Category Archives: BOOK REVIEWS

‘ONE TRUTH, NO LIE’ BY LEHUA PARKER

‘One Truth, No Lie’ is the third and final volume in Lehua Parker’s Niuhi Shark Saga. It brings the much-anticipated conclusion to the story of Zader, a not-so-average teenager from the Lauele Town, Hawaii.

ONE TRUTH NO LIE

Summary

After Zader finds out who his birth parents are, his whole life changes immeasurably. The boy just knows that nothing will ever be the same again. But what he doesn’t expect is the ultimatum he will be given by The Man With Too Many Teeth, otherwise known as uncle Kalei.

Kalei makes Zader choose to either use his own teeth to brutally save his brother Jay’s life but live in exile from his Hawaiian family or… let him murder Jay.

Zader’s decision leads him on a great journey of discovery. He learns who he really is and realizes what, and who, truly matters to him.

Review

Let me start by saying right off the bat that this third volume of the Niuhi Shark Saga is just as good as its two predecessors. It is the perfect conclusion to the whole story and one that will stay in your head for days, making you think about your own life, the choices you make, and the importance of having a loving ohana (family).

I have to admit that the events in this novel took me by surprise. The first few chapters literally hit you like a thunderbolt, and you quickly realize that you probably won’t be able to predict what happens next. And you indeed can’t. The twists and turns are infinite. When you think you know in which direction the story is heading, the plot makes a sudden 180-degree turnaround and you are being left baffled; yet again. There is only one way to find out how the story turns out – you have to keep reading until you reach the last sentence. Which is not a problem, because the narrative draws you in from the very beginning. You become curious and interested, you want to know more. And you simply enjoy spending time in the magical world Lehua Parker has created.

Another reason why the book is so engaging are the characters. Zader, as the protagonist in the trilogy, is the focus of the story. His transformation from a teenager to a responsible young man is perhaps a little too idealistic, but definitely nicely portrayed. You can notice how he has changed from an insecure boy to a brave grown-up; how he has learnt to make choices and decisions and rely only on himself. That’s a great lesson, for children and adults alike.

Other characters are also given moments to shine. Especially Jay, who shows us how to fight through adversity, find positive in life, and never ever give up; and Maka, who lets us understand what it means to finally have something you’ve always wanted to have – a real family. Of course, uncle Kahana, Char Siu, Kalei, Pua, ‘Ilima, and the rest of the group make appearances as well, however they are much less visible than in the two previous volumes.

With this book Lehua Parker once again showed us her enormous talent. Her writing style and the language she uses are beyond compare. Everything – from descriptions to dialogues to wit and sense of humour – is perfectly dosed. Personally, I would prefer to see a bit more Pidgin in each chapter, but that’s not really a reason to complain. I have to say that you read Lehua Parker’s novels with pure pleasure. Whenever you finish one of her books, you instantly want to reach for another.

In the review of the first volume of the Niuhi Shark Saga I confessed that I don’t like children or young adult literature. But this trilogy is an exception. It will make you laugh. It will make you cry. It will make you think. What can you want more?

‘ONE SHARK, NO SWIM’ BY LEHUA PARKER

‘One Shark, No Swim’, written by Lehua Parker, is the second book in the Niuhi Shark Saga. It brings back the story of Zader and his Hawaiian ohana.

ONE SHARK NO SWIM

Summary

Life has been pretty good for Zader. With a little help from his uncle Kahana, he has learnt to manage his strange water allergy; the Blalahs has stopped bullying him; he got accepted into the prestigious Ridgemont Academy; and his brother Jay has taken up surfing again. Everything seems perfect; only it’s not.

Something keeps bugging Zader. The teenager can’t stop thinking about his dreams and new obsessions. Why is his mind preoccupied with knives? Why does he yearn for raw meat? And who are Dream Girl and The Man with Too Many Teeth? What do they want? No one gives the young boy any answers, even though there are people in Zader’s life who could probably unravel all the mysteries.

