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.

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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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Learning the local language: “What Can We Do?” (or: seatbelts, milk powder, and rain in the desert)

Dubai was moody yesterday.  The sky was dark and threatened rain, a promise rarely made good in the desert.  I stood outside the hotel, the air thick with a coarse mixture of sand and humidity. The very worst of bad hair days.

A bell-boy flagged a cab down for me, but I ushered it on when I saw it had only two seat belts in the back.  The next taxi, similarly lacking, informed me I was wasting my time – all taxis in Dubai have only two seat belts in the back seat.  I held out, not wanting to choose which of my three children would travel without a seat belt on some of the world’s most dangerous roads.

Four taxis and as many frustrated drivers later, we clambered into a car with the required number of seat belts.  I smiled across at the driver, pleased with myself.  Just then, a voice from the back seat.  “Mum!  I can’t plug my seat belt in!  I can’t find the thing!”  I asked the driver to pull over to the verge while I thrust my hand into the bowels of the dirty seat searching in vain for the clicky-thingey.  My fingers came back with crumbs and hair.

“Not working madam.  Only two seat belts in the back.”

We drove on.  When we were finally settled, the driver looked at me in the rear view mirror and smiled reassuringly.  “Don’t worry madam, I am take it very slow.  I am very safe driver, very safe driver.”  I returned his smile, grateful for his kindness.  We now appeared to be reconciled.  I had swapped places with Cormac, my eldest child, giving him the front seat instead.   I reasoned that the airbag in the front, with a seatbelt, was a lesser risk than no seatbelt at all.  This was a view the taxi driver appeared not share, as our tangle of arms and legs pushed through the gap between the seats.  “He is too young for to be sitting in the front madam!” he had protested.

This led to an inevitable discussion about the traffic in Dubai.  The difficulty navigating the complex maze of arteries sweeping back and forth, to and from Sheikh Zayed Road, tying the city up in knots.  “Driving is not any problem, it’s very easy to drive in Dubai,”  the driver said as he answered his phone.  “Unless there is accident happening.  If accident happening, pwoof,” he said, swishing both hands, palm up, in the air.  What can we do? he meant, in local body language.

It was true that he knew the roads well though.  We took a back route towards Dubai Mall, joining the end of a slow, snaking queue that led towards the gaping mouth of the Trade Centre roundabout.  We came upon the junction slowly, passing three cars jaggedly stalled across the centre lanes.  A motorbike lay on its side at the nearest exit fork, its rider’s helmet sitting incongruently pretty on the curb nearby.  The rider, nowhere to be seen.  From the front seat, my eldest strained to see as we drove by.  “A pizza delivery bike, Mum” he said.

The taxi driver elaborated.  “Always hungry, bring me the food hurry hurry, the people say.  This is why the motorbikes is driving like this.  They are coming through the middle, so you don’t see them.  Then smash!”  he used a hand-to-fist action to illustrate.  “This is very dangerous job, very dangerous.  People want the food too fast.”

We came onto Sheikh Zayed Road and picked up a little speed.  We passed time by exchanging the usual pleasantries.  Where are you from?  (Bangladesh/New Zealand).  How long have you been here?  (Three years/Two years).  Your country is very good at cricket! (Thank you/Not really, but thank you also!).  It was when we were talking about his son, three years and 9 months old who he’d seen only twice since he left Bangladesh, that I noticed the cars had stopped up ahead.  The Dubai Mall exit was at a standstill.

I assumed heavy traffic inside the parking building, and we continued to talk.  The driver told me he qualified as a lawyer, but had been so dispirited by the corruption of the justice system in Bangladesh that he’d looked for work elsewhere.  But times are difficult in Bangladesh, he explained.  “Very dangerous” he said, “Same Afghanistan.  Not safe.”  Then, in 2008, tragedy struck.  His first born child, a son, died of food poisoning.

“Food poisoning?”

“Yes madam.  Very sad.  Very very sad.”  He looked across at Cormac who was kneading his fingers in his lap in the front seat, eyes downcast.  His listening posture.  “He is big boy, like him.”

What I managed to clarify is that if his son had survived, he would be a big boy by now.  But the baby had lived only 39 days.  The contaminated baby formula that had affected thousands in China, had also killed this man’s son in Bangladesh in 2008.  “His stomach is getting very big, very fat, and his skin is coming a white colour.  Very painful for him.  Very very painful.”

I googled it later.  Reports are sketchy, but there were at least 4 children reported dead in Bangladesh as a result of melamine poisoning, and several hundred more were hospitalised.  The taxi driver’s voice was hoarse as he told his story.  “It was the doctors.  The companies is paying them to say it is good milk.  Better than my wife’s milk.  It is corruption, always corruption.”

Inside, the car was becoming hot.  I noticed groups of people, presumably other taxi passengers, trudging along the shoulder towards the mall on foot.  Straining to see up ahead, I spotted the bowed elbow of a tow truck hard at work.  Behind us the tell-tale siren announced the arrival of another emergency vehicle.  “Pwoof.”  The driver said with his hands.  “Too much accidents today.”

When it became clear we might be there for another hour or more, we shook hands and bid the driver farewell.  My excessive tip did nothing to assuage my feelings of guilt – for what, I am not sure.  On the shoulder I made the children form a line and marched them along the highway as close to the barrier as I could.

The wet heat loomed like a weight on my shoulders as we walked.  The weight of my own thoughts loomed even heavier.

