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 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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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.



21 years ago…

21 years ago last month I became an Aunty for the first time. It was a bittersweet moment in our lives, for reasons that are not really mine to share. I wish I could have told myself back then, the anxious 14 year old I was when Jack was born, that everything would be alright. More than alright. Everything would be great. And that one day, 21 years later, I would go on to make the dedication video below – together with a lot of help, sleuth and technological dedication on the part of his Mum, Dad, Brother and an awesome group of mates.

To Jack: I’m so proud to be your Aunty. Even if it did take you til you were 14 to finally beat me at an arm wrestle.


Jan-March 2013 – Reading Round-up

Here’s a visual round-up of the books I’ve read in the past couple of months.  I’ve been working on some other writing projects lately, letting my attention to reviews lapse.  Click on the images and follow the links to the full reviews, albeit brief in some cases.  An eclectic mix, but there are some real stand-outs in there, most notably Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Notes on a Scandal, but BEST of all, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint for which a review is still pending.  I like it so much I am still speechless, three months down the track.


Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff – A dramatic fall from grace

Once Were WarriorsOnce Were Warriors by Alan Duff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Just finished re-reading Once Were Warriors as part of my little side project “Top Ten Again” – (The ten books from my “Top Ten” in 2003).

It’s easy to understand why Once Were Warriors made an impression on me – its unique manner of storytelling, combined with such hard-hitting material, made it a book to be reckoned with. But I don’t know why else I liked it – let alone gave it a top ten spot.

Because this time around I found Once Were Warriors so very difficult to stomach. I was still impressed by Duff’s skill at ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative style, but that’s where my admiration ended. A decade down the track I looked at Once Were Warriors with fresh eyes and felt affronted.

Let’s not beat around the bush. Duff is on a simple mission to horrify and disgust as a means of asserting his very biased view about the position of Māori in contemporary NZ society. This view is that Māori (at least those Māori depicted in Once Were Warriors) are the architects of their own destruction. Duff labels alcohol dependence, the abuse of children, and the cyclical inter-generational poverty experienced by his characters, as ‘Māori’ issues.

Where is the recognition of those historical, legislative and political factors that, since colonisation, have ensured that Māori would always have lesser opportunities to succeed in a Pākeha-dominated world? Where is the acknowledgement that cumulatively, barriers to access have prevented Māori from enjoying the same education opportunities and health privileges as Pākeha, and so would always start off on the back foot? More to the point, where is the qualifying statement that New Zealand in the 1980s when Once Were Warriors was set, was crippled by an institutional racism that no-one now can deny. (There’s a wealth of texts out there supporting this argument – for a view of the waterfront start with Nga Patai by Prof. Paul Spoonley, 1996).

But instead, Duff leads his readers to believe that all that is required to break this damning cycle of poverty and alcohol dependence is the right intervention, enough courage and strength, and the simple will to pull oneself up ‘by the bootstraps’ – to use a handy little right-wing phrase. It is a political statement in the extreme – and one which he was allowed probably only because Duff is himself Māori. You only have to wonder how the same book would have been received if it had been written by a Pākeha to sense the imbalance.

Of course, I probably wouldn’t get so worked up if the characters weren’t SO believable, if their experiences and internal monologues weren’t SO perfectly realised as to feel completely authentic. So I’m not taking anything away from Duff on that count (hell, I’ve read the book twice now so he’s having the last laugh I’m sure!) But for me, the refusal to engage with the socio-political complexities of the Māori reality in the 1980s, his insistence that these issues are black and white, makes me feel as though the person who lacked courage was Duff, not the Māori in his novel.

Sure, Duff’s novel is fiction. He’s got no responsibility to present a balanced argument if he doesn’t want to. But if he’d had that balance, favoured a little more in-depth reflection instead of surface blaming, a little more sympathy for the very grey world in which we ALL live, Once Were Warriors could have been more than just a good book, it could have been a GREAT book.

Rating in 2003: 5 Stars
Rating in 2013: 2 Stars

Average = 3.5

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Hate mail and love letters: The B-Side of Family photo albums.

Makes you wonder if you should bother going to all that trouble to teach them how to write, doesn’t it?


