Tag Archives: eileen merriman

Poetry Shelf reviews YA fiction: Eileen Merriman’s Black Wolf

Black Wolf, Eileen Merriman, Penguin Books, 2021

I gobbled up the first book, Violet Black, in Eileen Merriman’s The Black Spiral Trilogy, in two greedy sittings. The book has suspense, gritty characters, vital borders between good and evil, porous ethics, romance. When I closed it I felt bereft – knowing how long I had to wait to read the next volume.

Aotearoa is rich in YA writers, writers who delve into the point of view of teenagers, and who navigate contemporary circumstances that challenge both at the level of the personal and an onslaught of ideas and decision making. NZ Bookshop day is coming up this Saturday and I am dreaming that everyone who can afford it will order a local book. Wishing for this. More than ever publishers and booksellers need our support. Let’s celebrate YA fiction, such a magnificent genre.

I recommend getting hooked into Eileen’s gripping trilogy. I read the second book, Black Wolf, in two days. And again I felt bereft when it ended and, in the same breath, utterly satisfied with the rollercoaster, heart-pounding story arc. Phoenix and Violet have become experimental subjects of The Foundation after having caught a mysterious virus, M-fever. They are under the control of The Foundation because they acquired super gifts, the key one being able to communicate telepathically. The rest of the world thinks they are dead. Other subjects die or are decommissioned. They resolve to fight for what is right.

On the one hand this is a struggle of good versus evil, but even more compelling, it is the interior struggle of two teenagers wanting to make good choices, wanting to care for fellow human beings, to work for the good of the whole rather than the benefit of the greedy individual. This is not easy. Being a teenager is not always easy. There is unbearable kindness. There is sex, there are drugs, there is romance. Relationships to unravel. There is mystery. The medical issues and implications.

Eileen’s sentences flow like honey. The dialogue is pitch perfect. I care so much about the characters I woke at 2 am, after the first day’s reading, plotting what might happen next. Worried for everyone!

Reading this book lifted me out of the black hole that keeps dragging me down. So sweetly. So rewardingly. I don’t want to go giving everything away – you just need to find a comfort corner and board the exhilarating ride with its spiky twists and turns, gathering in strength, kindness, empathy. Three qualities we need in our collective response devices, in our own challenging virus-stoked times.

I toast this glorious book. It was just what I needed. Oh and the final volume is out 1 March 2022.

Eileen Merriman’s first young adult novel, Pieces of You, was published in 2017, and was a finalist in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults and a Storylines Notable Book. Since then, she has published another nine novels for adults and young adults and received huge critical praise, with one reviewer saying: ‘Merriman is an instinctive storyteller with an innate sense of timing.’ In addition to being a regular finalist in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, Merriman was a finalist in the 2021 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel and Moonlight Sonata was longlisted for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction 2020. Editions of some of her young adult novels have been released in Germany, Turkey and the UK and three have been optioned for film or TV, including the Black Spiral Trilogy.

Her other awards include runner-up in the 2018 Sunday Star-Times Short Story Award and third in the same award for three consecutive years previously. She works as a consultant haematologist at North Shore Hospital.

Penguin page

Eileen’s website

Poetry Shelf goes YA: Eileen Merriman’s Violet Black

Violet Black, Eileen Merriman, Penguin Books, 2021

I reviewed Pieces of You, Eileen Merriman’s debut YA novel, on Poetry Shelf because it stuck with me on so many levels. Here is an extract:

Just know that this is an acute reading experience. It feels utterly real. It does not smudge the tough stuff. It is kaleidoscopic in both emotion and everyday detail. Detail that animates that lives of two teens. There are countless examples of excellent books on the tough experiences that some teenagers face (drugs, alcohol, abuse, rape, cancer, suicide, the death of a friend or family member) but that is not to say such subject matter is now done and dusted. Far from it.

Eileen writes with such a flair for dialogue, for family circumstances, for teenage struggles and joys. This is the kind of book that will stay at the front of my mind all week and longer – I recommend it highly.

I have quoted from the review because although Pieces of You is an altogether different book (a moving cancer story) – similar comments apply to Violet Black. Characters matter, dialogue matters, real-life detail matters, significant issues matter and you are always held in the grip of a perfectly pitched narrative. Yet Violet Black, the first in Eileen’s Black Spiral YA trilogy, is dystopian fiction. It is set in the near future and its globe-trotting plot travels from New Zealand to Australia and Germany. It features a ravaged planet showing the effects of climate change, the scarcity and cost of food, drones, internet dependencies, closed schools and, most importantly, a plague (a measles-virus mutation).

