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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:

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

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.

Others views can be read here:

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

Wonder – R. J. Palacio


There is no doubt about it, this book is a tear jerker.  I have to say that I really am struggling with rating it.  My initial reaction is that it was a four star book – I really liked it.  Then, when I come to write down what I liked and what I struggled with, I realise that there was a lot that I struggled with in this book, but there was a lot I liked too.  So, I am going to be kind and stick with my initial four stars, and I’ll explain why it could have been three stars.

August is 10 years old.  He has a terrible facial abnormality, which has meant serial surgical procedures for most of his short life.  Because of this, he has been homeschooled up until now.  August lives with his Mom, his Dad, his sister Via and his family dog, Daisy.  At the beginning of the book Auggie finds out that his Mom and Dad have been going through the process of enrolling him at a school, because Auggie needs to learn more than his Mom can teach him, and she’s not just talking about fractions:
‘”We can’t keep protecting him,” Mom whispered to Dad, who was driving. “We can’t just pretend that he’s going to wake up tomorrow and this isn’t going to be his reality, because it is, Nate, and we have to help him learn to deal with it.  We can’t just keep avoiding situations that…”
“So sending him off to middle school, like a lamb to the slaughter…” Dad answered angrily, but he didn’t even finish his sentence because he saw me in the mirror looking up.’

EVERY parent who reads that is going to be thinking about their own ‘letting go’ challenges.  All of us have had those moments where we are sending our children into the unpredictable and not necessarily kind world.  We know the instinct to protect, for just a little while longer, even as we know that we should let go.  How much harder is that choice in this case?

Readers in their early teens will know how hard it is to start a new school, wanting to get things just right, wanting to make the right impression.  How many books have been written about just that?!

Doesn’t it make us all feel a little bit ashamed of the days we haven’t wanted to go out in public because it’s a fat day/a big zit day/a bad hair day/an I said a stupid thing yesterday day…We all know that moment when we have to brace ourselves, be a bit more courageous than we want to be, and get on with it.  Most of us are dealing with something much less significant than Auggie, and yet we recognise an element of it.

That’s where this book has it over us.  Because, ‘whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.’  We are, like Via, on the moral back foot.  Via is four years older than Auggie, and she can only remember glimpses of time without him being around.  Her story is equally as compelling as Auggie’s.  Via tells the story of what it is like to be Auggie’s sister.  It is hard for her to admit that she has needs, when – always – Auggie’s needs are greater. But moments of self-pity, and let me say that self-pity is normal for a teenager, when she sees Mom standing outside Auggie’s door late at night just looking in and wonders if Mom has ever done that at her door, paint a realistic picture of feeling a little bit less loved than her brother, of getting less time and attention.  However, when she gets to go to a new school, where the kids don’t know about her little brother, she revels in her anonymity.  She becomes Olivia, and makes some new friends, including a boyfriend.  None of this is without some fairly normal teenage challenges like learning to cope with not being in the popular group, and how friendships change.  All of which have been the MAIN storyline of many a book, but are peripheral in this one.  As Via says, ‘August is the Sun.  Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun.  The rest of our family and friends are asteroids and comets floating around the planets orbiting the Sun…But this year there seems to be a shift in the cosmos.  The galaxy is changing.  Planets are falling out of alignment.’  Hmmmm…a useful, but well-worn, metaphor.

The story of Auggie’s settling in to school has its highs and lows, as might be expected.  Some fairly predictable plot devices are used, like the quirky girl who could be in the popular group, but chooses to sit at Auggie’s lunch table, the boy who struggles between peer pressure and conscience, and the boy who fakes nice in front of the adults.  I felt that the age of these kids was really indeterminate…they wandered from sounding between 8 – 10years (for example, Auggie often calls Mom and Dad Mommy and Daddy) and 12 – 14years.

I’m not sure, either, about some of Mr Browne’s ‘precepts’.  They felt contrived, and I’m not sure they entirely worked as a plot device.  Subtlety would have been better than smacking us in the face with the morals of the story.  And I didn’t even know how many of them I really agreed with, or felt like they were worth a month’s scrutiny.  For example, ‘When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.’  Ummm…since when could you be unkind and be right???  So then, are we supposed to be ‘kind’ (read patronising) to Auggie.  Since when is that kind?  Doesn’t he deserve true kindness, which would always be right.  For that matter, don’t we all?  I’m still struggling with that one.  So, maybe it is worth a month’s scrutiny!

Another plot device that seems to be popular at the moment, is the multiple perspectives device.  This works when all the voices are unique.  Books like ‘Bluefish’, by Pat Schmatz and ‘Because of Mr Terupt’, by Rob Buyea, do this really well.  In ‘Wonder’ the voices just don’t feel significantly well characterised, although it does allow the reader the chance to review scenes in the book to learn a little more.

But a good book provokes, doesn’t it?  And this book did provoke thought.  And I am sure it would be a great book to use in class, although it is somewhat clumsy with its morals.  Great discussion could be had over so many elements of the story.  So long as it doesn’t slip into being patronising, or over simplified.  This book had some heroic attempts at reminding us that we are all human, and we struggle to make the best decisions we can with the resources we have, and that we won’t get it right all the time.  And that’s a great message to remember.  I wish that had been a Mr Browne precept.

So, all in all, I liked the book.  Maybe I even really liked the book, but it wasn’t without its challenges.  Ultimately, though, I am still inclined to err towards a four star rating.

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Filed under Children 10+, Children 12+, Uncategorized