Tuesday 19 June 2012

The nature of ash by Mandy Hager

Ashley and his brother Mikey are the two sons of Shaun McCarthy, well-known activist and union supporter. Having been brought up in the shadow of his father’s activities, Ashley is ready to savour the independence of uni studies and hostel life, but his break from home doesn’t last long. A late night knock on the door brings the police, bad news and a return to Wellington, where the news only gets worse. Ashley, his brother, and two other teenagers they barely know, Travis and Jiao, set off on what begins as an escape from danger, but turns into a mission to uncover the truth and save the innocent.

Ash is forced to cope with grief, loss and betrayal, confront his own prejudices and take on responsibilities he feels too young for. He has to try and work out who he can trust and risk getting it wrong for the sake of doing what he believes in. He sees his own failures and mistakes: Ash by name, ash by nature. The stuff that gets discarded. The lightweight residue of other people’s fiery lives.

But we also see him through the eyes of others who recognise all the things he gets right: If I’d ever had a son, I’d want him to be just like you. Don’t ever change, Ashley McCarthy.

This is a fast-moving and thought-provoking story meant for an older YA audience, partly because of the stronger language (which you can read more about on Mandy's blog) but also because of the more complex issues involved. Terrorism and political intrigue make for a gripping plot, while at the same time, the book dwells on love, loyalty, the difficult business of growing up and the nature of family: I finally understand where she’s at. No family means no life. No Love, simple as that

Despite the chaos unfolding around them, the book ends on a note of hope. There are good people out there – some of whom Ash and his friends have already met - who just need to be awakened to take action on the side of right.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Red rocks by Rachael King

Dreamy, imaginative Jake is the main character in Rachael King’s new children’s novel Red rocks. Set in and around Owhiro Bay on Wellington’s south coast, this book translates the selkie legend – of the seal that comes ashore in human form - into a local setting of wind and sea, cliffs, rocks and "talking stones".

It overlays the contemporary and specific (Forest and Bird, Greenpeace, the Empire cinema in Island Bay and phrases like "whatever") with a sense of what is timeless (the landscape, the sea, only one computer, no TV or cellphones.) The language is rich, warm and slightly mysterious, like the cover, and the seals themselves are beautifully described as they gambol in the waves and kelp, or dive into the water like a "silky missile".

I wasn’t sure at first how old Jake was supposed to be. When he first meets Jessie, he calls her a "little girl... no more than ten", but Jake himself is still young enough to be told to "go and play" by his dad. He says he can hardly remember what it was like when his parents were still together, but a photograph taken soon after they split up is only two summers old. Perhaps he is about 12, no older, and he often seems younger, but there is a close relationship between Jake and his dad, with whom he is spending the school holidays. I was also pleased to see that the Island Bay community looked out for a boy on his own in the dark after the movie finished!

Rachael King has said that the idea for the book came to her as she walked her first baby son around Wellington’s wild south coast and thought it a place where magic could happen. "We could all use a little bit of magic in our lives, don’t you think?" says Jake’s dad, and this is a story of enchantment, but also of a boy finding the inner strength to solve problems, fight bullies, protect his family and conquer his fear.

One small note: Ted shouldn’t really be fishing out in front of his shack in Owhiro Bay, or even around the other side of the island, as both places fall well within the Taputeranga marine reserve where no fishing is allowed.

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.)

Monday 11 June 2012

White chairs on a green lawn

Installation art can sometimes seem like a challenge to understand (or appreciate), but this is one of the most poignant and powerful examples I've seen in a long while:

The chairs are placed on the lawn where Oxford Terrace Baptist Church, that grand old structure, once stood - each chair individually painted, each representing one person who died in the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake. I'm glad that people have treated it with respect, but have also incorporated it into their lives, using it as a place to sit, talk and remember.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Other things I can remember about Wadestown School...

Prompted both by my recent school visit, and by the book Windows over Wadestown by Debbie Monigatti which the school was kind enough to send me afterwards, here are a few more memories I have of my days at the school, when English was called "Written Expression" and we covered our books with wallpaper, not duraseal:

  • Lining up in the top playground for outdoor assembly, and the boys always trying to be last in line

  • Learning to swim in the freezing cold outdoor swimming pool

  • Being allowed to move from pencil to fountain pen (which was supposed to be a privilege, but involved a lot more mess)

  • Being tested on our spelling levels

  • Doing folk dancing in the bottom playground, to the accompaniment of wobbly music from a record player, and putting on a performance of A midsummer night's dream for parents in the area outside the pool

  • My wonderful Std 4 and Form 1 teacher, Mrs Kroell (you can see a photo of her on pg 65 of Debbie Monigatti's book) who took us on a school trip to Mt Egmont (as it was then)

  • Going to the "murder house" on the bus to be practised on by student dental nurses

  • Going to "manual" on the bus - cooking and sewing for the girls, woodwork and metalwork for the boys Now called 'technicraft' and under threat from the current government. Here's hoping this important tradition continues.

  • The rows of bike racks - now there is a shed full of scooters

  • The local minister from St Lukes who used to come in and give us religious instruction lessons once a week (and once a year we would go to the flower show with our sand saucers and flower arrangements)

  • Barbara, Susan, Kirsten, Katrina, another Barbara, Michelle, Sally, Michael, Jonathan, John, Paul, ....