Mother-me, fly-on-the-wall.

“You should be glad they call you a nerd,” the older one says.  The strain of his emotions twists his face all out of shape.  “Trust me, you don’t want to be called a dumb-ass like me!”  He whirls around and sets his eyes on the road, fighting the swell in his throat.

The younger one is silent for just a second.

“But you’re popular!  You’re the most popular kid in the school,”  he says.   His voice begins to wobble.  “I don’t have any friends, you said that yourself.  You said I was a loser!”

“You’re not a loser, idiot.  I just said that because I’m jealous, don’t you get it?  You’re brainy, you’re ahead in everything.  The highest maths set, the highest literacy set, the highest spelling set.  But what about me?  I’m the lowest, nothing but a stupid dumb-ass.“  Two fat tears bolt free and sprint down his cheeks.

Again there is silence.  The younger one stares out the window on his side of the road, his face stained red from the tracks of his own tears, minutes earlier.

“You’re not dumb,” he whispers after a minute.   The words don’t come easily.  He is not used to giving an inch.

But it is a shocking thing, to see his brother in tears.  Hasn’t he always been the tough one, the one with the freedom and confidence to go wherever he pleases and do whatever he pleases, never once giving a thought for how he looks or what anyone else might think of him?   Doubt is not a word in his vocabulary.  He walks through the world as if all life is a play and he wrote the script himself while he, the younger one, spends hours trying to deconstruct the social world so even the most banal of  interactions make sense to him.

He remembers that summer when he was 5 and his brother 8.  They spent weeks traveling around in their parent’s house bus, making friends in every new camping ground they called in at.  It was a seamless process.  Pull up,  walk over, start playing.

The younger one thought his brother must have known those kids from some other place, met them some other time, the way he just slotted into their games like a missing piece of jigsaw puzzle.  But he worked out later that there was a process, a normal pattern of events.  First, he remembers thinking, you say hello.  And then they might make friends with you.

Yet here he is now, this bullet-proof older brother who faces down school yard taunts with laughter and a flick of his silky fringe, crying because he isn’t immune to doubt, after all.

“You’re not dumb,” the younger one says again.  Louder this time.

The older one feels the tension in his shoulders giving way.  He sighs and wipes away the tears.  It’s not his brother’s fault.  He knows it isn’t.  It would be easy if there was someone other than himself to blame, but there isn’t.  His brain just doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.  He forgets things like times tables and commas and methods for solving long-division.

But he can recite extended passages of audio books.  And exact turns of phrase used in picture books he read when he was three.  And what people were wearing the first time he met them.  His mother thinks it’s amazing and is always getting him to do recall tricks for fun, but inside he’s raging.

Why couldn’t he have just had a normal brain that remembered the things it was supposed to remember instead of things that have no purpose, no reason to even be noticed, let alone stored up using what limited brain capacity he has in supply?

It’s not like he would have asked to be the brainiest.  Just smart enough to avoid the labels.  Dyselxic.  Dyspraxic.  Delayed.  Dumb-ass.  He acts like he doesn’t care and that it doesn’t hurt, but it does.  The labels don’t wash away.  They stay embedded in his skin and in his thoughts and come floating back to him every single time someone puts a test paper in front of him.

“Believe me,” he says, kicking the dashboard with his feet.  “It’s better to be called a nerd and be brainy than be poplar and dumb,”

The younger one looks across at his brother, his brown eyes hard as steel.  It is an unfamiliar sight, to see his emotions so exposed like this.  People say they are similar, with their sandy-brown hair and similar heights, they get mistaken for twins all the time.  But they are not alike.  At least, not in the ways that people see.

When he was born, the older one rushed into the delivery room expecting to find a fully-fledged brother, standing up, ready-to-go.  He lifted the blanket of the tiny little package, frantically shouting “Where are the legs of him?  Where are the legs of him?!”

Perhaps that was why the younger one learnt to walk at just 9 months.  He’s never been one to keep people waiting.

“It’s pop-U-lar,” he says now, doing his best to sound neutral.

“What?” says the older one, frowning.

“You said poplarPoplar is a type of tree.

He is a smart-arse, sometimes, the older one thinks, gritting his teeth and trying to ignore the smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.  But it is no use.  Laughter is a slippery thing.  If you step anywhere near its edge it will suck your feet right out from under you.

The younger one falls first, a little slip, just a chuckle.  The older one follows, shoulders shaking with the weight and energy of it, even as the tears still flow.

Their laughter fills the back of the car, loud and full and ridiculous.

I drive on, mother-me, fly-on-the-wall.


Here’s a video of the same boys on a different car journey, a few years ago.  Different range of emotions, but the same closeness.  It’s a beautiful thing, albeit noisy (and complicated and affecting and raw and wonderful), having a brother.

Book Review – Bugs, by Whiti Hereaka

BugsBugs by Whiti Hereaka

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the story of Bugs, a smart talking, street-wise 16 year old girl from small town New Zealand who thinks she’s got it all figured out.

And she does, in many ways.

Her Mum works double shifts as a cleaner at a fancy hotel servicing the booming tourist trade – a life she’d never had had if she hadn’t got pregnant with Bugs when she was a teenager. So Bugs knows about mistakes, because she is one.
Bugs has school counsellors telling her that, being Maori, she essentially has to defy statistics in order to achieve in life. So she’s knows about opportunities, because she has to make them for herself.
Bugs’ best friend, Jez, is routinely neglected by his mother and abused by his step-father, so she knows about hardship and disadvantage because her best mate doesn’t stand a chance.
Then a new girl hits town and upsets the balance.  She’s prissy, melodramatic, spoilt. A loudmouth, with no appreciation for the wealth that falls in her lap – so Bugs knows all about privilege and birthright, because she watches people like Stone Cold take it for granted every single day.
Bugs feels as though her life is just another plot from one of the dystopian novels she reads; and she already knows the script inside out.

