About Me

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Victoria, Australia
I am an author of Young Adult Fiction books. I worked as a teacher in the Pacific Islands for seven years. Whilst in the Solomon Islands I taught PSSC English before the ethnic tension in 2000 forced a change of plans. I love Pacific literature, art and music. You can find me on Facebook at Beth Montgomery Author.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Island Exiles by Jemima Garrett

It's amazing the treasures you find in second hand bookshops. This week I found Island Exiles, the non fiction account of how the Nauruan people survived Japanese occupation and starvation during World War Two. This particular book helped me to shape much of my first novel, The Birthmark. But the copy I had then was borrowed from a lady who probably cursed me for not returning it sooner.
   I did give it back, eventually. And now I have my own copy.
   The book records the experience of a handful of older Nauruans who were mostly children when the Japanese invaded in 1942. Some of them I knew from when I lived there myself in the early 1990s. Their stories are filled with wonder and fear but also a sprinkling of humour.

Island Exiles (ABC Books, 1996)

   Many Nauruans were shipped off their island to the Micronesian island of Truk during the height of the war. This left the native population on Nauru at less than eight hundred people. For Nauruans, building the numbers up to 1500 had a huge significance for famine and disease had decimated the population in the past. 1500 was known as the Angam number. Below this population number, the people believed they would die out. After the war when the survivors from Truk were returned, Nauru had to build their numbers up again.
  The book is easy to read and sets out what happened in Nauru alongside other actions of the Japanese during the war in the Pacific. A series of endnotes in the back sorts information into categories but the lack of an index is annoying. I would however, recommend it for PSSC History and English students.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Scottish Thread.

Last Christmas my daughter read a string of books that coincidently all had homosexual protagonists. Her friend had a similar reading experience; every book she read was written from the point of view of a nine-year-old boy. This year it was my turn. I accidently read three books in a row that were peppered with Scottish dialogue. It's actually made me say things to my family like, 'I think I'll have a wee cup of tea.'
   The first book in my string of coincidences was Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. Being a classic by the famous "Island" author himself, the revered Tusitala, I thought I ought to give it a go. It was hard work. Broad Scottish dialect does not come naturally to the Australian ear even though I have a drop of highland ancestoral blood in my veins.
   Although this story isn't a Pacific Island one it is certainly about the islands off the coast of Scotland. I learnt a great deal about clans and how loyalties work within them (a bit like the wantok system) and also the politics of the time when the story was set just after the Jacobean uprising. And I must admit I felt a kinship link to the lovable rogue Alan who was the main hero in the story as he was related to the same Stewart clan who were my ancestors.
   The second book I read was a Terry Pratchett novel filled with little wee men and although I have a love of Discworld novels there's really no space for them on this blog. They deserve a whole blog on their own.
   The third book was an autobiography written by British poet Jackie Kay called Red Dust Road. Jackie recounts her life as an adopted coloured girl growing up in a sometimes racist Scottish town. The reason why I mention it here is it's a story with 'mana'. Jackie's desire to find her natural parents lead her back to the dusty roads of Nigeria where she finds her ancestoral home and eventually a warm welcome from a brother she never knew before. There are hilarious and disturbing encounters with her Nigerian father who is a successful man and a born again Christian.

Red Dust Road (Picador, 2010)

   I found this book a bit annoying to begin with as it jumps around in no particular order detailing events and conversations in Jackie's life. However the result is like real life; snippets of character are revealed in layers, making you grow to love both Jackie's adoptive and birth family. Issues of racism recur throughout the book, many of which resonated with me raising so called 'coloured' children in Australia. It is a heart-warming book and a good one for adult readers but be warned...there is still a lot of Scottish dialogue and a smattering of politics.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What makes a good short story?

Lately I've been spending time resurrecting some short stories I wrote ten years ago. Some of them are woeful, but there are fragments that can be salvaged and turned into good writing. One thing I've found is that in all my early work I've tried to do too much. There is action and the paranormal when the action is enough, or there are far too many charcters, each wanting different things which is better groundwork for a novel.

