Debuts and returns, Linda Burgess

Enemy at the Gate 
Philippa Werry
Scholastic New Zealand, $17.99 
ISBN 9781869438135

Old Drumble 
Jack Lasenby 
HarperCollins, $16.99,
ISBN 978169506742

Chicken Feathers 
Joy Cowley and David Elliot (illus)
Puffin Books, $17.95,
ISBN 9780143303909

Five (and a bit) Days in the Life of Ozzie Kingsford
Val Bird and Rebecca Cundy (illus)
Random Books, $19.99,
ISBN 9781869790530

Michelle Kelly 
Scholastic New Zealand, $18.99, 
ISBN 9781869438296

Whatever age group you’re writing for, historical fiction always has an awkward hurdle to overcome: how to add the detail that places the fiction firmly, accurately, in context without it appearing contrived.

Philippa Werry’s Enemy at the Gate takes as its setting a time that is still (just) in living memory – the 1930s. The enemy in the title is infantile paralysis or, as most of us who queued trepidatiously to have those three injections knew it, polio. It was at such epidemic proportions at one stage that schools throughout the country closed their doors for months on end. Children who got it died or were seriously maimed.

This novel is told from the perspective of Tom, a keen runner who at the beginning of the novel has just met his hero Jack Lovelock on a beach. This desire to run is an appropriate extended metaphor in a time in which some children become wheelchair- bound for life. Yet somehow it doesn’t resonate. While most competently written, the book takes a very scary time and dulls it down.

The historical setting is competently described but it often feels gratuitous and laboured. We learn about the abdication through Tom’s father mentioning it over dinner. We’re taken down to Lambton Quay apparently solely because the author wants us to know that it’s the coronation. We see Wellington’s famous tram-hiking dog go past in a tram. Sorry, but that dog needs to be doing more than passing by for us to care.

At one stage Tom comments that his friend Charlie tells a better story than he does. In which case, the author could perhaps have chosen Charlie as her mouthpiece. In spite of the life and death struggle of Tom’s sister, there simply isn’t enough tension. It almost feels as if polio has infected this book, leaving it trying valiantly but unable to quite manage the hurdles. Nevertheless – it was a great idea.

Jack Lasenby also sets his latest novel, Old Drumble, in the near(ish) past. Lasenby is an accomplished writer and he writes easily and authentically of a time when kids were shooed outside to play, when a boy’s biggest concern is learning to co-ordinate the click of the tongue, the wink and the nod in the authentic way of the cow-cocky. Worries are no greater than coming to terms with life’s great puzzles: how come kids living at different ends of the same street both think they live at the top of the street?

Lasenby writes appealingly of times when people swapped cuttings from plants and jars of home-made marmalade. This is the novel as a series of yarns – all based around the antics of a pretty amazing drover’s dog, the “Old Drumble” of the title. I suspect this is the sort of book a publisher takes a risk with – its references may seem to come from another planet for young readers. This reviewer, however, found its tone – touching rather than sentimental – and its easy pace caused a serious attack of nostalgia (for a time well before my own) after just a few pages.

Joy Cowley is both prolific and good, which is an unbeatable combination. She wisely spreads her net widely; that Chicken Feathers is written for the American market is obvious as soon as we meet Mom, and learn that it’s a fox out there that’s threatening those chickens. I decided not to let this matter – after all, a writer has to earn her living. And it’s a seductively produced book. What bookworm of any age doesn’t love those bird’s eye map-like drawings of the story’s setting that are found at the beginning of this book? Indeed, David Elliot’s gorgeous black and white drawings enhance this lovely little book throughout.

It’s a simple enough story (and a courageous one – in these secular times the family in this book are Bible-quoting Christians). No one quite believes Josh when he insists his rather scraggly old hen Semolina can talk to him. And that’s not his only worry – his mother is in hospital trying to prevent the loss of her unborn child. His plain-speaking grandmother has arrived for the duration. And he’s suffering from a tough case of unrequited love for the older girl next door.

It’s the telling of this simple story which shows why Cowley is  a bestselling writer for children. She’s unashamedly, yet gently, lyrical and literary. Josh’s mother’s pregnancy is part of an extended metaphor which includes hens and eggs. Along with other carefully placed descriptions, that of the boat that Josh is building with his father – “The panels, warm and wet, bent easily along the curves of the frame, nesting tight against the keel” – is pure poetry.

Magic, love, friendship, being old and crabby, plenty of tension and a happy ending – it’s all in this very nice little book. Perhaps not one of Cowley’s prize-winners, but my 8-year-old grand-daughter read it in one sitting and gave it 10/10.

Val Bird’s Five (and a bit) Days in the Life of Ozzie Kingsford latches onto a current fashion which I can only describe as noisy books for boys. The best-selling version is the very tiring Captain Underpants series. It’s all in the font, which fools around with size and shape. Words bounce energetically off the page, striking the unprepared reader right between the eyes.  It drives me nuts but boys do seem to love it.

This book specialises in lists, under such headings as “How to make an undelicious tea”, and there are Questions, FACTS, you name it, it’s here, all in its frenetic, exhaustingly good-natured pace. The story, though, is rather lovely. Mum (she of the suss culinary skills) has to organise a family reunion because her brother, whom she hasn’t seen for 10 years, is passing through. This means the house will be overwhelmed by various relations, from grandparents to the three distinctly geeky cousins of Ozzie, the 11-year-old who’s telling the story. There’s a long-suffering Dad who’d rather be playing golf and a younger sister known as The Brat. And Snoops the dog. Your neat little nuclear family, in fact. (But what’s wrong with that? They are still out there.) More importantly, the characters develop well; there’s good narrative drive – the book works. This is cheerful, good-natured stuff with family life in all its chaos at its centre. How appropriate then that illustrator Rebecca Cundy is the author’s daughter.

One of the most difficult things to achieve with junior fiction is the right tone: it’s far too easy for an adult writing from the point of view of someone much younger to come across as a cringe-inducing try-hard. It’s always possible the intended audience might disagree, but it seems to me that Michelle Kelly succeeds completely with her first novel.

Payback covers familiar enough territory. Thirteen-year-old Riley is beset with the usual teenage problems – a girlfriend who’s dumped him, separated parents who are both in the throes of forming new relationships, problems with bigger stronger boys.

At the heart of the novel though is something that does in fact resonate – when Riley breaks an arm and the X-ray shows that Riley is not just short, but that the hormones required to make him grow have failed to kick in. So we travel with him through normal issues – the classroom, the playground, the family – but at the same time share the larger issue. Should he have treatment? Without ruining it for you, this turns out to be less of an issue than it might have been (and my one concern with this novel is that his parents discuss the possibility of using steroids without really hinting at what this could mean in the broadest sense.)

It’s a small concern though. Told from the point of view of its witty, astute and endearing protagonist, this book races along at the appropriate cracking pace. And it’s not just Riley we become fond of – out of the five books reviewed here, I felt the characters in this one were the most fully realised. Without seeing all that much of Riley’s mother, I quickly felt that I both knew and liked her. His Dad, though more shadowy, is nevertheless a totally credible presence. No one – even the classic playground bully – is one-dimensional. As a bonus, this book has a kind heart. This was a great – if undemanding – read, and a book to be enjoyed by girls and boys alike. A very promising debut.


Linda Burgess is a Wellington writer and reviewer.

The books under review were all shortlisted for the junior fiction category of this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. The winner was Jack Lasenby’s Old Drumble


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