Posts Tagged ‘james norcliffe’

the pirates and the nightmaker

I’m not sure whether Norcliffe is channelling Robert Louis Stevenson or J.M. Barrie (or both) in this rollicking fantasy for older children set primarily in the Caribbean in the Golden Age of Piracy – the early 18th century. The historical background and geography are very well researched, and Norcliffe’s prose is a delight to read, beautifully evoking the style of days gone by. And he comes up with some great lines!

It begins with in the aftermath of a mutiny, and our narrator, a young loblolly boy, servant of the inebriate ship’s doctor, is adrift with the ship’s officers and their passenger, a certain Mr Wicker, in a jolly boat. Mr Wicker is no ordinary individual, he transforms our young hero into something no longer exactly human, an invisible flying boy with gorgeous green wings. This saves his life from the hungry men trapped with him in the boat, and also enables him to save their lives. Because among those few people who can see him is Sophie Blade, daughter of the notorious pirate, Jenny Blade, and he is able to enlist her help to rescue them. But it’s only just begun. Mr Wicker has a purpose, he means to find a certain astrolabe which has the power to bring night in the day. It’s in the hands of the Spanish, and he has a plan to retrieve it. Needless to say, that plan involves a certain invisible flying boy.

It was all going very well, until I got to chapter 18. Here, Mr Wicker takes the loblolly boy on deck and asks him if he knows his stars, and gets him to point out those he knows, including Sirius. He then instructs him in the use of an astrolabe, showing him how to point it at Sirius. So far so good. Then, he goes on explain that the astrolabe he seeks is designed to find Sirius even in sunlight and to say, “At this time of year, Sirius is directly behind the Sun”. Now, I’m not an astronomer, but I do know two things. First, Sirius is not in one of the Zodiac constellations, and so is never directly behind the Sun. Second, if you can see a star at night, it cannot be on the other side of the Sun from the Earth. I wouldn’t make an issue of it, if it wasn’t critical to the story, but it is, and it wouldn’t have been hard to fix. Personally I would have picked Antares in Scorpio – an easy constellation for a boy to know, and Mr Wicker could have had him pointing out Orion (which although not on the Zodiac, is also distinctive, and is almost opposite Scorpio). And Antares is a dying star, a red supergiant… which would have actually worked better in the story. Basically, when astronomy is critical to the plot, I’d advise the author (and/or his editor) to consult an astronomer.

Okay, so I got over it, rewrote that chapter in my head, changed all references to Sirius to Antares and carried on. The plot resolves itself neatly, people get (or don’t get) what they deserve, and there is a delightful twist at the end that really impressed me. I’d like to see the errors fixed in later printings, but I’d still commend this novel to older children, especially those who are interested in pirates. Definitely a more solid read than much of the fantasy fiction for young people being published at the moment.


Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Jacqui

Felix and the Red Rats review here

essential nz poems

This collection explores the question of what is an essential New Zealand poem. The selected poems touch on New Zealand’s unique geography and its people’s connection to the land, as well as its society, culture, and values. The 150 poets featured include; Fleur Adcock, James K Baxter, Allen Curnow, Lauris Edmond, CK Stead, Denis Glover, Janet Frame, Bill Manhire, Hone Tuwhare, Sam Hunt, Vincent O’Sullivan, Brian Turner, James Brown, Kate Camp, Glenn Colquhoun and Paula Green.

Ordered alphabetically, each poet has only one poem featured and they start from the 1950’s onwards. The book itself is very attractive, with a cloth-bound cover and photographs scattered throughout the pages. A very enjoyable collection of some of New Zealand’s best poems, this is very diverse and has something for everyone.


Supplied by Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Jan

logoA finalist in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, James Norcliffe’s Felix and the Red Rats is a fun mix of fantasy and adventure.

felix and the red rats

When David’s uncle comes to visit he sets off a bizarre series of events. Things become complicated when the pet rats turn bright red.

David senses that somehow the red rats are connected to the story he is reading, and he becomes more convinced when the colour red becomes contagious.

The parallel story sees Felix and his friend Bella inadvertently shifted into a strange land where they must solve a riddle. But this puts them into great danger. How will they escape and find their way home?

See review here

As an author, you must have a lot of ideas floating around. How did you decide to write this book?

