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  • Writer's pictureLee Murray

Four Books in Four Days

My son was sick, and because I wasn’t getting any writing done, I decided that, in between changing linen and throwing away tissues, I would read. Finally a chance to whittle away at my looming TBR pile, which was in danger of falling on me in the night and suffocating me horribly, either from the weight of the print versions, or the accumulated dust under the pile.

First up, was Joy Cowley’s Speed of Light, which needed to come to the top of the pile as the book isn’t mine, but kindly lent to me by a friend of the author’s.

Published locally by Gecko Press, Speed of Light is the story of teen math geek Jeff, whose family is fraying at the edges: his father more concerned with money and status, his travel agent mum intent on keeping her job, and his sister preoccupied with her secret boyfriend. Jeff has a brother too, but the family don’t discuss him as he is someplace else. Then, a storm blows in a strange old lady, and things just seem to get worse. Set in New Zealand’s capital of Wellington, and by one of New Zealand’s best-loved iconic authors, Speed of Light is superbly written, with recognisable, believable characters and a strong sense of place. And while, as a reader, I enjoyed the book, as a writer, I found it mildly dissatisfying. I think my disappointment stems from the fact that, although a character in the story declares it,  Jeff—the central character—is not the reason for the story’s resolution. He doesn’t sacrifice himself for his friends, pull the sword from the stone, or unravel the riddle in the prophecy. There is no ‘aha’ moment, and nor does Jeff ‘do’ anything in particular to influence the conclusion of the story. Instead, an act of God, or indeed a couple of acts of God, occur, which serve to push the story to its conclusion. But this wasn’t just a contemporary tale about the relationships within a family, as Cowley has also included fantasy elements: in the clean and predictable magic of mathematics, and in an old woman named Maisie (who isn’t exactly what she seems) and who appears in Jeff’s life on the night of the storm, and subsequently pops up from time to time to give frustratingly Harry Potterish predictions to confound him. Maisie is like a fairy godmother, only who forgets to send the coach. To my mind, her cryptic, almost religious, messages added little, and were slightly contrived, as if Speed of Light ought to have a moral, but really there wasn’t one. But then again, it’s Joy Cowley, one of New Zealand’s best loved iconic authors for children, so perhaps I am unfairly holding her to a higher standard than everyone else. A sound read for teens, including some fun math vignettes to hook in those who prefer non-fiction, this book is worth a look, if only so you can tell me that I’m wrong.

The second book I tackled in my four day reading spree was also YA and also examined how a teenage boy copes with a fraying, broken family. Picked up for just 50cents from the Wellington Libraries withdrawn section, Love Is A UFO, by Ken Spillman (Pan McMillan 2007) is terrific read, and one I would recommend to all teens, particularly those trying to adjust to newly blended families. Love is a UFO is the story of Oscar Updike, a boy who ‘lost it’ at his father’s funeral, causing his mother (of the all men are bastards club) and his sister, (of the all guys are dirt bags camp) to believe Oscar ‘isn’t facing up to things’, that he is ‘holding things in’. Oscar is bundled off to a psychologist, but secretly he’s also been meeting his father’s girlfriend, the mere mention of whose name causes his mother to hyperventilate. Like Speed of Light, in Love is a UFOOscar’s problem is learning to cope when his ‘family’ appears to be falling apart. But in Spillman’s story, it is his protagonist’s actions, his own observations and reflections (including some angst about his lack of coolness), which lead us to the story’s resolution. There are no fée old ladies telling the main character what to think. Instead, Oscar reasons for himself, a characteristic I believe should be encouraged in all teenagers. Love is a UFO is a thoroughly satisfying YA novel, a tale of cricket, new love, ice-creams and a shared passion for mixed media, which I enjoyed immensely. Of course, the unexpected loss of parent is a theme close to my own heart, one I tackled in my own YA novel Misplaced, so perhaps I am biased, and have a special affinity to stories of this nature.