Violet and Ethan are seventeen, in love, and both in an m-fever coma in hospital. Their love strand is one part of the narrative, but so too are the increasingly sinister questions that touch upon ethics and what is in the best interests of humanity. Violet and Ethan discover they each have a post-viral ability that sees them drawn (forced?) into VORTEX, a group of ‘virally optimised teenagers’. There is no vaccine yet, and there are anti-vaxxers out to destroy research. There is the worrisome ITA, the International Terrorism Agency.

With Eileen’s medical background, the plague presence is utterly convincing. So too is the ability to craft plot, to build relationships and ideas that have a contemporary significance and edge. I am no teenager, and would love to know what they think of the book, but I enter this dystopian space and in Eileen’s hands it feels both utterly real and spikely relevant. I felt bereft when I got to the last page knowing I would have to wait until September 1st for the release of Book 2. When you consider the degree to which our world is under threat, I believe novels like this get the teenage reader thinking. To what degree are choices made in the best interests of the world? Why do we need to be conversant in ethics?

Ideas taking control of a novel at the expense of everything else would weaken its impact. Not so with Violet Black. The novel also delivers the complexity of family relations, the infectiousness of teenage love, a narrative flicker that things may not always be taken at face value. As Violet and Ethan struggle to make sense of what is happening to them, and indeed the world itself, so too do we as readers. Quite frankly I feel that myself some days as I struggle to make sense of all the conflicting and troubling stories on my various news feeds.

I love this book and I can’t wait to read the next one. Violet Black has been optioned by South Pacific Pictures Ltd for a potential TV series. I can see why. This is YA fiction at its glorious life-crackling best, and yes, we are never too old to be seduced by YAF’s wide-ranging charms. We get to experience the way a novel can entertain us and, at the same time, lay down vital challenges that get us thinking and feeling. Sublime.

Penguin Books page

Eileen Merriman’s three young adult novels, Pieces of You, Catch Me When You Fall, and Invisibly Breathing, were finalists in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2018 and 2019, and all three were Storylines Notable Books. Her fourth young adult novel A Trio of Sophies was published in 2020 to huge critical praise and was also published in Germany. She works full-time as a consultant haematologist at North Shore Hospital.

Reading Eileen Merriman’s YA Novel Pieces of You

 

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Pieces of You Eileen Merriman, Penguin Random House, 2017

 

Eileen Merriman’s debut YA novel Pieces of You is the kind of book you want to read in one sitting because it is so breathtakingly good. It is like a globe artichoke: sweet, layered, bitter. Fifteen-year-old Rebecca moves from Dunedin to Auckland, feels like a complete outsider, misses her friends, goes to a party and something awful happens that she can’t speak of, so cuts herself in order to get relief from pain. She meets her neighbour Corey and they fall in love. His dark secrets hide alongside her dark secrets. They write poetry together. They share their love of literature.  They are good for each other but they don’t tell each other everything and that keeps the dark dark.

The chapter titles are titles of outstanding books (The Outsiders, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Book Thief, Great Expectations, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Catcher in the Rye and so on). Rebecca and Corey talk about books a lot and books become little anchors, bridges between each other, vital keyholes upon a wider world. Books are part of the fabric of their daily life and that matters. They write a poem, Rebecca writing a line and then Corey the next. I adored this book/poetry/love of words presence.

I am not going to spoil the story by telling you what happens. Read it for yourself. Just know that this is an acute reading experience. It feels utterly real. It does not smudge the tough stuff. It is kaleidoscopic in both emotion and everyday detail. Detail that animates that lives of two teens. There are countless examples of excellent books on the tough experiences that some teenagers face (drugs, alcohol, abuse, rape, cancer, suicide, the death of a friend or family member) but that is not to say such subject matter is now done and dusted. Far from it.

Eileen writes with such a flair for dialogue, for family circumstances, for teenage struggles and joys. This is the kind of book that will stay at the front of my mind all week and longer  – I recommend it highly.

Eileen has also written Catch me When You Fall (2018). Invisible Breathing is out in 2019.

Eileen’s web site