 I had been toying with the idea of writing a book with a dual narrative. It wasn’t conscious, but I think I may have been influenced by the Japanese writer Murakami whom I’d been reading a lot of and who uses the technique. It then came to me that a variation on the idea might be a book within a book and, even better, that the book within the book could have some bearing on the outer story. This quite excited my and because I love the intricacy of plot I found the process tremendous fun. I hit quite early upon the idea of alternating chapters and the book(s) began to flow quite organically once I set off. There were challenges, of course. I’m not terribly good at multi-tasking and I’d charged myself not only with managing two stories but also with trying to end each chapter of each book with a sufficiently exciting moment to keep the readers interested in both stories at the same time. I wasn’t sure I’d managed to pull it off until other people read the manuscript and found the concept worked. I was hugely relieved.

Tell us a bit about the journey from manuscript to published work. What was the biggest challenge you faced in publishing this book?

 I wrote the book in 2012 during my time as Children’s Writer in Residence at the Otago University College of Education. The residency allowed me to live at the Robert Lord Cottage in Titan Street, a twenty minute or so walk from the college. This allowed me to be completely focused on the stories and for a number of weeks I lived, dreamed, and rehearsed the story. I don’t take copious notes but tend to let my stories play out in my head. The red rats idea came in a eureka moment as I was walking across the Alhambra rugby field on my way to the college. I also played out conversations on the walk and when I’d get to the office at the college I’d hurriedly write them down before they disappeared. I imagine I was a danger to traffic. I’m not sure there was any especial challenge in publishing the book, just the usual nail-biting wait between the time it’s packed off to the publisher and the time you get the response. Luckily, Barbara Larson, my publishing editor lives in Dunedin, luckier the wait was not very long, and luckiest of all, Barbara liked the book very much.

Did you tailor this book to a particular audience – or did you find it found its own audience as it was written?

I don’t consciously write for children. I guess if I did there would be a danger of ‘writing down’ and I like to think my readers are bright and don’t want to be condescended to. If I’m honest, I think I’m trying to write the sort of book I would have enjoyed reading as a young person: funny in places, scary in places, with a touch of the fantastic and a satisfying conclusion.

Can you recommend any books that you love, that inspired or informed your book in any way?

I don’t think any book consciously inspired or informed Felix and the Red Rats. Actually, I’m proud of the fact that it is so original. Subconsciously perhaps, Haruki Murakami (as mentioned earlier) was an influence, as particularly in his 1Q84 he uses the dual narrative technique with alternating chapters following the stories of two protagonists until they come together. However, Felix is completely different in every other possible way. A book I was reading at the time of writing Felix was A.S.Byatt’s wonderful and dark The Children’s Book and this put me in mind of the Edwardian E Nesbit who was the model for the central figure (who was a children’s writer). Nesbit was famous of course for The Railway Children but many of her other books were fantasies. Nesbit’s books are must-reads for any lover of fantasy.

Tell us about a time you’ve enjoyed relaxing and reading a book – at the bach, on holiday, what was the book?

One of the pleasures of having my time at the Robert Lord cottage – six months in a kind of bach – was the time it afforded for reading for pleasure and Dunedin is a city blessed with bookshops. I haunted them and found many treasures. There are too many books to list but I did find the time to follow the work of writers who were interesting me: Roberto Bolano, Murakami and Orhun Pamuk. I found too a whole set of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories and these were fun. Sadly while I was down south, Margaret Mahy died and I took the bitter-sweet opportunity to re-read a number of Margaret’s books.

What are your favourite things to do, when you aren’t reading or writing, and why?

 Probably spending time in the garden. I’m passionate about plants and we are lucky to have a large garden at Church Bay which allows me to grow all manner of trees from interesting fruit trees to precious natives. It also affords me a large lawn which needs mowing regularly and I don’t mind this at all: it is my gym. Of course, spending time with family and friends. And crossword puzzles.

felix and the red ratsFelix and the Red Rats is the latest children’s novel from James Norcliffe and a ripping wee yarn, rather a ripping two yarns, it is too.

This book comprises the story of David, his Uncle Felix and some rats under the care of David’s brother that have turned a bright tomato red. Within the book is a story being read by David but written by Uncle Felix about his first adventure in the fantasy land of Axillaris.

David’s story is a mystery tale – just why are rats and then cats turning red – without murders but with a very grumpy elder brother. Felix’s tale is a contest between greed and rightful inheritance played out around a most puzzling brain teaser problem – because to get her inheritance the not-quite-imprisoned princess must first solve a riddle, and to get it wrong would pass her inheritance to her greedy uncle.

James Norcliffe has set the tones of the two stories at the appropriate pitch, with fully realised characters and plots in both tales; and at the end very fittingly ties them together in the final chapter.

Felix and the Red Rats was a real pleasure to read. Strongly recommended. I liked the puzzle too; took me a while to solve it.


Supplied by Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Simon