The Characters from Murder at Mykenai

Before I review Murder at Mykenai by Catherine Mayo, I would like to discuss the people she is writing about. She has chosen to set the story in Bronze Age Greece and focuses on two of the main characters from the Trojan War, Odysseus and Menelaos, while they are still teenagers. This is perhaps 10-20 years before Paris abducts Helen, Menelaos’ future wife, and sets the Trojan War in action. We are briefly introduced to Helen and also Klytemnestra, who later becomes the wife of Agamemnon, Menelaos’ older brother. Note that the spelling used here is consistent with that used by Mayo who has chosen to use transliterations close to the Ancient Greek forms.

To put everyone in the picture, here is a summarised version of Menelaos’ family tree and includes both Menelaos’ and Agamemnon’s future wives, who just happen to be sisters, twins in fact. But while Klytemnestra is human and the daughter of Leda and Tyndareus, Helen is the daughter of Leda and Zeus.

Menelaos Family Tree

Odysseus’ summarised family tree follows, also showing his future wife, Penelope, who happens to be the cousin of Helen and Klytemnestra. 

Odysseus Family Tree

Given the connections between the three families shown in the family trees it is possible to imagine that they may have known each other from an early age. Mayo has made use of this possibility in Murder at Mykenai and created a plausible scenario which I will discuss in my next post.

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Greek Mythology

Heracles in the cup of Helios (Sun) Photo by Sebastia Giralt

Heracles in the cup of Helios (Sun) Photo by Sebastia Giralt

As mentioned in my last post, this year is all about myths, legends and folktales. I’m going to start off with Greek Mythology but where to start? The field is huge. When I was at high school I found a book in my mother’s bookshelf called The Myths of Greece and Rome. I hadn’t had any exposure to Greek mythology to this point and so when I found it I got quite excited. Ultimately, I couldn’t read it because everything was so alien. I suppose I’d heard of Hercules (Heracles), Zeus, Poseidon, Aphrodite (as Venus), Odysseus and Achilles but I’m sure I knew nothing about the other fascinating characters. I don’t remember Perseus, Hera, or even Paris, and Helen was just the “face that sank a thousand ships” but I didn’t know what that meant. I have spent the last few years filling in a few of those gaps and, even though I am still just scratching the surface, the search has been very rewarding and I will continue.

This site is for teachers, librarians, parents and students and I’ve been wondering how best to approach the topic of Greek Mythology. I think students today are much more aware than I was of aspects of Greek Mythology: subject choices in years 7-10 are wider than when I was at school and the internet means the information is available with one click for anyone who’s interested. For me there are two possible approaches:

  1. The big topics like the Olympians (the most important Greek gods and goddesses who lived on Mt Olympus), Hercules, the Odyssey and the Iliad (the Trojan War) and perhaps Perseus or Jason and the Argonauts.
  2. Or a focus on smaller stories such as those about Diana (Atalanta) and the Golden Apples, or Demeter and Persephone, or perhaps the story of the Minotaur

The remainder of this post provides a few ideas to start exploring this fascinating world. As this site is also about NZ children’s books, my next post will review the book Murder at Mykenai by NZ author Catherine Mayo. Mayo focuses on a time before the Trojan War when the key players in that event were still teenagers.

The 12 Olympians (Roman names in brackets):

