Monthly Archives: April 2013

Snakes and Ladders – Mary-Anne Scott

Snakes and ladders

I have just finished ‘Snakes and Ladders’ by Mary-Anne Scott, nominated for the YA section of the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards, 2013.  Scholastic have put together a set of teacher notes for the book, which may be valuable for those intending to incorporate it into a Secondary School English class. I hesitate to post a less than enthusiastic review, especially of new New Zealand books, however, in my opinion, this book was just OK – 2 – 2.5/5 stars.

Finn Fletcher lives in small town, Waimea.  He has a somewhat strained relationship with Anne, his mother, who seems to spend a lot of time anxiously trying to make things good for Finn.  Valerie, his grandmother, and Anne want Finn to move to an elite boarding school in Auckland, ‘This is a great opportunity to broaden your horizons’He intended broadening his horizons that very evening, if things went to plan.’

His father, druggie Duggie, lives in a filthy shack, plays drums in a band, and grows marijuana.  Finn drops in on his Dad occasionally,  ‘Something acid was burning his throat and the smell of unwashed bedding in this pigsty wasn’t helping.  It was years since Finn had been in his father’s bedroom and the loneliness and poverty of his life seemed to be seeping out of the walls.’ 

His grandfather, Poppa has an orchard and Finn does the bookwork once a week for him.  ‘Well done, Finn.’ His grandfather tapped the side of the computer screen. ‘It’s remarkable how quick you are on this thing.’  A reluctant surge of love ran through Finn and he tossed his grandfather a rare, heart-stopping grin.’

Poppa’s housekeeper, Mrs P, adores Finn, ‘She was always patting and mauling Finn and this morning her dimpled flesh was enough to trigger an overreaction. He pulled away.  And, when she tries to pop some pikelets into the glove box of the car as he leaves, ‘he felt like jamming her fingers in the compartment door.’

Finn has a girlfriend, Alison, who seems (to be quite honest) far too good for him and a group of friends she describes as ‘drop-kicks’, which might be a bit harsh – but only a bit…

So, life is pretty much on a normal track at the beginning of the novel.  He’s playing sevens, which he loves, he’s coasting at school, he’s got things working pretty well for him, at a pretty minimal effort.  Every adult is treated with the great teenage contempt, girls are for seeing how far you can get, and Saturday nights are for parties and drinking.  Then, one morning, after an especially drunken night the night before, Finn discovers that his father is in serious trouble.  He is accused of having hit and killed a girl.  In the face of the great small town rumour mill, Finn decides to go along with his Grandmother’s idea of sending him away to an elite Auckland boarding school.

Life at boarding school, with the very rich, creates a whole new set of challenges for Finn, including learning how to deal with bullying and meeting a whole new kind of girl.  He also makes two good friends in Hobbsie and Andy – although he consistently treats them pretty badly.  It’s hard to see what they get from the friendship. Everything leads up to the ever important Ball, and the after-party.  This leads to a tragic event that forces Finn to confront his past, and to take some steps towards putting things right.

Ultimately, this novel was just too clichéd in its character,  and plot.  I found that I had lost all belief, compassion or connection with Finn, the main character, after page 2 of chapter 2.  Yes, teenagers can be self-centered and make stupid decisions, but this book never really rose above that for me.  In addition, it seemed the adults in this situation did very little to help Finn to realise the enormity of the impact of his behaviours.  They were all very forgiving, and accepting, recognising what was most important was to move on.  These were all very easy solutions.  I would be reluctant to leave teenagers with this view of the impact of their decision-making.

While I did read to the end, it was disappointing. I kept hoping for something more to sustain the plot. Unfortunately the writing presented very few treasures. Hints were clunky, and Hobbsie and Andy just did not have the credibility to sustain the story.  The heartbreak in the ending for me was the over easy solution to some unbelievably serious issues.

Sadly, this is not one I will be recommending, but I will try it out on one or two others to see what they think.

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Filed under New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Uncategorized, YA 14+

Red Rocks – Rachael King

Red Rocks4/5 stars.  Good story.  Evocative setting with some really gorgeous writing.