Or does she?

You could probably draw quite a few parallels between Hereaka’s novel and Ted Dawes’ “Into the River” which won the supreme NZ Post Book Award last year. Both are YA adult novels featuring Maori protagonists during their final years of education. Both are set predominantly at school, with teachers as key characters. Both involve vulnerable youth at a point of crisis or crossroads, and both speak to the persistence of racist attitudes that prevail within the NZ education system.  But where Into the River really fell down for me was in the authenticity of the voice. I just never believed that I was inside the main character’s head – hearing his thoughts, feeling his feelings.

I didn’t have that problem with Bugs.

From the very first line, she grabbed me and drew me in. Normally, precocious young narrators drive me insane, but Bugs’ voice is utterly convincing, her experiences and perception of the world in every way believable. The connection between Bugs and Jez, a connection never fully realised or understood by either of them, is so powerful it left a clanging in my ears. 

The depictions of the farm and the dialogue between Bugs, her Uncle and her Grandparents made me feel as though I had a place right there at the table with them. Likewise, the weight of expectation Bugs carries on her shoulders is so heavy I could have sworn I was carrying it too.

For the three days this book kept me engrossed I felt like I’d returned to high school; could almost feel the dread as I walked through the school gates, smell the lockers, hear the scrape of the chairs on the lino and the droning of disinterested teachers. It’s gritty and unflinching and combative and sarcastic and deep. It builds to a climax that kept me up late, turning pages into the wee hours.  

It’s even scary. It rustled up the latent fear in me that I never realised I lived with during those high school years; the fear of getting caught, being found out, not knowing, being left behind, making the wrong choice.

As Bugs introduces us to her town, her school, her teachers, her mother and Grandparents, Jez and Stone Cold, we see the world as she sees it, but not necessarily as it is. The journey to discover what lies beneath, and to reconcile the choices her mother made with the choices she will have to make in the future, is what Bugs’ own dystopian novel must traverse.

Hereaka’s writing is beyond moving. It’s powerful, confident, fresh. It reminded me of the first time I ever read Witi Ihimaera, Albert Wendt, Patricia Grace, Keri Hulme – it’s like a veil is lifted, and I am finally reading the world as I see it, as I actually experience it.

I will be sorely disappointed if this book is not on the Awards list next year – it is every bit as important as any book I have read from New Zealand in years, and hope to see it receive the accolades and recognition that its talented writer surely deserves.

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The Beautiful Superficial

myfavouriteHere they are, my little gingerbread lovers.  I’ve missed them.  A year goes by so fast…. There is homework to do, kids to grow, books to read, a thesis (or even just a journal entry) to write.  Yet in some ways a year can drag.   A fragrance or signpost or a fleeting dream – and all of a sudden you remember things as if they happened only yesterday.  It’s cruel.  Like Penelope Lively said in Moontiger:  “Inside the head, everything happens at once.”

But if there’s one thing I learned in 2013 it’s not the value of nostalgia, rather the freedom of the Beautiful Superficial.  The 6.30am  starts.  Watching the sunrise with the middle kid.  Listening to him chatter, chatter, chatter.  The same kid everyone says is so quiet.  The kid who used to think was quiet.  That is, until I started to get to know him.  Lying on the couch with his head on my chest, watching as the sky changes from grey to orange to blue, I can’t believe I ever could have chosen to start the day any other way.   Yet I did.   For years I have been distracted, too busy hanging onto the past to be able to cherish the hundred beautiful superficial things happening to me every single day.

So 2013 is about Quitting to get ahead.






The empty space above represents all the other stuff I could say, but won’t.  I’m not sure about this blogging thing anymore, as if I ever was.

Merry Christmas everyone.  From me – and The Pretenders, who clearly didn’t get my memo on the futility of nostalgia.

The kid turns 11

I asked the kid what he wanted for his birthday, and he said “one of those video slideshows you make for everyone else.” He was referring to the videos I’ve made over the years to celebrate the milestones of other people – 21st’s, weddings , farewells…  I hardly felt as though turning 11 qualified, but I knew that wasn’t the point.  He just wanted to know that his birthday was as significant as all those other people’s.

So over the next few weeks I set about paying attention to his favourite music, because as everybody who’s ever been moved by a slideshow knows, it’s all about the music.  The lyrics tell the story as much as the images, it sets a mood and connects the viewer to the underlying sentiments.  The music should be emotive, deep, and reflect the characteristics of the person it’s dedicated to.

But you know what song the kid loves at the moment?  The song he was emphatic about when asked “what’s your favourite song?”


Gentleman, by Psy.  

As in, the grating Korean star responsible for unleashing “gangnam style” on the masses.

As in, the coma-inducing song whose lyrics are at best devoid of meaning, at worst offensive (i.e. when you understand them).

As in, the song with a beat so paralysingly annoying it’s liable to be adopted as a tool of torture.

As in, the song by the guy singlehandedly trying to bring back MC Hammer pants

As in, the song with a music video that features a guy catching his fart and throwing it in the face of the woman next to him

There was just no way, NO WAY, I could turn that song into anything sentimental.  Or could I?

Into the River by Ted Dawe – Just when you thought book banning was old school.

Into the RiverInto the River by Ted Dawe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My copy of “Into the River”, New Zealand’s supreme winner in the NZPost Book Awards, came with a little black sticker cautioning “Parental Advisory, Explicit Content.” on it. Man, I couldn’t wait to read it as soon as I saw that! Talk about way to sell a book.

