Book Review: Coming Home to Roost, by Mary-Anne Scott

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_coming_home_to_roostThere has been an ongoing discussion in New Zealand bookish circles about YA books for boys; stirred up, in part, due to the controversial banning of Ted Dawe’s Into the River last year. It’s a discussion that has thrown up some interesting questions. What kind of content is suitable and/or unsuitable for younger readers? What control do we (and should we) have over the content young people consume? And perhaps most importantly; How do we get (and keep) boys reading?

It’s an important conversation, and one that should involve less ‘talking at’ or ‘talking around’ and more ‘talking with’ real teenagers. Let’s face it, we all have opinions. And those opinions are mostly based on our own experiences or values rather than on anything concrete.

I’ve never been a teenage boy, and so in that regard I feel quite underqualified to review Coming Home to Roost. But while saying that, there were times when I was reading this that I felt the author didn’t nail the teenage voice. I’ve never heard a teenager (even a musical one) describe watching an orchestral performance as a high similar to smoking drugs, and I felt that the Peter Pan/Elliot ‘boy who never grows up’ analogy was an insult to Elliot’s development in the tradition of the bildungsroman (Holden Caulfield would never have described himself as a whiner).

While there is a glimpse of on-the-nose social realism here, which explores some very real and engaging issues – I’m told that Coming Home to Roost is the first NZ novel to cover teenage pregnancy from the male protagonist’s point of view – I couldn’t help but feel like this story has been sterilized in terms of characterization, content and morality.

To me, the beauty in social realism is struggling with decisions alongside characters. It’s that gut-churney feeling of realising that real lives and real decisions are varied and complex and double-edged and just plain hard. Too often while reading this I felt like I was being fed a moral agenda, like the ‘right’ decision was there all along, and I just had to wait for Elliot to ‘grow up’; to ‘be a man’. And I couldn’t help but ask myself, is that really what our boys want to read?

I am not a teenage boy; and I’m sure many New Zealand teenagers will read and enjoy this book. There is a solid story here. And despite my griping, I still believe it’s a story we need more of.

Reviewed by Emma Bryson

Coming Home to Roost
by Mary-Anne Scott
Published by Longacre
ISBN 9781775538592

Book Review: From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle, by Kate De Goldi

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This book will be launched tonight at Unity Books Wellington, from 6pm. It will be available in bookshops nationwide from tomorrow.  

I had to slow myself down while reading this book, to better savour the words inside. Halfway through, I already knew I wanted to re-read it. Kate De Goldi is a spectacular wordsmith. Her main characters, Ren and Barney, are alive on the page, so alive that to read their story is to experience it. I certainly experienced a craving for Sultana Pasties, Barney’s favourite biscuit, while reading each evening.

Barney Kettle, as you can probably tell from the cover and title of the book, is a filmmaker. He lives and breathes “thethrillingalchemyofthecreativeprocess”. Though he is only 12, he is certain a successful career as a film director is in his future. After all, he has already produced three 15-minute films. His teacher mum thinks he is a megalomaniac, but also thinks that this is a good thing for a film director to be. He loves nothing more than to be called ‘Maestro’. His 11-year-old sister Ren is his ‘Slash’. She plays the role of producer / assistant director / casting director / set designer / costume manager / location scout / caterer in all of his grandly schemed films.

We enter the world of Barney and Ren from the perspective of an unnamed man in a hospital bed. He begins the story twice, and the story is written, though not strictly alternately, from Barney then Ren’s points of view. The perspectives of each sibling bring a different colour to their story of the street they live on; for their fourth film is to be a documentary called the Untold Story, and it is about the Street and its residents, each of whom comes alive as they are filmed. Bambi, a Canadian acrobat, is just one of these residents: ‘She had performed with a triple trapeze in countless Big Tops; she had lived closely with clowns.’

280px-ChristchurchBasilica_gobeirneAs well as being the story of Barney, this is the story of Christchurch’s High Street prior to the earthquake. I lived in the Catholic boarding school next to the Basilica mentioned in this novel, attending there once a week for mass (and once walking inside the top of the domes). I often walked to town via High Street, and first became aware of how beautiful certain periods of architecture were while walking down it. Kate writes incredibly immersive books – as with the character of Frankie in The 10pm Question, you feel you want to jump up and down with Barney when he is excited, and your emotions plunge with Barney’s as glitches in his grand plans arise.

