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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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.

and

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.”

and

“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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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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Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel – A hard act to follow.

Half BrotherHalf Brother by Kenneth Oppel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cormac’s review (aged 10)

This book is about a family who adopt a baby chimp as part of an experiment to see whether he can be taught to communicate using sign language. The mother and father are both scientists and their son, Ben, is 13 when Zan comes to live with them. This is why the book is called Half Brother, because Ben has to accept this animal not as a pet, but as a brother. At first Ben has a hard time with this but eventually he comes to his senses and realises that Zan means more to him than a science experiment.

However his Dad ends up shutting down the project – he says it’s because Zan is getting too strong and dangerous but Ben knows it’s because he’s lost faith in the project and doesn’t believe Zan is learning language or ever will. So the whole book is about one boy’s fight to save his little chimp brother.
Along the way he meets many characters, some who play a key part in Zan’s life, such as the Godwin family and Tim Borden and especially Peter, a student who works with Zan and becomes his best friend. This book made me feel sad sometimes, and also excited – there were some intense bits in there. I also learnt about biomedical labs and how cruel they are to animals. It’s funny, sad and tragic all at the same time.

Mum’s 2 cents.

Cormac laid out the plot so well there should be little for me to add. WRONG! There is in fact so much more to be said about Half Brother – that I’m actually going to need to resort to bullet points:

– First up, most importantly, it’s superbly well written. I don’t know exactly what it is that distinguishes YA fiction from adult fiction, because at no point did I feel that this book was beneath my reading level, yet nor did it seem to be above Cormac’s either. It was simply easy and welcoming to read, like settling into a (faux, of course) fur-covered beanbag.

– The story is gripping. It achieves the perfect balance of plot/pace to studied introspection, and the ethical issues, while paramount, somehow never dominate. In fact, I happen to know that a person can read this book and not become overly bogged down by the ethical dilemmas it throws up – Cormac being a case in point. Although we discussed the thorny issues as they cropped up, I don’t think Cormac, left to his own devices, would have beaten himself up about them. The dilemmas range from what does it mean to be human? to should scientists maintain emotional distance from their subjects? to is animal testing is ever justified, even if it helps to save human lives?. Although these issues are present all the way through the book, Oppel somehow escapes the tendency to slip into overt preaching – the story speaks for itself and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.

– The characters are authentic. From the long-haired hippy Peter, Zan’s handler, to Ben’s Mum and Dad, to the prissy private school kids and eager-to-please university students. They are developed primarily through dialogue, which helps keeps the narrator’s voice in the background and adds to their authenticity. This is particularly the case for Ben’s parents, who carry a lot of baggage in their relationship (that is to say, as much as anyone else!) leaving Ben to sift through the left-overs and make sense of his own place in the family. And all throughout there are alliances and trade-offs, politics, pride and finances at stake, ensuring the reader is well invested in Zan’s future by the final few pages.

– Authenticity of the period. This book is like the literary equivalent of Mad Men. Set in the 1970s, kids ride bikes and shoot BB guns, they’re “necking” at discos, listening to Abba and washing dishes by hand, they consider colour tv’s and digital clocks the height of technology, and experiments involving chimps are all the rage. The attention to detail is subtle but fantastic.

– The surprises. And there are a few – one or two outrageous scenes in particular left us laughing/gawping in a mixture of horror/hilarity. These scenes passed as briefly as they appeared with no explanation or comment, and I loved that. It reminded us, just as any good fiction should, that anything can happen.

– It made me cry – and in case you didn’t know, it’s hard to read out loud through tears.

I was worried Zan was getting upset, so I talked to him as I groomed him. I started telling him the story of his day, and flying on an aeroplane, but he wouldn’t remember any of that, and anyway, it was such a sad story I couldn’t keep going.

But if I had to dispense with all the bullet points, what would I say about Half Brother? I’d say it’s going to be a hard act to follow.

* Should also note that this book is likely based on true events (must look into it, no info is given in the book) – a movie I saw last year, Project Nim follows a very similar trajectory to that of Project Zan. Interestingly, I wanted to take the kids to see that film but it was rated R15 which I couldn’t quite understand, being as it was a documentary. It wasn’t until afterwards that I appreciated why… Boy, the 70s were a weird time…. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1814836/

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Book Review: A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

A Winter's Day in 1939A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cormac’s Review – 10yrs
“This was a good book all about the second world war and being moved around places to different concentration camps. It is about one family from Poland who is experiencing all of this, starvation, cold, work, sickness and death. So many tragic things happened to them. They lost their farm and were moved all around Russia on trains and by horse and cart and even walking in the snow. It was written from a boy’s point of view and how he felt about everything that was happening and it was so realistic because I could imagine being there. Especially on the train with the pipe for the toilet. But I wish it didn’t end with the [spoiler removed] because that was really sad. I wanted to know what happened to her, and I wanted them to keep searching for her. 4 stars, I really liked it.”

Mum’s Review: 
One of the interesting things about reading aloud is that you have three different experiences – first is your own personal experience of the book, the second is observing how the book is received by your listener, and the third is the shared experience; what you both gain from discussing particular events as they occur.

