Archive for the ‘Historical Fiction’ Category

The Sparrow by Tessa Duder. Pub. Penguin Books, 2023

May 11, 2023 Comments off

This historical fiction novel is the best I have read about the European settlement of New Zealand aimed at any level.

It is well researched and stresses a fact that is often overlooked by historians – that without the Maori early New Zealand settlement would have been impossible. The Maori provided the settlers with food and shelter without which they would surely have starved.

This novel concentrates on the Auckland settlement in the 1840’s with many of the characters who are associated with Auckland’s and New Zealand’s history such as Governor Willian Hobson, John Logan Campbell, and interpreter Edward Williams featuring.

It also shows that the early settlers brought with them the prejudices of the English class system that is to be a feature of the relationships between the Maori and the settlers and indeed be a feature of the chances of lower status settlers to get a fair chance especially when it came to buying land. Then as now the price of land in Auckland is outrageous.

The central character in the story is Harriet/Harry who is 10 years old when she is wrongly convicted of stealing an apple and transported to Australia in horrific circumstances that would have killed many. Harriet is a survivor and an admirable role model for any you human being. She is strong, resourceful, caring and inciteful and the reader is with her all the way.

Harriet decides that it would be easier to survive as a boy than it would be as a girl because of the male attitudes at the time and this helps her escape the cruel and barbaric conditions at the Cascades prison in Tasmania. She escapes on the immigrant ship Platina to New Zealand and ends up in Waitemata Harbour in a pristine New Zealand.

From the beginning the settlement follows class lines. The poor are at Mechanics Bay next door to the Maori Pa at Orakei. Government is at Official Bay and business at Commercial Bay. Nothing is done for the settlers at Mechanics Bay but the Maori are commandeered to build raupo huts and bring vegetables and food to Commercial bay.

The lot of Harriet and her friend Tillie and family is miserable indeed. The funeral of a young child is moving because the Maori come to pay their respects and are rejected as natives. Even at this early stage all classes treat the Maori as savages but Harriet is different and pays the price. She decides after being a girl that it is safer to be a boy and resumes as Harry until the end of the book which is nerve wracking and exciting.

Harriet’s early days from age 10 to 14 are covered in a segment at the end of each chapter from 1836 to the settlement in 1840 and it shows the reasons why people chose to immigrate rather than live in England but you will have to find these things out by reading this superb novel.

Harriet at one stage looks back to when she landed and observes “those three pretty bays, three unspoiled beaches” and “over the spring we’ve turned them into dirty squabbling villages of too many frightened, suspicious and greedy people with something to hide and nowhere to go”. Is it any better now I asked myself.

The best book I have read this year and Tessa Duder’s first novel in 20 years. Keep writing Tessa.

The Physician’s Gun by John Evan Harris. Pub. Roiall Emerald Publishing 2022.

October 30, 2022 Comments off

Set in early New Zealand and based on true events, this story of murders most foul is a very readable story with a 15 year old boy, Henry Appleton as the main character.

Henry and his mother have a small house in the Nelson area in 1866. Many people pass through this area on their way to and from the Westland gold fields. Unfortunate Henry’s father has been killed and he and his mother are in hard times and living off a garden and Henry’s job cleaning at the bank.

Henry is an imaginative boy who yearns for a gun. He reads books by Johnny Slick who writes westerns and actually turns up in Nelson and meets Henry.

Into Nelson comes a physician Z. Smith, who is hunting his wife’s killer. The murder took place in Australia and Smith suspects the killer is in NZ. At the same time a ruthless robber and killer Richard Burgess, his mate Joseph Sullivan and his other cutthroat mates come to Nelson from Australia via the Westland goldfields.

Then some cowardly murders take place on the Maungatapu Road, a main thoroughfare from the goldfields that were notorious in 1860’s New Zealand. Who did the murders and how is Henry implicated? Thrilling stuff, read it and find out.

Excellent portrayal of early life in NZ and of a murder that stunned the country. Henry is a good role model, brave and his heart in the right place. In the back are photos of all those concerned and true facts about the Maungatapu Murders. Illustrations in pen and ink sketches show the main characters and action and enhance the story.

Pelorus Jack, the Dolphin Guide by Susan Brocker, illus. Raymond McGrath. Pub. Scholastic, 2022.

