Category Archives: Book Review

Dunger – Joy Cowley

DungerDunger – Joy Cowley

At first I wasn’t quite sure, when I started reading Dunger. It is a story told in two voices. There is 11 year old Will, and there is his 14 year old sister, Melissa. Like any brother and sister worth their salt, they argue – a lot! Will is a bit of a brain, and enjoys using big words, whereas Melissa has three brain cells. One for fashion, one for boys and one for texting all of her friends who also have only three brain cells. Obviously this is Will’s perspective on the issue, and he doesn’t mince words:

‘The world is full of calamity: famines and wars, birds choking to death on oil spills, earthquakes, tsunamis, and Melissa – my disaster of a sister. Reading this, you’ll probably say, what’s wrong with this kid? Is he a bit paranoid? My response is that all tragedies are relative to their context and as far as domestic upheavals go, this one is about eight on the Richter scale.’

I’ve had to work hard to get my young Des Hunt fan to move beyond that, I can tell you. In fact, the first time I read it, I put the book down, poured myself a wine, and wondered what I should read next.

Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right place for a clever, challenging 11 year old demanding my attention…because it’s worth persisting. It really is. I think ‘Dunger’ could well be a great class read aloud, and I’m going to try it out. The writing is sensational because it has an ease to it, as well as a truth and simplicity. And there is plenty of room for fun with characterisations, if you’re going to read it aloud. I can’t help thinking that the grandparent characters are some of the best grandparents I’ve read: funny, grumpy, wise and a little bit dangerous and unpredictable.

Will and Melissa are slightly conned by their parents into staying with their grandparents at the bach. This is a real Kiwi bach, the like of which very few exist anymore. We’re talking no electricity, no shops, postal services twice a week, no cell phone reception and a long drop, complete with possums and spiders, out the back. They are two and a half hours away from the closest town.

The track takes us down to the edge of a bay that is half in sunlight and half in dark shadow. On the shadowed side there’s a stand of old macrocarpa trees. Grandpa pulls over and stops. Neither he nor Grandma says a word.

‘Are we here?’ I ask.

I already know it. Inside the circle of trees is a wooden hut with a brick chimney, a verandah, a water tank and a corrugated iron garage. The grass and scrub around them have grown almost as high as the hut’s windows.

This is the famous bach of my father’s childhood.

It’s a bit much for these two modern young things. But with good old hard work, no useless praise, bread baking, recipes that remind me of my mother’s (how much?  A slosh. What’s a slosh? You know, when it looks right. What does right look like?) fishing and swimming, they start to learn a few life lessons. And a more generational perspective of their family.

Grandpa says his grandfather was only the second man in town to own a car, a Buick, he says, shiny black with big running boards and velvet seats, really posh except that he was accustomed to his horse and cart. So when Grandpa’s grandfather drove to church with the family he forgot it was an automobile he was driving, and to stop it he called out, “Whoa! Whoa!” and pulled on the steering wheel. The Buick stopped alright, halfway through the wall of the shop next to the church.

“Does Dad know that story?” I ask.

“Yep, he’s heard it.”

”Why hasn’t he ever told it to us?”

“People remember what they need to remember,” says Grandpa, rubbing his chin exactly the way Dad does. “The rest slips through, which is just as well or our brains would self-destruct. Your Dad was always quiet. Me and your grandma wanted a whole heap of kids but we just got this one boy, kind of gentle, always thinking. Don’t know where he got that from.”

I’m about to agree with him but I’m not sure how he’ll take it, so I just nod. Besides, I wish he’d say more about the flattened grass that looks like newly cut hay.

Their grandparents are just as good at bickering as they are, which Will and Melissa find uncomfortable.

‘I never said there were sharks!” she glares at Grandpa. “He probably told you. Silly old fool, he’ll say anything for a laugh.”

“Be blowed if I did!” he said.

“Be blowed if you didn’t,” she replied.

He leaned over the table towards her. “Woman, you’ve got a tongue in you so long, the back doesn’t know what the front is up to.”

I look at Will who shuts his mouth tight, glaring at me to remind me that I’ve started one of their useless arguments.

And this is one of the real strengths of the book. One of the reasons it’s worth a read. However, rather suddenly, something happens which means everybody needs to work together to prevent disaster.

‘Dunger’ is a satisfying read. It’s impossible to read without bringing to mind ‘Bow Down Shadrach’, since there are elements that are very similar: Marlborough Sounds, parents glossing over truths, adventure and mayhem. My initial reaction was that I enjoyed ‘Bow Down Shadrach’ more, but ‘Dunger’ does have lovely moments, I suspect especially for the parents, or indeed grandparents, of the target readers. However, the subtle strength of this book is how enduringly it has stayed with me. The characters are vivid and real, and the Marlborough Sounds setting is so well drawn I feel as though I visited and remember the bach, rather than read about it. In the end, it doesn’t matter which is the better, since I think both are an important part of the New Zealand Children’s Literature landscape.