Source: B. Montgomery

   KISS or Keep It Simple, Stupid! should be the catch-cry of the short story writer. I think here of the analogy of weaving. For a small piece a basic eye-catching pattern is enough.
   And voice...your character/s need a good strong voice to convey their depth in such limited space.  Examples such as Alan Paton's 'The Waste Land', R.K. Narayan's 'An Astrologer's Day', Chinua Achebe's 'The Sacrificial Egg' and Witi Ihimaera's 'A Game of Cards' or even 'Beginning of the Tournament' are examples of this simplicity working well to create strong characters and memorable stories. These examples should be well known to PSSC students.
   So this Christmas break I'll keep chipping away at my short stories trying to create a voice and a conflict that is simple yet profound. That to me is the basis of a good short story. Merry Christmas everyone and a happy and safe New Year.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Into the Wilderness by Mandy Hager

With the tragedy this week of the shipwreck on Christmas Island claiming scores of lives of refugees it brought to mind Mandy Hager's book Into The Wilderness which was published this year by Random House. It is the second in the Blood of the Lamb series, set in the Pacific ocean miles from anywhere.
Into the Wilderness (Random House, 2010)
Marayam and her three companions set out for any island they can, just as long as it's far away from the tyranny of The Apostles of The Lamb, the cult who controlled their lives for so long. When they finally reach land they are confronted by the tragedy of genocide.
   Determined to find civilisation somewhere they set off again with tragic consequences. With their boat in tatters and beginning to sink, a ship intercepts them only to tell the companions that as refugees they're not welcome in the territories.
   Maryam resorts to desperate tactics to be saved and then finds herself in a refugee detention camp. This book is grim and confronting with little hope until the very last pages. And it makes you cry heaps...
   I found that just when things seemed bad for Maryam, they only got worse and worse again. Let's hope things come good in the third installment. I don't think it matters much if you haven't read The Crossing, book one in the series, because Hager fleshes out the backstory well with Maryam's gradual and profound loss of faith.
   This story is a terrific one for teenagers and a great one to start class discussions. The issues include refugees, discrimination, genocide and the availability of cheap medicine and medical aid for marginalised people. Come to think of it maybe a lot of adults and governments need to be thinking hard about these topics too.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Visual inspiration: Men's Island crafts

Making a raft, Navua Fiji 1992. Source: B Montgomery
Wood carver, Pohnpei 1995. Source: B Montgomery
Maori Fishing hook, Source: Te Papa 0L000105

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Scoop and Scribe Search for the Seven Stars of Matariki by Tommy Kapai Wilson

This chapter book is non-stop adventure for junior reporters Scoop and Scribe. A Maori tohunga tells the two that they have to find the seven stars of Matariki that were stolen by a cheeky kea or mountain parrot. The stars have to be recovered in time for the Maori New Year which is called Matariki.
Scoop and Scribe journey across New Zealand in a seven day mad dash to find the stars. They are helped by special guardians along the way and even encounter the cheeky kea near the end who caused all the trouble.
Scoop and Scribe search
for the 7 stars of Matariki.
(Random House, 2009)
   There was certainly lots of action but one thing that bothered me was that Scoop and Scribe found a couple of the stars without too much resistance. So much was packed into this little book that it could easily have been expanded into a bigger story of about 10,000 words.
   This is a good book for young readers who are still mastering reading techniques. There is a delightful colour illustration in each chapter and a glossary at the end. The glossary was vital for someone like me who doesn't know many Maori words. There were even interesting facts about how to find the constellation Matariki (The Pleiades) and some of the cultural activities undertaken by Maori people at this significant time of year. A good one for the youngsters.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dead Birds by Trevor Shearston

I watched a David Attenborough documentary on Sunday night about Birds of Paradise. As ever the photography was beautiful and the dancing birds were just gorgeous but the whole thing brought to mind a disturbing book I read a few years ago called Dead Birds. Written by Trevor Shearston the novel is a  depiction of Italian naturalist and explorer Luigi D'Albertis' journey up the Fly River in Papua New Guinea. Set in pre-colonial 1877, the book depicts the violence of the plundering of indigenous communities by Europeans in search of biological and anthropological specimens.

