Tag Archives: penguin 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

 

 

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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

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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