  1. Zeus (Jupiter): King of all the gods, God of Weather, protector and ruler of humankind, dispenser of law and order. Symbols: thunderbolt and eagle
  2. Hera (Juno): Goddess of Marriage and Motherhood, married to Zeus. Symbols: sceptre, peacock and crown
  3. Aphrodite (Venus): Goddess of Love and Beauty. Symbol: dove
  4. Ares (Mars): God of War. Symbols: spear, helmet, shield
  5. Artemis (Diana): Goddess of the Hunt. Symbols: wild animals, bow and arrow
  6. Hermes (Mercury): Messenger God, accompanied souls to the Underworld, a trickster. Symbols: winged feet/boots/sandals, wide brimmed hat or sometimes winged cap
  7. Poseidon (Neptune): God of the Sea. Symbols: trident, sea creatures, horses, bulls
  8. Hephaestus (Vulcan): God of Fire and Forge, a blacksmith, lame. Symbols: hammer, anvil
  9. Apollo (Apollo): God of the Sun and Music, prophecy, healing. Symbols: bow and arrow, lyre, laurel
  10. Athena (Minerva): Goddess of Wisdom and War (more strategic and tactical than physical) highly intelligent. Symbols: owl, helmet, spear, shield
  11. Demeter (Ceres): Goddess of the Earth and Harvest, the Corn Goddess. Symbols: torches, corn, sometimes a serpent
  12. Dionysus (Bacchus): God of Wine, merry making. Symbols: vine, panther/leopard

Because Hades (Pluto), God of the Underworld, lived in the Underworld and not on Mt Olympus he is not usually classed as one of the Olympians. Symbol: helmet that rendered the wearer invisible.

The Twelve Labours of Heracles (Hercules):

Labour 1: The Nemean Lion

Labour 2: The Lernaean Hydra (The Hydra of Lerna)

Labour 3: The Hind of Ceryneia

Labour 4: The Erymanthian Boar

Labour 5: The Stables of Augias

Labour 6: The Stymphalian Birds

Labour 7: The Cretan Bull

Labour 8: The Mares of Diomedes

Labour 9: The Girdle of Queen Hippolyta

Labour 10: The Cattle of Geryon

Labour 11: The Golden Apples of Hesperides

Labour 12: Cerberus

For more information on the 12 Labours of Heracles try these sites:

Diana (Atalanta) and the Golden Apples:

Compare two versions of this story. The first one is a YouTube video aimed at children and the second is based on the original version which was a lot more ruthless!

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NZ Children’s Book Reviews welcomes in 2014

Well, 2013 has been and gone and not one book review from me – sigh! All good intentions were blasted away with a new job, studying for a Graduate Certificate in Children’s Literature and just general busy-ness. But now we are into a new year and I am refreshed (after having read six books in a week including the fantastic Hunger Games trilogy) and ready to launch into a new round of book reviews.

My intention for 2013 was to focus on myths, legends, fairy/folktales and fantasy but as that never eventuated I will retain this focus for 2014. New Zealand has some of the best children’s fantasy authors in the world – Sherryl Jordan, Fleur Beale and Barbara Else to name just three. Not only that, we also have authors reworking myths, legends and folktales from around the world, giving me a solid pool of works to call on.

A reminder about how the site works. It is primarily aimed at teachers, librarians, parents and students in Years 7-10. I will review around a book a month including an interview with the author if I can get it. Links to teaching notes, if available, will also be provided as well as links to other websites that may be of interest to you. I will be working a little differently this year by giving some background on different myths, legends and folktales before the book review. I hope you will find plenty to work with. As a heads up I will be starting with Greek mythology and hope to have my first post up by the start of the school year.

A note about the site header: This gorgeous image is by Vojtech Kubasta from the book Once Long Ago – a book of folk and fairytales of the world retold by Roger Lancelyn Green. This was my favourite book as a child, which we completely destroyed because we read it so much. For years I’ve been trying to find another copy and finally did, managing to convince my family it could be my 2012 birthday and Christmas present. My favourite story was Coat of Rushes and the header image above one of my favourite illustrations.

Happy reading, everyone! Please share this link with other teachers, librarians and parents, especially those who have an interest in myths, legends and folktales.

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Some exciting personal news from NZ Children’s Book Reviews

Just recently I put my first children’s book, The Rose and the Daisy, on Amazon as an e-book and I wanted to let you know that it is free here until Wednesday if you would like a copy. The Rose and the Daisy is an original fairytale aimed at children aged 8-12. I am also working on my own website ( which will feature my books, particularly the magical adventure stories I write for girls.

