Book Review: Pieces of You, by Eileen Merriman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_pieces-of_youA first novel by an Auckland based award-winning short story writer, this is clearly aimed at the Young Adult demographic. I have two daughters who are only recently out of the teenage years, both quite different girls who had quite different experiences of those years. So my review is very clearly tempered and coloured by my own long distant teenage memories, and also the more recent experiences of my daughters.

Aside from the first three years of life which fortunately we don’t retain memory of, I would say the most traumatic time for most people is those teenage years. I have strong memories of hating myself, hating those around me, struggling with friendships, horrible girls, floundering, huge self doubt, complete lack of self-esteem, wishing and hoping I was adopted. Being tall, skinny, with glasses and braces was never going to be a good start to young adulthood, but somehow I made it out of all that.

On the plus side my teenage years weren’t burdened with social media, phones, texting or sexting, easy access to alcohol and drugs. For my girls the teenage experience has been everything as it was for me, plus all those things. I am not at all surprised there are so many unhappy, confused, bewildered teenagers and young people, with spiraling rates of depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, compared to 40 years ago.

The relevance of this novel, therefore, to teenagers is undeniable, particularly those of school age. The recent high level media coverage over mental health in young people and the unacceptably high rate of youth suicide in this country makes this novel doubly relevant. Good on the author for tackling such a huge subject as teenage mental and emotional health. This novel tells the story of 15 year old Rebecca who has moved with her parents from Dunedin to North Shore, Auckland. She is not happy, uprooted from her close friend group and everything familiar. So far no surprises. She starts school, finds making new friends difficult and is trying very hard to fit in. She goes to a party one night with a girl from school, only to be lured away by a boy at the party and indecently assaulted.

She is, understandably, quite traumatised by what has taken place. To cope, she begins to cut herself in secret, the bleeding helping her deal with the mental and emotional pain of what has occured. She then meets her next door neighbour, a boy from her school called Cory. Things improve greatly for Rebecca, she makes friends, she settles into school, and her and Cory become very close, sharing a love of reading and writing. Rebecca’s narration is full of the drama and intensity of first love, and very well done too by the writer. So much angst! Intimacy between the two of them however becomes very problematic due to Rebecca’s panic and shame at what happened at the party earlier in the year. At the same time, Cory appears to be having some health issues himself, taking regular sick days, and not being fully engaged with Rebecca. The cutting continues.

Much of this plot line is very relatable for anyone who has ever been a teenager, myself included. Some shocking things happen, but again this is not unusual in the teenage world. And there is certainly plenty in this novel to provoke discussion between teen and their meaningful adult, or for the young person to think on while and after reading this. My younger daughter has not read this, but she and I have talked about it, the issues and outcomes. I always value her opinion, experiences and observations. Am I a lucky parent having such an open relationship with my daughter? I don’t know, but I do know, as with Rebecca and Cory, that teenagers are incredibly secretive, and can fully understand how parents say they didn’t see coming whatever danger or awful situation their child has got themselves into. As happens in this novel.

However, I seriously wonder how true to the average kiwi teenager these two are, how relateable they are. We have two middle-class kids, living with both parents still married to each other, and siblings, in a relatively affluent part of Auckland, and of above average intelligence. They want for nothing. There is one Asian teen, and while Cory is Māori, there are no Pasifika or LBGT teens. I suspect that there are thousands of teenagers in this country whose lives, families, and class rooms bear very little resemblance to the lives of Rebecca and Cory, who probably wish they only had the problems these two have. I find Rebecca’s naivety at fifteen going on sixteen not truly realistic, which makes me wonder if the author’s target audience is the younger teen, rather than the more knowing mid-high school and older teen.

But what I really could not get my head around was how these kids talk to each other. For a start, any parent reading this review will know how the word ‘like’ peppers every single sentence, so much you want to scream. In this novel – none of that. I was expecting more swearing, more rawness in the exchanges these kids have with each other, more real. It was all very sanitised. I remember watching the UK series Skins a few years ago. Now, we don’t want our own teens to be like that, but it was riveting, realistic, not afraid to show what life for many young people is like. My girls, in their sanitised middle-class world, loved it. We ended up buying the whole series. It was frightening, confronting but excellent, and I just don’t feel that there was enough of that in this novel.