 

Read other reviews here:

The Book Bag

Bobs Books

 

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Filed under Book Review, Boys' Reading, Children 8+, Five stars, Joy Cowley, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Read Aloud

Rooftoppers – Katherine Rundell

RooftoppersRooftoppers – Katherine Rundell.

On Monday one of my students came rushing up to me because she had finished the book she was reading and needed another one just as perfect. Scariest moment in the book recommendation game! This thirteen year old reader loves speculative fiction, and is very picky, in a good way. She’s a clever girl. ‘How about a differently perfect book?’ I ask with some trepidation.

Sometimes introducing new kinds of books to readers is like introducing new vegetables to babies and toddlers. You might be lucky, and they’ll view it suspiciously, but let you put the spoon in their mouth, taste it, widen their eyes, and open their mouths for more. Or they might spit it out, perfectly aiming for any new or white clothing, and never let that vegetable within high chair reach again. I’m a believer in persistence though. Let a little time pass and try again. And again. And again.

And so it is with this young reader. For the last year I have been working very hard to get her to try something new. Something with a texture that is a little different, with a flavour that is novel (I know, but an irresistible pun – right?), and most of all something that is nutritious. Because she is a clever girl, and she needs to digest a wider range of food groups in her reading.

I pull ‘Rooftoppers’ out of my back pack. I have the advantage here. All of the children want to read Mrs OW’s newest books. And this one is beautiful. It has a smoky cover with gorgeous silver embossed writing, a mysterious moonlit skyline of rooftops, and the silhouette of a character sitting on the rooftops, playing a cello. Everyone wants to hold it. Even a few of the boys are standing a row or two back, trying not to look too interested. I read the blurb, (something like) ‘On the morning of its first birthday, a baby is found floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel.’ What’s a rooftopper? Why a cello case? What’s a cello? (sadly), are questions that are flying around the room.

After making a quick mental note that I must do something about their musical education, I pull the silver arrow out of my quiver, and draw the bow. ‘Listen to this…’

And I read the first few pages. Audible gasps echo around the room like Mexican waves as I read lines like, ‘Think of night-time with a speaking voice. Or think how moonlight might talk, or think of ink, if ink had vocal chords. Give those things a narrow aristocratic face with hooked eyebrows, and long arms and legs, and that is what the baby saw as she was lifted out of her cello case and up into safety.’

And chuckles ripple to, ‘The baby was almost certainly one year old. They knew this because of the red rosette pinned to her front, which read ‘1!’ ‘Or rather,’ said Charles Maxim, ‘the child is either one year old, or she has come first in a competition. I believe babies are rarely keen participants in competitive sport. Shall we therefore assume it is the former.’ Charles names the baby Sophie and takes her home, because she is his responsibility now.

Charles Maxim is a beautifully eccentric character, who is both entirely unconcerned about propriety and entirely determined to fight for what is proper. When the Child Services want to take Sophie into care, Charles reluctantly agrees to their visits:
‘Certainly, please do come,’ said Charles – and he added, as if he couldn’t stop himself, ‘if you feel you absolutely can’t stay away. I will endeavour to be grateful. But this child is my responsibility. Do you understand?’
‘But it’s a child! You are a man!’
‘Your powers of observation are formidable,’ said Charles. ‘You are a credit to your optician.’

These are lines worthy of Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde or Stephen Fry!
Before I have even finished reading this, the title of the book is on the whiteboard, and names have been listed underneath, of those who want to read the book. Bulls eye! But I have one more arrow quivering. My student is starting to look a little anxious that she may not have this book first, after all. Others are clamouring for it. They all have good reasons for why they should have it first. But I know this book is meant for her. Her name is Sophie. When I hand it to her she literally strokes it and clasps it to her chest. Others mutter, ‘well, at least she’s a fast reader.’

Katherine Rundell’s ‘Rooftoppers’ has been referred to as luminous, and extraordinary, and poetic. It has an ending controversial enough to argue over. It is not so perfect that you can’t disagree over what you like about it – some of it feels a little overworked, and some of it feels a little bit precious. But that’s good. It gives the book its character.

In the end, though, the truth is in the reading. The very next day Sophie brought ‘Rooftoppers’ back in to school, having finished it already. She wasn’t keen to let it go, but reluctantly handed it over to the next reader on the list, who has also already finished it and passed it on to the next. I had to buy a kindle version, so that I could write this review. But I would recommend the hard copy, hardcover for preference. It is a book you need to hold, to feel the heft of it.

