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Book Reviews Reading

Review: Shadow of the Mountain by Anna Mackenzie

A photo of the book Shadow of the Mountain by Anna Mackenzie

What is it?

Shadow of the Mountain by Anna Mackenzie

First published 2008

A New Zealand, young adult contemporary novel.

The Back Cover Blurb

Geneva’s world has been blown apart by loss. Maybe that’s why her decisions are not always the sharpest. One thing she knows: there’s no way back to the person she once was.

When Angus appears in her orbit it seems an omen that things are changing — but life is never that simple.

In trying to find a way forward, Geneva risks her friendships, risks repeating the errors of the past, even risks her life.
But maybe there’s no other way to find the person she can be.

What I thought

This was another NZ book I found by browsing the library shelves and choosing something I’d normally pass up otherwise. To be perfectly honest, the writing wasn’t quite there for me, but I did enjoy the story.

Geneva’s family is dealing with grief, and it has taken its toll, and I thought their pain and sense of loss came across really well on the page. I liked Angus and Geneva’s relationship with him, which wasn’t always straight forward. I loved how the setting was really important to the story, and the New Zealandness of it really came through. And it had a satisfying ending, with hope for the future.

Book Reviews Reading

Review: Alex by Tessa Duder

A photo of the book Alex by Tessa Duder

What is it?

Alex by Tessa Duder

First published 1987

A New Zealand, young adult (historical?) novel.

The Back Cover Blurb

Alexandra Archer is swimming to qualify for the Olympic Games in Rome. In the past year she has fallen in love and knows how it feels to lose.

Alex faces intense competition and will have to swim the race of her life to achieve her dream.

What I thought

I remember I must’ve been about 12 when a girl who I wouldn’t exactly call a friend was reading Alex. I know I was in the 10 to 12 range, because we were in the hall I went to for Girl Guides. I can see the scene so clearly. A book about a girl swimmer? Ugh, no thanks.

12 year old me was so wrong.

Actually, no. I don’t think 12 year old me would’ve liked this book. It didn’t have teenage brothers solving mysteries, or swords and sorcery, or a man who collected pigs. But 38 year old me did.

Crap, I’m old.

But I loved Alex (the character). She’s strong and driven and vulnerable. I loved how the story is split between chapters showing her thoughts during her final race and the lead-up to it. The writing style almost lost me in parts, because it’s very tell-y. Alex rambles on about her life, and sometimes I thought I’d actually like to see some of this stuff instead of just being told about it. But her narration is so charming, it didn’t turn me off the book.

I’m glad I finally read it, and I’d highly recommend it. Alex (the book) is a classic piece of New Zealand literature, and Alex (the character) is still relevant today.

Book Reviews Reading

Review: Yes by Deborah Burnside

What is it?

Photo of the book Yes with fire graphics added on top

Yes by Deborah Burnside

First published 2011

A New Zealand, young adult contemporary novel.

The Back Cover Blurb

M&M, as he’s known to his friends, might have trouble reading people, organizing things or pleasing his father, but he knows that when his mate Luke — Legless — attempts to involve him in another crazy venture, it’s futile to resist.

This time it’s the Young Enterprise Scheme. Luke believes it will make them rich and popular — and along the way will capture the heart of his elusive love.

Marty wonders if it should be, flashcard: Madness.

Reluctantly, Marty says YES. And what comes next is a whole log bigger and weirder than he could ever have imagined.

What I thought

I was so excited to find this book on the library shelf, because the author is from the same small town where I grew up. It’s so rare to find books set in my home town. I know of one definite (Earthquake Town by Beverley Dunlop) and another one that didn’t state the setting explicitly but I was pretty sure it was, not that I can remember the title. Or author. And there may be more I’m not aware of. Oh, wasn’t Hucking Cody set in Hawke’s Bay somewhere? But this wasn’t just the town I grew up in, it was the exact suburb. I knew the places she was describing, and there were some references I was sure were in-jokes (like the primary school shared a name with my IRL primary headmaster), and it made my heart sing. Which made it doubly-disappointing when the book went south. But I’ll get to that soon.