A bit about The Rose and the Daisy:

The Rose and the DaisyPrincess Samantha and Prince Joe are strangers, living in neighbouring kingdoms. They have each been sent by their fathers on separate missions to retrieve The Book of Secrets. The finder of The Book of Secrets will be able to reunite the two kingdoms into one. Join Princess Samantha and Prince Joe on their adventure and find out who gets there first. And is everything as straightforward as it seems? The Rose and the Daisy is Book 1 in The Book of Secrets. Book 2, Journey to Torca, is also available on Amazon.

Next week I am back to reviewing and will start with Margaret Mahy’s The Magician of Hoad.

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New Look for NZ Children’s Book Reviews

Yes, you are still at NZ Children’s Book Reviews! Nothing has changed except for the new look. In 2013 I will be focusing on myths, legends, fairytales and fantasy so I thought the site should reflect the new focus. The gorgeous image is by Vojtech Kubasta from the book Once Long Ago – a book of folk and fairytales of the world retold by Roger Lancelyn Green. This was my favourite book as a child, which we completely destroyed because we read it so much. For years I’ve been trying to find another copy and finally did, managing to convince my family it could be my birthday and Christmas present. My favourite story was Coat of Rushes and this is the story I’ve taken the image from.

The stories range from American Indian to Egyptian to Icelandic to Peruvian to Sudanese to Welsh and more. There are no Maori tales but one Polynesian one, The Bones of Djulung. From a modern perspective it’s hard to place the folktale in Polynesia (the location in the story is “an island of the South Seas”) – rice seems to be a staple food and a tree grows with a trunk of iron, leaves of silk, flowers of gold and fruit of diamonds. Djulung as a name also doesn’t fit with my knowledge (little though it is) of the Polynesian languages. That aside, it is a lovely story very much in a Cinderella-ish vein and evokes memories of days curled up on the bed with the book beside me.

My plan for the year is to still review a book a month. Mostly I will stay with New Zealand authors although, as there is such a rich variety of myth, legend, folktale and fantasy worldwide, I might stray every now and then. There is also a fascinating website I’d like to review so keep your eye out for that.

Please feel free to leave comments – I’d be paticularly interested in anyone’s take on The Bones of Djulung. Has anyone else read it? Do you know it’s actual origin?

Happy reading, teaching and sharing!

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NZ Children’s Book Reviews reviews “Reach” by Hugh Brown

As we approach the last day of 2012 I am writing my last review for the year. Things haven’t gone entirely to plan and I haven’t quite reached my goal of one review a month but I have done pretty well and have reviewed some spectacular New Zealand books. I am hoping I will get to interview Hugh Brown but I’m afraid that won’t be posted until January. And speaking of Hugh Brown…

by Hugh Brown
reviewed by Katharine Derrick

In the words of Kate de Goldi, Reach by Hugh Brown is a remarkable debut novel and I have to agree with her.

Living with his grandparents, sixteen-year-old Will Clark is still trying to understand why he was abandoned by his mother 5 years ago and why his father keeps him at arms’ length when Conway Jones enters his life. Now he has a new focus but Conway has a boyfriend. Add to this the reappearance of his mother at a nearby commune, and Will’s confusion and frustration deepens. With lively appearances by Hex the milking cow Reach addresses Will’s growing understanding of his world with lightness and humour.

This book is one both boys and girls will enjoy: there’s the nerdy maths guy, the “jock” and the nonchalant girls all the boys seem to be in love with. Will himself borders on the geeky bookworm. Yet underneath the surface each character is quite different from the person they appear to be in the schoolyard.

Brown seems to understand what it’s like to be a teenager – or perhaps he’s remembering what it’s like – either way his snapshot of teenage turmoil is a refreshing look at a turbulent time. Very enjoyable and highly recommended.

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NZ Children’s Book Reviews is still active!