‘Waves battered the beach, chattering to the stones as they receded.  Jake stood still, watching the rocks, waiting for a movement.  And there it was: a seal, with sleek, damp fur, launching itself into the water like a torpedo.  He looked for it amongst the floating islands of kelp, thought he spotted it at first but no, there it was, further away.  It’s head surfaced and it rolled onto its back, raised one flipper as if in a wave and was gone.’

Red Rocks WellingtonRed Rocks Reserve, Wellington, New Zealand.

And so begins the story of Jake, visiting his writer father in Owhiro Bay, Wellington.  Jake normally lives in Auckland with his mother, her husband Greg and their new baby, Davey.  He is spending two weeks with his father over the school holidays.  His father is busy writing a book, so Jake has quite a lot of freedom, and goes exploring on his bike.  When he is exploring the red rocks, he discovers a fissure, a small cave, and hidden in the depths of the cave is a seal skin.  For a reason  not quite fathomable to Jake, he takes it home.  Soon after, he sees a red haired woman roaming town, appearing to search for something.  Jake meets Jessie, a young girl, who is the granddaughter of an old man, Ted, who lives in a shack on the beach.  Jessie has something mysterious about her:

‘The little girl had piqued his curiosity.  The way she looked at him made him want to talk to her, to find out what was going on behind those dark eyes.  She was younger than him, so maybe they wouldn’t have much to say to each other, but maybe if she was cheeky, like Ted said, she could be fun to hang out with.  He hadn’t met many kids his own age here.’

The story develops, with some nice tension, and the windy, unpredictable and rugged coastline of Wellington being an additional character to the story.  We are introduced to the story of the Selkie when Jessie discovers that Jake has the sealskin.

‘Do you know what a selkie is?’ she asked.

‘A selkie? No. Should I?’

‘Selkies are seal people.  The seals come on land and they shed their skins so they can walk on the earth like humans do.  When they have finished their business, they put their skins back on and become seals again.’

But that’s just a fairy story,’ said Jake, who could remember something he had heard a long time ago.  A story, set in Ireland maybe, where his ancestors had come from.

Jessie stared at him, hard.  ‘It’s not a story.  It is real.  Jake, if you have stolen a sealskin, then whoever it belongs to will be stuck in human form.’ Jake was surprised to see tears form in her eyes. ‘You must put it back.’

Unfortunately for Jake, further complications arise when his father discovers the seal skin.  Stormy, stormy times…beautifully written.  Jake’s confusing age is probably OK since that is true of teenage hood!  Sometimes they want to be children.  Sometimes, independent adults.  His stormy and unpredictable relationship with his father is also quite believable.

Sadly, I felt that the story lost its path a little about two thirds of the way through.  Without going into any detail, the character focus changes, and I think to the detriment of the story.  However, by the end it is easy to forgive this, and the denouement is thrilling.

I’m going to try this out on some 11-12 year olds and see what their perspective of the story is.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to let you know!!

 

Highly recommended.  Readers of 10+.  Some mature readers of 9yrs may also enjoy it.

 

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My Brother’s War – David Hill

Dulce et decorum est

‘This item is from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit); © [Copyright notice]’.

    My brother's War

So, I finished on Anzac Day, which seemed appropriate – and here are my thoughts.

I did really like this book.  Quite a lot. If I could give a 4.5…..

This book is an amazing journey.  Set in New Zealand, in 1917, it is the story of two brothers, and the choices they make once the  1916 Conscription Law is passed.  Older brother, William, enlists and younger brother, Edmund, is a conscientious objector.  (After two years of having their young men go to war, never to return, there were plentiful objectors to conscription, as can be seen in this  Te Ara photo and article ) Because of their disagreement, the two brothers have not spoken for over a year.

William is treated as a hero by many of the townsfolk, and Edmund as a coward – although there are people along the way who quietly sympathise with his view and support him.  Their mother and sister, left at home, have to cope with this view of the boys, and there are a few allusions to how difficult this could be, at times.

There are seven sections to the book: At First, Before Sailing, On Ship, Getting Ready, The Trenches, First Attack, Second Attack.  The boys’ parallel journeys are told in each section both with an authorial bird’s eye view from each character, and through letters from Edmund and William, home.

Something I really did like about the book was the length of time it took for the characters to begin to question their views about wars and the army.  There’s no sudden revelation, and in the end there is not one right view.