Still the fact that this review is so long, shows that the book has got under my skin and that has to be a good thing. If you are a parent of teens or young teens, then this would certainly be a worthwhile book to leave lying around for someone to hopefully pick up, as it covers a lot of very relevant issues to the lives and well being of our young ones. Although how successful it as at resolving problems and issues facing teenagers is debatable, despite the list at the back of support services to contact.

One thing I did really like about this book is the chapter headings. They are all classic book titles, many of which would be studied at school or university, such as Catch 22, The Outsiders, Atonement and many other great novels and authors. Each title had some sort of relevance to what was happening in the chapter – very clever.

I would love for a teen to read and review this book, several teens if possible, just to let us older and out of touch adults know if this novel accurately reflects the average teen life.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Pieces of You
by Eileen Merriman
Published by Penguin
ISBN 9780143770473

 

Book Review: Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_memoirs_of_a_polar_bearFor some reason, when I picked up Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, I didn’t think it was actually going to be the memoirs of a polar bear. I completely judged the book by its cover and thought it was a YA book, perhaps like Margo Lanagan’s excellent novel Tender Morsels. Either that, or surely Tawada’s book was an allegory of some sort.
Nope. Memoirs is exactly what it says it is – the recollections and life history of a polar bear, or more specifically, three generations of polar bears, living in Cold War Europe. The first bear, a former performing circus bear now relegated to going to conferences on performing, begins writing her autobiography and eventually escapes the Soviet Union to flee to Berlin. Her daughter, Tosca, then picks up the story as she herself becomes a dancing performing bear. We then see Tosca’s son Knut, born in captivity in Berlin Zoo.

Part of the intoxicating strangeness of this novel is that the bears are bears but, for the most part, no one else seems to notice. The bears learn languages, write, take part in panel discussions, act in children’s theatre shows, and read the newspaper. Their bear-ness does show through sometimes, particularly with the grandmother bear upon her move to Berlin. Wintery Berlin is too hot for her (of course, she’s a polar bear); she play-fights with the human supervising her move to Berlin but she doesn’t realise his terror is real (of course, she’s a polar bear and doesn’t realise what it must feel like for a human to be thrown around by a bear); she blows all her money on buying all the salmon in the nearby shop (of course, she’s a polar bear, what else is she supposed to eat?). But interestingly, these things sound to the reader like cultural clashes. Tawada is talking (in a deliciously odd way) about the immigrant experience here, not the disconnect between humans and animals.

But the relationship between humans and animals is clearly a theme here, and making the main narrators polar bears only highlights the strangeness of being a human. And the cruelty. All the bears are living in a human-built cage – both the grandmother and Tosca are trained in circuses, and the grandmother has memories of being ‘taught’ to stand on her hind legs by having metal plates heated up under her front paws, forcing her to stand like a human lest her front paws be burned. And little Knut is raised in a zoo – treated well and with love by his handlers but, still, captive. Tosca at least has the benefit of a strange and deep bond with her human circus trainer Barbara – a soulful, indescribable communion between the two that seems to transcend language and exists most strongly in their mutually shared dreams. (Told you it was strange.)
Tawada’s prose, as rendered in English by translator Susan Bernofsky, is, by contrast, clear, sharp and fresh. Weirdness has never been expressed so cleanly. The grandmother says, “I lay there like a croissant, embracing Tosca”. The night time square outside her hotel reminds her of a theatre stage, “maybe because of the circular light cast by a streetlamp. A cat bisects the circle with its supple stride.”

This novel may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly was mine. With many thematic strands of motherhood, humanity, captivity, and immigration woven through a generational story that I found absorbing at every turn, Memoirs of a Polar Bear will make you ponder its rare qualities for some time to come.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Memoirs of a Polar Bear
by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky
Published by New Directions Publishing
ISBN 9780811225786

Book Review: Bastion Point: 507 days on Takaparawha, by Tania Roxborogh

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_bastion_pointErica Tito thinks she’s going to spend the summer training her new horse (and also working to pay for it) but her parents suddenly have quite a different plan.

In 1977, the Muldoon government announced a housing development on Ngāti Whātua reserve land. This land had been reduced in size over time, by compulsory acquisition, despite having once been declared absolutely inalienable.