But the sordid pornography, gratuitous sex scenes, rampant drug taking and general reckless teenage behaviour that had neurotic parents baulking, never actually materialised. Perhaps that’s because those neurotic parents hadn’t actually READ the book, cover to cover, in context. Or maybe it’s because I still remember what it was like to be a teenager; and I’m not in the business of feigning shock at what goes on when parents’ backs are turned.

Even the much anticipated “C-word” references left me wanting. Like the sound a lone party horn makes just before it fizzes and dies out, those passages were so fleeting, and so perfectly “within context” as to be anti-climatic. I had to re-read them just to give them another chance to make an impact. I felt like saying “C’mon Ted, you gotta earn that Parental Advisory sticker! All you’ve given us so far is real people talking how real people talk!”

And as for the sex scenes, I can honestly say I’ve inadvertently come across more offensive content searching for vacuum cleaner parts on the internet.

Yes, I’m being facetious. But hey! When was the last time a book was banned in New Zealand? This is exciting stuff! Of course, if you want to have a more serious, intelligent, philosophical and moral discussion about these issues I recommend you read Bernard Beckett’s blog and comments section. As a judge of the awards, Bernard has generously invited anyone with an opinion and an internet connection to engage with him on any and all issues raised in the book.

For those of you either not in New Zealand, or living under a rock, you must be wondering what all the fuss is about. Here’s a synopsis: “Into the River” is the story of a young Māori boy from a small rural town on the East Coast of NZ who wins a scholarship to a prestigious (predominantly Pākeha (white)), upper class boarding school in Auckland, on the strength of his academic potential. Te Arepa, or Devon as he’s nicknamed at the new school, carries the name of a heroic ancestor whose courage and bravery once saved the whole iwi (tribe). Te Arepa’s grandfather is ambitious for his grandson, seeing this scholarship as the opportunity to carry the great legacy on in modern times.

Author Ted Dawe is a school teacher with many years experience in the profession, and it shows; this feels like it’s been written by someone on the inside. He has painted larger than life characters, from Grandfather Ra, to Cousin Paikea, to the bully to the best friend, all with a light touch. Dialogue is astutely observed and drives the novel forward. There are scenes vivid enough to make you feel like you’re right there. There’s peer pressure, complicated complex relationships, fast cars, dope, decisions that are made without conscious consideration, repercussions, anger, disappointment, confusion, foolhardiness and loss.

More seriously, it explores the vulnerability of young people and the myriad ways in which they can find themselves in the kind of trouble they never anticipated coming. Including sexual vulnerability. It is about stress and ultimately survival. The momentum builds gradually but relentlessly, weaving together the strands of the past and an uncertain future in a way that ensures you will want to finish it in one sitting. “Into the River” is a so-called prequel to Thunder Road, which makes sense: the ending feels more like a new beginning than a conclusion. Bonus side-note: both novels were self-published to critical acclaim (so there, traditional publishers!).

If you ask me what the real horror in this novel was though, it was the depiction of life at a boy’s boarding school. I wish that someone might be able to reassure me that Ted Dawe got it all wrong when portraying how the pecking order is established and maintained, or how cruelly and even brutally punishments are meted out. But as a school teacher who taught in a boarding school himself, something tells me he was drawing more on fact than imagination. Forget the “C” word, think Lord of the Flies.

Although there are aspects of this novel that can be generalised and will be recognisable to anyone who’s grown up in New Zealand, “Into the River” is not about the general experience at all, rather the very specific experiences of a boy shunted out to the margins of society.

The only time where I questioned the veracity of the story was in the personal journey of Te Arepa himself. Though I liked him a lot, and could identify with his silent outrage, when he acquiesced to the pressure to shed every semblance of his former self, his very identify, in order to be accepted in a Pākeha world, I came up short. Would he really have done that? Would he not have fought back, dug his heels in, even a little?

It’s not that a Pākeha man can’t write about the Māori experience, as some vehement critics have argued. I think Ted Dawe can, and does do credibly. But we are all products of our time, and I would have expected a character like Te Arepa, raised by his grandfather (an elder or possibly even the chief of the iwi?) in a small rural town in a predominantly Māori area of New Zealand, to be fluent, or have at least some knowledge of Te Reo (Māori language). Particularly given that the novel is set in the latter period of the Māori Renaissance (although the novel is not actually specific about the period a mobile phone features, as well as party drug “e”, so it’s at least somewhere post-1990s). In other words, after the Kohanga Reo movement which saw a huge resurgence of the Māori language and an effort particularly in rural areas, to revive its roots. Surely Te Arepa’s concept of the world would have been filtered first through Te Reo?

Likewise, I would have thought Te Arepa’s cultural reference points – such as Kapa Haka, marae life, communal rituals and so on, to have been greater features in his life (and therefore to have been much harder to dispense with). The absence of these tenets may have been deliberate; a comment about the loss and dispossession that Māori have suffered, not to mention the institutional racism endured throughout successive generations. Certainly, Te Arepa feels the only way to survive is to reinvent himself. But somehow I expected the anguish he went through in coming to that conclusion would have been greater than it appeared to be, and his resistance to have been more profound than it was.

Regardless, it’s a great book, well written. And my appreciation for Ted Dawe’s talent and achievement was enriched further after reading more about him, and in particular from listening to Kim Hill’s wonderful interview where he revealed himself to be nothing if not wise, humble, intelligent, creative, and most of all, knowledgeable and passionate about literature as a means of connecting with, and validating the experiences of, young people growing up in New Zealand.