This town is tough.  Relationships with people outside your social or cultural grouping tend to be transactional.  I thought of Morshed, also Bangladeshi, who looked after our floor at the hotel where we stayed for three months when we first arrived to live in Abu Dhabi.  I thought of how he cried when we moved out.  He cried in a strangled voice that made me want to look away.  Bobbie was the same age as his daughter.  They both had short brown bob hair-cuts.  As the glass lift descended the 23 floors we watched Morshed push his trolley back along the corridor, his shoulders still shaking.  With wisdom beyond his years Cormac had said “Why did you make friends with him Mum?  You just made it harder for him.”

Distances are always hard to judge on foot.  It took us at least twenty minutes to reach the crash site.  By the time we passed, there was nothing to see, thankfully, except a scattered rainbow of glass and scrunched metal.  We stepped over the debris, and continued to walk.  The children, for once, did not complain. Sweat gathered under our eyes, a natural adhesive for the gusting sand.  Below us, the twelve lane highway of Sheikh Zayed pulsed.  Above us a thundering overpass announced each car with a muted pe-dung, pe-dung.

Up ahead, I realised with a sinking dread that we would have to get across a three lane motorway on-ramp to reach the safety of the mall entrance.  I tightened my grip on the kids’ hands, barked at Cormac to stay close.  I approached the curb, rigid with fear.  Cars flashed by in a blur, one-two, one-two.  I felt my breakfast turning to liquid inside.

A young couple, hand in hand, fell in beside us, gazing confidently into the distance for a gap in the traffic.  The woman had dark black hair and smelt of cigarettes and rich, opulent perfume.   She smiled across the top of the children’s heads, raising her hands in that familiar What can we do? gesture.  She noticed I was struggling and offered to help.  Like a taxi in want of seat belts, my two hands were insufficient for three children.  Later, she apologised for her poor command of English, which was infinitely better than my command of Arabic.  She told me she was from Tunisia (“Yes, we are famous now!”) visiting Dubai on holiday.

When they punted across the road with Liam between them, a moment’s hesitation on my part kept me rooted to the spot.  Now they were there, and we were over here.  Bobbie began to cry and clawed up my arm so I might carry her.  Cormac’s face was white.  My courage to cross the road was evaporating.

Then, out of nowhere, a big black SUV with tinted windows threw on its hazard lights and slowed down, the ripple effect causing others to follow suit.  I noticed the driver was in local dress, waving us across with a look of concern on his face.  When we made it to the mall the Tunisians laughed in their cheerful manner, hugging and kissing each of us in turn, before heading to a nearby bench for a quick cigarette.  The sweet smell of the woman’s perfume gave way to the overpowering stench of freshly applied manure.  A line-up of workers in green overalls were massaging the dank mixture into the soil of the perfectly manicured flower beds leading up to the the mall’s entrance.

An unusual smell, safety.

On the way back to the hotel, we got a taxi with three seatbelts and a driver whose knowledge of the back channels of the city suggested he was no stranger to Dubai’s roads either.  We didn’t trade pleasantries though.  I think Cormac, whose brow was still furrowed, was relieved about that.  Making our way through the hotel car park, a big black SUV with tinted windows pulled out suddenly, nearly ploughing into us.  “These local drivers!” the driver said with exasperation, blaring the horn.  “They don’t look.  They don’t care.”

That night, driving home to Abu Dhabi in the relative safety of our own car, the rain came after all.  Great white cracks appeared in the night sky and the rain escaped like shattered glass, lacing the windshield in silver rivulets.  The kids whooped with surprise and delight.  I looked out into the inky black night, thinking about milk powder and dead babies, and lawyers who are taxi drivers and housekeepers in faraway lands, and taxi drivers who have no patience for black SUVs with tinted windows, and locals who stop for unexpected highway pedestrians, and Tunisians who are famous for being Tunisian.  And I think about people who have the luxury to worry about seat belts and bad hair days.  And I wonder: What can we do?

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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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.

My Wolf, My Friend – The book that started it all

My Wolf My FriendMy Wolf My Friend by Barbara Corcoran
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I could pinpoint the book that started it all, this is the one. In a nutshell, it is the story of city girl who moves to a remote farm in the Montana wilderness with her father, after the sudden death of her mother. Left largely to her own devices, Hallie befriends a wolfcub with tragic consequences.

I read and re-read this book at a kid, seizing every time on the heartbreaking passage at the end that left me sobbing time and time again. The wonder of the almost magical power this book had over me is what ignited my passion for reading in general.

So it was very strange to re-read this book last week, some twenty odd years later, out loud to my three kids aged 10, 7 and 6. What struck me is just how (wait for it) BORRRING it is for long, long stretches!

I mean, I had to work so hard at my accents and expressions just to keep the kids from falling asleep, that I think their enjoyment was based entirely on the comic observations of their over-exuberant mother flipping the pages dramatically and saying “I wonder whatever might happen next!”

I don’t know what this says about me, let alone the book. I like to think it’s a reflection of what a diligent little reader when I was 9, but more likely, I think, it’s a telling sign that books for young people nowadays have become SO much more relevant and accessible than they used to be. Kids expect to be entertained; stories should have pace and plot and action and not be overly indulgent when it comes to quiet reflection and observation (of which there is plenty in My Wolf My Friend).

This apparent lazyness?/impatience? on behalf of young readers today is not always a good thing, because of course, sometimes you have to invest a little (time, faith) in order to get something back with books. I think of the number of times I start a novel these days, and MOST of them don’t have those catchy openers that haul you in from page 1. More often than not, you’re well into a third of the way through before you feel yourself coming under the spell.

So books that teach us to invest and persevere when we’re young are great, and should be applauded. I’m just not sure that My Wolf My Friend is one of those… the “good time” my kids took away from it, for example, was all about the hilarity of MY read-aloud performance (complete with tears and blubbering at the end, right on cue) and little to do with the book itself.

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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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