In the trenches, Edmund has been refusing to obey any army commands.  The trouble is, it is hard to decide what is a command and what is humanity and compassion.  Edmund, unlike Archie, decides that he will choose to be humane and help the stretcher bearers bring in the wounded from No Man’s Land.   One of the men asks Edmund which ‘lot’ he is with:

Edmund shook his head. “I’m a conscientious objector.  The army put this uniform on me.” The soldier who’d offered him the cigarette glared. “So why are you doing this, if you’ve got such high and might ideas about war?”

“My ideas aren’t high and mighty,” Edmund told him. “They’re just mine. And I’m doing this to try and save lives, instead of destroying them.” The man who’d challenged him was silent. 

What a time to be having a discussion like this, Edmund thought.  He almost laughed, and felt a shudder run through his aching body.  He was close to breaking point.  he and most of the others around him.  How much more of this could a human being stand?

The descriptions of the trenches and life in the army for both William and Edmund are heartbreakingly realistic.  Anyone who has read Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks – will understand the true horror of the Battle of the Somme.  And, of course it brought to mind ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ – Wilfred Owen.

David Hill says he was inspired to write this book after reading ‘We Will Not Cease’ – Archibald Baxter.  I feel the need to go and read that now.

This book will provoke some intense discussion in classrooms, no doubt, alongside the opportunity to really do some research into those who went to war, or those who stayed behind, using primary source and secondary source material.  I know it will enhance the understanding of ANZAC day for many of the people who read it, as well as encouraging some critical and reflective thinking about war.

anzac poppies

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The Nature of Ash – Mandy Hagar

The Nature of Ash

Go to your bosom; Knock there, and ask/your heart what it doth know. Measure for Measure – William Shakespeare. (Epigraph to ‘The Nature of Ash’)

‘It’s so bloody unfair.  If those sabre-rattling douches shut the country down, we’ll be sent home.  And once you drop out of uni, it’s damn near impossible to get back in. So much for my grand plans of doing good: there’s no way I can be a speech and language specialist if I don’t complete the full three years.  With nearly half the working population unemployed already, and all the decent jobs reserved for those who have the right contacts – the stinking rich – chances are we’ll end up slaving in some sweat shop – or, worse, signed up against our wills to fight another no-win war.  But, worst of all, back to a life as boring and predictable – and hard – as it was before.’

This is ‘the nature of Ash’ at the beginning of this action-packed, dystopian, political thriller.  As well as representing the journey of Ash from self-absorbed teenager, revelling in the boozed life of a uni hostel, to Ash – political activist, hero and provider for all – (hmmm…) the title is resonant, because ‘ash’ brings to mind so many literary allusions that is has real depth as a metaphor.

This novel is set in an unspecified future in Wellington and Whanganui.  While we are not ever directly told it is the future, we make that assumption because of the referral to relatively new buildings (Te Papa and the Cake Tin – Westpac Stadium Wellington) as being the ‘old’ museum and the ‘old’ stadium.  Kowhai Park in Whanganui is, sadly, a wreck as well.  The political world is a mess, with an evil Bill Chambers as Prime Minister, and the Western Alliance – aka WA (USA, UK, Australia, Taiwan, Malaysian Federation, Republic of Indonesia, Peru) and the United People’s Republic – aka UPR (China, East Russia, United Korea, Japan, Republic of Indochina, Fiji and Chile) being the big boys that little New Zealand is squeezed between.   There are also State-siders – citizens of the USA.  The only State-siders  referenced in the book are evil manipulators of Muru – an activist group that has been taken over by WA secret service agents (aforementioned state-siders) for their own wicked purposes.

These acronyms dehumanise those involved to the extent that they become paper-thin manipulators and manipulated, according to the needs of the plot.  Shaun McCarthy, of the CTU (Combined Trade Union) is the face of the good guys – and the book is littered with his pithy aphorisms, reminding us of exactly what a good guy he was – Freedom has a very thin veneer if you look too closely.  He is Ashley’s dad, and is killed in a bombing of CTU headquarters at the beginning of the story – but who did the bombing – and who did the manipulating become the question.