I absolutely recommend his book, although, if you are after something a little less savoury, I suggest you google vacuum cleaner parts instead.

***P.S. If you’re one of aforementioned neurotic parents who feels threatened by books portraying real life with the nasty, sex ridden, drug-addled bits left in, then you’ll be grateful that the helpful people over at Goodreads have done you the favour of putting together a censorship list for you. Go forth and ensure your kids only read these ban books for your teen!***

***P.P.S For a great, balanced review of Into The River, written long before the book won its award and drew negative speculation, see Megan’s review. It’s interesting to gauge the views of someone who was reading with a blank slate, so to speak.***

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Reading Round-up March – June 2013 (in no particular order)

The Weight of WaterThe Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is absolutely fabulous – I wish I hadn’t left it so long to review as I can now no longer do it justice.

It is a poetic novel and can be read in one sitting, in fact, I would recommend it ONLY be given your undivided attention. It has a slow-building quality to it that is triumphant in the end, making you wonder how Sarah Crossnan has achieved this with so few words. There is an implicit recognition of the power of silences, gaps and pauses for their own sake. Sometimes it isn’t what you say, but what you don’t say, that really packs a punch.

Each entry is served up as a complete poem, documenting an otherwise fairly typical story – that of an immigrant teenager making her way in a foreign country with very little knowledge of the language and culture and a fair chunk of emotional baggage to boot. Kasienka arrives in England with her mother in search of her father, who has walked out on the marriage without a trace. While her mother is consumed with her own pain, Kasienka battles a school bully, falls in love, misses her father, is watchful of her mother, finds her outlet in sport, and learns to make the best of her life with a quiet determination and resolve that’ll have you fist-pumping the air in the final pages.

A book not to be merely read, but re-read and savoured.

TaxiTaxi by خالد الخميسي

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Everyone knows that the real way to get to know any country is to hail a cab, jump in, and let the driver rant and rave at will. This is the starting premise of Taxi, by Khaled Alkhamissi, whose narrator in the novel we never come to know. Instead, the central character relays the conversations, verbatim, that he has with any number of taxi drivers in Cairo over the course of perhaps a year. Published in 2006 prior to the Arab spring, it has been described by critics as “The novel that predicted the uprising”.

It lays out a myriad of views and experiences of common people living in Egypt, their daily realities, challenges and hopes in life. It is an overtly political novel, although the characters themselves are not inherently politicised. They’re just trying to get on in life; to work and provide for their families, to educate their children and provide them with a future that is secure. But they’re thwarted at every turn, and everybody has a different opinion about who is to blame and what should be done about it.

The novel is dedicated “to the life that dwells in the words of simple people”, and “simple” though those people may be, I found this book profoundly insightful and more enlightening than the nightly news.

Homecoming (Tillerman Cycle, #1)Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book packed as good a punch as it did when I first read it more than 20 years ago. Another reviewer elsewhere said that they idolised Dicey so much when they were growing up they actually thought they wanted to be her. I can totally relate to that. I still have a perfectly formed vision in my mind of my mother leaving me in a car parking lot with my three younger siblings while she went away and never came back. I still remember which car parking lot it was (outside Woolworths in Papakura), what colour and make the car was (Green Morris Minor), how hot it was that day (sweltering) and how long it took to get dark (hours).

Of course, in reality, I don’t even have younger siblings, it never got hotter than 25 degrees in Papakura, we never owned a green Morry, and my Mum, though she often left me in the car, was frustratingly diligent about returning a few moments later. It’s strange because why would anybody wish for such circumstances anyway? What an awful reality Dicey faced when she realised the children were her sole responsibility and that she would have to get them hundreds of miles across the country on foot with no money, to the house of a Great Aunty she’d never met. Worse still, to be met by very unwelcome relatives at the other end when she did finally make it. What a devastatingly tough reality to contend with at any age, let alone 13.

But it is the strength of Dicey’s character that attracts you. Her singular determination, her confidence, her good heart and her unwillingness to ever let her spirit be broken. She is a superhero for young girls – and even, it turns out all these years later, mature woman as well.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book ends powerfully, but wasn’t nearly as gripping or as humorous as I had anticipated. Junior’s voice did not reverberate with any real authenticity, nor did the circumstances of his life fit with any conception of reality that rang true for me. It begins with Junior’s fairly explicit description of how the trauma of his birth left him with water on the brain. He survived surgery as a newborn but was left with “all sorts of physical problems.” He has an oversized head, for example, too many teeth, lopsided eyesight, tiny feet, and suffers from seizures and headaches.

Yet despite setting the entire foundation for the novel and for our understanding of Junior as a person, these disabilities are never again referred to in the book. Although he only narrowly avoided brain damage, for example, Junior was never held back intellectually. The opposite in fact – he quickly reveals himself to be of boundless academic ability. He understands intimately that his prospects in life are doomed so long as he stays on the reservation where alcoholism, poverty and violence abounds. So he leaves. He turns his back on his best friend, his family and everything he knows, and enrols in the rich white school in a neighbouring farming town. As if the solution is that simple. And implausibly, it is. Instead of being rejected and ridiculed, this big-headed, short-footed, fat-glasses kid becomes wildly popular, the star shooter on the basketball team and bags the hottest girl in school.

It all feels rather implausible, particularly when Junior reflects on his sometimes turbulent year and cries

I wept and wept because i knew that I was never going to drink and because I was never going to kill myself and because I was going to have a better life out in the white world.

