Full lives and f words, William Taylor

Malcolm and Juliet
Bernard Beckett
Longacre Press, $18.95,
ISBN 1877135941

Out of Tune
Joanna Orwin
Longacre Press, $18.95,
ISBN 1877135909

Coming Back 
David Hill
Mallinson Rendel, $16.95,
ISBN 0908783868

Penelope Todd
Longacre Press, $18.95,
ISBN 1877135968

On a Good Day
Deborah Burnside
Penguin, $18.95,
ISBN 0143318241

As reflected in the books reviewed here, the current crop of young adults appear an industrious lot. Not quite “snails unwillingly to school”, they seem to work hard and achieve well. There is a balance between culture and sport; wearable art features strongly in two of the novels and there’s one fellow who is clearly destined to end up working for Jackson or Weta. Sport gets a mention with two able wind-surfers and a netballer.

Already full lives get an extra top-up in high levels of out-of-school employment. Kevin is a part-time cleaner and Jaz a kitchen hand. Tara works in a fish’n’chip shop and Lee and Zillah in supermarkets. The irrepressible Juliet beats the lot, setting up her own phone sex business and then, well almost, by becoming a fully-fledged sex worker.

Three of the five novels are from Dunedin’s Longacre Press, who are to be commended for publishing so consistently well in this genre. It is pleasing to note that four of the five books have been either written or published with a measure of support from Creative New Zealand.

As scarce as hens’ teeth is New Zealand comic writing for older kids and young adults. What a delight to welcome Bernard Beckett to the miniscule ranks of those who practice the art! Malcolm and Juliet represents a great beginning. Beckett has a sound touch for comedy and, simply, he must write more of it. We all need a good laugh. Malcolm and Juliet gives the reader a laugh on most pages.

Malcolm, 16, virgin and embryonic scientist, sets out to produce a documentary film on sex as his entry in the National Science Fair;  a series of  “tell me about your first time” interviews with the youthful and the more elderly. No easy task. Malcolm’s close friend – and almost-first-time sex partner – Juliet faces a different set of problems. A blackmailer is demanding payment of $1000 from her, on non-specified grounds. Juliet has no problem nutting out the grounds!  She has defrauded the NZQA by employing a stand-in ($200 cost) to sit her NCEA maths exam. Juliet is desperate.

Kevin faces a different predicament. Kevin lusts after Brian. Brian, with skin “perfectly smooth, hot chocolate in summer, by winter faded to a flawless latte”, faces fewer problems: he simply lusts – but not after Kevin. Then there’s Charlotte. Brian lusts after Charlotte. Charlotte lusts after Malcolm. Charlotte’s first sexual experience – as reported by her to Malcolm for his documentary – is absolutely, marvellously, rapturously Mills and Boon.

The writing of comedy has its own set of skills and techniques. The comic writer cannot afford to be as discursive as the writer of more “serious” stuff. You can’t afford to be too wordy or to over-write. Beckett is occasionally guilty in this regard. A couple more funny books down the track and this will not even be a consideration – and there had better be a few more!

In Joanna Orwin’s Out of Tune, windsurfer Jasmine (Jaz), 14, lacking in confidence socially, struggling to gain acceptance by the Year 10 in-crowd, has needs that are largely ignored by over-achieving parents. Then Dad loses his top executive job and Mum tries valiantly to hide the facts from the neighbours … . Life is hard in high-gloss suburbia. The only receptive ear available to Jasmine is that of her great-grandmother, 91-year-old Gi-Gi, resident of a retirement home. Jaz visits Gi-Gi regularly – indeed seems to be her sole visitor – and reads to the old lady. One day Gi-Gi, tiring of a diet of Lauris Edmond and Maurice Gee, gets out the diary of her own grandmother, Margaret Ann Mouat, and together she and Jaz work their way through it. It’s a fascinating read. Maggie Mouat migrated to New Zealand with her father, stepmother and siblings in the 1870s from the Shetland Islands, settling at first on Stewart Island.

Joanna Orwin gives the reader two stories: one of today and one of yesterday. Out of Tune brings to mind the second of Tessa Duder’s Tiggie Tompson trilogy where Duder parallels Tiggie’s story with that of Eliza of Victorian London who migrates to these shores. There is a balancing act in telling such a story. In some respects the wonderful Eliza outweighs Tiggie. So it is with Margaret Ann Mouat and Jasmine, her direct descendant. In the end, Dad losing his job, Mum trying to hide the fact, Jasmine indulging in body-piercing and fake IDs for entry to nightclubs are pallid in comparison to the very real hardships endured by her forebear.

The fragments given the reader from Maggie Mouat’s journal are a little problematic, and not from the great story they tell. They purport to be the record of a 15-year-old girl from a poor crofter family on the remote Shetlands. Orwin gives her readers the highly literate writings of a girl who would have been lucky to have received a limited elementary education. The Shetland dialect itself is virtually unintelligible to other ears. Eighteen-sixties Shetland schooling would certainly have been in English – any use of dialect would have been beaten out of the wee bairns. Could Maggie’s English possibly have developed to the remarkable level displayed in her journal?

