Tag Archives: conflict

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

Dead End in Norvelt – Jack Gantos

13541514Dead End in Norvelt – Jack Gantos

Winner of the Newbery Medal 2012, Washington Post Best Children’s Book of 2011.

Middle Grade – Readers 10 – 13+

When Jack Gantos was seven, his favourite game was to pretend he was on fire and roll down a hill to put the flames out – and that explains a lot, really. There’s not a lot of time to reflect, in his novels. Usually, you’re on fire and rolling down the hill before you’ve really decided whether or not you’re going to play the game. Things happen at break neck speed, with the odd pause to get yourself back up to the top of the hill, ready to roll for your life again. (This game, by the way, never seems to wear out. I watched a group of 8 year olds playing it the other day. Do you remember the sheer pleasure of seeing how fast you could roll, how many kids you could bump into on the way, and the smell of the grass – especially if it was damp and had just been cut.)

This novel has more than an element of the ‘do you remember’ about it. It is nostalgic for  1962, small town, America. Norvelt has a special history in that it was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt (hence Norvelt) for families who were struggling financially. To be honest, at times it does feel a little self-conscious about ensuring you know when it is set – for example, ‘It was a good thing John Glenn had orbited the earth back in February.’ And, of course, JFK is still alive. But it does well to introduce a version of the early 1960’s small town America to today’s young readers. ‘My uncle who had painted the pony claimed he had seen a UFO come down over that very same hill before the drive-in was built. He was in the newspaper and said he had ‘touched’ the UFO and that it was ‘covered in a strange Martian language that looked like chicken feet.’ My dad called my uncle a nut, but it wasn’t so nutty when the army sent troops and a big truck to take the mysterious UFO away and afterward military police went door-to-door to all the little towns around here, warning people not to talk about ‘the fallen object’ with any strangers as they might be Russian spies.’ Without going into the politics in depth, the reader gets a sense of the cold war, space as the next frontier, and a more censored world, possible in a less technological era.

It is the golden rule of middle grade fiction that, if you haven’t killed off the parents, they must be incredibly unfair, and unwilling to listen to reason. Certainly they will be misguided. Maybe they are even a bit mad.  Probably they are so busy in their own lives that they barely notice the antics of the hero, who has the mindboggling challenge of needing to put the world to rights, without anyone noticing that it wasn’t right in the first place. No one must know anything is wrong, because usually it is the fault of the hero, who had a misguided moment of klutziness, whilst doing something forbidden. Things get worse before they get better, despite the best intentions of our hero, but in the end… well, I’d hate to ruin a good story, so I’ll stop right there.

Jack is not so much a klutz, as a bit day dreamy, ‘because my mind wanders in the morning my feet are always a few steps ahead of me…’ When we first meet him he is on a picnic table in his back yard, with his father’s WW2 Japanese war souvenirs, watching a drive-in war movie, using the Japanese binoculars. Jack also has his father’s sniper rifle, and the movie enemies are for target practice, ‘because Dad said I had to get ready to fight off the Russian Commies who had already sneaked into the country and were planning to launch a surprise attack.’ Jack doesn’t realise that the rifle is loaded and one thing leads to another, which leads to Miss Volker dropping her hearing aid down the toilet, and the town plumber, who is also the local ambulance driver, roaring up to Miss Volker’s house in the ambulance to help.

Mom now has Jack over a barrel, so to speak, since Dad will blow a fuse if he knows Jack has been playing with his war souvenirs, and especially that he broke the rifle safety rules. Jack is mystified as to how the gun came to be loaded, but accepts the error of his ways, and the inevitability of a severe consequence. Mom grounds him until his father returns, with the only exception being that he is allowed to leave the house to help out their eccentric octogenarian neighbour, Miss Volker. It turns out that Miss Volker needs him because, due to her severely arthritic hands, she is unable to write anymore. She has Jack scribe the obituaries of the elderly townspeople, who suddenly seem to be dropping like flies.