It wasn’t as though Junior didn’t celebrate his Indian-ness, and there are certainly moments where he captures the non-tangible treasures of his culture. But it felt as though only one solution to the social ills plaguing his people was ever explored; that being to assert the power of the individual, and ultimately to “get out.”

Which I felt was a rather sad note to leave on.

**Although not an indigenous writer, this book felt like a poor cousin of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall. Now THERE’S is a book not to be missed**

Macbeth (A Shakespeare Story)Macbeth by Andrew Matthews

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fantastic way to introduce the kids to Shakespeare. We read this in one short sitting and the kids were well enthralled. The illustrations are fantastic and the pace, length and language is perfect. We sat around talking about Macbeth’s folly for quite awhile afterwards too. Highly recommended series (assuming these are part of a series? I will look for others)

Nothing to Lose But Your Life: An 18-Hour Journey With MuradNothing to Lose But Your Life: An 18-Hour Journey With Murad by Suad Amiry

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The premise of this book has everything going for it – a Palestinian woman disguises herself as a man and crosses the Israeli border illegally with a bus load of young men who make this journey on a daily basis in search of work. Two thirds of the way in, Suad Amiry writes:

“If anything, this trip had confused the hell out of me. I had no idea where we had been, where we were, or where we were heading. The more I thought about it, the more I began to worry about my readers: how was I to remember all of this and how was I to explain things for them? If it wasn’t clear to me, then how would my readers understand? Anyway, why should my readers understand something I couldn’t grasp?”

I feel bad saying this, but Amiry was right to worry. It was a big call to ask her readers to understand something which she herself found it hard to make sense of, let alone to communicate. And ultimately? I don’t think she was successful. The book is hard to follow, in the sense that the reader isn’t always made aware of the passage of time in relation to what is coming next. This may be a perfectly accurate reflection of the events and how they unfolded in the moment – but unfortunately it doesn’t make for a coherent reading experience.

Add to that, the narration is infused with personal reflections and occasional political and/or historical references, which rather than provide a much-needed context for the story, only serves to confuse the reader and adds to the muddled-up sense of timing. If a person already has a good understanding of the plight of illegal workers braving the very real dangers of crossing the border to search for work in Israel, then this book might take shape more naturally in their minds. But if it’s your first exposure to the harsh reality of life in the West Bank, it’s likely to leave you with more questions than answers.

To be equally critical of myself, I didn’t commit to this book the time or singular attention it might have deserved. Then again, if a book is powerful enough, that singular attention is earned on its own merits…

Because of Winn-DixieBecause of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I cannot love this book any harder if I tried. If I somehow managed to laminate myself inside the front cover, it still would not be close enough. This is the second time I’ve read it and I can’t believe how perfect it still is. Maybe it’s getting better with (my own) age. Kate DiCamillo is a genius, she is subtle, heartfelt, gripping and her words will bowl you over with their simplicity.

You would not think that you could read aloud a book to a 6 year old that explores guilt, abandonment, grief, alcoholism and longing and have them understand a single word of it. Hell, you would have to ask yourself whether it would even be appropriate. And yet somehow DiCamillo gets away with it. More than that, she makes an achingly wonderful tribute to the beauty and triumph of human – and DOG – relationships, which, even though no substitute for the answers to all these unresolvable questions in life, can make the not knowing bearable.

How’s this scene:

“You always give up!” I shouted. “You’re always pulling your head inside your stupid old turtle shell. I bet you didn’t even go out looking for my mama when she left. I bet you just let her run off, too.”
“Baby,” the preacher said. “I couldn’t stop her. I tried. Don’t you think I wanted to her to stay, too? Don’t you think I miss her every day?” He spread his arms out wide and then dropped them to his side. “I tried,” he said. “I tried.” Then he did something I couldn’t believe.
He started to cry.”

I dare you to read this book and not be affected.

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The One and Only IvanThe One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fabulous book to read aloud – sweet, funny, with a feel good ending. Highly recommended! 8-12 yrs.


Two PintsTwo Pints by Roddy Doyle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To read this novel you will need:

An Irish accent
A sense of humour
A solid memory of world events and politics spanning part way through 2011 and into 2012
A high level of tolerance for football, Irish domestic policy, frequent references to popular culture, sarcasm, dry wit and profanity
Approximately 90 minutes of uninterrupted spare time
Someone to gift it on to when you’re done.


The God of Small Things – Getting better with age.

The God of Small ThingsThe God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Most books give us something – but the really special books are the ones that take something away. A piece of ourselves. The God of Small Things is one such book – still.

The first time I read it, way back in 2001, it floored me. All these years later I couldn’t remember much detail about the plot, which is the fate of most books I fear, but I did remember the feeling it left me with; an aching, throbbing, painful sense of loss.

The The Book Thief and The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, and and All the Pretty Horses and Birdsong to name but a few, are all books that fall into a similar category. The category of “books-that-live-on-long-after-you-finish them” category. Books whose characters are frozen in time in that one monumental scene; that one page you cannot forget. A page that was so real and vivid that there is a part of you convinced you were actually there. In The Book Thief it comes when Liesel rocks the body of her beloved Papa. In All The Pretty Horses it’s when John Grady Cole’s girl says to him “I cannot do what you ask. I love you. But I cannot.” With Edgar Mint, that moment comes when he finally pieces together the puzzle of his life, and sitting on the edge of the tub, holds his cursed head in his hand and cries….

And on and on. The unique thing about The God of Small Things, is that there are so many pages that hit you like this. Not solely for the revelations they contain, but for the unique way in which the story is told.