Farewell Mr Pearce, The Best Teather Ever

A few weeks ago we had to farewell, in Cormac’s words, the “Best Teather Ever” (even if he never did teach him how to spell).  The video above was put together by all the many students whose lives Mr Pearce not only touched during his four years at Al Muna school in Abu Dhabi, but probably changed as well.  You see, Mr Pearce was no ordinary teacher.  pearceHe’s one of those rare breeds; a vocational teacher who isn’t in it for the money (such that it is), the holidays or the so-called convenience, but because it’s what he was born to do.  Even if he wasn’t a teacher, he’d be that guy at the family picnic organising the kids (“sit down”, “don’t do that”), laughing with them and playing some invented game and telling stories and talking to them, while all the adults talk to each other.  In some ways, having observed him a lot over the years, I think he’s just a big kid himself.  He has a sense of the ridiculous and the absurd and the hilarious in a way that most adults train themselves out of.

Of course I can’t speak for Cormac because obviously I wasn’t in the classroom. I can only relay the things that he has said and share my observations of the changes in him as the year progressed.  For a start there was his enthusiasm in general. Like a kindergarten kid, he started taking all manner of things to school for “sharing”. “You’re 10!” I reminded/reprimanded him. “Give the teacher a break” I said, embarrassed for him as he carried his giant 6 pointer deer skull proudly through the gates, or yet another lego creation he considered to be highly original and not just another tall building made of blocks.

Cormac with Mr PearceBut instead of being tolerated politely by Mr Pearce, C came home with awards – so many, in fact, a younger sibling had Mr Pearce up about it in the playground. “How come C gets so many certificates even though he’s the naughtiest person in our family?” And there was fun too. Apparently Mr Pearce was all about ambience in the classroom, and let the kids complete their maths sheets while humming away to “Party Rockers in the House Tonight”.

“He’s funny”, C said almost every day when I picked him up – which everyone knows is a compliment of the highest order for a kid. “He tells us stories,” by which I took to mean he read books aloud in class. As it turns out, what he meant was that Mr Pearce regularly devulged scandalous stories from his trove of childhood memories growing up with 5 brothers and 1 sister in rural Australia.   His Mother would probably have a heart attack if she knew.

Best TeatherAnd by all accounts, Mr Pearce is damn good at his trade too. During the Rainforest topic Cormac came home with stories of how Mr Pearce drew the curtains, turned the lights down, ordered shoes off, and sprayed the kids with water. With closed eyes, he encouraged them to imagine being in the rainforest and to observe how they felt – “Does the hair on your neck stand up like soliders standing to attention?” he asked. “That’s how he taught us what a simile is” C told me later.

When C’s handwriting was indecipherable, Mr Pearce put a rubber band around his wrist and hooked it on to the tip of his pencil so that he would maintain the correct grip. In so doing C’s pitiful handwriting was fixed almost overnight. I said to Mr Pearce “you’re a genius!” and he said – “nah, not really – you know that’s just a placebo, right?”

IMG_0546Our other children are moving through the school at different stages and everywhere there are traces of Mr Pearce’s influence. From the Great Australian Sleepout to the Click Photography unit to “Tribal day” – all of them sprung from the depths of Mr Pearce’s limitless imagination. He once said to me “If I don’t find at subject interesting, why would I expect the kids to?”

It makes you wonder, in all the debate that always rages about standards and testing and funding and responsibility, if somewhere along the way we haven’t lost sight of the basics.

IMG_0574And the kids know it too. When I learned Mr Pearce would be leaving in the new year I felt I should do my best to prepare C for the bad news. I said “you know that one day Mr Pearce might want to move on, don’t you – maybe he’d like to become a Principal one day for example?”. C looked me dead in the face and said without hesitation “why would he want to do that? He’s too good a teacher for that to happen to him”. Because by a kid’s logic, only the best teachers (best teathers) earned the right to stand in front of the class, right?  Putting a teacher behind a computer in a big flash office on his own, far away from children, was clearly a demotion.

Mr Pearce has been gone about a month and his absence is definitely still felt.  Take a look at the video and you’ll see why.  It isn’t just your average teacher that inspires this sort of reaction in kids.

Goodbye Mr Pearce


Not Like My Mother

I want to be like you, she says

The same way I wanted to be like my own mother


She clomps across the lounge, my heels

Never imagining her feet will one day fill those shoes


But her demons will be hers, to wrestle

Just as mine are mine and not hers nor my mother’s


As a teenager, I said

I hate you and I will never be like you


But even so, I smile

When people say, you are just like your mother