Tag Archives: penguin books

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 review: Patricia Grace’s From the Centre: A writer’s life

From the Centre: A writer’s life, Patricia Grace,Penguin Books, 2021

‘I made up my mind writing was something I would always do’

Patricia Grace

This is the book I took with me when I got my first covid vaccination, and that I have been reading through the side effects, after the first, and now the second. I ended up at ED after the first injection, and the utterly wonderful nurses and ED doctor did numerous tests to make sure all was well. I was a witness to the infinite patience, kindness and expertise of frontline staff, no matter who turned up, no matter the challenges and complications. I was in awe and I was thankful.

I was also in awe of and thankful for the book I held in my hand. It took me out of pain and smashed over tiredness, into another world for hours, into exquisitely crafted writing. This book is quiet, honest, searching, exposing, wise. It is the life of a writer and that in itself is fascinating, but as Patricia will say, writing doesn’t coming out of nowhere, it comes out of living. So this is also a book of living. Writing and living, woven like kete.

From the Centre lifted me. This book is still lifting me. I would love every young Māori writer to read this, and indeed every young woman finding her way with words, against all odds, and indeed every young writer navigating the rugged terrain and the blessed epiphanies life holds out.

And it comes down to the power of story, the power of our own stories to shape us, our own voice to risk and settle and dance and challenge. To read widely like ranging eagles and soaring night bats, to read from a very young age, to hold books close, to celebrate the stories that matter to us. To find our own ways to make words sing and mourn, and to share the worlds we carry: past present future, imagined lived.

This is also a book of beloved whanau, of language, connections, multi-facted aroha. You get drawn into the light – into the light Patricia shines on childhood, the teenage years, being a mother, a daughter. And these experiences are sharped edged as much as they are filled with joy and discovery, because as child, teenage and adult woman, Patricia navigates the relentless racism, the patronising, demeaning, limiting attitudes and behaviours directed at Māori across time. Read Emma Espiner’s terrific review that discusses this (link below).

If I were to pick one book I have read this year and suggest you place it on top of your book pile this it is. I also recommend the terrific podcast from AWF 2021 where Patricia is in conversation with Nic Low (link below).

Penguin Books page

AWF 2021 podcast: Nic Low and Patricia Grace in conversation

Patricia Grace in conversation with Kathryn Ryan – Nine to Noon RNZ National

Extract in The Guardian

Emma Espiner review at Kete Books

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.

Poetry Shelf connections: Harriet Allen celebrates Sarah Quigley’s The Divorce Diaries






The Divorce Diaries by Sarah Quigley (Penguin Books)

Not everyone would be prepared to open up their lives to share one of the most painful times of their life. Not everyone can find humour and clear-sightedness, even when life is going well. Not everyone can write with honesty and perception about their own experiences. Not everyone can write with precision, beauty and adeptness. Fortunately for us, Sarah Quigley can and in spades.

I’m delighted that this month we are releasing this autobiographical book by this terrific writer. You can buy it online here And as soon as bookshops open again, you can also purchase physical copies.

You might have read about Sarah’s story in her Next magazine columns, for which she won the MPA Columnist of the Year in 2015 and was runner-up in 2016 and 2019. This book is a new version of that material written specially in book form, with added details. It’s smart, amusing and reflective.

Leap into its pages and be transported to Berlin and Sarah’s bohemian life among artists and writers. Be prepared for heartache and laughter, be prepared to be hooked in, right up to the last page. Here’s the beginning:

‘I had my first panic attack on a quiet sunny morning in Berlin. It was mid-summer. The city was drowsing, baking, in the grip of a heatwave. The massive chestnut trees were heavy with leaves, the grass on the sides of Karl-Marx-Allee grew dusty and long. Bats flickered like quicksilver through the sultry evenings. Every day I sat working with my feet in a bucket of cold water.

