A God by any other name

by Ann Packer / 02 May, 2011
A boy whose sister has been killed by terrorists befriends a hijab-wearing Muslim girl.
Mecca is a holy place to one faith and a bingo palace to others: that’s one of the funny things that occurs to 10-year-old Jamie when he meets hijab-wearing Sunya, a fellow outsider at the school in the village where his dad has moved the family after his sister was killed in a London terrorist attack. Annabel Pitcher’s debut novel, MY SISTER LIVES ON THE MANTELPIECE (Orion, $29.99), is at once an insightful exploration of how dysfunctional families get by, and an eloquent yet funny introduction to the everyday reality of being Muslim in Britain. Sunya’s family is better educated and better off than Jamie’s, and she doesn’t have to live with his awful secret: along with his prejudices, Jamie’s dad carries around the ashes of his dead daughter. Jamie discovers that Christians and Muslims “both have a God and they both have a book. They are just called different names.” A novel that will change attitudes.

TRIPLE RIPPLE (Allen & Unwin, $22.99), Brigid Lowry’s fanciful mix of fairy tale, author journal and reader’s diary, is a comforting chickette-lit read with a bonus – an insight into the writing process. Servant girl Glory must leave home to work at the royal palace for a bad-tempered princess – although the outcome is uncertain, and not only for Glory; the Writer is having a hard time getting the plot to work. The Reader, who fears she’s becoming “a nerdy girl who’d rather read a book than kiss a boy”, has her own demons to face. Lighthearted fun.

After eight death-defying adventures, Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider has undertaken his final assignment. Hard to remember the whole teen thriller genre began with Alex 10 years ago; by the time of SCORPIA RISING (Walker, $21.99), he’s aged just a year – but Horowitz always said he’d stop when Alex turned 15. Without revealing too much, I can say the plot involves the Elgin Marbles, an Alex lookalike, an American secretary of state (female), a fort in the Egyptian desert and Alex’s long-time adversaries, Scorpia. There are more of Smithers’s ingenious gadgets – and more than one death. Of course. But only one that really matters. And I’m not telling whose.

In a Maori Gothic genre David Hair has made his own, THE LOST TOHUNGA (HarperCollins, $24.99) is a darker finale to a trilogy following the exploits of teen Matiu Douglas in the parallel worlds of modern-day New Zealand and colonial Aotearoa. Mat and his allies are pitted against vicious gang members and the nastiest of shape-shifting mythological Maori creatures – in fact, it’s hard to keep track of taniwha, vampires, fairies and home-grown warriors in this showdown set around the volcanic plateau, including the Pink and White Terraces. Heavier still is PYRE OF QUEENS (Puffin, $25), the first in Hair’s reincarnation quartet for Penguin India. Its opening torture scenes are so gruesome I gave up before I threw up. Hair is appearing at the Auckland Writer & Readers Festival’s Wordy Day Out on May 14.

And now for something more down to earth. Expat New Zealand puppeteer, singer, artist and designer Tina Matthews follows Out of the Egg (winner of the Best First Book Award at the 2008 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children & Young Adults) with WAITING FOR LATER (Walker, $27.99), a whimsical take on a classic preschooler scenario. Everyone’s too busy for Nancy. “Not now,” they say. “Later.” She can’t get anyone’s attention – Mum’s writing, her brother’s baking, her cousin’s making stuff in the shed, her granddad’s mowing the lawn – so Nancy climbs a tree and waits. And waits. “… for later.” The language is delicious, the slightly retro illustrations deceptively full of kid-friendly detail and there’s a parallel storyline in silhouettes under the text. This will become a classic.

Masayuki Sebe’s 100 THINGS (Gecko, $19.99/$32.99) is that rare thing, a picture book reinforcing the concept of 100. Teachers know how hard it is to bridge the gap between 10s and 100s; this does it with panache and makes it fun.

Ann Packer is a Wellington writer and reviewer.
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