Source; Greenpeace.org
    Be warned, this book is really hard work. The narrator is gross, an 'utamu' or spirit of a beheaded tribesman. Once you get past the macabre fact that his head is placed in a specimen bottle you actually get to like the spirit and hope for revenge.

Dead Birds (ABC Books, 2007)

   Shearston has done a terrific job maintaining the tribesman's voice throughout and showing his astonishment at all the technology and behaviour of the foreigners. It requires a lot of concentration though and I found I had to reread paragraphs to clarify meaning when I was tired.
   The narrator is confined to the boat for most of the story so we don't get to see a lot of the action. Hundreds of Birds of Paradise were shot, all in the name of science. Not that I wanted to be in on the hunting expeditions but surely a lot of the characters' interactions would be better presented out in the jungle.

source: ocellated.com

   As a reading experience it was challenging, a mind bending exercise for a writer studying  point of view and voice. However I wouldn't recommend it as a spot of light reading.

   It must be remembered that the portrayl is fictitious and D'Albertis did make it back to Europe in real life, however I found the historical theme really whetted my appetite for more information of early exploration of the Pacific and the work of naturalists.  

Friday, December 3, 2010

Award winners

As I go along this book reviewing journey I've realised that I've forgotten to put in the details of various awards that some books have won. The two that immediately spring to mind are Lloyd Jones' Mr Pip and Mandy Hager's The Crossing. They are both superb books.
   Mr Pip was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007. The Man Booker Prize is a giant on the book award calendar so even being shortlisted is like winning a prize too.
   But Mr Pip actually won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize  and the Kiriyama Prize for fiction. It also won the Readers' Choice Award, the Montana Fiction Award and the Montana Medal for Fiction in 2007.
   The Crossing is the winner of the 2010 NZ Post Children's Book Awards for Young Adult Fiction. It was shortlisted for the LIANZA Young Adult Fiction Award and the 2010 Sir Julius Vogel Award.
      Every year there are book awards run all over the world. Some are mega big like The Man Booker which gives the winning author a big prize-winning cheque and boosts sales hugely. Others are small awards where an author might receive a trophy or a small cheque, and which does very little to boost sales. Each award could have dozens or hundreds of entries, depending on the eligibilty criteria. For example only the following books can enter: those by a local author or a female author, or a crime novel, or a non-fiction title, or a picture story book...
   The books are read by a panel of judges and a shortlist is selected. Sometimes it's a longlist. I guess it's because the judging panel have so many fights about what is the best book. And that really is the issue here; books are subjective things. What I love, you may hate and vice versa. But generally the judging panel is made up of smart, well-read and interesting people who choose a credible shortlist. The eventual winner is selected over many weeks and probably arguments.
   Awards can showcase some brilliant stories, but not always. I have read some award winners that I thought were crap, and I have read hundreds of books that I thought were fabulous that never even reached an award longlist. So really it all boils down to what your personal preferences are in reading.   
   So what good are awards and does it mean that award winning books are the only ones worth reading? Perhaps awards are just sophisticated marketing devices for books and not a measure of their worth at all? I like to think of an award as just another book review. If the panel liked a book that much, then it probably was terrific, but don't count on it. Maybe the panel members for that year were all into the kind of stories you hate... or they were half asleep or drunk when they chose the winner... 
   The lesson is read anything you like, award winner or not...just read and keep on reading. For the love of it. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Juno of Taris by Fleur Beale

This is the first book I've ever read that makes an issue of shaved heads. At first I thought it was a bit comical, a quirky detail of the plot that added interest. It wasn't until things sped up in the second half of the book that I realised how central and symbolic the shaving issue was to the people of Taris.