It may look as if I’ve disappeared but what with finishing a batch of study (I now have my National Certificate in Adult Education and Training – phew what a mouthful!) and supervising NCEA exams I haven’t had time to read. Believe me I’m trying! I have Reach by Hugh Brown sitting right next to me and if I can get it read and reviewed by the end of November I’ll post it up. Any later and you’ll all have shut down for the year. Although I have no intention of closing this site so  I might just post it up when I finish regardless of the date and it’ll be ready for you in the new year.

I have exciting plans for next year – more study – this time a Graduate Certificate in Children’s Literature studying myths, legends and fantasy. That’ll mean a new focus at NZ Children’s Book Reviews for 2013. This year has been mostly about realistic stories (and mostly with male protagonists interestingly enough) so next year I’ll look at NZ fantasy fiction and also at some of the myths and legends (Maori and European) that have helped shape us and our stories. Should be exciting and I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you.


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NZ Children’s Book Reviews Interviews Joanna Orwin

Joanna Orwin



Joanna Orwin, photo by Di Menefy

How did
Sacrifice come about?

I’ve always been interested in the cyclical nature of history, the rise and fall of different societies and cultures, and how survivors approach reconstructing their lives. Winning the 2009 Children’s Writers Residency at OtagoUniversity gave me the opportunity to explore these ideas as the basis for a YA novel.

Sacrifice is set in a dystopian future. Because you are still writing about a specific place but imagining a future resulting from a horrific event did you need to do any research? And if so what sort of research did you do?

I don’t see this as a dystopian novel, which tend to focus on dictatorships and restricted freedom for citizens, often as the result of warfare or political fights for supremacy. As you point out in your review, this is more of a survival story – what used to be known as post-apocalyptic fiction. The success of such stories depends on their plausibility – and that depends on how rooted in reality they are. I did an enormous amount of research, ranging from the geologic evidence for past natural catastrophes in New Zealand and the Pacific, the human response to natural catastrophes, and the collapse of past civilisations, to anthropological studies of Pacific and New Zealand early societies, the myths and legends that reflected the impact of natural catastrophe in their pasts, and the experiences of modern sailors venturing into the Pacific on replicas of early voyaging canoes (some fascinating stuff there). Also, all details of lifestyle and beliefs are an amalgam of what I read about various Polynesian societies – I used whatever fitted my basic premise and the story I wanted to write.

How did you decide what would remain true to our ideas of New Zealand and our culture and what would change?

The starting point was what would physically remain of the low-lying tombolo stretching north of Kaitaia after volcanoes and tsunamis had wreaked havoc (something that has taken place more than once in the geologic past). Polynesian societies explained their world by the use of myth, so such an event would quite quickly become the stuff of legend – I liked the idea of revealing the event itself only in that form (apart from the physical evidence that remained at the time of the story). After deliberately deciding my story would be Polynesian-based since a large percentage of survivors in Northland would be Maori, all choices and decisions flowed from the situations my characters found themselves in.

Did you do any physical research, for example did you have a go at building a boat from reeds or paddling for hours on the ocean?

As explained in the acknowledgments, I talked to experts. I was lucky enough both to talk to someone who makes modern mokihi and to find a video of the making of one. Including details of the making of the reed craft was to balance the more mystical aspects of the story and ensure my readers had some idea of what was involved – it would have been a major undertaking. Writers always rely on their imaginations to put themselves in the position of their characters and experience what they go through. I lived by the sea when I was growing up, I mucked about in boats, and have always read sea-stories.

What other experiences of your own, if any, were you able to draw on when writing the book?

My own fears and feelings as a teenager and my response to situations and interactions with others. From my readers’ reactions to what I write, there is little difference between what boys and girls feel during adolescence; they are all on the threshold of adulthood, vulnerable and unsure of themselves regardless of the persona they present to the world. For that reason I don’t and didn’t set out to write an ‘unashamedly boys’ story’. I choose the characters that best reflect the story I’m telling and assume that like myself as a child and teenager, it’s the calibre of the story-telling that will appeal or not to readers, not the genders involved.

Without giving away the ending, how did you have the courage as an author to write this particular ending?

