Books for boys

By Ann Packer In Books

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4th June, 2011 Leave a Comment

Summer at the bach – a classic Kiwi holiday scenario. But all is not well in Jill Harris’s new novel, AT THE LAKE ­(HarperCollins, $19.99). With their dad away in Oz in search of work, Simon and Jem have had their world turned upside down. Although their grand­father Barney is staunchly at the centre of the boys’ lives at the lake, other things have changed: a house-moving firm has taken over paddocks where they once played, surrounding the old woolshed with houses on blocks behind a barbed wire-enclosed yard. There’s a menacing caretaker, a guard dog at the padlocked gate and new kids intruding on the boys’ lakeside territory. Simon, boiling with suppressed anger and barely civil to his younger brother, must face his demons – as well as the violent guardian of the house yard – alone.

Being undersized has its drawbacks, but it can be a plus when it comes to pursuing a career as a jockey. In Adele Broadbent’s second novel, JUST JACK (Harper­Collins, $19.99), a young Hawke’s Bay lad growing up in the Depression outgrows the nickname “Wee Jack” to become “Just Jack” as he weathers his first year as a stable hand. Throughout the hard Hastings winter, he survives a drunken boss and a devious stablemate; in the long hot summer that follows – just as things start to go right for Jack – life is upended by the 1931 earthquake. Based on the life of the author’s grandfather, who was a jockey at that time, the story could not be more topical – although it was surely written before the earth moved for Christchurch.

Worth waiting for is Barbara Else’s THE TRAVELLING RESTAURANT: JASPER’S VOYAGE IN THREE PARTS (Gecko, $24.99). Her first children’s story in some time, this rollicking old-fashioned adventure is a picaresque nautical fairytale combining pirates, shipwrecks and mistaken identity with oodles of food and a good dollop of magic – although even saying the word that begins with “m” and ends in “c” is forbidden by the ugly Lady Gall, the self-appointed ruler of Fontania who is kept youthful by a Botox-like concoction called beauteen. On his 12th birthday, hero Jasper Ludlow – confidently in charge of his destiny, although not averse to a hand-up from magical forces – escapes to sea on a gaily painted restaurant ship run by Dr Rocket and brassy Polly. There’s a bonus for adults reading aloud: loads of amusing allusions.

For older readers, the title of Joanna Orwin’s SACRIFICE (HarperCollins, $26.99) sums up the theme. Meticulously researched and beautifully crafted, this post-cataclysmic novel follows a group of boys on the cusp of their rite-of-passage in a small swampland community in New Zealand’s Far North after a volcanic wipe-out of all urban civilisation. Orwin draws extensively on anthropology, astronomy, religion, mythology and botany in her mostly gentle story of Taka, born to dance, who longs to be chosen to leave the settle­ment for what is in essence an annual population cull. Yet there’s enough similarity to early Polynesian voyages to give this believable journey hope – and Taka’s ultimate sacrifice is stunningly satisfying.

To be honest, the stories in JUST ONE MORE (Gecko, $22.99/$32.99) are not all about boys – but who’s counting? Gavin Bishop adds visual punch to this Joy Cowley anthology of delights that many parents will remember from their School Journal days, including The Horrible Thing with Hairy Feet, The Tiny Woman and My Tiger. Remember how we loved him? He ate the dental nurse.

Ann Packer is a Wellington writer and reviewer.

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