Monday, 2 February 2015

Moon Bear, by Gill Lewis - and remember the Colin Cotterill books?

A couple of days ago my sister was telling me about her recent holiday in Laos. It was a cycling holiday. She and her husband generally have holidays like this, which are clearly designed to make the rest of us feel very lazy and blobby indeed.

A random picture of Laos - which certainly does look very lovely.

Anyway, she said that Laos (which also featured in Sue Perkins' recent documentary series about the Mekong) was very beautiful. I had told her about the Colin Cotterill books about a coroner/detective who tracks down criminals with the help of a very motley crew, including a centuries old shaman. I reviewed them here. Like me, my sister thoroughly enjoyed the Dr Siri books - and she found it particularly special that she was able to read them in the place where they were set. She also found out that Cotterill uses profits from the books to fund a project which pays for teachers to be trained to work in Laos, and also for books to go to children there. So all the more reason to buy his books, apart from the fact that they're such a treat that I'm really looking forward to the pleasure of re-reading them.

Funnily enough, never having known the slightest thing about Laos before coming across the Dr Siri books, I recently read another book set  there. It's called Moon Bear, and it's by Gill Lewis, whose first book, Sky Hawk, was an instant hit. She writes for children, but she is also a trained vet, and her books so far have all featured animals and raised questions about human responsibility with regard to endangered species.

Moon Bear is really not an easy read, but it's a very good one. At the centre of it is a boy called Tam, whose village is in the way of a new dam. The dam may overall be a good thing for the people of Laos - but it's certainly not good for the villagers, who have to move from their homes to a new village. At the beginning of the story, Tam has captured a moon bear cub, which he knows he can sell for a good price. When they move, all does not go well for Tam and his family, and he is forced to go to the city to earn some money by working in a place where bears are kept in appalling conditions and 'milked' for their bile, which is much prized in traditional medicine. It's horrendous in every way - but it gets even worse for Tam when a new bear cub arrives. It turns out to be the one he caught, and he becomes very attached to it.

His relationship with the bear is in many ways simpler than his relationships with other human beings. He has to decide who among his friends deserves his loyalty and his trust: who needs him most, and how he can be a good person despite his circumstances and despite the turmoil he, his family and his country are going through.

It's a complex book and often a harrowing one. Read it - but maybe then go and hang out with Dr Siri and his pals for noodles, banter, and light relief - though particularly in the later books, politics and cruelty are also present. There is humour in the Chief Coroner's world, but there are also the chilly realities of poverty and realpolitik - and those same realities drive the ordeals that Tam undergoes in Moon Bear.


  1. I love Gill Lewis's books and have wanted to read this one for a long time. Thanks for the review!

  2. It's a tough read, but a very good one!

  3. Having enjoyed "The Coroner's Lunch", I'm saving the next books for a long page-visit to his Laos, though the novels are certainly not easy reflections of Siri's society. I felt that Sue Perkins' Mekong series was very well done (with the help of all the crew, of course) and made the conflicts over the damming of the river very clear. Gill Lewis' "Moon Bear" sounds just as eye-opening a novel for older KS2 & KS3 readers.

  4. I only caught one of Sue Perkins' series - hope it'll be repeated!