It bothers me that so many people dislike or have found The God of Small Things frustrating to read, so you’ll excuse me if this review takes on a defensive tone. I do understand why it is a polarising read. Once you learn that a little girl drowned amidst a backdrop of family scandal, which you do within the first 5 or 6 pages, for what purpose would you continue reading? Giving your readers the entire plot within the opening pages, and then cycling and double-backing over the events like you might crochet a blanket is certainly no conventional way to tell a story.

Yet somehow Roy still manages to achieve a perfect story arc. The climax – an event which you already know is coming – builds towards the end with a momentum that insists you seek out the detail; the small things.

Granted, the reader has to work hard to put together a time-sequence that works, pretty much for the duration of the novel, all while getting to know the many larger-than-life characters and where they fit into the web of intricate relationships that bind one to another (for an excellent review of the characters see Lisa’s review here). I understand that this could be tiring, especially if you’re not enamoured by wordplay, which has to be understood as a A Thing Itself (to borrow a quirk of expression from Roy).

You have to be able to appreciate words for their own sake; for their power, for their playfulness, for their precision, their ability to say one thing yet mean another, their weakness and inadequacy, their relationship to other words, their malleability but ultimately their authority.

This is particularly apparent in the dialogue between the twins, much of which is communicated silently, and often uses repetitive phrases and invented words.

Across the tall iron railing that separated Meeters from the Met, and Greeters from the Gret, Chacko, beaming, bursting through his suit and sideways tie, bowed to his new daughter and ex-wife. In his mind, Estha said, “Bow”.

People, places and adult interactions are also often described from the perspective of the children:

The skyblue Plymouth with tailfins had a smile for Sophie Mol. A chromebumpered sharksmile. A Paradise Pickles carsmile.


But the Waiting Air grew Angry….. In the quietness of the Play (the Blue Army in the green-heat still watching), Ammu walked back to the Plymouth, took out her suitcase, slammed the door, and walked away to her room, her shoulders shining.

But then how about this for a description:

The taxi smelled of old sleep. Old clothes rolled up. Damp towels. Armpits. It was, after all, the taxi driver’s home. He lived in it. It was the only place he had to store his smells. The seats had been killed. Ripped. A swathe of dirty yellow sponge spilled out and shivered on the backseat like an immense jaundiced liver. The driver had the ferrety alertness of a small rodent. He had a hooked Roman nose and a Little Richard mustache.

With the story focusing primarily on the twins in the days before and after Sophie Mol’s death, Roy subtly reinforces their overwhelming innocence, powerlessness and vulnerability in what happened (and in the actions and reactions of others), even though ultimately it became the singular event determining the future of their entire lives.

It is particularly painful, for example, when the children, starving for for the sunlight of mother’s affection, let her down – in the normal way that children let their parents down. But Ammu’s dedication to raising them well is an expression of her love, and when they misbehave she withdraws that love. Not deliberately, not maliciously, but in the way that hurt people sometimes hurt. In the way that adults sometimes do carelessly, with the blind certainty that comes from thinking you will have all the time in the world to make amends. As a mother, who knows the pleasure of being worshipped by her children (however fleeting it may be!), these were the scenes that raked at my chest like a breadknife. Because I’m flippant sometimes too. And we all make mistakes. It’s just that in Ammu’s case, the consequences of her arrogance were devastating.

“D’you know what happens when you hurt people?” Ammu said. “When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.”


“Just go away!” Ammu had said. “Why can’t you just go away and leave me alone?!” So they had.

But Ammu is not heartless or callous. She is simply a fallible human being who had no way of predicting that her throw-away words would trigger such a fateful series of events. Besides, there are any number of other people who could be held responsible for the tragedy that unfolded on the river that day – depending on how far you want to go back and how wide you want to cast the net. Whether it be a disgruntled, jealous, conniving aunt, a drunk but well-meaning man o’ his times, the entire caste-system which prohibited the affair between Ammu and Velutha in the first place, a violent father whose abuse of his wife echoed on down through the generations, or the cops who were ‘just doing their duty’.

This is why Roy quotes John Berger in the preface to her novel “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.” The God of Small Things is more about the characters than it is about the things that happen to them. It’s no good to understand merely what happened, we need to know why. This requires close and diligent scrutiny of the detail. No stone should be left unturned. If someone is to blame for a tragedy, if someone must bear responsibility for the grief and misery and hardship that another has suffered, we must find out who. Is anyone truly innocent?

Or if no-one is to blame, perhaps we should blame the God of Small Things – the one who controls the tiny twists of fate that slowly contribute, build-up and accumulate over time, drop by drop, until finally the water breaches the brim and the bucket tips over – in which case, can any single person ever be held entirely responsible?

People have criticised the God of Small Things for forcing them to suffer under the weight of all this detail, but I want yell “No!!! The DETAIL is the Point!” Maybe if The God of Small Things were renamed The God of Detail, people would be less frustrated?

Rating in 2001 = 5 stars
Rating in 2013 = 5 stars

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Dear Teacher, I don’t care about my kid’s grades.

Dear Teacher,

Hi there. Glad to meet you.

I wanted to take a couple of minutes to let you know that I don’t care about grades, targets, inputs, outputs, data, graphs, averages, national standards or any other fashionable way of measuring my kid’s so-called achievement. I especially don’t care about these things if it means producing such paperwork is sapping your inspiration and leaving you tired and stressed in the classroom.

I want you to have sufficient time to plan lessons that are relevant to the class and the students in front of you today. I have confidence in your ability to recognise when a particular style or method isn’t working, and to adapt the lesson accordingly. Every kid is different, we all know that. I also know that the rigid policy pushing you to prioritise the particular method or theory that is popular today, is not the same method that was popular yesterday.