As well as the story of the Street, there is a mystery, which begins concurrent to the Untold Story with a simple white envelope marked ‘YOU’. We follow the siblings through the homes of their friends, filming as we go, and keeping an eye out for another envelope. One brilliant filming session happens in Montgomery’s, the community bookshop. Suit drops in to purchase his weekly book – a day early – and the siblings ask him what he likes about the shop.

Oh, it’s the ambience…. Then there is the endless potential in the books, the warmth they seem to exude, their heady aroma. The filtered light. And the hush of absorption. The holy feeling of a republic of readers. And the presiding magus – the person who brings us all this. Without Gene’s dedication, and Sarah’s and Billie’s, of course, where would we be? We would be a lesser Street.’

I feel richer for having read about the people of De Goldi’s High Street, from the bookshop to the Nut Shop, the junk shop the kids’ dad runs, to the Living History Museum – an echo of the website created by ex-High Street inhabitants, High Street Stories. I urge everybody to go and get this book and read it, no matter your age. This ode to the Christchurch of yore is phenomenally good.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle
by Kate De Goldi
Published by Longacre Press / Penguin Random House NZ
ISBN 9781775535768

Book Review: Being Magdalene, by Fleur Beale

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_being_magdalene

Fleur Beale has done it again. Being Magdalene is destined to be as big a classic as the first book in the series about the Pilgrim children, I am not Esther. The other in the series, I am Rebecca, was a finalist in both the judge’s and the children’s choice lists in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults this year; and was Librarian’s Choice at the LIANZA Hell Children’s Book Awards.

Once again we enter the mind of a child who is a member of the fundamentalist sect The Children of the Faith. 12-year-old Magdalene is the second-youngest child of the Pilgrim family, and Zillah is her 8-year-old sister. Zillah is intelligent and rebellious, and while she understands what she must and must not do under the Rule they live by, Magdalene protects Zillah emotionally from the most severe of the cult’s rulings. They go to the ‘Faith’ school, and this is the only school Zillah has ever known. At this school, girls are taught only enough to make them good wives, which annoys the extremely intelligent Zillah.

Magdalene and Zillah have two older brothers, Abraham and Luke. Neither brother lives devotedly within the Rule, and Luke wants to go to university eventually to study religion; to understand the true history of how religion occurs. Abraham, meanwhile, wants to study electrical engineering, the benefits of which to the Faith community are initially doubted, but ultimately accepted – with the caveat that those who leave the faith to study must be married men.

The genius of this story is that on the surface of it, this is the story of faithful children being raised by an arbitrary rule created by a single man, Elder Stephen, who claims to speak for the Lord. Dig deeper, and it is a story of any people who live in oppression; or any teenager who lives within the rules their parents define, seemingly arbitrarily.These things are not the same to us, but to a teenager, what do you think?

Being Magdalene is an extremely tense read. Throughout the book, Magdalene is struggling in her mind between what she has been raised to believe is right and true; and the flaws she can see in that which the Elders are preaching. Her biggest concern is that her sister’s spirit will be squashed by the Rule, and that she will never grow into her potential. Magdalene goes to hospital early on in the book after making her hands bleed through digging a deep hole in the sand: she has no memory of this incident, but this is the first time we encounter worldly people and their opinions of the cult.

The doctors that see Magdalene are immediately suspicious of sexual misconduct, and violence within the cult: that’s what everybody thinks a cult is. This happens again and again, each time Magdalene has to interact with outsiders, they judge her before knowing her. Magdalene’s wounds are not on the surface however, they go much deeper than anybody realises until later in the book.

I urge you to read this brilliant book about how the human spirit can triumph against adversary, and how people can heal themselves better than they know. It is a universal tale, told with clarity and grace.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Being Magdalene
by Fleur Beale
Published by Penguin Random House NZ
ISBN 9781775537670

Book Review: Cattra’s Legacy, and Donnel’s Promise, by Anna Mackenzie

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Both of these books are available now in bookstores nationwide. 

Risha’s tale begins in the mountainous village of Torfell, shortly after her father’s death. Her life is about to change, and not necessarily for the better, as she is forced to leave her home and begin a journey across a perilous countryside, following the legacy of a mother she can barely remember.