August 2, 2022 Comments off

Based on a true story of a large white Risso’s dolphin called Pelorus Jack who captivate New Zealand in the early 1900’s by meeting ships at the head of Pelorus Sound and guiding them through French Pass a rough passage of sea at the top of the Marlborough Sounds.

Susan Brocker gives Pelorus Jack a character which sensitises the story that is a true New Zealand legend. She imagines Pelorus Jack is searching for another dolphin of his kind which is logical and she gives him a preference for steel hulled ships rather than wooden ships because he could rub his body up against them. Probably true, it’s what I would do if I were a dolphin.

An uproar went through NZ when a passenger of a ship tried to shoot Pelorus Jack with a rifle and precautions were taken to prevent that happening again.

A bronze statue of Jack stands at Collinet Point overlooking French Pass.

Raymond McGrath’s illustrations give life and credibility to this beautiful story that will enchant children of all ages. great purchase for a primary School Library.

Faraway Girl by Fleur Beale. Pub. Penguin Books, 2022

May 12, 2022 Comments off

I am so glad to have read another Fleur Beale novel for intermediate readers and above. It is a time slip novel contrasting Victorian values about women and girls and today’s specimens. It makes for humour and drama that will keep the most discerning of readers in the book.

17 year old Etta wakes feeling rough but not as bad as her younger brother Jamie who has a condition that is wearing him away with no reason that the doctors can find. As the book opens Jamie is a “limp lump of paleness”. I love the way Fleur Beale uses language.

As the family gather around the limp Jamie a vision appears and solidifies before their eyes. It is Constance, a 17 year old girl from 1869 England dressed in her wedding dress. She has traveled through time while having her wedding picture painted by a creep of an artist. The painting is to be complete before the wedding of Constance to a swine of a man called Mr Smeaton. He is an entitled mill owner who holds sway over Constance’s parents.

Constance is awed and horrified by the way Etta talks and behaves “all the belief’s she had drummed into her everyday of her life made no sense in the modern world of today”.

Etta and Constance bond as friends then both girls are whisked back in time to Constance’s Victorian home and boy what an impact Etta makes.

The girls find out what rogues Mr Smeaton and Constance’s father have been and learn that Jamie’s demise is related to the portrait of Constance in her wedding dress. Will he be saved? What will happen when Etta gets back to now time? what if the media find out?

If you want to know anything else you will have to read it yourself and it is compelling reading especially the last 50 pages. How is an improbable situation going to feel credible? But it does, such is the skill of Fleur Beale’s writing.

My NZ Story; Quarantine by Philippa Werry. Pub. Scholastic, 2022

March 17, 2022 Comments off

This is a well told moving story about a Wellington family and their friends during the 1937/37 “infantile paralysis” or polio pandemic which showed many of the same characteristics that the Covid pandemic has in today’s world.

Polio came from nowhere and the medical profession was flummoxed as to it’s cause and how to stop it. They realised that it was a virus but no vaccine was found until the 1950,s and not used in NZ until 1956. Like Covid the community reacted in different ways. Schools were locked down particularly for children as they seemed to be the target for the polio virus. There was even a conspiracy theory that milk was the cause and should be boiled before use. This was refuted of course and in 1937 the school milk programe was introduced by the first labour govt.

Twelve year old Tom narrates this story. He belongs to a family with five children, 3 girls and two boys and he is the second oldest. His father is a working man and although it is the Depression holds down a job at the newly opened Ford motor Coy in Petone. His mother is a hymn singing stern hardworking Welsh woman who cares for her children and there is not much money around.

This portrait of a family life during the depression is a highlight as is the school life of Tom and his friends. Tom is a big fan of Olympic gold medalist Jack Lovelock and actually meets him running at the beach. Tom begins to run himself. His sisters Flo aged 10 and Lily aged 14 are into films of Shirley Temple etc.

Foer me the character that I loved was Mr Moffat a teacher at Tom’s school. he is a great teacher, strong disciplinarian, strict but fair and the children new where they stood with him.

When one of Tom’s family gets “infantile Paralysis” and you will have to read the book to find out which one, everything in his family changes.

In the back is a historical note and photographs of polio treatment and even the first Iron lung. Fascinating.

A stirring story with some sad moments but also some joyous ones. Terrific writing from Philippa Werry who knows her history and never disappoints. Her portrayal of family life in the 1930,s is a great contrast to life now and in many ways I preferred it. One of the best books in this series.