Review

Writing sequels is a very challenging task. You have to not only expand the story, but also – or rather more importantly – keep it interesting for the readers. And children, as well as young adults, can be a particularly demanding audience. But for Lehua Parker this seems to be no problem. The second book in the Niuhi Shark Saga is just as good as the first one.

Quite honestly, this volume doesn’t really feel like a sequel. It is simply a continuation of the tale; only this time you go deeper into the world the author has created. Now you are almost like a resident of Lauele Town, who dines at Hari’s and goes surfing at Piko Point every other day. You know the people, you know the place. And you are well aware that there is something going on with one of your neighbours, so you’re dying to finally uncover the truth.

‘One Shark, No Swim’ answers a lot of questions the reader might have had after finishing the previous volume. Zader’s past becomes clearer as new, and interesting, facts come to light. However, if you think that all the pieces in the puzzle will fall neatly into place before you reach the end, you are very much mistaken. Because with every single answer, more questions arise. Who? What? Why? When? Where? You may try to guess, you may try to predict what happens next, but you can’t bank on it. And that is the true beauty of this series.

Now, as the plot unfolds, you become more acquainted with the characters. In this book, Zader leads the way. He is a true protagonists, a central figure of the narrative. And although the story isn’t told entirely in the first person, you see the world through Zader’s eyes. You start to understand what he feels being a ‘different’ kid. You sympathize for him and cheer all the louder when he’s one step closer to discovering his true nature.

Of course, when mentioning the characters, you can’t forget about Zader’s family, especially uncle Kahana. This no-nonsense, wise, and funny old guy, sometimes treated like a big baby by his relatives, is a real star. Himself a man of many secrets, he is a mentor, a teacher, a protector, and a guardian of ancient Hawaiian culture. His complex persona makes him a little unknowable and therefore very intriguing. I wouldn’t mind having an uncle like Kahana, and I think you wouldn’t either.

The engaging plot and great characters are wrapped in beautiful words. Lehua Parker’s writing style is so fine that you can’t help but marvel at what she has created. It is not easy to write a novel that would suit children and adults alike. And yet she managed. The informal language (with an added bonus in the form of Hawaiian and Pidgin), vivid but not overwhelming descriptions, and a perfect dose of humour make this book an ideal read for any age group. No one will get bored, no one will be disappointed. It’s a title for the whole family. But be careful! It is possible that you will fight for the copy, so better buy two; or maybe even three… Just in case.

If you have read the first volume in the Niuhi Shark Saga, you literally have no choice but to read this one too. If you haven’t, you should catch up as soon as possible. Because the books are fantastic. Period.

‘ONE BOY, NO WATER’ BY LEHUA PARKER

‘One Boy, No Water’ is the first volume in Lehua Parker’s Niuhi Shark Saga – a young adult magic realism trilogy set in modern Hawaii. It tells the story of a boy named Zader and his family.

ONE BOY NO WATER

Summary

Zader, a thirteen-year-old boy, was adopted by the Westin family when he was just a baby. Being allergic to water, he is living in his brother Jay’s shadow, on whom he relies to keep him safe from the bully Blalahs.

When Jay, a rising surfing star, shows off his impressive skills on the board, Zader sits above the beach doing what he does best – sketching. No one is aware that Zader has secrets; only his uncle Kahana seems to know more about the boy and his past than he’s willing to share.

Review

I’ll tell you something about myself: I don’t like children’s or Middle Grade/Young Adult books almost as much as I don’t like fantasy/magic realism genre. I decided to give the Niuhi Shark Saga a chance exclusively because it is Pacific Lit. I bought the three titles, but I was still quite (or rather very) sceptical. But then I read a few pages. And a few more. And suddenly I was officially hooked.