Life on the Isles was no bed of roses for Maggie. Life on Stewart Island was to be little better. From memory, Gi-Gi fills in the latter, and happier, years of Maggie’s life. As for Jasmine, her descendant … well, the fabric of family life mends as Dad gets back on his feet, and Jaz begins to understand her strengths rather than allowing herself to be overwhelmed by her imagined shortcomings. The strength of Joanna Orwin’s novel is largely in its evocative depiction of early settler life on Stewart Island. The dense southern rainforests of that island must have been alien and daunting indeed to the brave souls from near-barren Shetland who settled there.

Ok, Ryan’s a bit too good to be true, and Tara’s memories while unconscious and hovering nearer death than life are a tad unlikely, but for all that it would be hard for any reader to put this book down. David Hill’s Coming Back grips the reader from start to finish. Teen driver, restricted licence, carrying passengers, hits pedestrian with near-fatal results. An all too-common real life scenario. This book should be compulsory reading for any kid before they’re issued with that initial restricted licence. Would it do any good?

Ryan, a nice boy, not quite fairly accepts full responsibility for his actions and eventually helps his victim, Tara, towards recovery. Tara, understandably, is not abundantly grateful!  A very good cast of subsidiary characters adds to the force of David Hill’s fine novel. Tara’s friends, Mel, and vituperative and vengeful Brittany, and Ryan’s stepfather, former gang member Jon, are particularly well-drawn. Hill gives the reader a very nice twist to what might have been a predictable ending! Small quibble: David Hill, you know full well that under the traumatic circumstances these particular characters face, they would frequently have resorted to the use of the f word!

Penelope Todd is less language-reticent in Dark, sequel to Watermark, and the second title of an intended trilogy. Todd writes with fine style and is rapidly becoming one of New Zealand’s better writers for young adults. The story of Zillah, returning to isolated Roimata on the rugged West Coast in order to pick up her friendship with Hep and Joss, is deeply satisfying. This second-time-around visit is complicated by two major factors:  the deteriorating mental state of Joss and the unwelcome presence of a fourth character, Felicity – Flea. Flea is an irritant of major proportions. The whole story is something of a riddle, not least from the perspective of Zillah who is looking for answers in regard to the direction her own life should take. Are people what they seem to be?  How have things changed?  Why have things changed?  As many questions are raised as answered.

Dark is certainly for the thinking reader. Todd handles the mental breakdown of Joss, in all its disturbing aspects, particularly well. Todd expects, if not demands, a modicum of intelligence in her readers. Dark is definitely an unsettling tale, but well worth the effort of reading – and thinking about. The third title of the trilogy is awaited with anticipation.

On a Good Day is Deborah Burnside’s first novel. A good debut, and, it is to be hoped, the first of many more books. Lee, 15, and her alcoholic, chain-smoking and feckless mother, Helena, live in a rented house in one of the less salubrious suburbs of Napier/Hastings. Life is a struggle for Helena, still grieving over the death of her little son, Lee’s brother, many years earlier. Sometimes Helena works, usually not. Lee’s burden is Helena. Lee’s salvation is her friendship with their old neighbour, Evie, struggling on the edge of senility. Lee also has a growing friendship with Baby (elephant!) Taiaroa, neighbour and classmate, with whom she is paired for the school wearable art competition. Baby is to model the creation. A lot of imagination – and fabric – is required! Lee takes the eye of school stud Gunna. Gunna, a nice guy, comes from the upmarket side of town. Pete and Dazza, petrol heads, move in next door to Lee and Helena. Helena finds yet another no-good, abusive boyfriend, Mike. Not every female of Lee’s age and acquaintance is enchanted that Gunna has the hots for Lee … .

Burnside gives her readers a full canvas indeed. The storyline is great and she generally handles her enormous cast competently, but inevitably the landscape becomes somewhat over-inhabited and it is difficult for her fine story to fully emerge. Evie’s house fire, hospitalisation and decline, the tragic loss of toddler Albert Taiaroa, Lee’s school life and relationships – and her first period – and the gradual emergence of what is a  wondrous work of wearable art, Helena’s increasing difficulties …. Whew!

Any one of Burnside’s vast cast sticks in the mind. But her strength in characterisation is also her weakness – she has given her audience an over-abundance of riches. Maybe On a Good Day might have made an even better day had it been two novels, with the Gunna-Lee relationship and some of Helena’s stickier moments reserved for the second. Sometimes contrivances work well. Sometimes they can be a bit annoying. Helena’s habit of speaking in acronyms is one of the latter. It’s NFG spending time checking the glossary at the back of the book when the action’s really hotting up!  However, on balance, the story itself redeems the acronyms. There will be many readers eagerly awaiting Deborah Burnside’s second novel.


William Taylor of Raurimu has written many books for older children and young adults.


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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