Banned Book Week 2016

It’s Banned Book Week, guys!

Last year, I jumped into the conversation with a post about impressionable teenage readers. When Sheila at Book Journey sent a reminder about Banned Book Week 2015, I was all in. I was thinking over the next few days about what to write about, when, as if on queue, there was breaking news about a YA book banned in New Zealand. Clearly, this was a sign. I cannot resist all things New Zealand.

Let me tell you about this book: Into the River, by Ted Dawe.


In 2013, this novel, a prequel to Dawe’s earlier work Thunder Road, won a New Zealand Post Children’s Book Award.

Just recently, after complaints from a family advocacy group about the book’s “sexually explicit content, drug use and the use of a slang term for female genitalia” (The Guardian), the New Zealand Film and Literature board has placed an “interim restriction order” on the book, subject to a permanent classification sometime this month. (If you want the full scoop, go here.)

Currently, this book cannot be distributed or displayed anywhere in New Zealand.

Most of the new articles mention this being the first book banned in New Zealand in 22 years. I am not sure what book was banned 22 years ago, but according to this handy WIkipedia page, a book called The Peaceful Pill Handbook was initially banned in 2007.

The Peaceful Pill Handbook, not that I’m advocating for its banning, provides information on assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Into the River is a coming-of-age story at an all-boys boarding school in Auckland, New Zealand. Te Arapa is a Maori teenager who leaves his village and family to attend a prestigious boarding school on scholarship. The early chapters, dripping with cultural references, illustrate Te Arapa’s relationship with his grandfather, and how he grows up.

And then, he goes on to school, where his name and his identity are both transformed. Devon, as he is now called, makes a lot of bad decisions, many of them related to drugs and sex. He also witnesses his best friend’s inappropriate relationship with a teacher. In the end, I found that he had become a pretty despicable person (who was also surrounded by some awful adults).

The National Director of Family First NZ, the group that sparked the ban was quoted as saying “”I’ve read it to parents, I’ve sat with a group of fathers, none of them want their children to be reading it. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be hanging around with people who have been reading it.”

I wouldn’t want my daughter to be hanging around with people who have been reading it.

Yikes. That’s a powerful statement about fear of written words. I didn’t love this book. I didn’t love the characters. However, I don’t believe that reading this book would give anyone the impression that the choices Devon made were great, logical steps forward in life.

Parents, by all means, raise questions about what your children are reading. Give input. Discuss books together. Guide them towards books that will make them smarter, more critical, more compassionate people. Please.

But let’s give the entire population of NZ a little credit, and let individuals and families make their own choices about reading material.

And, if you want to throw Ted Dawe a bone, Into the River is available on Amazon – complete with a parental advisory explicit content warning (provided you’re not in NZ).


Review (and Giveaway!): Dirty Chick

The very first post I wrote for this blog was a review of a historical fiction set in colonial New Zealand, which I read because a) it was $1.99 and b) it was set in NZ. I recently read Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer, a memoir about an American ex-pat living in a small farming community in New Zealand because a) the publisher offered me a review copy and b) it is set in NZ. The publisher also offered to give a copy of Dirty Chick to a reader, so leave a comment at the end of this post to win!


I know, I sound a bit like a crazy person, but NZ is essentially my personal Shangri-La. I spent a summer there on an internship in college, followed by a few weeks of traveling around with my BFF/sister/co-blogger Amanda, and we had the best time ever. Besides, if anyone is going to judge me for being a crazy person, I’m pretty sure that it won’t be Antonia Murphy, author of Dirty Chick, because she sounds a bit like a crazy person as well.

Dirty Chick is Murphy’s personal account of the first year she and her family spent living on a farm on New Zealand’s North Island. She lists and details her and her husband’s reasons for going to, and staying, in NZ as:

  1. The ocean
  2. George W. Bush (“This was 2003 and 2004, the height of the Bush years, and Peter and I were unnerved by the wartime zeal in our country. Most of our fellow liberals were threatening to emigrated to Canada or New Zealand, but as it turns out, we were the crazy ones who did.”)
  3. Hobbits; and
  4. DNA (in the form of their developmentally delayed son)

There are surely many people who may be annoyed by this book. For instance, if you are annoyed by any of the following, maybe don’t read this:

  1. Educated, middle-class liberals on soul-searching journeys
  2. The discussion of home fermentation and cheese making
  3. Gross stories about farm animals, sometimes in the house.