So yes, I admit, this is a fantastic book. Lehua Parker wrote a beautiful tale full of magic and authentic Hawaiian vibe. She managed to bring the local legends back to life, giving readers – young and adult alike – a chance to get to know the Aloha State and its fascinating culture. Actually, the references to Hawaiian lore are what makes this novel stand out! It doesn’t deal with werewolves, vampires, or wizards – so omnipresent in today’s popular literature – but draws from the ancient beliefs. So we have sharks, and ti leaves, and the mysterious Hawaiian martial art of Kapu Kuialua (which is considered sacred and taught underground since the mid-1800s). All this definitely makes the story feel fresh, unique, original. And isn’t that exactly what we expect from a good book?

Now, although the novel is somewhat focused on Hawaiian culture, it has several underlying themes that teach valuable lessons, as befits children’s and Young Adult literature. Together with Zader and Jay, readers learn how important it is to have family you can always count on, to do what is right, to overcome your fears, to respect the nature, and to never forget where you come from. You can’t run and hide from your problems; be bold and brave; whatever happens in your life – face it! This is such an inspiring message for young people, who often struggle to find their place. Zader’s and Jay’s experiences will surely give them courage, and uncle Kahana’s wise words the needed moral guidance.

Speaking of uncle Kahana, I have to praise the characters. They are unbelievably well created and defined. From Zader and Jay to Char Siu and the Blalahs to uncle Kahana (who is my favourite), every one of them is a distinct person with a distinct voice and personality. They are complex, plausible, and easy to identify with. They are like us: they make choices and decisions – sometimes good, sometimes bad; they have their dilemmas; they learn from their mistakes. They are ordinary people; ordinary in their extraordinariness.

Of course, it’s one thing to build strong characters, but it’s another to show the relationships between them. Lehua Parker succeeded in doing both. The interactions between Zader and his brother or uncle Kahana, the interactions between the teenagers, and finally the interactions between the adults are incredibly well thought over. They influence the story, making it much more convincing and compelling.

Do you know what else makes this novel so believable? The language – Hawaiian Pidgin, to be precise. You’ll find it in every single chapter and, quite possibly, on every single page. To people who don’t speak Pidgin (or Hawaiian), it may cause some problems, but there is a dictionary at the end of the book, so you can always use it. I think the addition of local creole was a genius idea. Well, you can’t really write a story set in Hawaii and have your characters say ‘Thank you’ instead of ‘Mahalo’, can you?

‘One Boy, No Water’ is a must read. If you have a youngster at home or are looking for a great gift, this should be your number one choice. Because this colourful island tale is engaging and appealing, thought-provoking and amusing, uplifting and wonderfully hopeful. It is like a breath of fresh Hawaiian air taken on a sunny day. Unforgettable and not to be missed. But, let me give you a piece of advice here, buy all three books at once – after the first volume you’ll be hooked; just like me.

‘BE A BLESSING’ BY GLORIA SUA

‘Be a Blessing’ is Gloria Sua’s, a Samoan writer and the founder of Be a Blessing Ministries, debut book. It recounts the author’s journey of self-discovery, personal growth, and spiritual awakening.

BE A BLESSING

Summary

Life hasn’t always been easy for Gloria. Having endured traumatic experiences in the past, she is bound by negativity, grief, regret, pain.

Everything changes one seemingly ordinary day, when – at the age of forty-four – she is rushed to hospital in a very bad condition. Not knowing what is wrong with her and being scared to death, she suddenly hears a voice telling her she’s going to be okay.

Review

Although this book doesn’t even mention the Pacific Islands, it was written by a Samoan, and that means it is worthy of attention. Especially that ‘self-help/motivational’ is not a genre Pacific authors often venture into.

Let me start by saying that this book is about God. About finding God; about living in God; about trusting God. If you are not particularly interested in this type of literature, or if you are not a religious person, this is not a title for you. But if you feel lost; if your life seems meaningless or you’d like to change something in it (whatever that something is); if you’d simply like to do better, to do more, to give more but don’t know where to start, Gloria Sua’s words may be of great help.

