No holds barred, Joan de Hamel

Too Many Secrets
Adele Broadbent
HarperCollins, $19.99,
ISBN 9781869508562

Smiling Jack 
Ken Catran
HarperCollins, $22.99,
ISBN 9781 869508128

The Haystack
Jack Lasenby
HarperCollins, $19.99,
ISBN 9781869508524

Into the Wilderness
Mandy Hager
Random House, $19.99,
ISBN 9781869793296

Adele Broadbent is an experienced writer for the educational market; Too Many Secrets is her first novel for children and young adults. Becs, with her mother and Mark, who is her mother’s second husband and father of nine-year-old Nicole (Nick), have arrived outside a tumbledown shack in the grounds of delapidated Horrick Hall. The plan is to repair and redecorate the Hall themselves and to sell it for a profit. Back in the city, Becs will join her friends at an expensive school.

Nick thinks the shack is “cool”, even the leaking roof, the outdoor bath and loo. Becs is horrified and plays the prima donna. She is rude to everyone. Presumably, she deeply resents the new family set-up.

Mark, unwisely, sends the girls off to explore the nearby bush. “Stay on the path!” he warns. (Even Hansel and Gretel took breadcrumbs to mark the way home!) They soon become separated. Becs continues down the track, which divides. She makes an arbitrary choice and later reflects, “If I’d only known that taking that path … changed everything.”

This key decision ends chapter nine. All the chapters are short, sometimes only half a page. Each ends with a punchline: “Was meeting them a trick?”; “There’s got to be something behind it.” These mini-cliff hangers would encourage a slow young reader to persevere, but might seem condescending to a competent “kidult”.

There are plenty of adventures. Becs finds a runaway boy, Isaiah, who sometimes takes over telling the story, also in the first person. I was confused by this double self. Am “I” now Becs or Isaiah? I had not noticed that the name of the narrator always appears as a chapter heading.

Not everything happens as Becs wishes. Isaiah has major problems. She eventually has to consult Mark and her mother. She submits to their experience, helps Isaiah and works with the family restoring the house. She is growing into a mature, happy country girl.

With its brief episodes, mini-cliff hangers, strong storyline and the setting of the desolate Hall, this book is waiting to be transformed into a working script. A television series could be the perfect medium for Broadbent’s book.

Ken Catran’s Smiling Jack is sterner stuff. Readers might have already fought alongside the Morans; flown with Mac Allerton; experienced the horror of Road Kill; enjoyed the description of killing the whale in Seal Boy. If so, then this who-dunnit is the book for them. But it’s not for the faint-hearted.

This Jack is not a Jolly Joker. He has an inked-in evil smile (But why do the illustrations and the cover depict the Jack of Diamonds and not the Jack of Hearts, as described in the book?) A Smiling Jack card is discovered at the scene of each of many murders. Robert’s father has requested him to come home, but is absent when Robert arrives from Christchurch. Sergeant Pegeen Connor brings news that Robert’s father has been killed in a car smash, which has catapulted him and his brother, Harry, into the river. Taken to the scene of the crash by the “Sarge”, who is in charge of investigations, Robert notices the first Smiling Jack card impaled on a thorn.

At the funeral is a large crowd of Dad’s and Harry’s friends and relations. All are suspects, since all have a motive for murder. “Sarge” Peggy drives Robert home. She is consistently kind to him. Next day, boozy Aunt Janice accuses Robert of knowing about his father’s “creepy, evil” financial dealings, which have made him many enemies. “If you don’t know … just get out of town, Robert: get out quick.”  Next day she is dead. Her daughter Susan finds a Smiling Jack playing card.

Robert realises that “the consequences of my father’s death were spreading like ripples in a dark pool, outwards – and sucking people blackly downwards.” A stash of gold is missing. More murders occur. Catran has a gift for summing up a character in a few words. Elissa Wainwright, “thin and prim”, wears “one of her countless saggy cardigans”. As for Nicole, “Even her casual clothes looked expensive.” His adjectives are also memorable. The cat is “biscuit brown”. The coffee is “life-giving”. There was once a lettuce that “tasted like shower curtains”.

This book of nearly 300 pages is possibly too long to sustain such a high pitch of thrills. Almost too many knots and tangles have to be unpicked before the solution is revealed. I seriously suggest you tape the last chapter to the back cover, unless you are curiously incurious. I can imagine Smiling Ken Catran’s grin as he wrote the last page.