New Zealand is effectively in a state of war.  Ash has to get his younger brother Mikey, who has Down Syndrome, to a safe place, and along the way collects together a somewhat eccentric band of followers.  There is Jiao, a Chinese student whom he is initially suspicious of, since he assumes her allegiance to the UPR.

‘How the hell can they get away with this?  It’s an outright act of war.’

‘They?’ Jiao’s eyebrow lifts.

‘Come on.  Even you must see that it’s the UPR.’

She tucks the collar of Dad’s dressing gown under her chin. ‘Jumping to conclusions never helps.’

‘Conclusions?’ I bark it out before I can switch down my volume.  ‘It’s pretty bloody obvious.  They’ve been screwing with our politics for years.’

As you and every country in the Western Alliance have screwed with theirs.’

However, Ash develops trust for Jiao as he sees Mikey’s devotion to her.  And there is Travis – alcoholic and would be drama student, son of Police Officer, Jeannie Smith, who takes an initially unfathomable maternal role in the story.  And Erich, neurosurgeon turned ‘green’, and (handily) benefactor and Lucinda Lasch, dad’s lawyer, who to Ash’s surprise and admiration – Fuck me, she really is a porn star! All she needs is fishnets and a whip, was possibly his father’s girlfriend as well.  Ash is very hormonally driven – although maybe this was a little over done.  Having said that, it wasn’t unbelievable, just tiresome.

The story moves along at a cracking pace.  There is always another twist to the plot, another character flaw or strength to be revealed and another of Dad’s pithy aphorisms ‘Note to self: Dad was right. Irony is just hypocrisy with style.’  Certainly Ash is a well drawn character, and this story is exactly as self-absorbed and black and white as his character should be.  And I think that this is appropriate.  Very few of the other characters in this story are really fleshed out to any degree at all, except with their relevance to Ash, although there are a few attempts, ‘Note to self: nobody is as straightforward as they first seem – even pissheads (and big busted girls originally from the UPR)’.

There are some real strengths to this book – the plot is complex and relatively unpredictable.  There are no zombies or vampires – which is a relief.  Ash is a believable character, in many ways.  I can  see it appealing to a wide readership.  The political stance and eco-politics asks readers to reflect on how our society could end up, if we are not vigilant and thoughtful.

O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.

(Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare).

It is certainly no hardship to read.  I read it in two sittings, in under a day.  I found myself comparing it to other titles – for example, Tomorrow When the War Began.  I vastly prefer Ellie to Ash as a character, but as I reflected on the similarities and differences between the two, I realised that The Nature of Ash doesn’t brush over the politics, the politics drive the book, possibly to the detriment of character.  It kind of makes Tomorrow, When the War Began feel a little lightweight in comparison.  It is good to have provocative literature.  There were strongly  espoused beliefs in here that could do with exploration.  This should bring about many a lively discussion – I really hope so.  I give this about 4/5 stars, because there is so much that is worthwhile in it.  I see it as best suited to readers of 13+.

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The ACB with Honora Lee – Kate De Goldi and Gregory O’Brien

The ACB with Honora Lee

A while ago now, I was driving home when I noticed an elderly man leaning against a sign post, not too far from my house.  He looked a little confused, and so I went to see what was going on.  It turned out that he had gone for a walk, he wasn’t quite sure when and he wasn’t quite sure where to.  He knew his wife would be missing him, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember his address.  I took him in, gave him a cup of tea and searched the phone book.  There was no phone number listed under his name so I ended up having to ring the police.  They found that he had gone missing from a local rest home.  His wife had died the year before.  The police asked if I would mind having him there until someone from the rest home came to pick him up.  We had a delightful conversation, especially when he saw my husband’s collection of very old matchbox cars.  He told me about how he used to race motorbikes on the same beach as Burt Munro, of the World’s Fastest Indian, in Invercargill.  He told me about how as kids, they would go and watch him but he was a ‘grumpy old buggar’ so they never really got to talk to him.  Eventually, someone from the rest home arrived.  The gentleman graciously thanked me for his ‘cuppa’, and left as though he was about to step into a limousine, until the care worker started to growl at him for escaping – telling him what a naughty boy he was, and he wasn’t to do it again.  I could have cried, as what had been a beautiful smile turned into confusion, concern and then sadness.  Heart breaking.  My son asked why she bothered growling…it seemed obvious to us that he wasn’t going to remember.  Why couldn’t he have just had a lovely afternoon out?  My son later asked if I thought he really had been on the beach with Burt Monro?  Who knows…

The ACB with Honora Lee is a beautifully told tale of Perry, a somewhat unconventional 9 year old girl, with an ‘eccentric sense of rhythm’ according to her Music and Movement tutor.  She attends the Ernle Clark School because, ‘her parents said that was the best place for someone like her.’