The strength of this volume lies in the fact that it’s neither a typical motivational book nor a classic memoir. It’s a delightful mix of both. A motivational memoir (I guess that’s what I would call it) with a captivating story and plenty of wisdom dropped within. The author leads readers to Jesus by showing them how the Lord’s divine grace affected her own life. She shares her trials and tribulations in a very honest manner, so you quickly start feeling as if you were listening to a good friend. And that is exactly why you believe what she’s saying. Gloria Sua is not a preacher giving you a religious talk, but rather a pal offering you helpful advice. In a surprisingly comprehensible way, she explains certain Bible verses, providing you with a much better understanding of the Gospel. By doing so she lets you look at your life in a whole new – broader and wider – perspective. We all need that from time to time, don’t you agree? We need that wake-up call to remind us what truly matters. Because what we often think is important, in reality has no value at all.

Now, while the content is captivating, the author’s style certainly doesn’t blow away. That’s not to say the book is poorly written; it is not. It is a decent work, quite cleverly constructed and mostly very well put together. It just fails to impress. Which, and I have to stress that, does not diminish the book’s worth.

So would I recommend this ‘motivational memoir’? I would. It is a great read. Inspiring, enlightening, thought-provoking. After finishing it, you’ll surely ask yourself: ‘What has God given me as an assignment in life?’ And you know what? I believe (and hope) that Gloria Sua will help you find the right answer. So you too could be a blessing.

‘ISLANDS OF THE HEART’ BY DAVID STRINGER

‘Islands of the Heart’ is a novel penned by David Stringer. It tells the story of a family whose members desperately try to come to terms with their past.

ISLANDS OF THE HEART

Summary

For Wolf, an ex-soldier, life has always been simple – when faced with a trouble, it’s best to settle it with your fists. But when his murky past catches up with him, fists no longer seem useful. Wolf knows he needs to leave to sort out his personal issues.

Wolf’s girlfriend, Tania, disappointed with her man’s departure, struggles with problems of her own. Wanting to uncover Wolf’s secrets as well as understand her own life, she decides to return to her childhood home.

A difficult past also haunts Steven, Wolf’s father, who can’t forgive himself sins he committed and Pepe, the soldier’s mother, who escaped to her native Samoa to find solace and peace.

Review

This novel is not an easy read. If you think you can take it and spend a relaxing afternoon immersing yourself in a pleasant world of exotic New Zealand and Samoa, I can tell you right away that this is not the case here. For this book is disturbing; profoundly disturbing. So unless you are ready for a bit of shock, foul language, and general ‘rawness’, leave it.

Having mentioned that, I should also mention that this is probably one of the best stories I have ever read. It is unbelievably complex, with twists and turns you couldn’t predict even if you were a master Jedi. The narrative doesn’t go from A to B in a straight (and usually boring) line. There are bends and curves, there is the unexpectedness of what’s going to happen next. Every few pages you get hit with yet another surprise. And, let me assure you, these surprises don’t stop until you reach the very end of the very last chapter.

The story is supported by a group of well-crafted characters. They are a mixed bag of personalities, whom you’ll either adore and admire or simply hate and despise. I would even risk a statement here that in them lies the key strength of this novel. Why? Because they are plausible; neither good nor bad. They have virtues and flaws. They have dreams and expectations as well as closely-guarded secrets they’re ashamed and scared to share with others. To put it simply, they are exactly like us.

Now, great characters alone are not enough to drive the plot. They need to interact with one another. David Stringer managed to paint a very real picture of the relationships people build. How they connect. How they depend on each other. How they place confidence in another person and how easily that trust can be lost. The characters in this book seem to be destined to affect each other’s lives. You may think that one wouldn’t exist without the other. And, you know what, that might be true.

Although the book’s main focus is put on people, the author didn’t forget to touch on cultural and political issues, which provide a sort of background for the characters’ personal tales. Wolf and Tania’s relationship is a top-notch portrayal of the ambiguous relations that native Maoris and Pacific Islanders have. David Stringer explores and accentuates the differences between the two ethnic groups, clearly showing that not all Pasifika people feel that they belong to the same family. The myth of loyalty among the Islanders has just got debunked.