Proper reviews of the book can be read here:
The Guardian Review 
The Goodreads Page 
The Book Monster’s Review
Enjoy!

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Filed under Book Review, Children 8+, Five stars, Uncategorized

Bugs – Whiti Hereaka

Bugs – Whiti Hereaka
Young Adult, NZ fiction. Five stars.
9781775501336

I think Bugs may well be one of the most believable, angry, perverse, defensive and clever adolescent characters I have read, in quite some time. She’d be bloody hard to have around, but you’d have to admire how staunch she is, not that she’d care. And don’t bother trying to pull the wool over her eyes. She’s already decided what she thinks of you, and most likely you’re not going to get a Christmas card any time soon.
Bugs, and her mate Jez, live in picture perfect Taupō. But, as Bugs points out, it’s not really perfect:

‘I’m walking home from work. Mum likes to make out like I’ve earned her trust back, but I reckon it’s because she’s working late and Uncle can’t be arsed. So I get to walk home unsupervised – big whoop – like I’m some seven-year-old. But it’s the only chunk of freedom I’ve been allowed these holidays, so I’ll take it. And it’s kind of nice to wander home; it’s warm in the afternoon but not too hot yet. It’s that funny time in spring when the world seems confused: daffodils and snap frosts, lambs born too early dying in the cold. That time when you can sit at the lakefront in just a t-shirt and look at the mountains still frozen with snow and think it’s like a postcard – but then the mountains remind you that they’re real: the wind changes and their cold breath chills you.’

And a lot of this is what the book is about – the conflict of expectation and reality, rich and poor, poor and poorer, youth and age, surface and depth, good and bad, absolute and relative, what-I-see and what-you-see. The setting of volcanically active Taupō, with its volcanoes angry below a cracked surface of boiling mud pools and geysers, is a brilliant metaphor for adolescence and adds to the feeling that something is going to blow at any time. Lake Taupō was formed by a volcanic explosion, and Ruapēhu is still actively rumbling.

Bugs, like any teenager, is a bundle of conflicts. She’s clever enough to question the adults around her, and to examine the school system, actually every system, and find it very much wanting. But she’s also quick to judge, and decide what others believe and think. That adolescent ‘don’t judge me, but I’ll judge you.’ She’s angry. A lot. But she’s also vulnerable. Jez is her best mate and has been for ever, and now Stone Cold, the new rich chick in town, is trying to get in on the act. Bugs trusts no-one, but she especially doesn’t trust Stone Cold, who seems to have everything and value nothing.

Bugs resents the way the school tries to ‘motivate’ Māori youth:

I was barely older than that kid, that time the teachers rounded up all us kids – actually rounded us up – no shit, it was like the teachers were header dogs…Anyway, there’s all us kids – OK Māori kids – rounded up for a seminar on Māori ‘achievement’. What it really was – a bunch of loser seniors saying how hard they’d worked to pass. Just pass. And then they hit us over the head with statistics about how most of us would fail; most of us would amount to sweet F.A. And it was supposed to be motivating.

Bugs is determined to do things her way. But that doesn’t mean she always manages to. She gets sucked into the vortex of bad decision making, lots of times. For the right reasons and the wrong reasons. And she’ll try to prove to you why she’s right, even when she knows she’s skating on thin ice. And don’t try to predict the outcome, because she’ll write her own script, thanks very much.

Congratulations, too, to Huia Publishing, who have made this book a pleasure to hold and read in hard copy. The spine feels strong and flexible, the pages are a good quality paper, and space is given between chapters to reflect – not that you want to pause, because the plot is compelling and drives you on. I think that the white and black of the cover, with its shot of red are superb. But I especially like the back, with the voice of Bugs already defined and strong:

‘They call me Bugs. As in Bunny.
Yeah,
I know.’

Without wanting to labour it, that all of the words except ‘I know’ are written in red (on white) with I know written in black, we already have a flavour of the character to come – who are ‘they’? The emphasis on I know – at once linking the reader (we know it’s dumb) and separating the reader (she doesnt know what I think) – ‘knowing’ is such a tenuous concept in this book.

There is so much to say about this book, but you’d be better off reading it. Be prepared to be challenged and to be richer for the experience.

I don’t think that my Year 11 son’s English teacher will use this as a text – although she should, but its language and blatant sex talk may challenge their boundaries. No actual sex, though, for those who are worried.

This is a vastly superior coming of age novel to any I have read in a long time. It is well deserving of a short listing for this year’s NZ Post Children’s Book Awards…I just wish they would properly sort their categories – because I would recommend (not censor – an important discrimination) this book for 14yrs+. 

I got my copy through Fishpond

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Filed under Book Review, coming of age, Five stars, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, YA 14+