What was someone like her like? Perry often wondered.  But she said, ‘Why? Why? Why? Why is it the best school?’

‘Because,’ said her mother. ‘Be…Cos…’ She was driving the car, she couldn’t think at the same time. She had to wait for the lights to turn red. ‘Because it asks a lot of you.’

Actually, at school, it was Perry who asked a lot, though some of the teachers wished she would not.  The Special Assistance teacher, Mrs Sonne, said it would be much better for everyone if Perry tried to listen.

Perry’s mother also believes that children should be kept busy, so there are daily after school activities, except for Friday’s with Nina and Claude – Nina is her nanny and Claude is Nina’s two year old son, ‘Claude followed Perry all around the house.  He liked everything Perry did but he especially enjoyed her making violent hunting noises on the clarinet or playing Black Magic on the piano.  Black Magic was Perry’s best piece.  She had composed it herself. ‘On Saturdays, Perry and her father visit Honora Lee, ‘So far, all Perry knew about Gran was her name – Honora Lee – and her age – seventy six years old – and that she didn’t have a husband or much memory any more, which is why she lived at Santa Lucia and could never get Perry’s father’s name right.’

Only, suddenly Perry’s Thursday after school activity becomes unavailable when the tutor puts her back out and needs time to think about her options.  Despite Perry’s mother’s best intentions, no other Thursday afternoon activities are available.  Perry suggests she should visit Honora Lee. And so she does, with lovely baking from Nina each week (What is it with baking and the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards this year?? She even took Ginger Crunch – my favourite.  I’m beginning to wonder if there is an ironic wink being given to the Edmonds Cookbook being the only NZ book on the Whitcoulls Top 50 list…hmmm…)

On her walk to Santa Lucia each week she notices dead and dying bumble bees.  They are a mystery, and she begins to collect them.  Gran doesn’t ever recognise Perry, of course.  But Perry never lets that get her down.  She looks for the bits in Gran that make sense, and meets her halfway.

‘Gran stopped whistling for a moment and squinted at Perry.

“What is your name?”

“Perry,” said Perry, Very Patiently. “P is for Perry.  And don’t say it’s a boy’s name.”

Gran began whistling again.  It wasn’t really a tune.  It was more like a breathy birdcall.

“You have a most eccentric sense of melody,” said Perry.

That was when Gran had laughed, a sudden rat-a-tat, like gunshots on the tv.’

Gran used to be a teacher, and she loves teaching and organising.  So Perry begins to make an ABC book, using the people and ideas from Santa Lucia.

out of order

On the way home Perry told Nina and Claude about the first day of ABC.

‘It’s not really ABC,’ she said. ‘It’s ADV, so far.  Gran does it out of order.’

The book is broken into sections, using headings that can seem quite random, but always make beautiful sense by the end of the section.  Also, scattered throughout are Gregory O’Brien’s gorgeous illustrations that are quirky enough to seem just exactly right, with letters and words roaming the page seemingly at will, and dead and dying bumble bees randomly littering the pages.

The ACB is a quick read, but it could stand many readings.  I’m not sure whether it is a children’s book, though.  Although I am sure that there are children who would love the gently paced story of Perry collecting her ACB.  However, this is a story about identity and relationships.  I think it is a book I would give to adults.

Read this article from The New Zealand Herald, where Kate De Goldi talks about her inspiration for The ACB with Honora Lee.