‘Islands of the Heart’ is an excellent novel. Closely observed and artfully written, it reaches deeply into the core of the human nature. It won’t put you in a good mood, that’s for sure, but it will make you think. And, quite possibly, appreciate the power of love and forgiveness.

‘FREELOVE’ BY SIA FIGIEL

‘Freelove’ is Sia Figiel’s latest novel. It is set in Samoa in the 1980s and revolves around the first love experiences of a seventeen-year-old girl.

FREELOVE

Summary

Inosia Alofafua Afatasi, an inquisitive student from the Village of the Sacred Owl, is sent by her mother to the capital to buy three giant white threads. As she’s waiting at the bus stop, her young teacher of Science and Math, Mr Ioane Viliamu, stops to offer her a ride in his car. Sia just knows that the minute she steps a foot into the truck, her life will change forever.

Review

Sia Figiel is one of the best and most renowned Pacific writers, so whenever she publishes a book, you expect it to be at least very good. It was a long wait for ‘Freelove’ but, let me assure you, oh-so worthy, because the novel certainly does not disappoint.

It’s not a secret that Ms Figiel just loves breaking cultural taboos. She had done it in her earlier works and she did it again in ‘Freelove’. When it comes to the Pacific cultures, there are few greater taboos than those concerning human sexuality. Now, a person not familiar with Samoan or Pacific ways of being might think that this title is a coming-of-age story about young girl’s sexual awakening. But the truth is, this is just the outer layer – the most prominent one, yes; the most easily noticeable, yes; the most important, absolutely not.

The main characters’ relationship, although graphically described and thus attracting readers attention, serves a higher purpose. It’s nor there to shock people or make them blush. It’s not a cheap entertainment. It’s not even an attempt to contradict Margaret Mead’s studies. It is a way of showing the constantly changing culture, where tradition fights with modernity even though the two have already become closely intertwined – just like Sia’s and Ioane’s bodies.

The author managed to wonderfully expose Inosia’s journey in discovering her own identity, as both a Samoan and a woman. We observe her trying to remain a dutiful daughter while at the same time following her heart. It’s not easy to fulfil social expectations when you have your dreams and desires. Or maybe it’s not easy to fulfil your dreams when you’re restricted by social expectations.

Ioane, on the other hand, is a guide who leads Inosia through her journey of discovery. Not only does he show her a completely unknown world, he also throws a new light on the ancient traditions of the Samoan people. Ioane is Sia’s lover, soulmate, friend, teacher, and motivator. He encourages her to indulge her passions, but also reminds her to never forget her cultural roots.

What you might not see at first is the fact that the book is an encouragement for a dialogue. Sia Figiel created two truly fascinating protagonists, through whom she tried to convey her wisdom. By giving us Inosia – a somewhat naïve yet enormously clever girl with ambitions, who’s doing all she can to find herself in a collectivist society – and Ioane – a young but experienced man willing to sacrifice his future so that the girl he loves can lead the life she wants and deserves – she makes us ponder on the value on individualism and self-realization in a culture where ‘we’ is still more important than ‘I’.

The story itself is told in an unconventional and very poetic manner, which for some people might be a little overwhelming, if not purely irritating. The powerful prose indeed leaves readers in awe of the author’s talent and skills, but the occasional flowery descriptions might be unappealing. I should also mention that those of you who are not particularly romantic may find the second part of the book – where Sia and Ioane exchange love letters – quite annoying. I mean, how many times can you read somebody’s love confessions, especially if they are a bit exaggerated?

All in all, ‘Freelove’ is a wonderful novel, definitely worthy of your time and attention. It’s a highly perceptive, enlightening piece of literature, which provokes thinking and reflection on love, sex, personal growth, and – most of all – the importance of culture in a person’s life. It is a fairy-tale, but I won’t tell you if it’s with or without a happily ever after ending. You’ll have to find out for yourself.