Juno of Taris (Random House, 2008)
    Taris is a future world, a biosphere dome set over an island in the Southern Ocean. The dome is populated by 500 people who are self-sufficient and peaceful, but whose elders harbour deep secrets.
Juno is twelve when she first starts to question the rules of Taris. But with the questioning brings danger. The rulers of the dome are watching her and Juno is certain they mean to kill her. But Juno has a band of loyal friends who support and protect her as the dome's technology starts to fail. Together they uncover the secrets that have bound the people of Taris for generations.
   This is a good story for younger teenagers as it brings up issues such as conforming and family loyalty. The pace is quite slow at the start but once the action takes off it's hard to put down. The large cast of unusual names is a bit difficult to stomach but there is a list of key characters at the beginning of the book which helps confused readers.
   At the end of each chapter are three paragraphs which convey the daily gossip of the dome. As a literary device it works really well, giving out background information and showing the society's values and fears.
   If you don't like science fiction then give it a miss, but I found it a delightful story about a gutsy heroine who is determined to uncover the truth. This book won the Ester Glen Award in 2009.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

Maybe I'm a bit off the mark here because this book has nothing to do with the Pacific, but strictly speaking it's an 'island' story and it's a good one for teens, so why not?
   It's the story of twins, one loved and one hated (like Jacob and Esau), growing into womanhood on the small island of Rass (somewhere in the USA) during the 1940s. Louise spends all her time crabbing and getting her hands dirty while her sister Caroline is the talented musician whom everyone adores. Louise constantly feels that she walks in Caroline's shadow and she resents her twin sister enormously. When Caroline leaves the island and Louise helps out on the boat during hard times she learns that she too is loved and needed.
   Paterson is an award winning author whose sensitive handling of this narrative paints a young girl struggling with infatuation and jealousy. The ailing and deluded grandmother is also beautifully depicted. The island descriptions are plain but powerful. The smell of crabs and oysters is ever-present and I learnt a great deal about the life-cycle of crabs from reading this novel. This book was awarded the 1980 Newbery Medal.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Loku and the Shark Attack by Deborah Carlyon

Loku and the Shark Attack (UQP, 2006)

This is a chapter book designed for young readers of about eight to ten years old. Set in Papua New Guinea it tells the story of Loku, the quiet boy in the village who never gets into any scrapes. His twin brother Nul seems to have all the adventures and all the fun. Setting out to prove himself, Loku ventures into the territory of another tribe where he accidently starts a bushfire. He is captured and made to pay for his mistake. He is forced into a dangerous plan to lure and spear a shark. But everything goes wrong and Loku finds courage he didn't know he had.

   There are cute little illustrations throughout done in black ink by Johnny Danalis. The story is written like a fable, with everything turning out well in the end. A good one for children establishing themselves as readers. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Author Interview: Anna Mackenzie

Anna Mackenzie is a New Zealand author who writes for teenagers (just like me). Anna's third book, The Sea-wreck Stranger, won The 2008 NZ Post Book Award for children and Young Adults and the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Fantasy and Sci Fi. Maybe I seem to go on and on about this book, but it is one of my fav's and when Anna agreed to do an interview I was rapt. So here are her answers...

1.      The Sea-wreck Stranger is set in a future world. Are you naturally drawn to speculative fiction or was it hard to create this future island in your head?
Dunnett Island came easily, as did the issues and challenges my characters face in this future – and not very happy – world. On an interpersonal level, the challenges are universal in terms of time setting, I think, but the environmental issues are more specifically located in a not very distant future. That the community in Vidya has responded differently to that on Dunnett is one of the underlying themes of the story – and one that gets further attention in the sequel, Ebony Hill.

2.       The island itself is very real. What is your inspiration for this setting?
Dunnett is an amalgam of a number of places I’ve lived or visited, with a hearty dose of imagination thrown in. I wanted to create a setting that could be anywhere – I think YA fiction works well when the reader can transpose their own familiar reference points into the setting, so I have tried to keep it non-specific. That said, the cave at one end of Skellap Bay is a real place, and various aspects of the island’s topography and isolation are also taken from a real location.