Unfortunately for Jack, when Dad comes back he has an agenda of his own that involves Jack mowing down Mom’s cornfield. Dad says Jack must mow it down. Mom says Jack mustn’t. The reader knows Jack can’t win this one, and feels the injustice. Jack mows down the corn and is grounded for the rest of summer, by his mother. Jack’s adventures might well make a great read aloud – if you can stand all the blood and gory bits – Jack’s nose bleeds constantly, his best friend’s father owns a funeral parlour, a Hell’s Angel motorcycle club member is flattened by a truck, and several elderly residents are found dead. Jack’s errands for Miss Volker are often dubious, if not downright dangerous and law breaking. He dresses up as the grim reaper to break into a house where Miss Volker suspects a senior citizen lies dead. She needs him to check, so that she can write the obit. He drives her car round town at break neck speed, and buys 1080 poison from the hardware store to kill the rats in her basement. There is also the mystery of why the town’s elderly are suddenly dying…

I have a couple of boys lined up to read this one over the next couple of weeks – they have already read the blurb and are keen. I’m keen to see what they think. I think it’s a great read, but I’m interested to know if there’s just a bit much history tucked into the book. As any parent knows, there are only so many green things you can hide in something yummy before it is spotted for the vegetable that it is.

Speaking of which, here’s a titbit for the Kiwi’s. Jack is reading about Kennedy during WW2.  Apparently, ‘Kennedy and his torpedo boat crew were on night patrol in the sea around the Solomon Islands when a Japanese destroyer came roaring at full speed out of the mist and sliced their boat clean in half. Eleven men survived the collision but some were burned badly from the fuel fire that took place after the crash. Kennedy had been hurled across the deck and fractured a vertebrae in his back but he could still move.

Kennedy tied one end of a belt onto the most wounded man’s lifejacket and put the other end of the belt in his own mouth and swam the breaststroke for five hours before he got the man to the island. There was no food or fresh water…(lots of things happen and many days pass but…) But just before the men lost all hope, the native islanders tracked them down. They were friendly and wanted to help so Kennedy scratched a rescue note on a coconut and gave it to the islanders, who paddled their war canoe to an Allied base. More days passed, and just when Kennedy and his men thought they all would die, they were rescued by soldiers from New Zealand.’

There is a sequel to this book, ‘From Norvelt to Nowhere’, so if this goes down well, then I may buy it.

Read some other reviews here:

Betsy Bird’s Review

Book Browsers Review

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Filed under Boys' Reading, Children 10+, coming of age, Five stars, Historical, humour, Middle Grade Fiction, Prize winners

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+

Far From Home – Na’ima B Robert

Far From HomeFar From Home – Na’ima B Robert (2011)

This book was given to me to read by a student in one of my English classes.

It is a challenging read.  The author initially introduces us to Tariro, daughter of the Baobab.  Tariro tells the stories of her people, and the simple explanations given really help to develop an empathy in the reader.  She explains, in her uncle’s voice

‘Now, Lobengula, son of Mzilikazi, king of the Ndebele, had grown concerned about all these varungu – the Boers, the Portuguese, the British – bothering him, wanting him to let them look for gold and other minerals in his territory. But, because he trusted the British Queen’s representative, he finally agreed to sign a document called the Rudd Concession, giving the mining rights they wanted.’

Cecil John Rhodes was granted a charter by Queen Victoria, allowing him to run the country on behalf of Britain. As Tariro quite rightly asks,

‘Who gave her the authority to decide our fate?’ I asked.  ‘We have never seen her.  We did not accept her as our queen.