It seemed inevitable to me. Taka’s personality, beliefs and actions led to the situation in which he found himself. I think it would have undermined the strength of the story to have softened that. And yes, it was a risk, but I’ve had only one reviewer who didn’t like the ending.

What would be your top tip for writing students?

Be true to the story you are writing. Don’t let current attitudes, popular notions, or squeamishness deflect you from what seems real.

What writing project are you working on in 2012?

I’ve just submitted a sequel to Sacrifice to my publisher. For the rest of the year I’m working on a non-fiction commissioned project, which is the way I earn enough money to embark on my next fiction project.

For more information on Joanna Orwin:

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NZ Children’s Book Reviews reviews “Sacrifice”

Written by Joanna Orwin
Reviewed by Katharine Derrick

Teaching notes available at

At last, after what feels like months of putting the NorthWrite 2012 festival ahead of reading, I have finished Joanna Orwin’s Sacrifice. I have to say this is the first book I’ve reviewed where I have had momentary struggles continuing on. The writing is superb, the characterisation excellent and the story is imaginative and descriptive so it took me a while to find the cause. And I have decided it’s because this is unashamedly a boy’s book. Anyone who has read and enjoyed The Travellers by Jack Lasenby will devour this book. The style and basic premise are similar although the stories are completely different. But girls, don’t be put off. The ending makes reading through the boys’ stuff well worth it!

Sacrifice follows the journey of Taka and a group of youths in the time after the Dark when the ash clouds covering the sky are beginning to recede. Food is scarce and new sources need to be found. Every year the Chosen are sent off to see if they can connect with long-lost kin on the devastated mainland. They never return. This time the Chosen are split in half and Taka’s group is sent on an even more perilous journey across the ocean on a flimsy craft, in search of the sacred kuma plant. To tell you what happens would ruin the story but I will say the ending is both shocking and right at the same time. Boys, you will see a hero in action. Girls, it will tear at your heart strings.

Sacrifice was selected as a finalist in the 2012 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards. Initially, I have to confess, I wondered why, but Orwin recognizes that boys read differently to girls and as I’ve said, this is unashamedly a boy’s book. By the time I got to the end, it was my book too. I’m thrilled I persevered and I’m thrilled the judges selected it as a finalist. I recommend this book for older teens.

Orwin, Joanna. Sacrifice, HarperCollinsPublishers, Auckland, 2011.

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Update at NZ Children’s Book Reviews

I may have been quiet over the past two months but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy. The NorthWrite 2012 festival I mentioned in my last posting has consumed most of my time. I am delighted to say, though, that Joanna Orwin’s Sacrifice has not been put to one side – I am still finding time to dip into it and the review and Joanna’s interview will be up in August.

For those of you interested I thought I’d do a short post on the NorthWrite Festival.

The Northland Branch of the NZ Society of Authors, is organising a three-day writing festival for Friday 7 September to Sunday 9 September. Our presenters include: Fifi Colston (illustration/how to run a workshop), Paula Green (poetry), Deborah Challinor (historical fiction), Kyle Mewburn (picture book), Joe Bennett (non-fiction), David Hill (idea generation/diversification), Catherine Arrow (social media and blogging) and Lorraine Steele,  Sarah Gumbley and Rae Roadley (marketing). We also have NZ Society of Authors members Michelle Elvy, Zana Bell, Sian Williams and Kathy Derrick presenting various editing, critiquing and manuscript preparation topics. Registrations open 1 August. Places in some workshops are limited so be in early to secure your spot.


  • For a whole weekend of workshops $100 (individual workshop rates do apply if you only wish to do one or two). Venue – People Potential Campus, Keyte St, Whangarei.
  • Friday night opening dinner with a panel discussion on The Business of Writing $45. Venue – Kingsgate Hotel, Riverside Dr, Whangarei.
  • Saturday night An Evening with Deborah Challinor $20 incl. dessert and coffee. Venue – Kingsgate Hotel, Riverside Dr, Whangarei.

For further information visit our website

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