3.      How do you go about forming characters for your stories?
I usually start with a single, simple idea. In the case of The Sea-wreck Stranger I was watching my children and their friends mess about on a lakefront, rummaging through items washed up against an old log. I thought ‘what if what you find is not what you expect?’, and the idea grew – quite quickly – into the novel. I walked back to the house with the plan of noting down the idea and wrote several chapters straight away. Ness’s character, and those of the people around her, formed immediately; plot came later.
The common model for me is that a character develops first, often simultaneously in my head and on paper, and as I write about them I ‘discover’ what their story is.

4.      How long does it take you to write a book? Can you take us through your process?
It varies a little. A first draft usually takes between four and seven months. I then spend a similar period of time editing and perfecting, including time when I set the book aside and ignore it. I sometimes have several books at different stages – I’ll be ‘ignoring’ one while I’m writing the first draft of another, so they leapfrog a little. The publishing process also works on different timeframes. My last few books have come out more quickly than my first.

5.      The sequel, Ebony Hill, has been released in NZ. Was it easier to write than The Sea-wreck Stranger? Can you tell us a bit about the story?
In Ebony Hill, we meet up with Ness two years down the track – and discover, as Ness has, that things are never simple or perfect. Vidya has high ideals and the community works hard to achieve them – but they, like the islanders, are struggling with a world in ruins. Ness is unsure of her own place in her new society, and none of her uncertainty is helped by her confused feelings for Dev or by the arrival of an interloper who seems to both threaten and clarify her nebulous sense of belonging.
Just when she thinks she might have found a promising path, the world around her erupts into violence. Practical and ethical dilemmas force Ness to explore her own beliefs and discover both strengths and weaknesses as she, and those around her, are tested to the limits.
Strangely, I found this second book harder to write than The Sea-wreck Stranger. This was partly because my plan was to write a sequel, and I consequently kept trying to make the next stage of Ness’s story fit into a single book. When I finally accepted that it wouldn’t – I’m just now finishing the third book of the trilogy – it became easier again. A great example of how, as a writer, you have to follow the story rather than trying to make the story follow a preconceived notion about it!

6.      What are your favourite Island stories?
When I was about 6 my father read us a novel by Joyce West called ‘The Sea Islanders’ which I remember as being about a family as warm and unruly as my own, and containing a signature refrain from the youngest child: ‘”I’m hungry,” said Rory.’
I studied William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ at school, and was disturbed by the author’s bleak subtext. As both a teenaged and adult reader I much admire Ursula le Guinn’s Earthsea Cycle (comprising two trilogies written 20 years apart), which offers a masterful example of the way fantasy can explore the realities of human nature and the trials and issues we all face in finding a path into adulthood.
Islands allow writers to explore the impact of isolation on individuals and social hierarchies – certainly true in The Sea-wreck Stranger, but also true of communities isolated by less physical barriers. Fleur Beale’s ‘I am not Esther’, about a closed religious community, is a chilling YA example. Amongst adult novels, Margaret Attwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, set in a dark future offering a rigid and oppressive social hierarchy, stands out. 
Stories speculating on dystopian futures influenced me from a young age – the BBC TV series of the 1970s ‘The Survivors’ and John Wyndham’s ‘Day of the Triffids’ (also serialised by the BBC) – lived in my head for many years. And on dystopian future novels, I would be remiss not to mention Cormac McCarthy’s unsettlingly dark but masterfully written ‘The Road’. See the film if you will, but for sheer beauty of writing, read the book.

7.      If you were stranded on an island for a year, what three non-essential items would you take with you?
A clarinet (I’ve just begun learning, and stranded on an island, I might perhaps have time to make some progress! The great thing about a clarinet is that even when you’re not very good, the sounds aren’t too unpleasant.)

The complete works of William Shakespeare – for the beauty and cadence of his sentences, for his linguistic ingenuity, and for his acute observation and ability to generate phrases whose longevity often transcends an awareness of their source.

And thirdly, inevitably perhaps, notebooks and pencils.

