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: 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

 

Book Review: Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor

Now available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_strange_the_Dreamer.jpgThe most beautiful books are always the hardest to review, and whatever I write, it is difficult to capture the sheer beauty that is Laini Taylor’s prose, while embracing the mesmerising surreality of the worlds she conceives. Her style is lyrical, evocative, and rich with imagination. Strange the Dreamer is unlike any tale you may read this year, but suffice to say it is an immersive, magical read with a taste of romance and tragedy. Add this to your reading list this winter.

They say that the dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around, and Lazlo Strange has always been a dreamer. A war orphan and a librarian, Lazlo has always been fascinated in fairy tale and myth, particularly that concerning the lost city known as Weep. But what happened to the city 200 years ago, when it was cut from the world? And why – how? – did it lose its name, 15 years ago? Lazlo has always wondered, but feared he would not be the one to find it. For he is just a librarian, no hero, no golden alchemist, no legend in the making. However, when a living legend, the man they call the Godslayer, suddenly appears on the doorstep – together with a band of unusual beasts and heralded by a great white bird – Lazlo realises he cannot let this opportunity slip through his fingers.

But Weep is not the city he has dreamed of. It is buried in sadness and burdened with a past that haunts even those that can no longer remember it, hidden in the shadows of the mysterious “gods”. These gods may have been destroyed, but their presence still lingers on in the darkness and the flicker of a moth’s wing, and in the shattered hearts of those touched by the tragedy of their reign.

The prose is exquisite and rich, the characters wonderfully real. Between these pages there is heartbreak and hope, both bittersweet and beautiful. Taylor has taken the traditional tale: the orphaned underdog rising to become the hero, but given it a fresh twist and an exotic taste. It will entrance you, surprise you, and haunt you long after that final page is turned.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Strange the Dreamer
by Laini Taylor
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN 9781444788976

Book Review: Gemina, by Amie Kaufman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_geminaTalk about an adrenaline rush! Gemina is the action-packed follow-up to Illuminae, a book quite unlike any I have ever read before. A combination of transcripts, reports and IM conversations, interspersed with some absolutely delightful drawings by the very talented Marie Lu.

New characters, new setting, and a few familiar faces, but the same heart-racing, page-turning, rollercoaster-ride-of-emotion that I experienced with its predecessor.

Gemina is set in Heimdall, the jumpstation and destination for the refugees from the Kerenza events of book one. Hanna’s father is the resident captain, and Hanna is somewhat pampered, but definitely not to be underestimated. It’s hard to live the high life in a space station at the edge of the universe, but Hanna still wears the latest fashions, dates the most handsome guy, and illustrates her life in her journal.

Nik is a member of a notorious crime family, delving (reluctantly) into their underground drug operation (it involves cows and alien parasites, and is one of the most disturbing things you will ever read about, trust me). Their lives have little in common, and their paths rarely cross.

Until BeiTech operatives invade the jumpstation. Their mission: seize the jumpstation, silence the incoming Hypatia crew, and destroy all evidence of the Kerenza attack. Little do they know who they’re going up against. Hanna’s more than a pretty face, and Nik has quite a few aces up his sleeve. But can two teenagers survive against armed militants, alien predators, and a malfunctioning wormhole that threatens to tear space and time apart?

Like Hanna and Nik, we’re in for one heck of a ride!

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Illuminae Files_02: Gemina
by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781925266573

Book Review: The One Memory of Flora Banks, by Emily Barr

cv_the_one_memory_of_flora_banksAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.
Flora Banks is no ordinary teenager. She is 17 years old, but has no memories since the age of ten, when a tumour took part of her brain. To compensate for her lack of memory, Flora relies on keeping notes: scrawled messages along her arm, post-its, and a notebook carried with her always, and photographs on her cell phone. No memories last longer than a few hours, until the night she kisses a boy on the beach and discovers, much to her amazement, that she can remember it. Unfortunately, it is also the kiss that ruins her friendship with best-friend-since-childhood, Paige. The boy leaves, to study in the Arctic north, and her parents are called away – Flora’s barely-remembered brother is ill, very ill, and he needs them more than she does. For the first time in her life (as far as she knows), Flora is left alone, alone with the memory of the boy who kissed her. The boy she remembered…

Written from Flora’s perspective, this makes for an uncertain narrative: how much of Flora’s life is she sharing with us, and how many secrets are hidden in the blank spaces between the paragraphs? What is truth and what is fantasy? The longer her parents are away, the stronger and more independent Flora becomes, until they don’t come back and she decides, instead, to chase the fantasy and seek greater understanding of herself.

