Monthly Archives: May 2013

Earth Dragon, Fire Hare – Ken Catran


This is the second to last of the books I am reading for the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards.

Ken Catran is a very experienced writer of books for children and young adults, and writing for Television.  This means that this novel feels very assured. To learn more about the author, click here.

The story begins in Singapore,1942, after the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbour.  Phillip Hayes is a civilian engineer on his way back to New Zealand to rejoin his wife and son.  Unfortunately, he meets an Indian infantry, treats them with terrible supremacy, and dies for it.

Am I to be shouted at like a dog? wondered the subedar.  There were three bullets left in his revolver.  He fired them all, watching without pity as the man collapsed by his car, his shirt stained red.

Part One begins, still in 1942, but in New Zealand, where the young Peter Hayes is playing war games with Barry, ‘a natural leader’ Peter is trying to impress.  The ‘Japanese’ are the local Marist boys on their way home from choir practice.  The flawed logic for their battle, developed by Barry, is brilliant in the way that it conveys the terrible and apparently simple arguments for any kind of prejudice and the apathy or willing blindness to its wrongness that supports it:

After all (he said) it was a known fact that Catholics obeyed the Pope – who was Italian.  That Italy, Germany and Japan were the enemy was a known fact, too (Barry said).  And Barry’s family had been bombed out when the Germans flattened Belfast; his granny and sister dead in the ruins of Cromwell Road.  And (he said) the Irish Catholics had made that happen because they took their orders from the Pope and Hitler – and weren’t the IRA blowing up public lavatories in London? So it was alright to pretend the Catholics were Japanese so they would be ready if the invasion came.

Peter thought there were some flaws in Barry’s argument, but did not point this out.

The second chapter begins the narrative of Ng, a fourteen year old Malaysian boy who is fighting a very real battle in the jungle of Malaya, staying alive by joining the communists who are battling the Imperialists.  This is a stark contrast to the previous chapter, where the game of war is ended with the sharing of humbugs behind the Presbytarian church.

Silence, then dark figures advancing warily out of the black afternoon shadows; men and women, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil, dressed in an assortment of tattered clothing.  As they picked up the rifles and ammunition pouches from the crumpled bodies, one man walked up to Ng.  He was Chinese, short and thickset, with heavy, strong features, and he wore a ragged army shirt and patched baggy shorts.  He had a British Army belt and revolver, a sandal on one foot and a two-toed Japanese boot on the other.

He looked down at the quivering Eurasian, then gestured to Ng to get up. ‘Why did the patrol stop you?’

Northern Malay-Chinese, Hakku perhaps, thought Ng.  There was a dull splashing sound behind them as the bodies were thrown into the paddy.

Ng is forced to follow a leader, in a very different way to Peter, ‘Chengsai, the ironwood tree, hard enough to defy even the voracious white ants: a good nickname for a tough leader.  Chengsai might be a Communist, but Ng had already decided what to do, even though his father would not have approved.  So he followed Ahmed into the dark, humid forest.

As might be expected, Ng and Peter’s stories follow a trajectory that finds them both on opposite sides of the 1948 – 1954 Malayan ‘Emergency’ – the colonialist term for this war.  There is an inevitability to each story that means that the reader does not take sides.  Both characters are drawn with strengths and faults, and are products of their heritage.

The complications of war became a barrier for me, but I suspect would not be so much of an issue for those readers who find the strategy and battle of war good plot narrative.  Also, I know very little about this conflict and the factions involved, so this became confusing for me as well.

The biggest barrier for me was that I did not like Peter as a character, at all.  So, I didn’t really care about his story.  There were confusing elements that were probably supposed to show a more sensitive side to his nature, such as his love of poetry and drawing – but they never really contributed to who he was.  They were very much side issues which had to be drawn to our attention every now and then.

As for Ng, he never allowed us to really know him.  Appropriately for the plot, Ng had to be a little chameleon-like, to survive.  And, although he had some great moments in the story, we only ever got to watch him, rather than become acquainted with him.

I read this book just over a week ago, and left writing a review about it because I hoped that it would reveal more to me as I thought it through.  There are some very good elements to this book, and it is well constructed and well written.  For me, it was not engaging, but I think there are many people that would find it engaging.  I have put some links below to other reviews that perhaps have more connection to this book.