Many of the Ngāti Whātua iwi quickly returned to Auckland, and set up camp on Takaparawha, in what turned out to be a very long protest which ultimately saw more than 200 people arrested, and the buildings destroyed. However a subsequent Waitangi Tribunal determined that the land was indeed owned by Ngāti Whātua and much of it was returned. (source: Nzhistory.govt.nz)

So, to return to Erica’s story – her parents decide that it’s most important that they join Joe Hawke and the other Ngāti Whātua leaders, and despite Erica’s protests, that’s what happens. However what is intended a summer break turns into almost 18 months of living in leaky tents, on Bastion Point as the family become immersed in the struggle to retain their land.

Tania Roxborogh has created a compelling and entirely credible story, told through the diaries which Erica (who loves reading and writing) keeps throughout this time. The difficulties of living in such conditions are occasionally startling in their description; one which sticks with me is Erica’s note about her clothes smelling of smoke and damp, and trying to get rid of that before going to school so that she would not be embarrassed. But there are also the high points – an understanding and challenging teacher, Erica’s eventual ability as a top debater being drawn out, friendships made and kept despite enormous differences.

The importance of whānau is well-defined, and will resonate with young readers, as will the strength of character of the Tito family, determined to fight for what they know to be right.

The occupation of Bastion Point was not an easy time for Ngāti Whātua, and Roxborogh alludes in a very gentle way to the difficulties between the occupiers and the tribal elders and their advisors on the marae. She has more to say (through Erica) about the politics and the government of the day, and that is a good reminder to those of us who are old enough to remember Bastion Point and the challenges which were thrown out to all New Zealanders.

In all this is a very accessible, engaging and thought-provoking book. I’d recommend it to anyone, but particularly to teachers as a terrific resource either as a read-aloud or a text for study.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Bastion Point: 507 days on Takaparawha
by Tania Roxborogh
Part of the My New Zealand Story series
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775434795

Book Review: The Traitor and the Thief, by Gareth Ward

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_traitor_and_the_thief_wardAn entertaining steampunk-esque adventure, The Traitor and the Thief won the Tessa Duder award (for unpublished young adult writers) in 2016. It is well written, taking in elements of Harry Potter and the Cherubs series, whilst also retaining a fresh originality.

Sin is an orphan and a thief, living on the streets and his wits. That is, until the day he is picked up and introduced to COG, a society that takes in skilled teenagers and trains them to be spies, in an effort to prevent, or reduce, the effects of war. Illiterate and not strong with numbers, Sin immediately sets about improving his skill-set with a dedication that is quite inspiration. He swiftly makes friends and settles in to his new way of life. Of course, this newfound prosperity is not to last, for there is a traitor in their midst, and if they are not unmasked, then all of their hopes will be in vain. Can Sin uncover the traitor? Or will his own past catch up with him and lead them all into ruin?

With a sparkling array of characters, an engaging world, and enough twists to satisfy, The Traitor and the Thief should appeal to fans of Philip Pullman and Philip Reeve.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Traitor and the Thief
by Gareth Ward
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781925381504

Book Review: Never Say Die, by Anthony Horowitz

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_never_say_dieAfter reading the first few chapters of Never Say Die I got the distinct impression that Alex Rider is a bit of a young adult version of Ian Fleming’s James Bond – tied to MI6, frequenting exotic places, going up against formidable enemies, the odds being seemingly unfavorable, but of course eventually saving the day. However, the similarities end there between James Bond and Alex Rider. Despite being an asset in some capacity to MI6, Alex Rider is just 15 years old, making the novels just a bit more younger-person friendly. There is an element of unrealism because of the main character’s lack of years, but it was still a really enjoyable story.

As the latest addition to the Alex Rider series, Never Say Die sets the scene with an elaborate crime in Sullfolk, England, with seemingly no real motive or explanation, and the main character thousands of miles away in San Francisco. In the following chapter the crime is then suddenly pushed aside and focuses on Alex Rider, who is struggling to recover from experiences in the novel previous. Those traumatic events are progressively given more detail as Alex takes steps to reconcile the past and solve the mystery that still remains, all the while crossing paths with dangerous criminals not only seeking revenge but also plotting an act of terrorism.

