All aboard for Planet Teenage, Brigid Lowry

Deep Fried
Bernard Beckett and Clare Knighton
Longacre Press, $18.95,
ISBN 1887361119   

Penelope Todd
Longacre Press, $16.95,
ISBN 1877361127   

Jill Harris
Longacre Press, $18.95,
ISBN 1877361143

Elizabeth Knox recently entered the realms of young adult fiction with her wonderful book Dreamhunter. When asked in a radio interview what makes a book a YA book she replied, “Because I say it is.” An interesting answer, but not the one I would give. I’d say that a YA book is a book that teenagers will enjoy reading. Obviously Dreamhunter fits the bill in every way, but sadly there are still plenty of books that no self-respecting young person would go near unless they were foisted on them by some misguided adult. Books from Longacre Press, however, are usually fabulous, and I’m happy to recommend the following three, especially if you are looking for gifts for teenage readers this holiday season.

Meet Pete, the protagonist in Deep Fried. In his own words he’s “a clever angry little wanker” who is pissed off by just about everything, including school, his parents, girls, getting drunk and stoned, talking about sport, malls and fast food chains. One aimless day he stages a small but perfectly formed protest in his local Prince of Burgers store, which makes the evening news and attracts the attention of Sophie, a lone-ranger girl with techno-genius ability. Entranced by Pete’s act of defiance, she anonymously begins a website that starts a chain of events which leads into very dangerous territory. Told in the alternating voices of Pete and Sophie, Deep Fired powers along in “a sassy-sharp, adrenaline-fuelled thriller for the 21st century”. (I stole that phrase from the promo blurb, because it’s true.)

Writing a work of fiction by collaboration is an amazing feat. It demands that two people enter the same landscape of the imagination and, working together in that invisible space, somehow make that world manifest and sustain it for hundreds of pages, vividly and seamlessly. In the initial few pages of Deep Fried, Pete’s voice, written by Beckett, is so strong that I feared it might overshadow Knighton’s Sophie but soon the writing deepens, and Sophie’s voice becomes equally compelling. I love this book because it is intelligent and dares to tackle hugely important things. Bernard Beckett is not only a high school teacher who has a superb sense of humour and a special feel for Planet Teenage, he also has an economics degree, which gives him a sophisticated take on multi-nationals. Furthermore, Deep Fried is beautifully crafted. How’s this for a lovely piece of writing:

Another day dawns. Like days do. Thousands of them so far, for me, and thousands more to come. Millions, if you’re a rock or a river or a good idea, if you don’t have to worry about dying. And today is the first day of the rest of your life, and Carpe Diem and no end of other shit made cheap by advertising. But back to me in bed, knowing I’m only a single impulse away from a day like no other.


Or this:

Black pants started to make me look fat halfway through. It’s downhill from there. In skirts I looked like a brethren or a hippy or a slut or a little girl … . It creeps up, the desperation … . Each try worse than the one before.


Deep Fried is wonderful. I can’t fault it. The plot and the writing held my attention every step of the way. May I suggest you get out there and buy several copies. Read one yourself, and be nourished by the fine writing and important themes. Give one to the most interesting teenager you know, because they will love you for it. Give another to a kid who chooses junk food over real food, one who does their hunting and gathering at the mall. Perhaps you will be in time to save them.

In Penelope Todd’s sixth book for young adults, Box, she has tackled a new genre, speculative fiction, which is a cousin of science fiction. In an ominous Dunedin somewhere not far in the future, the authorities have begun Endorsement: a nation-wide drive to implant a device in every citizen to regulate their body chemistry and control their emotions.

Box is written in the first person, which Todd does well. Derik is a boy who wants to think and feel for himself. He takes to the streets in an attempt to escape Endorsement, living rough and sleeping in a cardboard box behind a school. It’s not an easy thing to do, because food is being kept from those who won’t participate, and the weather is turning nasty. Derik’s parents are overseas campaigning for world intervention to stop this abhorrent social experiment, so at first Derik has no means of support except his own cunning and his knowledge of a flimsy underground resistance movement.

He makes friends with a girl called Marti and an intriguing fellow called Disco, and before long they realise that there are more like them. Todd carefully creates a world that is only too believable, one that could be just a thin slide away from our own: “It was giddying, as if, after a jolt or two, the pavements, the town, the whole country had suddenly tilted and things were sliding past. How could you tell what was safe to grab onto any more?”

Words are not wasted in Box, each sentence is worth reading, and Derik’s hard hungry quest is made real to us:

The fear and that small effort made my heart pound.  I ate the handful of parsley I’d snatched on my way through the garden, holding its stringy tang in my mouth as long as I could. Then I plodded the long route back to the school, into the wind that thrashed the trees about and brought rain, heavier now and flecked with ice.


This riveting story of massive teenage rebellion against the denial of freedom is a terrific read, and the carefully crafted text contains many treasures. Disco is a wonderfully layered character with a fine sense of humour and a penchant for saying grace. The metaphor of The Box is perfectly placed and provides an extra dimension of meaning to the story. Another book rich in good writing and challenging ideas to savour and share, to read yourself or use in a classroom.

Oh no. This one could be pretty silly, I muttered to myself, when I found I was to review a book set in the world of birds. Although there is a fine tradition of such books, such as The Duncton Chronicles by William Horwood and Richard Adams’ Watership Down, I have an innate desire for the people in my books to be people, if you know what I mean. However, I proved to be completely wrong in this case. Jill Harris is a teacher, storyteller and grandparent, and her first novel Sil is a delight.

Aimed at a younger audience than the previous two titles, it’s the story of Sil, an adolescent tui and rising singing star. He’s busy exploring the world of human noises to make a creative composition for his entry in the annual singing competition:

Sil was trying out new sounds. Drifting, white mist hung in the leaves and branches of his hideout, cutting him off from the outside and muffling his voice. Good thing, he thought. He didn’t want anybody to hear what he was up to. He could just make out the sleepy lapping of the sea. It was one of those still, slow mornings when even the leaves couldn’t be bothered moving.


Sil’s best friend is a fearless, daredevil girl bird with whom he plays an alarming diving game called Floop. However, his rival Tor seems to be luring Bron away and other dark forces are at work in tui land, for the evil magpies are planning doom and devastation in the peaceful valley. Across the harbour at the competitions, Sil stuns his audience with his singing. Does he win the competition? Ah, that would be telling. Afterwards, blinded by pride, Sil makes a foolish and fatal mistake. Can he rise from disgrace to help the tuis strike back? Harris creates a fully believable world, beautifully rendered. This would be a great book to read to a class, and would provide a solid basis for some lively discussions on the themes of ecology, friendship, and finding out what really matters.

Designer Christine Buess has done a fine job and produced three wonderful covers for these titles. Each one is fresh and inviting, and perfectly conveys the flavour of the text. Bravo to her, and bravo to Longacre Press. New Zealand is lucky to have a small independent press that turns out such splendid books for young people. If you want the standard to continue, buy the books.


Brigid Lowryis the author of five YA novels, who also writes poetry and short fiction, and teaches creative writing.


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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