‘OUR HERITAGE, THE OCEAN’

‘Our Heritage, The Ocean’ is a compilation of the top stories from the 2015 Samoa Observer Tusitala Short Story Competition.

our-heritage-the-ocean

Summary

What’s life like in the beautiful Pacific? Is living in paradise happier, more joyful, less stressful? Are smiles broader and tears less burning there? Sometimes, yes. Other times, no. Just like anywhere else in the world.

The loveliness of the islands doesn’t shield people from the trials and tribulations of everyday life. There are troubles, doubts, decisions one needs to make; and a constant conflict between the values of the ancestors and the modern world. Because when the past collides with the present, everything’s a little bit harder to do.

Review

This book is an undeniable proof that there are so many talented writers among the Pacific Islanders. And thanks to the Samoa Observer Tusitala Short Story Competition, some of them finally get a chance to shine.

To say that this collection is good would be an understatement. It is truly exquisite. Actually, when you start reading it, you just can’t put it down.

The stories presented in the compilation are as varied as the islands of the Pacific they focus on. Some of them are serious in nature, others more light-hearted. Some might make you furiously mad or saddened, while others will surely bring a smile to your face. But they all have one thing in common – they touch on the issues important for the Pacific peoples.

The most distressing tale is narrated by an unborn child who – while still in the mother’s womb – endures physical abuse. This spectacular and uncommon way of showing the problem of domestic violence has never been seen before. It’s a literary masterpiece I dare to say only someone from the Pacific region (in this case, it was Sina Retzlaff) could create.

Another story that brings up a similar topic concentrates on a Samoan wife – dutiful and ready to stand by her man no matter what. Good reputation is all that counts. The rest stays behind closed door.

Domestic violence is not the only problem the Islanders need to face. Reconciling traditional ways of being with modern lifestyles proves to be an enormous challenge as well, for young and old alike. And then there’s this long-lasting antipathy towards those who belong to a different race, who are not of full blood. As it turns out, migrants in the Blue Continent struggle to feel accepted no less than the Islanders living in foreign countries.

Yes, this is the Pacific shown in its truest colours.

The stories vary greatly in themes explored but not in quality, which is a very rare thing. Usually, when a compilation includes works by various authors, the level of one’s reading enjoyment fluctuates wildly depending on how good a particular tale is. But this book is different, as not even one story is less interesting than the others. They are all exceptionally well written in a style that stirs the imagination and engages all the senses. Vivid descriptions – so important in some of these narratives – help convey the message, making the truths hidden between the lines perfectly visible. Because this compilation is not only entertaining, but most of all thought provoking. It encourages critical reflection and deep thinking – something only the best pieces of literature are able to do.

‘Our Heritage, The Ocean’ is a book I wholeheartedly recommend. Seventeen stories – all equally good, seventeen authors – all worthy of attention. Robert Louis Stevenson surely would be proud.

‘MAGIC FISH DREAMING’ BY JUNE PERKINS

‘Magic Fish Dreaming’ is a collection of poems for children written by June Perkins and illustrated by Helene Magisson.

magic-fish-dreaming

Summary

In the northern part of Queensland there’s a world full of magic. Far away from bustling cities, Mother Nature spreads her wings.

Under the starry skies, shady pools hum with life. Age-old trees stand tall with pride in the rays of the hot Australian sun. Cassowaries search for food, geckos show their dancing moves, tawny owl hunts for bugs, while crocodiles hide under the lily pads.

Review

A poetry book for children is always a risky business. Unless it’s a simple rhyming poem, an author can never be sure if a certain piece will be to a child’s liking. Now, ‘simple’ is definitely not a world with which you could describe June Perkin’s collection. And yet she can be certain that little ones will read it with great interest.

When it comes to children literature there is one rule authors have to have in mind, and that’s visual attractiveness. A book must be visually appealing in order to immediately capture a child’s attention. Only then will he or she want to reach for it. Children, especially the younger ones, look for the abundance of colours, fascinating characters, and pictures that will ‘show’ the story they are about to read. In this regard ‘Magic Fish Dreaming’ gets a perfect ten. The illustrations, which were created by Helene Magisson, could not be any more pleasing. They stir the imagination, enhancing children’s understanding of the poems. Ms Magisson managed to convey North Queensland’s enchanting atmosphere so well that anyone – regardless of age – will want to visit the place to see all the things mentioned in the book. Well, we all know that a picture is worth a thousand words. That is certainly true.

