Monday, February 13, 2017

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE SEVERED LAND” by Maurice Gee (Penguin / Random House, $19:99); “HOW TO HAVE A BEER” by Alice Galletly (Awa Press, “Ginger Series”, $26)

            I must admit that I have not kept track of all the YA fantasy and adventure books that Maurice Gee has written. I’ve certainly done my best over the years to keep up with his adult novels, but I am so far behind on his YA works (never my preferred genre for reading) that, when I looked at the back pages of The Severed Land, I was surprised to see how many there are. Way back I remember reading Gee’s Under the Mountain (1979) and The Fire-Raiser (1986) to my older children when they were kids, and I remember once reviewing Orchard Street (1998). The publicity pages at the end of The Severed Land show me that Gee has written at least thirteen previous books for teens. So he is obviously highly experienced at the genre and (given the number of reprints) very popular.

The Severed Land is, says publicity, his first YA novel in seven years.

A land is divided in two by an invisible wall. The wall is maintained by the psychic power of the strange, benign, original inhabitants of the land, called simply The People. But only one of The People survives. Known as the Old One, this survivor keeps the land divided by his thought-waves. Alas, the Old One is enfeebled and may soon die. This would be a catastrophe, as north of the wall are the peaceable, dark- or black-skinned people who live in small villages and in harmony with nature. Some of them were originally runaway slaves from the south, and The People first erected the wall to protect them. South of the wall there are rapacious, largely white-skinned, colonisers, led by warring rival aristocratic clans known as The Families, who enslave the populace, pollute the land with their factories and towns, and promote war. Repeatedly, the southern tyrants attempt to blast their way through the invisible, psychic wall, but their cannon balls merely bounce off it. Shoo, a maternal figure for the leading character Fliss, remarks at one stage: “There’s no over or under the wall. Guns won’t work either, no matter how big.” (p.20)

One day young Fliss is sitting up a tree, watching a southern Family’s army trying futilely to bash its way through the wall, when she sees a young drummer-boy being mistreated, beaten and almost killed by a southern officer. Somehow, because she has a psychic affinity with the wall, Fliss is able to pull the mistreated boy through the invisible barrier.

In a way, she is sorry that she did.

The boy, Kirt Despiner, turns out to be a member of a different aristocratic clan from the one that was persecuting him, but he has all the habits and ways of thought of a haughty, pampered noble. He loves nothing more than fighting. He seethes with thoughts of revenge. He despises slaves and talks down to people. He is a selfish pest.

This is the set-up of The Severed Land and of course it heads, as many YA fantasies do, towards the initiation of a quest. It turns out that the Old One has psychic contact with a blind woman in the south, Lorna, the only other person who would be able to maintain the invisible wall when the Old One is gone. More surprisingly Lorna happens to be the sister of obnoxious Kirt. Lorna is imprisoned by an enemy Family. So Fliss and Kirt are sent into the dangerous south, on a quest to free blind Lorna and bring her back to the north.

This is a good and straightforward quest story. The contrast between perceptive Fliss and self-centred Kirt makes for clear characterisation for young readers. Kirt learns much from the hardships of the journey and is often on the verge of becoming more human and understanding. But Maurice Gee doesn’t make his transformation an easy thing. There are perils and escapes in the hostile southern country. Fliss and Kirt make contact with a sympathetic old warrior called Mutch, who seems to be leading some sort of resistance movement against the enslaving Families. (Later, Mutch’s words seem to open the way to a possible sequel to this novel.)

Some incidental elements of the story are far more frank than they would have been in a YA book half a century ago. As Fliss and Kirt pass through a land of starving people, there are hints (pp.71-73) that the inhabitants have turned cannibal and waylay people to eat. Some “mummers” approach Kirt, who poses as Fliss’s slave-owner, and ask if they can buy Fliss for the night for their pleasure (pp.84-85). In one low dive where they have to rest, the questing travellers are “kept awake by the sounds of rutting.” (p.94) A woman tries to entice Fliss into prostitution. (pp. 96-97). One also notices a number of vicious knife fights, including one bloody affray around a gallows. Fliss herself is very handy with her knife.

Reading a YA book by an author who writes as often for adults, you almost feel that you should decode what the author is really up to in terms of ideas. Of course it is now almost de rigueur to have an assertive and confident young woman as hero – perhaps an acknowledgement that girls are, after all, at least half the YA readership. The evils of slavery are obviously displayed (free north and enslaved south – is this some distant echo of the American Civil War?). So are the evils of colonialism, as Mutch’s movement seems to be a national liberation movement. Most of all, though, Gee shows the inequities of a society rigidly divided by class distinctions.