Katipo Joe Bk3. Wolf’s Lair by Brian Falkner. Pub. Scholastic, 2022

March 12, 2022 Comments off

The epic conclusion to this action packed spy thriller about Katipo Joe, a teenage spy during WW2 whose skill and intellect outwitted the Nazi enemy.

In book 1 he escaped Nazi Germany with his mother, witnessed the Blitz and was trained as a spy to kill a leading Nazi in France. In book2 he penetrated the Hitler Youth Movement and was accepted to compete with other leading German youth to become Hitler’s successor at the Eagles Nest in the Austrian Alps. Both books are great action stories and are reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

Wolf’s Lair is Hitler’s hideout and strategy fortress in East Prussia from which he masterminded Operation Barbarossa or the attack on Russia.

Joe is ensconced as Hitler’s youth successor under the name of Jurgen and he travels to Wolf’s Lair on Hitler’s special train Der Fuhrersonderzug and the action and tension is plentiful. His mission is to kill Hitler and we know from the start he is going to fail.

Arrival at Die Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair) with his German youth classmates Thomas, Heike and Sophie is tense as they witness the invasion of Russia, the persecution of the Jews and Poles and the cruelty of the SS.

The highlight of this final episode is the personification of Hitler and his Nazi cronies Himmler, Goring Goebbels and Bormann, the biggest challenge Brian Falkner had with this novel. I think he succeeds but you the reader can decide for yourself.

The series as a whole has been the best action writing I have read from a New Zealand writer and rivals any overseas novelists. Don’t miss this one or the whole series, it is riveting.

Needless to say all the loose ends and side stories are sorted out as is Joe’s future. There is a couple of moving characters in Sophie and Polish girl Felka. If you miss this you will kick yourself.

When Fishes flew. The Story of Elena’s War by Michael Morpurgo. Pub. HarperCollins, 2021

November 4, 2021 Comments off

Nandi loves her Auntie Ellie and all things Greek. She is born of Greek parents and loves the Greek myths and legends particularly about Proteus, the son of Poseidon the god of the sea. This link between Aunt Ellie Nandi and the god Proteus is to become the crux of this novel and some may view it as wishy washy but not me.

Ellie lives on the island of Ithaca legendary kingdom of Odysseus and the home of Homer who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. She visits Nandi in Australia every other year but suddenly the visits stop as Auntie Ellie gets older. For five years Ellie does not see Nandi and at age 17 Nandi packs her bags and goes to Ithaca but Ellie isn’t there. Where is she? and will she see her again?

While on Ithaca Nandi stays with a friend of Ellie and learns that Ellie is highly regarded and has a legendary reputation among the islanders.

Before she went to Greece Nandi saw a flying fish in the sea off Melbourne and it seemed to be telling her to go to Greece. While on Ithaca she sees the flying fish again and it tells her that it is Proteus in fish form. This is not an uncommon tactic by the Greek gods when they meddled in the human world which they often did. Sometimes the gods shine upon you sometimes they don’t. Proteus and Nandi are kindred spirits.

The flying fish in a series of visits tells Nandi a story of Ellie’s war escapades and her love relationship with a partisan Alexis in the fight against Nazi occupation. It will melt your heart.

Easy to read and beautifully illustrated as Nandi tells Ellie’s story in diary form while living on Ithaca. Michael Morpurgo never fails in his story telling.

Excellent reading for junior and intermediate readers with a very modern day human problem.

The Other Sister by Philippa Werry. Pub. Pipi Press, 2021

September 23, 2021 Comments off

This is a sequel to The Telegram a novel also reviewed on this blog. That novel was about Beaty a strong willed girl who became a telegram girl in WW1 a role normally taken by boys. This novel concentrates on Tilly her younger sister who is now 13 years old and has won a scholarship to a prestigious girls school.

It is 1919/1920 in small town New Zealand. The soldiers have returned home many in a damaged condition mentally, others with lost limbs and scarred faces and bodies. Beaty’s friend Caleb is greatly damaged “its as if someone else came back in his place”. It is a time for healing and renewal and Tilly is a big part of it all.

Socially NZ has changed too with women having taken a major role in running society while the men were away now asked to go back to the kitchen and have babies. There are an anti German and anti Chinese sentiments around but loyalty to the British Empire is still solid. The prince of Wales tours the country in this book with Tilly being privileged to meet him.