I know that you have a wealth of experience working with children and I value that experience for the nuanced, unique and practical wisdom it has given you. Use it. I want you to be adventurous and spontaneous in the classroom, even if it means… no, especially if it means doing things outside the square. When you discover, for example, that one of your student’s parents knows someone who can come and talk about their first hand experience of the topic you’re studying – a standing MP, a refugee, a former Olympian, I want you to have the flexibility, flair and above all management support, to totally re-work the term calendar to fit that opportunity in.

I want you to lead as much by instinct for what you can see is working right in front of you, as by your training. You will come to know your students well during the year; what is likely to interest and motivate them. Do that. I want you to teach my kid how to learn, not solely what to learn. Moreover, I want you to inspire him as a lifelong learner, not to turn him off by studying topics or reading books that you yourself find boring.

I want you to be part of the reason my kid goes to school in the morning with a spring in his step. It’s a cliche to say that teachers should be inspirational, but what’s so wrong with the cliche?

When kids play up and frustrate the hell out of you, or lack respect for your authority, I want you to know that I trust your judgment on the best way to deal with it. I’ve got your back. I want you to be firm – but fair. On the other hand, when a kid is acting out and you can see through his/her behaviour for what it really is, I want you to be generous enough to keep on trying and never give up on that kid.

I want you to be paid well. Your remuneration should reflect the value that we place as a society on education – which is to say there is no more important job (except perhaps mine!) The hard work, patience and dedication teaching demands needs to be given proper recognition.

By the same token, I want to know that you’re not there just for the holidays, or because you thought teaching would be a convenient profession, or because it was the cheapest and quickest degree on offer at university and only required a C+ average for admittance. I want to know that you were selected from among the best of the best. I want to know you’re not going to turn up to school merely to tick boxes and tow the line, but because you love the job and believe in what you do.

If you’re worried about my kid, you can speak to me directly. No need to wait for the end of the term, have a quick word with me at the end of the day. If I could be doing more to support you in the classroom, tell me. On the other hand, if I come to school and say my kid didn’t do the homework last night because we went for a bike ride, or to hang out with the grandparents, or we stayed up late reading a book together, I want you to say “cool.”

And in the end of year reports, you should know that I’m less interested in how my kid did in the tests than I am in what you think of him as an individual, what sort of learner he is, how he relates to you and to his peers. I know that after all those long monotonous hours of marking is done, that’s all that really matters.

Because in 25 years time when I’m rummaging through my boxes of old memorabilia, it’s not the numbers in the column I’ll look at, but the words that you wrote,


A Parent.

***As we draw to the end of another school year and look forward to the next, this post is dedicated to all the hard working teachers out there writing reports and marking exams. It’s inspired by my experience of a teacher who embodied the very essence of this letter and more, as you can see in this tribute video made by his students at the end of the year.. Thank you, teachers, for all that you do.

The Perfect Novel: An Essential Checklist

The Miracle Life of Edgar MintThe Miracle Life of Edgar Mint is the Perfect Novel. Here is a list of the essential components of the Perfect Novel :

1) The Perfect Novel is almost impossible to review well.

Case in point
This review, clearly. For better summaries I recommend Scott’s equally glowing but much more coherent review. For a quick synopsis, the back blurb has put into words what I cannot: “Half-Apache and mostly orphaned, the adventures of Edgar Presely Mint begin on an Arizona reservation at the age of seven when the mailman’s jeep accidently runs over his head. Shunted from the hospital to a reform school to a Mormon foster family, comedy and trouble accompany Edgar – the irresistible innocent who never truly loses heart, and whose quest for the mailman eventually leads him to an unexpected home.”

2) The Perfect Novel has characters so real that you become convinced that THEY live in the real world and you live in a made-up one.

Case in point
Edgar Mint is a kid whose dead-pan, reflective voice belies the force with which he explodes on the page. Sometimes, some novels, you’re introduced to characters who take awhile to brew with you. You have sit with them awhile, follow them around a bit before you feel like they’re real. Edgar Mint, by contrast, is a kid who is so vivid, so authentic from the very first moment you meet him, that it’s you who feels like a fake.

3) The exercise of reading the Perfect Novel will, by default, render all other activities pointless, distracting and inconvenient in the extreme. Conversation will be scorned, commitments broken, sleep lost, meals missed and relationships with real-actual-people risked.

Case in point
If it’s not Edgar’s voice that grabs you, it’s his story. The opening line is: “If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this: when I was 7 years old the mail man ran over my head.” If this was a normal novel, you would be able to put this book down after reading a few chapters and continue about your daily tasks like a normal person. But, since this is not a normal novel, but in fact the Perfect Novel, you should know that it will be IMPOSSIBLE to put this book down until every last footnote, dedication and page number has been read, nay, inhaled.

4) The Perfect Novel always elicits some form of extreme emotion accompanied by its associated outward manifestation, i.e.: Happiness = laughter; tears = snot; anger = book tossing. Sometimes all at once.

Case in point
Edgar Mint’s life involves a series of unfortunate if not downright tragic turns that it’s hard to comprehend why it is that you find yourself laughing so heartily so frequently. But then all of a sudden (because it’s the Perfect Novel with the Perfect Story Arc), you unearth the mystery of Edgar’s near-death experience and find the laughter has all but evaporated, leaving in its place an enormous weight of sadness that can only, inevitably, result in snot.

5) The Perfect Novel may lead to hefty library fines.

Case in point
I can neither confirm nor deny whether I have yet returned Edgar Mint to the library after I borrowed it in January.

6) The Perfect Novel is not a book, but a friend.