It took me a while to warm to the story. The characterisation and writing style is very rich, vivid and lyrical, but for the first part of the journey Risha’s role in it is fairly passive. After making her initial decision, she then basically becomes caught up in it, events forcing her along with them. We are introduced to a large cast of characters − some of which have mere passing roles, others of which we will learn more of later.

Once Risha began to take control of her own life, to make decisions for herself, she became a much stronger character and from then on the tale became a far more engrosing one. There are some truly tense moments here and I enjoyed watching her develop friendships and establish relationships without any of the over-exaggerated romance-fluff so prevalent in teen novels. There are some hints of in which direction her heart may lead her, but that is precisely what I would expect from a 15-year old girl.

The final section of the book gets more heavily into the politics of the various kingdoms, and with quite a large cast of characters with conflicting views, some of it is likely to go over the younger reader’s head, but it builds to a fine crescendo and a nail-biting finale.

Overall, a skillfully woven tale of a young girl, who starts as a well-educated but naive lass, and develops into a somewhat more canny young lady.

Cattra’s Legacy
by Anna Mackenzie
Published by Longacre Press
ISBN 9781775533184

cv_donnels_promiseDonnel’s Promise

A strong follow-up to “Cattra’s Legacy”, this instalment establishes Risha as a worthy player in court politics. It has a better pacing, and she plays a more pro-active role in this volume, as she sets out on a tour of Havre with a small company, only to find themselves ambushed and thrust into the middle of a potential political uprising. Through their combined quick wits, and the support of loyal friends and subjects − including some we were introduced to in the first book − Risha must win back what is hers by right.

Risha is an admirable character, and many of the females are portrayed in bold, active roles. Whilst there are hints of potential future romance, the fact that this lies secondary to Risha’s personal growth leads power to the story and portrays her as a stronger role model to her teenage audience. I enjoyed both books, this one especially, and am eager to see where Risha’s journey takes her next.

Donnel’s Promise
by Anna Mackenzie
Published by Random House NZ 
ISBN 9781775535461 

Both books are reviewed by Angela Oliver 

Book review: The ACB with Honora Lee by Kate De Goldi

cv_A_B_C_with_Honora_leeThis book is in bookstores now.

If you’re looking for a sensational book to read this summer, look no further. The ACB with Honora Lee is New Zealand author Kate De Goldi’s latest book, and tells the story of nine-year-old Perry.

Perry likes to ask questions, but she rarely gets answers. Her mother and father are very busy people, and are always working. She doesn’t have many children to play with, either; only her babysitter Nina’s son Claude. Perry is an only child, and her family is very small. There’s Perry, her mum and dad; and, of course, there’s Gran.

Gran lives at Santa Lucia, a home for the elderly. Perry and her father visit her there every Saturday. Santa Lucia is a chaotic place, full of mishaps, mysteries and peppermints. When one of Perry’s classes is cancelled, she decides to spend her Thursdays at Santa Lucia with her gran. The people at Santa Lucia are, to say the least, a wild bunch. Perry’s gran, for instance, has a habit of stealing Melvyn Broome’s peppermints. Melvyn Broome has a habit of hitting people who steal his peppermints with his walking cane. Gran, as well as most the people at Santa Lucia, has a weak memory, yet instead of being confused, she sticks to the few things she can remember about her past. Perry decides that what this unusual yet lovable family needs is something practical, reliable, and orderly; and what could be more reliable than an alphabet book?

As Perry works on her ABC book, she tries to stick to the rules, but as the people at Santa Lucia help her, the alphabet soon is an A-C-B; a jumbled, confused version of the alphabet. Nothing stays the same at Santa Lucia, but soon Perry begins to wonder: is it Gran, Doris and the others who don’t make sense, or is it the strict, “do-as-I-say” world outside Santa Lucia’s walls that doesn’t?

The ACB with Honora Lee is a simple yet powerful novel, and will be enjoyed by children and adults alike. It is tinged with subtle humour and written in an almost poetic way. You will never want to put it down!

Reviewed by Tierney Reardon

The ACB with Honora Lee
by Kate De Goldi
Longacre Press $34.99
ISBN 9781869799892