Saturday, 29 March 2008

Humour and History for Young

My Life of Crime Fleur Beale, Mallinson Rendel, 138 pages, paperback, NZ$17
ISBN 978-1-877423-05-5

Archie’s Adventures Leonie Thorpe, HarperCollins, 144 pages, paperback, NZ$16.99
ISBN 978-1-86950-656-8

Shadows in the Ice Des Hunt, HarperCollins, 224 pages, paperback, NZ$16.99
ISBN 978-1-86950-673-1

Dead Dan’s Dee Phyllis Johnston, Longacre, paperback, NZ$16.99
ISBN 978-1-877361-75-3

These four good novels have a common theme of adolescents achieving self-reliance in the face of difficult events. They are also completely different from each other.

Leonie Thorpe, a Lyttelton author, has gone for the humorous approach in Archie’s Adventure, where Archie Roach seems to be a failure at everything he tries. Arriving in Port Collerden, he finds fulfilment by learning to fish, whistle and join the activities of the local sea scouts. His encounter with Theo Sussex, a former TV personality eager to be elected Mayor, is particularly funny. (“You wouldn’t know him, dear. He used to be famous,” says a local.) As Archie battles his way through a fishing contest and a regatta he gains self-esteem and his readers gain some cheerful moments.

In Des Hunt’s Shadows in the Ice, the sequel to Frog Whistle Mine (2006), young Tony still fancies himself as an amateur detective but is soon out of his depth when he returns to the West Coast. At Fox Glacier he encounters the mystery of a corpse – the wrong corpse - emerging from the ice after a seven year journey. Tony also befriends the intriguing Murray ‘Simple’ Kimpel, a gentle giant who disposes of cattle carcasses and cares for injured birds.
Tony is resourceful in gathering evidence but, to his embarrassment, it takes his indomitable friend Rose to help him clear up the mystery. She also provides his first kiss. The conclusion is dramatically exciting. This novel also contains enough gruesome humour and painful puns to make it a sure hit with young male readers.

My Life of Crime is a readable and witty personal confession. Anthony, the narrator, admits he was a “useless, whinging, snivelling, moaning blob” and tells how he became Ant, a self-reliant and confident young man, able to outwit his enemies and even win some of them over as friends. Ant’s first-person narrative is very amusing especially when it becomes clear that his plans for the future still include the life of crime of the title. His dreams of instant wealth through a little kidnapping and ransom are never achieved but some surprising events do occur and Ant finds himself facing a major personal challenge. Fleur Beale has created a witty story that also offers some helpful tips for people who want to better themselves

You must be Dee. You look like your father.” Historical novels for the young continue their growth in popularity. Phyllis Johnston’s Dead Dan’s Dee is a moving recreation of the problems faced by the soldiers of World War One, both on the battlefield and in later life back in New Zealand.
Dee’s father, Dan, had died on the Somme, so when her mother and aunt develop tuberculosis, she has to live first in a grim orphanage and then on a backblocks farm near Rotorua with her father’s best friend Joe and his wife Essie.
Life is hard, with low dairy prices and the threat of bush sickness, but Dee has the added difficulty of being haunted by the secrets that surround Dan’s death. She eventually learns the truth and finds happiness but at a cost. This richly detailed story brings the past alive for young readers and links Dee’s discovery to more recent events.

This review by Trevor Agnew first appeared in The Press, Christchurch on 3rd November 2007.

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