Tuesday, August 23, 2016

One Junior Fiction, one Young Adult Fiction…

The Road to Ratenburg by Joy Cowley, illus. Gavin Bishop, Gecko Press

The story in this junior novel is narrated by Spinnaker Rat, husband of Retsina and father of four little ratlets. The family lose their nest when a city building is demolished and they vow to travel to Ratenburg, known by all as a kind of rat heaven where life is easy. They begin their perilous journey with a train trip, accompanied by a single rat called Jolly Roger (who’s generally regarded as an annoying fellow). Following a memorised map, they have to get across Sunsweep Lake with its killer eels, navigate the Bottomless Bog, and keep safe through meadows, forests and a mountain range. Inevitably, the end of their journey is not what they expect.

The plot is action-packed, with our intrepid band of rats facing one life-threatening danger after another. But the subtext of the story works away quietly underneath – the family dynamics change as they travel, relationships develop, youngsters mature and take responsibility – and at the end they all realise what is most important to them.

It’s beautifully written, and Gavin Bishop’s black ink illustrations convey a lot of meaning with a minimum of clutter. Because it’s narrated by an older rat, I think the story would be best enjoyed if an adult reads it aloud to a group or to an individual child aged about six to nine. I imagine many children would then want to read it again for themselves.

ISBN 978 1 776570 75 1 RRP $19.99 Pb

Reviewed by Lorraine Orman

Milk Bar Warriors by Brent Leslie, Brent Leslie Books (www.brentbooks.co.nz)

During World War Two New Zealand played host to thousands of United States GIs and Marines. These troops were either training for the forthcoming invasions in the Pacific, or enjoying some rest and recreation. Their time here was a memorable experience for the young American troops and the New Zealanders who came into contact with them.

This story is narrated by 16-year-old Aucklander Bruce Bickerton who befriends a group of GIs and looks after their flashy car, a Studebaker President called Mabel. Bruce and the Americans go on lots of drives to local milk bars, dances, and sly-grog dens, as well as sightseeing tours to nearby beaches. It sounds idyllic, but trouble is brewing. Bruce discovers racism is alive and well in his Air Raid Precaution Unit, while the GIs run up against racism in their own ranks – and make an enemy of a vicious and violent MP. When Bruce sees this MP strike a fatal blow to one of his American mates, he fights desperately to bring the man to justice.

The voice of the narrator seems to be that of an older man – so I decided the point of view is that of an adult Bruce looking back on his experiences. The historical setting of the story is interesting and very authentic, the style is economical and easy to read, while the plot picks up speed about half-way through the book, pulling the reader on towards a bitter-sweet ending where some problems are resolved but others aren’t. It’s a book that deserves a place in all New Zealand secondary school libraries.

ISBN 978 0 473 34861 8 RRP $28 Pb

Reviewed by Lorraine Orman (author of My Story: Here Come the Marines, Warkworth, 1943)   

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