The removals of the Karanga people, Tariro’s people, from the land, are violent and merciless.  Tariro and her family suffer terribly, with the loss of many people and the removal to poor land with no rights to cut down trees, or to irrigate.  And the girls sent to fetch water from the river live in constant danger of attack from the white men.  (In Maori, a karanga is a spiritual call to welcome, or summon, the manuhiri – visitors – on to a Marae.  It is a thread between the two women, one tangata whenua and one manuhiri, calling through the passages of time.  This felt really appropriate to me,as this novel is so much about the calls of woman to woman, and identity through time and place).  A good friend of mine who speaks Shona, tells me that Maori and Shona languages have unexpected connection.

Tariro suffers such an attack, and the result is a daughter, Tawona.  Despite her hatred of the man, Ian Watson, Tariro loves her daughter, and brings her up in the Karanga way, as best she can, suffering the deprivations that they do.

However, as time passes, discontent grows, and the African National Congress grows and develops.  The Karanga, and other displaced African people, build an army and start to reclaim their land.  This is also the time of Robert Mugabe.  Tariro becomes involved and fights in the battles as a soldier.  This is an historic time, where the people of Zimbabwe not only reclaim their land but also reclaim their name.

About two thirds of the way through the novel, we are introduced to Katie, the white and legitimate daughter of Ian Watson, and the White African version of events is told.  To be fair, it is difficult for the reader to develop a lot of empathy with Katie and her family.  Our first and loyal affiliation is to the family we know and love already, who were so badly treated by her white ancestors and by her father.  Racism is conveyed very effectively, especially in moments where Katie herself acts in ways that reflect her upbringing, rather than what she learns.  I guess this could be uncomfortable reading for some, but it reflects very much a perspective that was real.  What the author attempts to do is to help us understand why Katie might feel that she has had her heritage ripped away from her.  She is not successful in this.  But I did find myself thinking that it wasn’t Katie’s fault she was born into the family and the place that she was.

This novel demands that the reader asks some really difficult questions of themselves and their lives.  The author bravely attempts to present two sides of a story that she cannot really feel in her heart.  While this is courageous, I think ultimately Katie as a character fails.  She is relatively two-dimensional compared to Tariro or Tawona.  I’m not sure that is entirely fair, but it is a brave attempt to acknowledge the possibility of another perspective to this story.

This is a very well written book that taught me much about the recent history of Zimbabwe.  I will be asking my friend who grew up in Zimbabwe, to read it and tell me his view.

Because of the violent acts that happen within the story, I feel this is probably a Young Adult / Adult novel.  I would rate it a 4/5 stars.

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Filed under Children 12+, Four stars, Historical, Young Adult

Chains – Laurie Halse Anderson

ChainsChains – Laurie Halse Anderson (2009).

National Book Award Nominee for Young People’s Literature (2008), Scott O’Dell Award (2009), Cybils Award for Middle Grade Fiction (2009), An ALA Notable Children’s Book for Older Readers (2009), Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Book Award Nominee (2011) …more

South Carolina Book Award Nominee for Junior Book Award (2011), TAYSHAS High School Reading List (2010)

Laurie Halse Anderson is not a writer I had read before this book.  The book was recommended to me by a young reader in one of my English classes.  Since it was the 4th of July that day, and since I don’t know an awful lot about the Revolutionary War for American Independence, I thought I would give it a go.

‘Chains’ is the story of Isabel (13) and Ruth (5), slaves to Miss Mary Finch, 1776.  Isabel narrates the story, with an intelligent, observant and challenging voice.  At the beginning of the book we are at the funeral of Miss Mary Finch, with the Pastor and Mr Robert Finch, Mary’s nephew.

[Mr Robert] had showed up a few weeks earlier to visit Miss Mary Finch, his aunt and only living relation.  He looked around her tidy farm, listened to her ragged, wet cough, and moved in.  Miss Mary wasn’t even cold on her deathbed when he helped himself to the coins in her strongbox.

The first sense we get of the terrible lack of empowerment for slaves is when Isabel wants to run ahead of the coffin to visit the grave of her mother.  The Pastor has to ask for permission for her to do this, since Isabel does not even have the right to speak to a white man.