8.      Why do you write for young adults?
There’s no simple answer. I like kids, I’m fascinated by human behaviour and motivation, and I think the teen years are incredibly interesting. It’s as teens that we make the choices that determine the adults we’ll become, it’s generally when we’re hit with a mountain of challenges and trials, and it’s when we build the resources we’ll need to cope with everything the rest of life has to throw at us. Growing up isn’t a straightforward business, but it’s something we all do (sooner or later). I think it’s a period of our lives that deserves as much attention as we can give it.
I also have two teenaged children, though when I began writing they were youngsters. They’re kind of useful though – as sounding boards, zoological specimens and reminders of reality.

9.      The Sea Wreck Stranger won many awards. As a writer, do you feel the pressure is now on you to perform?
Actually, no more than I always feel. I want every book to be the best it can possibly be – I’m sure every writer does. A book that’s not yet finished still has that potential; the pressure is always there. With every book I write, I aim to learn. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Visual Inspiration: markets

Melons at Honiara town market, 2010. (Source: B Montgomery)

Suva market, 1992. (Source: B: Montgomery)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Why island stories?

Lots of authors fill their blogs with writing techniques and tips about approaching publishers. I wanted to do something different that reflected who I was as well as show my love of writing. It's a pretty safe bet that you can gauge a person's interests from what they read. I am an eclectic reader. My bookshelves house topics as diverse as gardening, anthroplogy and forensics to theology, mythology and astrology. I love insects and words, so I have entomology and etymology books. I like reading crime, comedy and fantasy. But by far the biggest section of my bookshelf is devoted to what I call island stories. 
   For me these are stories about islands, seafaring and village life. They are stories of indigenous people and colonialists, missionaries and sailors.  My first island books were The Boy Who Was Afraid and Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins. Both of these books are about surviving on your own and they follow in the tradition of Robinson Crusoe. I am always interested in how people make do with very few resources and how they rely on inner reserves of courage and ingenuity to succeed.
   Island stories don't have to be about the tropics. The Sea-wreck Stranger is set on a cold windswept island. And they don't have to be told by an indigenous author. Both insiders and outsiders have the right to tell a story.
   Mythology is another aspect of many island stories. Although I have always loved classical Greek and Roman Mythology, the custom stories of the Pacific are rich, diverse and fascinating. Mythology ties in with culture and tradition. Learning about Polynesian culture or African traditions or Carribean legends is akin to travelling the world in your armchair.
   This is where 'world literature with mana' comes in. Many of the books listed on the PSSC English prescription are African or Indian, such as Things Fall Apart and A Village by the Sea. Some stories depict the world's colonial past or war-torn regions or urban slums in developing nations and they are stories so filled with spirit and determination that they make a profound impact on readers. These are the type of books I cherish.  

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Sea-Wreck Stranger by Anna Mackenzie

The Sea-wreck Stranger (Longacre, 2007)

This is such a gorgeous book simply because of the quality of the writing. The voice of Ness, the teenage protagonist, is lilting and almost 'old world' which is in contrast to the future setting of the story. But this technique works well to depict the culture of her isolated island home where technology is shunned and things from the sea are feared. The islanders farm the land but will not fish the ocean due to a spate of poisonings, years before.
   When Ness discovers a man washed up on the beach she knows she must try to save his life. However the people on her island are not so compassionate and would gladly persecute and kill the newcomer. Ness and her cousins strive to heal and conceal the man in a cave at the shoreline, but things go wrong and his presence is discovered.
   The island in this novel is cold and windswept, nothing like a tropical paradise. The way it is depicted gives the island a feeling of wretchedness and hopelessness, a place Ness desperately needs to escape from.
   This book is so good it won The Sir Julius Vogel Award and The NZ Post Honour Award. It's well worth reading especially if you like speculative fiction.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Crossing by Mandy Hager