Case in point
I still cruise by the bookshelf every now and again to say Hi to Edgar Mint, (who may or may not be on my bookshelf) and to flip through the dog-eared pages to re-read a few of my favourite passages. Because friendships, like the Perfect Novel, are forever.

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Let this space be a reminder of how much I Hate Love You.

no more minecraftSix months ago I downloaded Minecraft for my kid, the 10 year old.

Five months ago I imposed time limits on it.

Four months ago I drastically reduced those time limits.

Three months ago I reduced those limits again.

Two months ago I reduced them once more.

One month ago I banned the computer altogether.

Yesterday, I packed up the computer and put into storage.

Then I said to my kid, “When you look at that empty space, let it be a reminder of how much I love you.”

To which he replied: “And let it be a reminder to you of how much I HATE you!”

But drastic times call for drastic measures.

Once upon a time I cursed the sound of scraping Lego in the box, I lamented the holes in my feet caused by trodding on bricks littered about the carpet. But until yesterday I hadn’t heard the sound of Lego in months, my heels blissfully smooth. Because when the kid wasn’t playing Minecraft, he was sitting on the couch wanting to play Minecraft. He was sullen, moody, agitated and completely lacking in motivation and imagination.

And then I realised: He was addicted to the thing. Minecraft was like a drug and he’d get his fix even if it meant sitting on the couch watching the clock tick. The other two aren’t like that – they self-moderate to a large extent. Screen time gets boring eventually. If it’s taken away, they find something else just as, or even more interesting, instead. But the eldest kid is different. Enforcing moderation, I realised, was not only futile but it was also kinda cruel. Like taking an alcoholic to a bar and saying “Now, you can have just ONE drink.” The computer was always there, as soon as he came home from school, as soon as he woke up in the morning. It represented potential. Opportunity. The fleeting chance that Mum might, just might back down and let him on it (not a misplaced hope since in moments of weakness or guilt I sometimes did relent.)

The night before I packed up the computer I had the same wrenching feeling in my gut as I did when I held him back a year at school. The same bread-knife-raking feeling I’ve had at other times in my life too. The feeling you get when the Right Thing to do is also the Hardest Thing to do. Anyway, I digress.

The point is, The Pied Piper had stolen my kid and I had to bring him back, by whatever means possible and before it was too late. I needed to breathe life back into the 10 year old boy who once built a go kart out of scrap wood and a broken push chair (well, it was broken after he took it apart, anyway). The same kid who could find a flat white 5 piece in a bucket of lego bricks faster than a gun slingin’ cowboy. The kid who wrote and performed his first song on the guitar at 7, who couldn’t read until he was 8 but could recite whole passages of books before he could properly pronounce the letter “D”. The kid who never came across a cardboard box he couldn’t use.

If it means he hates me, it’s a price I’ll pay.


*Postscript* There were tears, there was hair-pulling (his, not mine), there were outrageous accusations that didn’t exactly not-hurt. All of it inevitable. But then, life went on. There wasn’t enough milk for the cereal in the morning. The post came. The cat from next door shat all over the doorstep. The boys scrapped with their sister about a rubber dinosaur. They played on the trampoline. And then, the kid dug out his skateboard. He got down a recipe book and made pancakes. He sat at the empty desk and spread out, drawing pictures all over my expensive printer paper, leaving pencil shavings all over the floor and felts without lids. Then I stood on a staple. And it was bliss.

Minecraft = 1 Mum = 2

*** This post was written a long time ago but was recently reblogged and as a result has attracted a lot of new attention, most of it negative and some even quite aggressive – something completely foreign to me as a blogger. Apart from the offensive or anonymous comments which I have and will continue to remove, I have tried to reply to all of the comments.  It is, however, proving an impossible task… not to mention repetitive!  So I’m going to stop responding – instead, here’s a summary of what I’ve said to detracters below.

In taking away the computer and Minecraft, my intention was only to teach my son moderation in the long term. I had played Minecraft and I have a good understanding of what it’s about. My only goal was to ensure that he developed interests in other things as well. I am not scared of technology in fact, I’m pretty sure the kid inherited much of his love and fascination with technology from me. I’m always making cool stuff on the computer – building websites, videos, photobooks and slideshows etc.   So there wasn’t a huge divide between us – but as an adult I know it’s important for me to do other stuff as well; that reading books, socialising, working etc, are also necessary and enriching life experiences.

So We had a clean break from computer life (even for me) and made an effort to do a whole lot of other things: some of them old school (card games and the like) some of them sporty, we even began watching cool technology documentaries on netflix and old Steve Jobs talks, as well as seeking out YA fiction about IT and online life (there are some great novels on these subjects coming out now).  He read Steve Jobs’ biography (the kid’s version) and walked me through his life blow by blow, which was hugely entertaining.  So you can see, even when Minecraft wasn’t around I still found ways to support and endorse and share in his passion for everything technology.

Then, after about 6 months we reintroduced the computer and Minecraft.  The kid’s interest is still as keen as ever, but he’s much calmer and moderate with it. Time limits aren’t stressful to enforce. He willingly and of his own accord goes off to do other things.

All I ever wanted to teach him was the importance of moderation. It’s hard for a 10 year old to work that on their own – I felt like it was my job as a parent to try and show him.  A clean break to begin may have seemed harsh but we had exhausted all our other options, and I guess my post was simply a shout out to other parents out there like me…. because all of us, at some point, come to a crossroads and know we must do the hard thing, the difficult thing, in order to do right by our kids in the long run.  It aint easy, but no-one said parenting would be.   You may not agree with the approach I took and you are entitled to your opinion, but what I can tell you is that the solution worked for us.  Life is better, post Minecraft-wars.