The writing is good. It flows nicely. The main character, Marty, has an Autism Spectrum Disorder and often goes off on tangents as he narrates. It makes the book quite slow and introspective, which is normally my kind of thing. It does get a bit frustrating though. And I’m not going to comment on the Autism rep, because I don’t have any experience there. One goodreads review said it wasn’t great, and when I compare it to the narrator in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, I get what they’re talking about.

The novel was published in 2011, but set in 2001. At first, I couldn’t figure out why. Then there was a reference to 9/11. But really, it wasn’t that important and could have been any plane crash. So I’m still not sure why it had to be set in the past. It certainly didn’t add anything, and even detracted due to the evolution of the way people interact with technology.

And finally, before I dive into the problems inside the book, I want to talk about the outside. “Yes” is a terrible title. I know it’s related to the Young Enterprise Scheme the kids are involved in, but it was an entirely average choice. I reckon “Hooking Up” would’ve been better, because it’s catchier, it relates to the obsession Marty and his best friend Luke have with girls, and crocheting is a huge part of the plot and structure of the book. The field of maize on the cover also ties in to the plot, but it’s not exactly eye-catching either.

Now, things were going pretty well, I mostly liked the main character and the way he was telling the story, until about two thirds of the way through the book.

*** Beware, spoilers ahead. And content warning for sexual assault. ***

(Also, while I’m warning about things, there’s a nice piece of casual homophobia in the second-to-last chapter, where Marty describes his love for his friend Luke as “not like some weird gay shit” p.255. It was completely unnecessary. If he really felt the need to clarify, he could’ve easily described it as “not in a romantic/sexual way”, which makes the same point but without the judgement.)

His friend and love interest, Francesca (who’d previously told him they could never be more than friends, even if he was the last guy on earth), gets wasted and starts throwing herself at every guy in sight, including Marty. Good guy that he is, Marty realises she’s trashed and takes her back to his sister’s (empty) house. But instead of looking after her, tucking her up in a blanket on the couch, or calling for help, he slowly and deliberately pulls her top down and gropes her.

Let that sink in. She’s passed out, and he gropes her, because he’s always wanted to and she can’t say no.

This scene squicked me out. Marty is very deliberate in what he does. And maybe that’s how the narrative is presented because of his ASD, but it was cold and calculated, and I was very worried about how this would play out.

I was right to be worried.

Marty comments a few times that he is ashamed of what he did. Ashamed but not sorry. Now, the difference is not explained in the text, but I take it to mean he knows what he did was wrong, but he enjoyed it regardless because boobies!

Now fast-forward to the final chapter (yup, that’s a whole third of the book where there have been no consequences for what Marty did, apart from him feeling ashamed/not sorry, and sort of avoiding Francesca for a while) and he finally confesses to her. And instead of using his words to say “Sorry I groped you while you were passed out” (which we’ve been told is hard for him, which is not an excuse), he SHOWS her. Yes. He gropes her again. The only difference is this time she’s conscious.

And what does she do? Slap him? Tell him to get lost? Point out how messed up it was?

No.

She just says she knows he likes her.

And that’s it. It’s FINE. They’re going to be a couple now. 👿

What the hell kind of message is that? That it’s okay to grope someone you’re friends with because they won’t mind and might end up as your girlfriend?

No fucking way, buddy!

And I can’t believe that none of the pro reviews I found mentioned it. It made me wonder if I was over-reacting, but I talked to my husband, and we agreed it wouldn’t even be okay for him to grope me if I was passed out (or vice versa). It’s weird and creepy because the person is vulnerable and doesn’t have the ability to say no, or not right now, or I’m not in the mood (or, alternately, yeah baby let’s go).

And I think that’s what gets me. Francesca was vulnerable. Marty was her friend. He took advantage of her and never suffered any consequences.

And that is not okay.

And neither is this book.