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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