Never Say Die includes plenty of action that go along with a typical spy novel but there are also more complicated elements within to back up the plausibility of the situation. It was at times a bit young but it was understandable given the audience the Alex Rider series is aimed at. That being said it could have easily been a lot more corny but Anthony Horowitz is successful as a whole in the balance he has maintained for such a series – innocent enough to be a young adults novel, but still exciting to actually be worthwhile reading; in my opinion any age group will enjoy Never Say Die.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

Never Say Die
by Anthony Horowitz
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406377040

Book Review: The Locksmith, by Barbara Howe

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_locksmithWho is the Locksmith, and what role does he play in this fantasy tale? You will keep this question in mind as you read through the adventures of Lucinda Guillierre, a young girl living with her stepsister Claire and her stepmother, in the magical world of Frankland, ruled by The Office.

The Office was created in historic times by the Great Coven, which established the four offices of Air, Fire, Earth, and Water, and their leaders. Each Office has a Guild, for the study and training of Witches and Wizards of each element.

Unsettled by her lack of magical progress, she resigns herself to a future as a normal person, but agrees to take her sister Claire to challenge the path to meet the Fire Warlock, to have a wish granted. She takes with her, her only true possessions her father left her —two large books of the history of the magic which fills their world. Hold that thought as you read…

Claire wants to use Lucinda to pass the challenge and meet the Warlock, to make her wish, and to have Lucinda work off the exchange for the spell. That’s not quite how things turn out. Lucinda is the one who gets the wish, and in her three years at the Fire Guild serves in the kitchen, between her studies of magic. She takes some time realising that those who see her as a potential Fire Witch are right.

As her studies progress, so do her feelings for the Fire Warlock, and she realises he is the writer of her own two history of magic books. As the story develops, the realm in which they live becomes turbulent with political rumours of the threat of attack from Europa, which surrounds Frankland. Amid the turmoil, we are with Lucinda as she faces rivalry, hostility, and jealousy—and fear.

Lucinda’s story in this book ends most satisfactory, yet with just enough unknowns to make the reader want, as I do, the second in the series. A really great closing, and of all the modern fantasies I have read, this is a definite leader.

Reviewed by Lynne McAnulty-Street

The Locksmith: Book 1 in the ‘Reforging’ series
by Barbara Howe
Published by SQ Mag
ISBN: 9781925496284

 

Book Review: One of us is Lying, by Karen M. McManus  

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_one_of_us_is_lying.jpgAs a teenager I was an avid reader of anything I could get my hands on. It may have been a few years since I picked up any young adult fiction, but if One of us is Lying is an example of what’s available today, I’m tempted to read more.

Set in Bayview High, the book centres on five – soon to be four – students who all end up in detention after cellphones they didn’t own were found in their bags. Bronwyn, the top student who never puts a foot wrong and is headed for Yale; Cooper, the baseball star being looked at for the major league; prom queen and everyone’s favourite, Addy; Nate, the bad boy drug dealer on probation; and Simon, the creator of hated gossip app About That.

Suddenly there is a commotion outside the classroom and the students see the aftermath of a minor car accident in the car park. While their teacher goes to investigate, Simon has a drink of water, collapsing soon after. Nate is aware Simon is suffering a severe allergic reaction but his EpiPen can’t be found. Cooper is sent to the nurse’s office to get one but finds the box is empty. Simon is rushed to hospital in a bad way, and everyone is stunned when they hear later that he has died.

The four remaining students are in the frame for Simon’s death when police discover his cup of water contained peanut oil. All four are shown to have a motive when an unpublished About That post shows Simon was about to reveal damning secrets about each of them. The kinds of secrets that can ruin lives…

The book is split into short sections narrated by the four main characters, and this took a bit of getting used to, but it’s an effective way for each to tell their story.

I won’t spoil the ending by revealing who was responsible for Simon’s death, but every one of them had a good reason for wanting him dead. However, so did a number of other students he had crossed swords with. And who is behind the Tumblr posts written by someone who says they are the killer? The posts that keep revealing more secrets the four want to keep quiet?

Did one of them kill Simon, or are they all in on it? Was it someone else? The last part of the book reads like a good murder mystery, with lots of red herrings, dead ends and a sudden realisation people are not always what they seem. The questions are all answered and tied up neatly, and there is even a happy ending or two thrown in for good measure.

This book deals with some sensitive issues, so maybe a little parental guidance and support would be a good idea.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

One of us is Lying
by Karen M. McManus
Published by Penguin
ISBN 9780141375632