Tilly the main character is a breath of fresh air. She goes to work in a rehabilitation home for returned soldiers and works in the house of a rich family who lost their only son in the action. Tilly wins a scholarship to Girls High where the wealthy girls go and experiences their snobbery and social aloofness. Fortunately she has two good friends in Molly and Ingrid who have their own crosses to bear. The girls are told at school not place too much importance on getting married as there were not enough men to go round, Gasps all round. Emphasis is on pursuing their careers and fulfilling lives.

An excellent study of life post WW1 in New Zealand with strong female characters and you can be assured of the accuracy of the historical context as the author is the best in the business when comes to history.

Short chapters make it easy to read, each chapter begins with an obituary to a fallen soldier in the war. At the back is the historical context and photographs of the era. You will love Tilly. Superb ending.

Kakapo Keeper by Gay Buckingham. Pub. OneTree House, 2021

September 17, 2021 Comments off

Most birds pong pretty bad. Penguins reek of rotting fish and poo but kakapo have a lovely fusty-warm smell. Not to mention an inviting face and eyes that suggest a sense of cheek and humour.

This is one of the many quotations mentioned in this superb novel based on fact about bird conservation in Fiordland particularly in Dusky Sound where Capt Cook once harboured on his voyage to New Zealand.

The story is of Conservationist Richard Henry who camped in Dusky Sound between 1894-1900, with several assistants, moving kiwi, Kakapo, Roa and other birds from the mainland to the islands in Dusky Sound particularly Resolution Island. He wanted to protect the birds from weasels stoats and ferrets which had decimated the bird population and the kakapo almost to extinction.

This story is told in diary form by Andrew a teenage boy who is a composite of the four assistants that helped Richard Henry. He heads each chapter with Date, Bird tally and injuries. The last is amusing but given the hostility of the Fiordland environment – the rain, the sandflies, the earthquakes the landscape, it was no short miracle that they survived. Sandfly bites headed the injury list and Andrew was covered in bites with the “oozy wetness of Dusky Sound making everything they did miserable”.

Throughout the easy to read large text are diagrams of all the birds, plus maps and drawings of buildings and boats they built and used. Adding to the beauty of the story are their dog companions Lassie and Foxy.

Beautifully told with a sobering episode towards the end of the story that you can find out for yourself. In the back is the true story plus photographs of important events and structures used and built plus bird and animal life particularly of the ferrets, stoats and weasels who slither in for the kill.

One of the best animal conservation stories about people who really cared for the birds that I have ever read. Highly recommended. The cover is delightful.

Three Scoops by David Hill. Pub. OneTree House, 2021.

August 14, 2021 Comments off

David Hill shows his versatility in these three different stories for readers 10 years and over that are like three scoops of ice cream on the one cone.

Coming Home is historical fiction about a young man, Harry, and his horse Blaze who are on their way to South Africa to take part in the second Boer War. Harry views the whole thing as a great adventure while Blaze just wants to be with the human that treats him well. Things do not go as planned with Harry and Blaze are separated and the war is nothing like Harry imagined. The war is told from Harry’s point of view and Blaze narrates his own adventure in italics at the end of each chapter.

I Wish is a fantasy story but also a case for getting kids to read. Trent has moved house with his mother and his computer has been left behind. He finds a box of books in a room of his new house and begins to reluctantly read one. Fantastically a very rude green elf emerges from one and tells Trent he has three wishes in order to set the elf free from his imprisonment in the book. Trent wants to be special in his new school, he wants to be noticed and not be the boring person he sees himself as. He wishes to be a guitarist and a runner to impress people but things go wrong. Then he decides he wants to be a writer but will his chances be any better? Read it and find out.

Strange Meeting is the best story in my opinion and is a futuristic science fiction story about an asteroid that is hurtling towards Earth and threatens to destroy all life as on asteroid did to the dinosaurs billions of years ago. Sophie’s parents work on a rocket site about to launch a rocket into space and her school colleague Pita is rude to her and says his Koro(grandfather) does not approve of the launching. Koro knows something that no-one else does and the countdown to launching becomes a countdown to potential disaster.

Common to all three stories is David Hill’s ability to create tension that keeps the reader in the stories. The values are good and there is a strong message of being kind. Three of the best stories kids will ever read and a good read-a-loud for school classes. Variety is the spice of life and reading makes it so.