarah Wallace is researching the human decomposition in a creepy field/graveyard thing and seems to know a little about the Mendal’s research. And it turns out that the ghosts Harrison’s looking into aren’t ghosts after all. The dead are walking.

These aren’t the horrifying zombies that we’re so used to seeing on telly. These zombies to be pitied – we meet some of their families and hear some of their voices. A zombie with a soul is about a billion times more horrifying than brainless, brain-munching golems of pop culture. And unless Harrison and Dr Wallace work together to expose Mendal’s horror to the world, we could all share their fates…

That’s the set up in a nutshell. The rest of the book is resolution, and a very nice resolution it was too. Generation kept me turning virtual pages and kept me guessing. There’s enough subplots to keep things interesting, but not too many to slow things down. The writing is nicely paced, and the characters develop through the story arc.

About the only criticism I have is the lack of solid female characters. Dr Sarah Wallace is the only leading lady, and although somewhat less nuanced than our protagonist, conducts herself very admirably. Dr Wallace is essential to the plot, driving it forwards  and supporting our protagonist, Hendrix Harrison, when he lacks a vital clue. The other lady-characters are someone’s wife, and a grad student, who, we are told, is not as bright as her male counterpart. One main female character and a couple of supporting ones are not enough to make up for the legion of male characters. Cops and professors are male when they could have just as easily been female – and nurses are ladies and the doctors are men. It’s irritating because it would have taken almost no effort to create a gender balance.

This is a criticism I have of almost every book I read, and I guess I’m giving it more space than usual, because there’s little else in Generation to pick on.  Except, I will say this:  New Scientist Magazine is not a scientific journal. It is a magazine and it’s silly to pretend otherwise, even in a sci fi book with zombies.

Like all literature, sci fi can teach us something about ourselves. Because sci fi uses allegory instead of absurdly self-aware characters and ridiculous plot set ups (I guess I should I say allegory as ridiculous plot set ups, but my point still stands) folks who haven’t read sci fi can scoff a little. That’s sad because they’re missing out on some really great allegories. Zombies are often used to criticise greed and materialism and they certainly are in this case. Being zombified is both a horrifying punishment for those who have bought in – literally or figuratively – to Mendal’s MegaScience, or the inevitable result of the masses standing by and not stopping the MegaSciences from advancing.

Generation deserves to be shelved next to the current breed of really good sci fi. It’s a page turner with a message. Recommended.

The Best Books of 2011 (That I Didn’t Blog About)

Between all the books I read this year for BookieMonster, I squeezed in a few others here and there. You already know what I think of the books I’ve reviewed this year, so I thought I’d give you a run down of The Best Books of 2011 (That I Didn’t Blog About).

The Happy HookerThe Happy Hooker by Debbie Stoller – I wrote an article a year or two ago about the benefits of craft. There are clear mental and physical benefits to working with your hands – it can improve your overall health in measurable ways. So, in a period of me life which is perhaps best summed up as “pretty stink”, I took up crochet. It helped a lot. While I’ve never actually made any of the projects in The Happy Hooker – not even the crocheted bikini –  it has a clear stitch dictionary and a chipper “you can do it!!!” attitude which is nice at any time.

Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin – I KNOW. It’s a TV show. Let me regain my internet book reviewer and general geek cards by comparing it to Dune. Have you read Dune? Of course you haven’t, no one’s read Dune. Except me. Game of Thrones is like Dune, except good. There’s that same sprawling hierarchy of families and clans and ever-shifting allegiances, struggles for territory, threats which are barely understood, and some wizards and swords and stuff. It might be better if George R. R. Martin wasn’t so intent on teaching me that everyone I love will die. Goodness, 2011’s been a real shitter of a year, huh? But that’s okay – I’m only two hundred pages into the fourth book, so I have approximately a bajillionity more pages of GoT to enjoy.

Anne's House Of DreamsAnne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery- I’ve been working through the Anne series again on and off for a couple of years now, and House of Dreams is as far as I’ve gotten. Rereading about Anne’s soul-crushing loss, and watching some of the light go out of her dancing eyes again, as an adult with a better grip on emotions, was even more devastating than the first time around. Plus, it’s the book that taught me the value of trepanning, which is priceless. Rereading is funny – you notice more and more each time.

Usually I like to reread more than I did in 2011. I like to read Dr Zhivargo in the summer – a long cold story for long hot days, and For Whom the Bells Tolls in winter. I like The Pillow Book when I’m feeling pensive, and I like my big pile of New Zealand books any other time.

What I haven’t read this year says as much as what I have read. Books aren’t just words on a page, or volumes on a shelf. They’re the stories we tell ourselves, about who we are, the things we value, and how we see our place in the world.

Here’s to 2012. I hope it’s even better – and even more bookie – than 2011 was.

Seriously, you guys, Book Depository

Book Depository is the best dang place to buy books that are hard to find in your local book store. I find it hard to believe that everyone doesn’t know about it, but it’s true there are still some folk out there who had no idea.

One chap I know was so excited to hear about the very existence of Book Depository – we were talking about Our Favourite Books – that he extricated himself from my embrace, demanded I boot up my Lappy and proceeded to buy a bunch of books right there and then.

Picture for a moment my expression. It ranged from: “How adorable! The chap READS!” to growing disillusionment and finally utter boredom as I saw what he was searching for. (I’m not going to tell you what it was. You’ll probably be the world’s biggest fan of [series] and you’ll never talk to me again.)

We can gather from this little anecdote a few things. Firstly, I am pretty bad at pillow talk. Secondly, that Internet Book Reviewers are a judgemental lot. You wouldn’t read my reviews if I wasn’t. Can you imagine, they’d all be like, “Novel, 315 pages. Typo on page 259. Read it in four hours after putting it off for three weeks”. Thirdly, fellas, it does pay to have a carefully rehearsed “favourite book” to roll out to the ladies if you want to stay in their lives longer than Mr Never-Heard-Of-Book-Depository stayed in mine. And video games aren’t books. Yes, both experiences are immersive but - immersive, it means an experience which is absorbing. Your vocabulary would be bigger if you read a damn book. I said, your vocabulary could be bigger. Jeeze. So go click this link, and go read a book. A good book, mind you, or we can’t hang out anymore.