Jack Lasenby’s latest publication, The Haystack, is not an imaginary “adventure” story; there is no Aunt Effie or Uncle Trev in this one. It is a beautifully written book about a country childhood, to be mulled over at leisure. Did you ever notice how “dew glittered on the cobwebs between the fence wires – white diamonds stitched on lace”? And did the walls of your front room lurch “in and out of the shadows like friendly elephants”?

The story is set in December 1930. Maggie, perhaps seven or eight years old, announces that “the infantile’s finished, school’s been over a week. Dad’s got the day off”. It is the Depression; Dad is lucky to have a job. Maggie lets up the window-blind and awakens the farm poultry. “Rackety, rackety, splutter! Splark, squarck! Took! Took! Took!”  Onomatopoeia give a lift and a laugh throughout the book.

Here is Dad, in the kitchen, doing the chores. He works hard to be the perfect solo parent. He never “talks down”, but answers Maggie’s questions, shares jokes and reads The Jungle Book every evening – except at Christmas, when he turns to Charles Dickens. Dad often talks about Mum, who died several years ago. Maggie likes hearing about “things back then”.

Mr Bluenose, an orchardist from overseas, has given Maggie a kitten. Everyone in the township asks after it. Among others, Maggie talks to Mr Gilbert at the garage, Mr Wimble, the blacksmith, Sammy Searle, the greengrocer, Mr Barker at the Post Office, Mr Bryce at the store. She trips over the critical Mrs Dainty and admires kind Mr Cleaver, the butcher, who has kept scraps of meat for the kitten. He says that Mr Rust, an ex-serviceman, is now unemployed and “too old to be sleeping under haystacks”. There is something of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood in the list of names and the brief anecdotes.

The Hoe family, who sacked Mr Rust, are new immigrants from England. Maggie begins to spend time with them. Dad hopes she is picking up “Culture” and “all the things a girl needs to know”. In the hay harvest, Maggie, with Plod the carthorse, joins everyone in the township in the building of the haystack. Lasenby has already lovingly described the sharing of seasonal farm work in Aunt Effie and the Island that Sank. This childhood memory will take country-bred readers back to the days of their youth. That was the way of life for them. But not for poor Mr Rust.

Mandy Hager, born in Levin, has established herself as a writer with deep concerns on multicultural issues. She has written for the Global Education Centre for Learning, and for Learning Media. In Smashed (2000), which won the Esther Glenn award, she addressed genetic issues; these can be resolved by brains and determination. Her new novel, Into the Wilderness, is the second in a trilogy entitled Blood of the Lamb, the first of which, The Crossing (2009), won the 2010 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Award for Young Adult Fiction. A précis of The Crossing appears as a preface to book two.  Maryam and her friend Ruth are setting forth in a boat, in circumstances somewhat reminiscent of those in Fleur Beale’s Juno of Taris. Sailing with Maryam and Ruth is Joseph, indebted to Maryam because a transfusion of her blood has saved his life. His crafty cousin Lazarus obliges them to take him too.

So Into the Wilderness starts with two brown girls and two white boys out at sea. No holds are barred in this book. Hager writes about violence, cruelty, pain, rape and death; about grieving and imprisonment; about race and colour discrimination: about families that fail you and trusted friends who let you down. First love brings zeniths and nadirs; and “desire is the thief of time”.

All this is encapsulated in a fast-moving adventure story. The trilogy is an enormous metaphor about survival and redemption, no matter what circumstances have afflicted you in the past. Eager adventure-story readers, lapping up grisly details, may not notice this or pay much regard to Ruth’s frequent readings from her book, or to the trilogy’s titles.

The biblical quotations come from the King James version of the Bible. In Exodus chapter 12, the Israelites are taught how to keep the Passover. They are to kill a lamb and mark their door-posts with the blood of this lamb; “and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you when I smite the land of Egypt”; “these are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” comes from Revelations (9, 14). Maryam reads aloud to Ruth from Isaiah, chapter 35, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened … And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes”; and Matthew: “What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?”

Maryam eventually faces a return voyage, realising that she needs “enlightenment”. She is “certain now that her fate rested solely in her own hands”. And we are certain that another masterpiece is on its way – book three of this majestic trilogy.


Joan de Hamel is a Dunedin writer. 


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Posted in Children, Literature, Review, Young adults
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