I, however, can deal with all of the above, and I definitely found this an enjoyable read. In addition to the stories about racist zombie alpacas, seedy goat impregnation, and addiction to baby lambs, this is also Murphy’s story about parenting, and the trials of raising a disabled son. In those sections, you see the true struggles of life on the farm. As Murphy says on the subject, “compared to that, an angry rooster was a breeze.” Murphy brews a lot of fruit wine, and inexplicably wears animal ear headbands all the time, but she also proves that she will (literally, in fact) go to the ends of the earth to give her son a fighting chance at a healthy existence.

If you want a fun, quirky look into a life that is unlike your own (unless YOU are also living on a small farm in NZ raising two kids and a score of animals, drinking quince wine and aging cheese in your garage), check out Dirty Chick.

And, the giveaway! To enter, simply leave a comment below! What’s your personal Shangri-La? We’ll randomly select the winner on 1/29!

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher for review consideration. Quotes taken from an advance uncorrected proof.

Updated with the giveaway winner on 2/1: Congrats Kristi! Your book will be in the mail shortly!

Review: Song of the Spirits

TitleSong of the Spirits

Series: In the Land of the Long White Cloud saga

Author: Sarah Lark

Reviewed by Holly

I generally don’t pay too much attention to the ads on my Kindle, but this was a triple whammy: historical fiction set in New Zealand for $1.99? Oh Amazon, you sure do know the way to my heart, and to my Mastercard. Seriously, the ad for “Song of the Spirits” appeared just as I had been agonizing over what would be an appropriate first book review post. Since there are few things I love more than New Zealand and bargains, I (uncharacteristically, I swear) clicked “buy” before knowing anything else about this book. I might have noticed that it is the second book in a “saga” (is that like a “series?” a “triology”? I am not sure), but that didn’t deter me from diving into this one, so don’t let it deter you either.

Description from Amazon:
“Song of the Spirits continues the soaring saga begun with In the Land of the Long White Cloud, as the founding families of colonial New Zealand experience trials and triumphs of friendship, romance, and unforgettable adventure.

Elaine O’Keefe is the radiant grand-daughter of Gwyneira McKenzie, who made her way to New Zealand to take a wealthy sheep baron’s hand in marriage in In the Land of the Long White Cloud. Elaine inherited not only her grandmother’s red hair but also her feisty spirit, big heart, and love of the land. When William Martyn, a handsome young Irishman of questionable integrity, walks into her life, she succumbs rapidly to his charms. Only to have her heart broken when her sensual half-Maori cousin Kura Warden arrives for a visit and draws William away.

Though both young women must endure hardships and disappointments as they learn to live with the choices they make, each of them also discovers an inner resilience—and eventually finds love and happiness in new, unexpected places. Tested by the harsh realities of colonial life, both girls mature into spirited young women with a greater understanding of the challenges—and joys—of love, friendship, and family.”

I loved it. The book centers on two cousins, Elaine and Kura, in colonial New Zealand as they transition from adolescents to adults, but there is so much more going on here. The family has a complicated history, and, admittedly, some of the details were confusing, though I’m pretty sure reading book one of the “saga” will straighten that out (oops). The girls’ family members, as well as their love interests, made for compelling characters, and I found myself just as interested in some of the side stories as in the central action. The book opens with Elaine’s story, and cousin Kura doesn’t seem to have much going for her besides a big head until later in the book, but her grandmother, who is also her primary caretaker, moves her story along. I will add that Grandma Gwyneira acts a bit shady, but I’m just gonna let that slide.

The descriptions of the landscape – geographically and socially – of late nineteenth century New Zealand serve as far more than the backdrop for the story. Reading good historical fiction gives you a sense of a particular time and place, so that you sneakily end up learning something while you’re caught up in all the “he said what to her? Uh uh!” In the afterword, Lark writes that “although New Zealand’s history is relatively short, it was been all the more precisely recorded as a result. Practically every town has an archive that contains the names of the settlers, their farms, and often, details of their lives.” This absolutely makes me want to read more about the history of New Zealand – after I read book one, of course.

I’m also open to going to do some field work research…whadaya say, sister?

Last note: there are a couple complaints on Amazon about this book, saying it was predictable and that the characters did exactly what you’d expect. I have to say, if you could predict where Elaine and Kura would end up by the end after initially meeting them in the early chapters, then you should probably get thee to 7-11 for a lotto ticket. In this book, people turn out to be entirely different than their first impressions belie, and the two primary characters come to change their outlooks on love, family, success, and of course, each other.

My favorite novels are ones in which the basic facts of a character’s life get rearranged in a way that seems completely improbable until it starts to make perfect sense. If you have no idea what that means, read The Brooklyn Follies, stat.