Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Trapped outside a cage and Gutted by Ken Benn

With this trilogy, Ken Benn is adding to (or perhaps initiating) the Palmerston North noir school of gritty young adult thriller realism. The first in the series, Lethal deliveries, was released by Thomson New House in 2007 before being picked up by Penguin and re-released in 2010. The second (Trapped outside a cage) and third (Gutted) have now appeared simultaneously.


The teenager characters are smart-mouthed 14- and 15-year-olds from the wrong side of town. School doesn’t seem to play a large part in their lives and they live in the shadow of a sleazy underworld featuring drugs and gangs. Their parents are largely absent or useless, but the kids themselves are resilient, resourceful and able to cope with verbal and physical attacks (inline hockey sounds pretty rough) and threatening situations.

The books are told in short chapters focusing in turn on the main characters, and are full of references to streets and buildings in Palmerston North and surrounding small towns. (Who says nothing ever happens in the Manawatu? Obviously it does, if you know where to look.) They will tell you a lot about inline hockey, as well as what it’s like inside a youth detention centre and how to perform wheel spins in a deserted car park. Ken Benn teaches maths and physics in Palmerston North, and he’s previously commented on his research for Lethal deliveries, including talking to social workers, young criminals and their victims and even sleeping under a bridge with a group of streetkids. I found the scenes with Jack and Weta (in the local youth justice facility) some of the most convincing.

The trilogy wraps up to a tight finish, with some last minute revelations about motives and relationships. Teenage readers may find the books are longer than they look, with a lot of type on each page and few blank pages. (They might also notice that a 15-year-old has a driver’s licence, which is no longer possible.)

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