The Crossing (Random House, 2009)
I loved this book, the first of a trilogy called The Blood of the Lamb series. Set on a remote island somewhere in Kiribati in a post apocalyptic world, the novel is filled with snippets of Gilbertese culture, from toddy drinking to public shaming. Some Gilbertese phrases and terms are also used. The descriptions of noddies and frigate birds, the swell and cycles of the reef are all so clear that the tropics come alive in this book and make it a sensuous treasure.
   But the plot is a sinister one. Maryam is one of the chosen ones, an islander who is raised away from her island of Onewere on a small atoll where children are indoctrinated to follow the teachings of Saul, the founding father of the Apostles of the Lamb. The apostles are the descendants of Europeans shipwrecked at Onewere during the Tribulation (solar flares which brought destruction to most of the Earth). They live in the remains of their ship the Star of the Sea.
   The chosen ones are selcted to serve the Apostles and Maryam is determined to be a dutiful servant. When the time comes for her to cross over to the rotting ship she finds life is far from idyllic. She is nothing more than a slave, doomed to die. With the help of some unlikely friends Maryam plans her escape.
   This book has quite a gothic feel to it when the blood-thirsty motives of the sect leaders are revealed. The pace is fast and the characters are plausible and interesting. It had me gripped right to the last pages. Exciting and disturbing. A terrific read.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sky Dancer by Witi Ihimaera

Sky Dancer (Penguin, 2003)

This book was such a challenge for me. Normally a fat book puts me off reading. I guess that's why I like Young Adult Fiction because they're usually thin books that don't take over a week to read. The other thing that tripped me up for the first 100 pages was the number of characters, all birds, whose personal name or species began with the letter k. Once I got over these two hurdles though I was captivated.
   Ihimaera has such a relaxed natural style that it's easy for the story to sweep you along. 
   The novel is about a young woman called Skylark who has Maori heritage. She takes her mother away for a holiday to a remote country town where they stay with two old Maori women. The old women are sisters and sworn protectors of the birds of the land. Skylark is drawn into helping the old women to fight a pitched battle with the sea birds.
   The bad guys in this story are the sea shags and gulls, terns and albatross, and every other sea species who in Maori folklore were jealous of the landbirds, coveting the sweet eelfish that the landbirds ate.  Skylark is a fiesty character and is a lot of fun, a terrific heroine. Her side kick Arnie has sections of cliched dialogue which is a bit annoying but in harmony with the character so it's easily forgiven. But by far the most memeorable character is old Hoki with her withered foot, who sacrifices almost everything to save the day.
   Ihimaera has managed to link myth with a contemporary plot to produce a rollicking good yarn. An enjoyable read.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Riding the Waves: Four Maori Myths by Gavin Bishop

Ridning the Waves (Random House NZ, 2006)
Riding the Waves is the second in a series of picture story books for very young children by author illustrator Gavin Bishop.
   The four myths are portrayed by Bishop's clear but effective style. His figure drawings are well defined in black and ink washes fill out the background colour. The effect can be quite dark on some pages and gives pictures a muted feel. 'Maui finds his family' had this appearance. But on other stories with brighter spreads the colour is vibrant and fluid. 'Hatupatu and the Birdwoman' has this appeal.
   The stories are related simply with plenty of dialogue.
   My favourite was 'Maui and the Godess of Fire'. Even small details like Mahuika's fiery fingernails are depicted. The red ink stretching across the pages evokes the image of spreading fire perfectly.
  This book is a great one to read to your pikininis before bed.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Unquiet by Carolyn McCurdie

The Unquiet (Longacre, 2006)
Tansy lives in New Zealand and is alarmed when big things start disappearing. By big I mean massive, like entire countries and even the planet Pluto. A dark emptiness is growing, swallowing whole communities and driving people crazy with a 'jabbery, twisty kind of sound'. It's the Unquiet. Tansy and her classmate Anaru are drawn into the realms of Maori myth as the Unquiet claims their town. In shadow form they use Maui's waka to go fishing and hook NZ out of danger.
   I liked this children's story because of the blend of myth and reality. The book was well written and the plot moved quickly. Tansy and Anaru are engaging characters although I thought Mrs Rex was a bit stereotyped as the eccentric teacher.
   If you like speculative fiction then you ought to find this a good story. It's too easy for PSSC students but still an enjoyable read.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Friday, October 1, 2010