‘On that particular morning, when I first woke up, I felt as if there were no air in the bedroom. I pulled back the black sheet (we’d never bought curtains), flung open the window, saw the familiar ochre walls of the Babylon cinema across the street. Behind, a blue cloudless sky — which suddenly, inexplicably, felt too low. It was like a lid to the world, pressing down on the trees, on the houses, and especially on me, crushing the breath out of my lungs.

‘I hung out the window, gasping, feeling as if I were suffocating. For half an hour I stumbled around the apartment trying to breathe: lying on the floor, standing up again, half-crying. What was happening? I had no idea. I only knew I felt close to dying.’


To continue the first chapter, read here


Harriet Allan, Publisher


Sarah in conversation with Jesse Mulligan




Poetry Shelf 2018 Fiction Bouquet: Tina Makereti’s The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke


Tina Makereti, The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, Penguin 2018


Tina Makereti, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Ati Awa, Ngāti Rangatahi and Pākehā descent, writes fiction that has always captivated me and her most recent novel, The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, is no exception. Published last year, and longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, I am awarding it my 2018 Fiction Bouquet.

I have invented this award to underline the supreme reading pleasures Tina’s novel gifted me. I begin with the language and the way her sentences are so exquisitely crafted. They carry story, character, setting and significant issues with ease and fluidity, as though they work behind the scenes giving life to the narrative features. Yet I am acutely aware of the writing. The way a particular word choice makes a sentence sing, the way voice gives flesh and feeling to James to the point he is utterly real to me.


James Pōneke was orphaned as young boy. His mother and sister were killed in a massacre, his father, a chief, left him with missionaries and was later killed. James became fluent in English and hungered for books and knowledge, but the ways of his people became more and more distant as he became more and more uncomfortable living in the mission. The book starts with a life- and trauma-worn James in London, confined to bed and aching to tell his story, to the maid, to the Artist’s sister and upon the paper he was given.

Through James’s eyes and voice we travel along the arc from orphaned boy to bedridden man. He places himself on show just as the Artist who brought him to London placed him on a show; a curiosity, an exhibit to accompany the paintings of Māori that the unnamed Artist had produced in New Zealand. James was a spectacle for the curious and disdainful spectator in the great British museum, but he turns the viewfinder and scrutinises them; not just as they watch him in the museum setting but out in streets that bear riches alongside aching poverty.

One reading track is the abundance of wonder and awe as James absorbs London on diverse settings. He admits he watches like a wide-eyed child or a wiser elder but mainly from the pitfalls of youth. Questions abound and those questions then unsettle any possibility of a ‘tidy’ and misrepresented past, particularly colonial.

A second reading track is the prevalence of cages and containments. There are the animals in London Zoo, the way the Mission upbringing, despite little kindnesses, forced James to break away and travel with another tribe. The London houses felt like cages after the New Zealand landscape where the largest and most beautiful things were trees. There is also the self-containment that was dictated by London social mores, and the way a cultural stereotype is a form of imprisonment. Reading this book I was reminded of Selina Tusitala Marsh’s reception when she performed her poem, ‘Unity ‘ at Westminster Abbey for the Queen for the Commonwealth Observance Day (2016). The disdain and rudeness of the distinguished guest seated next to her reduced Selina to an object in my view rather than an honoured international poet. Selina wrote of this experience in ‘Pussy Cat’  (both poems appear in Tightrope, Auckland University Press, 2017).

Perhaps the most important track is the way the telling becomes a remembering, the way the lost and faded self comes to light as James speaks to the past, the present and the future, to his imagined mokopuna. For me imagination, these imaginary stories, becomes a way of adjusting the viewfinder so that we may unsettle master narratives and engage with a different point of view. We get to see James as an acutely intelligent person who struggles with his own crises and trauma and who experiences his own joy and epiphanies. The book is a timely read. As we learn to make connections with respect and empathy, in a world that has privileged hierarchies and conflict, Tina’s novel is a welcome handbook on how to listen. It affected me deeply, at the level of both heart and mind.

Tina, please accept my 2018 Fiction Bouquet, with love, Paula.


Penguin author page

An extract