Onwards to book three, a lovely big hardback tome, and a gift from my mother, it was Matthew Reilly’s The Tournament. From the bestselling Australian author of fast-paced military action-adventure titles like Ice Station, Temple, Area 7, the Jack West series of novels, and, my own personal favourite, sci-fi fantasy Contest, The Tournament is a historical whodunit, and something new for Reilly. Also published by Pan MacMillan (2013), The Tournament is set in 1546 and consists of the personal recollections of an ‘unreported’ voyage by 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth Tudor to an international chess tournament at the invitation of Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire. There, against the religious and political posturing of the tournament’s candidates, she becomes Watson to her tutor’s Holmes, almost losing their own lives, as they race to solve a series of brutal murders that have taken place inside the palace compound. In spite of the dash to reveal the murderer(s) The Tournament is slower paced than your typical Reilly fare (with full sentences, including principal and subordinate phrases) but as always, it is superbly researched (seamlessly blending fact with fiction), and its characters, villains and heroes (some real-life historical figures), are rounded and well-drawn. Perhaps too, the characters appealed, because although Ascham, as the unlikely hero, is an exceptional sleuth, unlike some of Reilly’s other heroes he doesn’t achieve this through any special powers, or by employing the magical and ubiquitous mag-hook of which Reilly is especially fond. I enjoyed The Tournament very much, particularly the keen characterisation of Elizabeth (whose experiences at the tournament are meant to have shaped her as a potential queen) and of her tutor, the brilliant if slightly ordinary-looking Mr Roger Ascham (with whom the reader suspects she is in love). And of course, there are all the requisite secret passages and night-time trysts one expects in a historical doorstop like this. One minor caveat is that the story suffers from some overlong info-dumps, which might have benefitted from tighter editing, but fans of Reilly will forgive him for these, given the author’s skill with suspense, and his use of a narrative-of-a-narrative format in this case. Stunning jacket design, maps in the front, and a sweeping story of intrigue, the print version is expensive, but well worth the extra weight in your suitcase.

The fourth book should really have remained close to the bottom of the TBR pile, having been bought most recently using one-click while still on pre-order. It is Greig Beck’s latest title Gorgon, because I simply couldn’t resist it—and ever since it arrived on my iPad it has been begging me to read it. “I’m here, I’m here,” it teased, so I obliged. Gorgon, is a military action adventure (read plenty of high-tech firepower and some additional gadgets) with a good dose of mythology thrown in. With some familiar characters dragged along for the ride from Beck’s previous titles: super-powered Alex Hunter, code-named Arcadian, and his crack military team under commander Hammerson, a Russian baddy the size of a small truck, and unwilling anthropologist-turned-adventurer, Matt Kearns, there is a measure of ‘backstory’ to get through for the first-time readers, which loyal fans just have to put up with. Lately though, I’m finding the almost-invincible Alex/Arcadian a little too good to be true, and even the mental demons he’s purported to be battling in this story, aren’t enough to provide him with the ‘flaw’ that will keep the reader guessing and thus keep the stakes high. Geez, even Superman has kryptonite. Since the future of the world is always at stake in Beck’s stories, no expense is spared, and Arcadian’s team are able to drop themselves fully-equipped into any country with few, if any, political ramifications. And then there’s the fact that many of Beck’s characters are conveniently well-versed in whatever it is they need to solve the puzzle and the day, with soldiers starting to sound a lot like the experts they’ve brought in to assist. In general, Beck handles this kind of information well, slipping it in via dialogue, poems and other plot devices, but this time it felt a little clumsy, and as a result I felt the story was more formulaic. But perhaps after reading all his novels, I’ve become over-familiar with his style and impatient to get on to the action. Still, set your story in the earth’s crypt where mythological creatures stalk, and you’re guaranteed to have a page turner.

My son is no longer ill, and I am back at my desk, feeling refreshed after my wonderful reading holiday, something I need to plan for in my schedule, rather than waiting for the family’s next bout of ‘flu. Indeed, this year, our own Mann Booker winner, Ellie Catton has sponsored a grant to allow a lucky writer more time for ‘structured reading’. But it isn’t just reading for research, or a critical review of writing techniques and developments, but for rediscovering the reason we write, for the new friends, the unexpected adventures, and faraway worlds—for the pure pleasure of it.


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