‘The child wants to run ahead,’ Pastor explained to him.  ‘She has kin buried there.  Do you give leave for a quick visit?’

Mr Robert’s mouth tightened like a rope pulled taut.

What an image – the rope – symbolic not just of the tethering of slave to the white man, but the implicit image of a man’s right to make a decision about a girl’s life, and, of course, hanging.  In just one line, the author demonstrates vividly the power the white man has and the threat of danger for Isabel, or any slave, in the smallest of actions.

At first, Isabel believes that she and Ruth are now freed.  After all, Miss Mary Finch had freed the girls in her will and the will was with her lawyer.  And again, here are some of the profound truths of slavery.  There are so many people in this book who are in a position to help Isabel, but they either can’t summon the energy, or are too afraid for their own position.  Here, Pastor Weeks, whom we should assume perhaps as a man of the cloth, is a good man, listens to Isabel, and initially tries to reason with Mr Robert.

Pastor Weeks held up his hand. ‘It’s true.  Your aunt had some odd notions.  She taught the child [to read] herself.  I disapproved, of course.  Only leads to trouble.’

I spoke up again. ‘We’re to be freed, sir.  The lawyer, Mr Cornell, he’ll tell you.  Ruth and me, we’re going to get work and a place of our own to sleep.’

Unfortunately for Isabel and Ruth, the lawyer left for Boston before the blockade.

‘The girl is lying, then,’ Mr Robert said. ‘She knows the lawyer is absent and her cause cannot be proved.  The sooner I’m rid of her, the better.’

…Pastor Weeks fumbled with the latch on his Bible.  ‘You and your sister belong to Mr Robert now.  he’ll be a good master to you.’…The minister placed the Bible in his leather satchel and pulled it up over his shoulder.  He studied the ground, his hands, Mr Robert’s horse and the clouds.  He did not look at me.  ‘You’ll be wanting to bring their shoes and blankets,’ he finally said. ‘They’ll fetch a better price that way.’

Essentially Ruth and Isabel are treated as possessions, and not even possessions of value.  They end up being bought by Mister and Missus Lockton, supporters of the King, and are taken to New York.  Mr Lockton is not as cruel and malicious towards the girls as Missus Lockton, but he is apathetic towards the girls’ care.  Missus Lockton addresses her lack of power and the cruel behaviour of her husband towards her in her treatment of the girls.

Several dreadful incidents occur.  Isabel decides that she needs to take action, and becomes a spy for the Patriots.  How dangerous this was cannot be underestimated.  And you really feel the danger in this book, illustrated through the writing:

I had only to open the gate latch and step out.

My hand would not move.

If I opened the gate I would be a criminal. Slaves were not allowed out after sunset without a pass from a master. Anyone who caught me could take me to the jail. If I opened the gate, a judge could order me flogged. If I opened the gate, there was no telling what punishment Madam would demand.

If I opened the gate, I might die of fright.

I leaned my head against the gate.  I could not open the gate, but I had to open the gate.

I learned a lot about the Revolutionary War and the treatment of slaves as I read, although, not being American, it could get confusing at times.  I suspect children reading this might need some background knowledge to help with their comprehension.

The quotes at the beginning of the chapters were interesting, and helped me to contextualise events a little, although I did still have to do a little bit of online research to get my head around some critical dates.

I highly recommend this book, although with some of the violent acts in it, I feel it needs to be read with a parent or teacher if the children are younger, providing opportunity to discuss the context of these actions, or children from about 10+yrs could read it independently.

There is a very good summary of the book, and the violent acts in it as the following link: Parental Book Reviews – Chains

Betsy Bird, of fuse8productions also reviews the book here.

Now, I am off to watch ‘Lincoln’ in the hope that it furthers my American History education somewhat.

 

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Filed under Children 10+, Five stars, Historical, Prize winners, Read Aloud

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+