Tev by Brendan Murray

Tev by Brendan Murray (Freemantle Arts Centre Press, 2002)

Tev is half Tongan, half Australian and is almost fifteen. 'My parents call me Tev, usually, and Tevita when they're annoyed with me. There's been a lot of 'Tevita' lately.'
   His parents believe he's been deceitful and so Tev has been sent home to Tonga, his mother's land, to straighten him out.
   The book starts with his plane journey and meeting his uncle Maka and cousins at the airport. His stay with the family is difficult as he has to grapple with the culture and language. He finds love too and  safe refuge for his companions during a cyclone.
   I enjoyed the depiction of the funeral (I won't say who dies) and other cultural events in this book. Murray shows island life as it is: the squabbles, the joys and the unity.
   The whole way through the book there are Tongan words and phrases with English translations following in brackets. I found this technique distracting. Many meanings could be understood from the context of the sentences and the glossary at the back served to help when meaning was lost. I also found Tevita's voice inconsistent. In the dialogue he sounded like a teenager, but a lot of his internal thoughts were those of an adult.
Overall the book is good light entertainment, but I didn't think Tev was a fully developed character. There was a lot of room for improvement.

Monday, September 27, 2010

St Joseph's Tenaru revisited

Over the July holidays I revisited St Joseph's Tenaru Catholic Secondary School in the Solomon Islands where I used to teach. Unfortunately it was holiday time there too, but it was good to see renovations going on: the boys' dormitory was getting a new staircase. The grounds were looking overgrown so I can imagine all the 'brushing' (grass cutting) the students on work session would have done on their first few weeks back.
This is my daughter inspecting the school's cucumber patch. Rice is drying on the concrete in the background. St Joseph's Tenaru has always had a good reputation for teaching agriculture.
I wish the year twelve students all the best for their upcoming PSSC examinations.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Boy Who Was Afraid by Armstrong Sperry

I love this book. It's one of my childhood favourites. I first read it when I was in primary school. (Not quite a hundred years ago) It's the story of Mafatu, the islander boy who lost his mother to the sea when he was very young. Mafatu grows to fear the sea. His father is ashamed of him and the village children ridicule him. To overcome his fear and shame he sets off in a canoe out into the open sea. His only companions are his dog Kivi and a tame albatross.
   Mafatu's courage grows as he learns to survive on an uninhabited island. But the island is visited occassionally by the fierce eaters-of-men who come in their big war canoes. Mafatu flees the cannibals and returns home a hero.

   This is such a classic kid's story about coming of age and confronting your fears. It is a salute to the navigational prowess of the Polynesian people. The copy I have is old and battered but I can't part with it. The book is too easy for PSSC students but it's worth reading for the sheer joy of it.

Canoe ride in Phonpei 1994. Source: Beth Montgomery

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones

When people ask, 'what's your favourite book?' it's too difficult to make a decision because there are just so many super stories out there. But one of my all time fav's is Mr Pip by New Zealand author Lloyd Jones.
Mr Pip (Text Publishing, 2006)
   It's the story of 11-year-old Matilda, a Bouganvillian girl who suffers greatly during the time of the blockade. But Matilda's story isn't all tragedy. It is humourous and poignant too.
   Due to the blockade Matilda's village school shuts down. An eccentric expat nicknamed Pop Eye volunteers to teach the children but there are no resources. (How true this is in so much of the Pacific.) So Pop Eye reads his class Great Expectations and Matilda's interest in literature is sparked.
I adored this book, not just because of the island setting, but because of the clarity of the writing. Matilda's voice rings true. Jones must have rewritten and edited this story countless times to achieve such flawless simplicity of style. His description of the tropics is so tangible I could feel the humidity as I read.
   Mr Pip will make you laugh and it will make you cry your guts out, but mostly it will make you believe in the power of a good story.