The One Memory is a roller-coaster ride of emotion and uncertainty, tempered with frustration. Flora is likeable in her innocence, her seeming-fragility that masks are harder, sharper core. Watching her grow to become more than just the memory-hampered teenager, is both rewarding and a little frightening. It should be enjoyed by fans of John Green and Jennifer Niven, and anyone who likes a good teenage drama with (relatively) good morals.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The One Memory of Flora Banks
by Emily Barr
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9780141368511

 

Book Review: A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, Illustrated by Jim Kay

Available in bookshops nationwide.Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_monster_calls_special“He heard the creaking and cracking of wood again groaning like a living thing, like the hungry stomach of the world growling for a meal.” Fourteen-year-old Conor O’Malley isn’t entirely surprised to wake up one night and discover a monster at the window. He has been expecting it for years and quite frankly, it is not as terrifying as the nightmare that has been plaguing him. The one he refuses to think about.

And now the Yew tree on the hill has somehow come to life and has grabbed him… and yet Conor is not afraid: “Shout all you want,” Conor shrugged, barely raising his voice. “I’ve seen worse.”

The next time the Yew tree monster returns, It and Conor meet in the dark where the monster reveals Its purpose. It will return to tell Conor three tales from Its vast and ancient history. In return, on the fourth visit, Conor must tell It a tale – the tale of his Truth. Conor is rightly incredulous – surely stories are not what monsters come after you for? However, this is no ordinary monster and a story is what it demands. ‘Stories are wild creatures,’ the monster said. ‘When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?’

To get to Conor’s truth, we follow a beautifully written coming of age story of a young boy trying to come to terms with his mother’s grave illness and the impact it has on him. With an absent father and a cold and aloof grandmother, Conor has no-one to help him deal with the inevitable. Instead he chooses to fervently believe she will get better and refuses to talk about it, secluding himself from friends and sympathetic teachers at school.

And what of the monster’s stories? Three clever fables that strive to show Conor that life can be unfair and things are not always as they appear; good and evil is not always easy to determine; good people do bad things, and bad people can do good things.

Powerful and gripping writing, accompanied by dark and vivid black and white sketch illustrations propel you through the story, reading faster to get to what is going to happen next. To see how Conor is faring, to see if he is going to be all right. And to see what the monster is going to reveal to him: (*ever so slight spoiler alert) “You do not write your life with words,’ the monster said. You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.”

This wonderful story was first published in 2011 and this re-release is a beautifully presented hardback edition complete with colour photos and interviews with the author and the actors who are bringing this story to life. The extra goodies complete the whole background to the story and bring extra depth to the tale.

Author Patrick Ness has said of this book: ‘A Monster Calls (is) never solely a book for children. A good story should be for everyone.’ And it is.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

A Monster Calls (Special Collector’s Edition)
by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay
Published by Walker Books
ISBN: 9781406395771

Book Review: Lonesome When You Go, by Saradha Koirala

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_lonesome_when_you_goSaradha Koirala was born and raised in New Zealand. She is a teacher of English literature and creative writing at high schools and universities. Her third book Lonesome When You Go takes us to a town in New Zealand, and into the world of rock and classical music.

Lonesome When You Go follows the story of a teenage girl named Paige as she faces all sorts of challenges with her bandmates, friends and family. Over the course of the novel Paige discovers that she can’t always control everything in her life. This novel is filled with lots of fun, quirky unique characters, who help Paige discover that she’s never alone even when it seems like no one is there.

I very much enjoyed Lonesome When You Go and it’s dramatic twists and turns and they way that the characters beliefs grew over the course of the novel. I would highly recommend this novel to any high school student or music fanatic.

Reviewed by Isabelle Ralston (14)

Lonesome When You Go
by Saradha Koirala
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 9780994123749