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The Queen and the Nobody Boy – Barbara Else

The Queen and the Nobody Boy

This is the second book in the Tales of Fontania, with The Travelling Restaurant: Jasper’s Voyage in Three Parts, being the first.  The Queen and the Nobody Boy continues with the irreverent humour of The Travelling Restaurant, and expands our knowledge of Fontania into Um’Binnia, an underground city threatening war against Fontania.  The greedy and awful Emporer Prowdd’on, is trying to capture the Golden Dragon-Eagle, who is necessary to the passing on of magic to young Queen Sibilla, 12 years old and not quite magical yet.

This story is Hodie’s story.  Hodie is the ‘nobody boy’ who has no parents and is an unpaid odd-job boy at the palace.  He becomes disgruntled with life at the palace, not surprisingly, and makes the decision to move on:

‘Hodie’s eyes turned watery.  He was utterly sick of the Grand Palace and all its gossip. “Oo, babies not sleeping safe? We need stronger magic.” “Oo, Fontania needs a royal family that pays more attention to its magical abilities.” “Oo, what can the king be doing in his workshop? I hope it’s magical experiments.”

Magic! he scoffed to himself.  How could magic exist in a world where a boy’s father was here one day but gone the next without a word? How could it exist in a world where a boy didn’t know a thing about his mother? Well, he’d learned to live without parents, and he didn’t need the Grand Palace either – especially if the palace didn’t need him.  It was high time he left here.  He would go south.’

Only, as he is leaving, he hears footsteps behind him. ‘Hodie didn’t want company and strode faster.  The boy caught up, puffing. “Boy!” said the boy. “I knew I’d catch you!” Hodie’s mouth dropped open.  It was the Queen.”

Sibilla is fed-up with everybody watching and waiting for her magic to appear, and has decided she will leave with Hodie, whether he likes it or not.  Along with Murgott, the pirate chef from the Travelling Restaurant, who has become Corporal Murgott in this book, Hodie and Sibilla travel to Um’Binnia, overcoming danger along the way, and discovering new strengths.  Sibilla is also forced to consider a few home truths about how her subjects view royalty.

‘Sibilla kept both hands on her cap. “How would democ-ra-what improve the Emporer?”

Hodie put his hands over his eyes.  Any moment she would give herself away.  They’d all be in trouble.

“Democracy,” muttered the ogre, “is even better than having lazy King and little girl Queen.”

Murgott drew in a sharp breath and glanced at Sibilla.  The ogre continued. “Democracy is when people spend time arguing about what is best, not just say Hoorah for Emporer to his face and heaven-save-us-all-especially-ogres behind his back.”‘

The story is told with a very present authorial voice – almost a ‘story telling’, with authorial asides such as,

‘Hodie also heard that the King and Queen’s mother, Lady Helen, actually said the Royal Swear Word. (It’s in very tiny letters at the end of the book.  Nobody must see you look at it.)’

For my own part, I wonder if the tongue-in-cheek humour throughout detracts from the wonderful fantasy and fantastical inventions and settings in the book.  The reason that fantasy worlds can work is because they become utterly believable, in a suspend-disbelief kind of way.  The author’s presence in the story reminds you that she is making it all up, and the irreverent tone undermines her world a little.  This is different to the asides, for example, of Bartimaeus in the Jonathon Stroud series, where the teller of the story is a character from the story, and therefore his irreverence is entirely convincing.  But, this is just a pondering…

This book is great fun, and appropriate for children from about 8 years and up.  While it is not necessary to have read ‘The Travelling Restaurant’ to enjoy this story, it does help you to understand the characters of Jasper, Sibilla and Murgott a little more.

Nominated for the Junior Fiction Section of this year’s NZ Post Children’s book awards.

Links to Teacher Resources and an interview with Barbara Else, the author.

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Reach – Hugh Brown

Reach

Firstly, I would like to say that there is not ‘a way that teenagers talk to each other’, as some reviewers have commented.  I have heard a few that actually sound quite literate – so, for me, the teenage conversation was fine.  (Perhaps I could read it as a translation of what they actually said!) The thing I found most surreal about this book was that there was not a cellphone, facebook page or electronic device involved.  Technologically speaking, this book was set in the 70’s. Evocatively.  And I liked that.