As Fliss and Kirt hide in a southern city, they observe this:

They sat on a bench in a dusty square and ate what was left of their food. Although enclosed by buildings, each was aware of Galp [the name of the city] stretching away – the river and wharves, the port with the workers’ houses and dormitories behind, the slums and stews running inland to the factory belt. And south on the coast Fountain, a town within a city – wider streets, green parks, business houses, town houses where merchants, lawyers, agents, administrators lived, keeping their servants and carriages and their respectability. Beyond and above on the promontory called Steeps officially, but Up There in the popular tongue, the Families had built their mansions….” (p.95)

It would be too easy to read “values” or social commentary into the tale, however. Gee is too experienced at the game to let a YA novel bog down in preachiness. The Severed Land is an efficient and engaging quest story with enough of characterisation and action to engage a young readership. Enough said.

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For a few years now, Awa Press has been producing its “Ginger Series” of long essays (each about a hundred pages), in which various New Zealand worthies set out to enlighten us on accessible aspects of life. Kevin Ireland on “How to Catch a Fish”, Richard Hall on “How to Gaze at the Southern Stars”, Steve Braunias on “How to Watch a Bird”, and so on.

Fourteenth and latest contribution to the series is journalist Alice Galletly’s How to Have a Beer.

Let me admit, before I say anything else, that I am not a great beer-drinker. I’m not opposed to the brew; but my experience of beer is that, especially if I drink it in the afternoon, and even in small quantities, it tends to send me to sleep or make me perfectly useless for any activity whatsoever. So – except if I’m a tourist in a brewery (as I once was in Kilkenny in Ireland) – I tend to avoid beer. In order of preference, my favourite tipples are (a.) black coffee (mornings only); (b.) wine (anytime, so long as don’t I have to drive); and (c.) black tea (putting milk in tea is an abomination).

I have of course met many wine snobs, all of whom I regard with polite amusement. According to my well-educated palate, there are only three types of wine (a.) very good and having a distinctive flavour; (b.) acceptable, especially after a few glasses; and (c.) swill to be avoided. There are no other categories, and outside professional wine-tasters, I think there is not one person in a million who would really be able to discern more categories of wine than these.

As for BEER (which is supposed to be the subject of this notice), I have so far in my life met only one beer snob – a chap who discourses on the demotic horrors of lager and proclaims the superiority of craft ales made in obscure English villages. I’m sure he knows what he is talking about, but a more experienced beer-drinker than I would probably be able to challenge him. I recently drank a beer with great delight – the mass-produced Belgian La Chouffe – but one of my sons advised me that I was really reacting to the alcohol content. For strange historical reasons, Belgian beers have a much higher alcohol content than German or English beers. La Chouffe is 7%.

Alice Galletly is a self-proclaimed “beer geek”. The origins of How to Have a Beer were a blog she produced when she decided to drink one new craft beer every day of the year – that it, she sampled 365 craft beers. The inspiration to do this sprang from her sudden realisation that in some New Zealand supermarkets, there are now as many varieties of craft beer on offer as there are varieties of wine.

Galletly is serious about her subject, and tells us about the agreed protocols of being a beer geek. For example, she recounts with shame how she once got drunk at a meeting of beer enthusiasts, and threw up a very expensive and much-esteemed craft beer:

There is an unspoken notion among craft beer enthusiasts that we should never get drunk. Drinking beer to the point of intoxication (let alone regurgitation) is a sport reserved for the unsophisticated masses, the consumers of cheap pale lager who wouldn’t know a Belgian lambic if it hit them on the head. Never mind that craft beer sometimes has double, even triple, the alcohol content of those lagers, we are supposed to share our craft beer with friends, sip it slowly, and drink it with food. In short, we are supposed to know better.” (p.13)

If she’s serious about the subject, however, her tone is most often light-hearted, flippant and filled with zingers and punch lines. It’s amiable but not exactly fine prose.

As a beer ignoramus, I was interested to discover quite a few things from her essay. First, her revelation (to me) that hops are a relatively recent addition to beer. The beverage has been brewed for about seven thousand years, but hops became part of the ingredients only about 500 years ago in Germany.  Water, malt (malted barley); yeast; and hops are the basic ingredients of the stuff as it now exists. Second, Galletly schooled me in the fact that the famous German “Reinbeitsgebot” (“Purity Pledge”), which you will find printed on the labels of many a pilsener, is not a guarantee of quality and never was. It is simply an assurance (dating from a couple of hundred years ago) that the contents of German beers have not been adulterated.

Then there was a lot of miscellaneous information that amused without really enlightening me on what is or is not a good beer. Ah yes, but then Galletly has a reason for not offering us a list of recommendations. As she winds us saying in the last chapter, the basic joy of drinking beer is the joy of associating with other people – and if your preferred type is something despised by beer-experts, ignore them and drink up anyway.

Most enjoyable section of the essay? The section where Galletly gives a glossary of terms which beer geeks will know, including the irresistible “brandwank” (it means those meaningless words with which certain niche brands attempt to market themselves – “premium”, “hand-crafted” etc.)

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