NZ Boooksellers Review

Bobs Books

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Into the River – Ted Dawe – R14

Into the RiverM – Readers 15+, Classified R14

Winner Young Adult Category, and Overall Winner, NZ Post Children’s Book Awards, 2013

It is illegal for this book to be sold to children under 14 years of age.

This book is the prequel to Ted Dawe’s Thunder Road (2003), which won both the Young Adult and Best First Book awards in the 2004 NZ Children’s Book Awards.  Having read ‘Into the River’, I am very keen to read ‘Thunder Road’.  One of the things about a prequel is that it is always leading to a thoroughly told beginning, and so there is an inevitability to the story. Even though I haven’t read Thunder Road, I could really feel the inexorable drive of this story.  I think this is a real strength of the book.

Preview of Into the River

The story beings with young Te Arepa and his best friend Wiremu eeling.  This is beautifully written, with the friendship between Wiremu and Te Arepa having real legs.  The dialogue and interaction have a truth to them that draws the reader ‘Into the River’ with them, as they catch a monster eel:

He’s a monster!’

‘He’s the taniwha of the river!’

The eel made his leisurely way downstream, the hook projecting from the side of his mouth.  The boys trotted along, keeping pace.  After fifty metres, the river changed course and crossed a shallow ridge of river boulders.

‘We can get him when he crosses the rocks,’ yelled Wiremu.

As if it heard, the eel immediately made for the bank.  It nuzzled its way into the reeds immediately above the rapids.

Now’s our chance,’ said Te Arepa.  ‘We might be able to drag him over to the rocks.’

They let the line go slack and ran to where it was shallow enough to cross.  Once they were halfway across, they began to pull together.  At first it seemed pointless.  Nothing would shift this monster.  But then his head appeared and he made a dash straight past them over the rushing rocks.’

However, as the back of the book says:

‘Some rivers should not be swum in.  Some rivers hold secrets that can never be told.

When Te Arepa Santos is dragged into the river by a giant eel, something happens that will change the course of his whole life.  The boy who struggles to the bank is not the same one who plunged in, moments earlier.  He has brushed against the spirit world, and there is a price to be paid; an utu to be exacted.’

As you may have noticed, Te Arepa’s last name is Spanish.  The telling of the story of Diego, the ancestor who gave Te Arepa his last name, is a fantastically wrought tale told over three nights to Te Arepa and his younger sister Rawinia, by their grandfather, Ra.  All of this tale weaving lulls you into a false sense of security.  You feel, as a reader that, when Te Arepa is offered a place at an elite Auckland Boarding School for boys, he has the strength to cope and to hold on to who he is.

But it doesn’t quite work like that.

As Paikea drives him to Auckland in her courier van, Te Arepa becomes transfixed with her driving – the way that she seems at one with the vehicle.  He has his first lesson (despite being 13 years old).  At school, he is given a new name – Devon – and makes he friends with the worldly and world weary Steph, athlete and petrol-head Mitch, and farm boy Wingnut.  Progressively, Devon separates himself from everything that identifies him as Maori, because of the consistent and persistent bullying from the older boys and even the masters.  His first year at school reveals some cracks, but his second year is relentless.

While there may seem to be some similarities between ‘Snakes and Ladders’ (another NZ Post Children’s Book Awards nominee) and ‘Into the River’ (small town boy is moved to elite Auckland boarding school, where he needs to learn to deal with the super rich and the bullies, as well as the eccentricities of elite boarding school life) in reality, there are few.  This tale is an absorbing, relentless, addictive read.  The characters are well drawn and three dimensional  – although not always likeable.  There is an inevitability to the story that feels real, even though you don’t want it to be that way.

This book is definitely 14+ in my view, as sex, drugs, alcohol etc feature relatively prominently – but not gratuitously (at least most of the time…it does occasionally slip into 14yr old fantasyland…IMO)  Recommended.  4/5 stars.

Read more about Ted Dawe here:

Ted Dawe

Read another review of Into the River here:

Bobs Books Blog

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Filed under Four stars, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Ted Dawe, YA 14+