Will is a Year 12 boy who lives with his grandparents since his mother left to join a commune 5 years ago.  His father, Bill, (and yes that can get a bit confusing) parents a bit like a hawk – Will says, ‘Dad’s like that – circles around in the hills by himself most of the time, then every now and then he lands nearby, stares at you, silent and fierce, then he’s up and gone again.’  Will sees himself as a nerdy bookworm, and this is further verified when Woody (a rugby player of course) starts to bully Will at school.  At about the same time, Will meets Conway, a new girl at school, and the daughter of a Guidance Counsellor that he has a bit of an unfortunate conversation with when she queries his lateness to school each day.  In typical teenage fashion he decides to play with her a little, because he can, without further thought to how the mother of a girl he likes might interpret what he says.  Also, Will’s mother is now back in the country, and Will, having idealised her to bits, wants to visit her, feeling that she would understand him better than anyone, and help to put things right.  (We all know how that’s going to turn out, right?)  Conway appears to show interest in Will, and then backs off (mysteriously to Will, but obvious to the reader), Will learns martial arts and then one day Woody turns up…and – you get the picture.

This book is not about the plot.  It’s about the telling of the story. It celebrates language and plays with it all the time. Perky, Will’s best friend, speaks like a thesaurus, ‘A miniscule sun, a tiny luteous orb’ is how he describes a ball of earwax plucked from his ear.  When he flicks the wax, it lands on the board between red and wheelbarrow – William Carlos Williams.  Perky is quirky – no doubt about that, but as he says himself, it’s a pose – a defence mechanism, ‘Don’t worry, the dean’s very nice.  We’re great friends, though of course she is somewhat concerned about my extreme attention-seeking behaviour.  But hell, people who live in glasshouses shouldn’t shoot skeet.’

Young Will is inclined to a bit of verbal virtuosity himself, for example, when milking Hex, the cow (an hilarious scene), sounding almost Shakespearean, ‘set your foot, a hex on you, set your foot, poxy cow,’ he crooned.  In maths, a parabola turns into a poem

Why
equals rain, squared
plus sun? Cloud mountains
roil and mound.
Why equals
rai…

This book is such an interesting mix of ideas that every time I think about it, something else comes to mind.  Of course it brings to mind Atwood’s ‘The Blind Assassin’, having a novel within a novel, but also, ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’, with the dystopian, repressive society represented in Will’s journal.  Narcissus, from Greek mythology who turns into a daffodil, staring into the beautiful reflection of himself in the pond, is the tongue-in-cheek way Brown shows Will’s self-absorbed mother.  In a more ‘boy’ way, though, how can we not think of the Marvel comics – Clark Kent being brought up in the country, on a farm, with his ‘grandparents’.  It’s interesting that it is Conway, a girl, who is obsessed with the graphic novels – most books would have the boys reading the graphic novels and the girls being the book worms. But then Conway is an artist.  At times, Conway is drawn as a character from a graphic novel – when she mimics the finch-like behaviour of her mother, ‘she pursed her lips, put her head on one side and made her eyes round and glassy’ makes her sound more like a Manga than a person, or a finch!

Maybe this is a new form of fantasy writing – set in the here and now – but in a parallel universe where we still drive Valiants and Vdubs, listen to Elvis and have grandmothers who bake endless delectable delights – some of which I haven’t tasted for years.  Reading this nearly made me run for my other great Kiwi classic – the Edmonds Cookbook – to bake an Albert cake – whatever that is…and some ginger crunch (not mentioned in this book, but the best thing my mum used to bake on Saturday mornings, while Dad and my older brother were mowing the lawns.)  And this book does evoke that time.

Is it too removed from reality – I’m not sure.  After all, as this book points out in so many different ways, what is reality?  Is it what we experience, is it what people experience of us, is it the reality we build to protect ourselves, is it the reality that dawns on us piece by piece as we put the bits of the puzzle together.  This book is perhaps a meditation on life, ‘the point of meditation isn’t to get to a place where you have no thoughts, but where you aren’t involved in them.  Where you’re separate, able to observe them, or not, at your leisure.’

This book has been shortlisted for the Young Adult Section of this year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, and also won the inaugural Tessa Duder  Award for Young Adult Fiction.

I’m off to offer it as a possibility to my RR, without telling him any of this, of course.  I’m pretty sure he’ll just enjoy the story.

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Filed under Children 12+, Five stars, humour, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Prize winners