And what I learnt as a result of reading “A Winter’s Day in 1939” is that these three different experiences can be quite distinct; what impacts me, is not necessarily what impacts the one listening (in this case, a 10 year old). I think there is wisdom in this somewhere – it’s not about writing “down” to children, it’s about being able to get inside their world and share it as they experience it.

It was interesting to observe, for example, how quickly Cormac responded to the “and then” nature of the book (“and then” being a completely adult take on it). In truth, it is written with far more sophistication than this, but the fact remains it is a chronologically-told tale. Where I might have wanted some deeper enlightenment, or reflection from above or from the future looking back, or an objective narrator to lay out out the historical and political factors influencing the events taking place, the kid just wanted to know: What happened next? The simplicity was what drew him in – from Page 1 until the very end, he was hooked.

There is no doubt that the story is a powerful one. It illuminates a side of the war which I myself knew very little about – that of the Polish refugees caught between warring nations locked in an arm wrestle over territory and power. Adam is a 12 year old boy whose family is forced off their land and into a succession of labour camps around Russia. While Poland’s fate hangs in the balance, Adam and his brother and sister and mother cling to one another to survive the most brutal, punishing conditions – watching helplessly as others do not. The family suffer their own heartbreaking losses too.

What I most appreciated in “A Winter’s Day in 1939” was the beauty and simplicity of the writing, and in particular the way a child’s eye-view was captured in the descriptions of place and people:

Buildings had tumbled down into the street. Some were roofless, like soft-boiled eggs with their lids off. Here and there I saw signs of repair: fresh wooden weatherboards like raw scars, and tarpaulins keeping out the winter weather. But some places were beyond fixing and had been abandoned to the elements, their insides exposed, frozen with an icing of snow.

and

As the temperatures warmed everyone relaxed, thinking the worst was over. We were wrong. Diseases thrived in the warm, sticky air and weren’t fussy about who they infected. Now even fit people got sick. Death waltzed into camp every day.

Despite the fact that I say I would have liked to have been able to delve deeper into the motivating political issues of the time, in actual fact, through small details and minor clues, Szymanik does a very good job of highlighting the push and pull of external forces dictating the reality of the Adam’s life. And the interesting thing (going back to how an adult perceives a book versus a child) Cormac wasn’t particularly interested in the why’s and the why-not’s anyway. He understood that it wasn’t fair that Adam’s family was kicked out of their house and he pitied all the things they had to go through, but he actually didn’t need a history lesson on all the detailed reasons why. He just wanted to know: Will they survive?

And that is what kept him haranguing me “Read, Mama, Lets Read!”
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Too Small to Fail by Morris Gleitzman

Too Small to FailToo Small to Fail by Morris Gleitzman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Review by Cormac, aged 10) “This was a good book. It had loads of words in it that I didn’t exactly understand, to do with finance, but it still was a good book. I liked how they crashed in the desert and Nancy sprained her ankle, and just how weird it was that the whole book was based on a dog and a camel. I think the moral of the story is you should appreciate what you’ve got while you’ve got it. I don’t think his parents were mean they were just working hard for his future”

.

Mum’s note: We got half way through this book (reading aloud) before Cormac made off with it to read late into the night on his own. So the ploy works, obviously. It’s about a wealthy kid whose parents are in the investment banking trade at the time of the financial crisis and how he deals with the morality of his situation. The Guardian summed it up perfectly: “Morris Gleitzman has a rare gift for writing very funny stories and an even rarer gift of wrapping very serious stories inside them.” Highly recommended.

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Coraline by Neil Gaiman

CoralineCoraline by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Equal parts terrifying and wonderful. Read this aloud to the kids (aged 10, 7 and 6) round the camp fire over a series of nights on our Christmas camping holidays. As soon as it got dark the book came out, the fire crackling beside us only heightening our fear. As we neared the end of the book we continued by headlamp inside the tent… then, on the final day when we couldn’t wait any longer, we read first thing in the morning before getting out of our sleeping bags, before even eating breakfast – such was our need to know whether Coraline would triumph!

Neil Gaiman, take a bow.(interesting side note, I listened to a podcast in which Gaiman said his publisher initially said the book wouldn’t work “too scary” he said. Gaiman said “look, read the first four chapters to your kids and let them decide.” And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

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The Ghost Behind the Wall by Melvin Burgess

The Ghost Behind the WallThe Ghost Behind the Wall by Melvin Burgess

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is incredibly well done. It subtly presents the reader with two images of David; one of a naughty mischievous and slightly vindictive character and another of a misunderstood, sometimes neglected young boy. The issues it deals with (sole parenting, poverty and ageing) are very raw and I don’t get the sense the Melvin Burgess wanted to cushion any impressionable readers from the realities at hand.

Far from it in fact. At one point in the story kids are confronted with some very uncomfortable moral situations in which they are left to evaluate the meanness of David’s behaviour towards the elderly man upstairs. It’s interesting – you can judge your kids in lots of different ways; how good they are at maths, how well they do in sports, what kind of things their teacher’s say about them. But at the end of the day, when they feel sorry the old man in the book they’re reading, to the extent that you can see deep empathy and real concern on their faces, then you know they’re doing alright.

Melvin Burgess, in case you didn’t know (I didn’t!) is a multi-prize winning children’s author; one of his more well known books was made into the film “Billy Elliot.” I’ll definitely be looking that and other up in the future.

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