While the drawings may make children squeal with delight, the poems might not necessarily trigger the same reaction. Although written especially for children, they are not kids’ stuff. A younger child will probably have troubles deciphering the real meaning of the verses, which can make the reading process a little less enjoyable. Despite the inclusion of sound words – usually adored by children – and different rhymes, the collection may not appear as fun as others. The poems are rather baffling, so some clarification might be needed. Of course, that doesn’t mean the book is unsuitable for six- or seven-year-olds. Quite the contrary actually. A challenging book enables children to grow up with it; to come back to particular poems and discover them anew.

The theme of ‘Magic Fish Dreaming’ revolves around nature, which gives youngsters a wonderful opportunity to wrap their minds around this topic. It is the responsibility of every adult person to show children the importance of the natural world, as well as explain to them some of the issues connected with it. And this is exactly what June Perkins has been trying to do. Every page, every poem in her book manifests the significance of flora and fauna. In a playful way she encourages people (not only those under the age of 12) to respect the environment, to value the ancient wisdom, and think about what the future may bring. And – I’m sure you’ll agree with me on this one – who can be a better teacher than a gecko, cassowary, or a singing bird?

If you’re looking for a perfect gift for your child, look no more. This beautiful book will stay with your family for a very long time, giving you a chance to have a completely different reading experience every time you’ll have it in your hands. I do recommend it for young and old alike.

‘WHERE WE ONCE BELONGED’ BY SIA FIGIEL

‘Where We Once Belonged’ is Sia Figiel’s debut novel. This coming-of-age story of a Samoan girl won the 1997 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for The Best First Book in the Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region.

where-we-once-belonged

Summary

Alofa Filiga is a typical teenager who tries to navigate her way through the transition from being a girl to becoming a woman. Together with her friends she explores the new and exciting world of adulthood while gossiping about boys, love, lust, and all the things that grown-ups do.

Although for Alofa life is never boring, it isn’t always as good as she would want it to be. She quickly discovers that the bumpy road of adolescence gets even bumpier when one lives in a place where two cultures collide. Reconciling tradition with modernity seems to be virtually impossible, especially for a young and naïve girl succumbed to the will of other people.

Review

The first sentence of this novel is about a woman’s vagina. Pacific authors hardly ever write about vaginas. This shows, right off the bat, how brave Sia Figiel is. And you already know that the book you’re holding in your hands is going to be groundbreaking.

When you think about coming-of-age titles about Samoa, or Pacific Islands in general, you probably have this instant thought coming to your mind: Margaret Mead. Her study of the Samoan youth is indeed an anthropological classic. But, let’s be honest here, what can a white woman from some faraway country know about living and growing up in Polynesia? Is she really more knowledgeable than someone from within that culture? I dare to say she isn’t. Sia Figiel, on the contrary, provides readers with the first-hand account. Having been brought up in the Samoan Archipelago, she demonstrates competence as well as thorough understanding of what she is writing about.

The substance of her novel might be quite shocking to some people, especially those not familiar with Pacific cultures. The author’s honesty in describing Samoans’ attitudes towards sex, relationships, love, and human body seems almost too brutal to believe. The myth of promiscuity and sexual freedom that Margaret Mead established in her book gets debunked. Sia Figiel unravels a completely different reality, in which a girl is beaten up for having a dirty magazine in her bag; in which absolute obedience to parents and other family members is a fact of life; in which punishment for…for what really?…is as sure as the sun rises every morning. ‘People see surfaces only, and that’s all’. These wise words from the first chapter steer readers in the right direction. Appearances can be deceptive, but there is no doubt what the life of a Samoan teenager is really like. Each and every page shows very clearly that adolescents are free only if nobody’s watching. The problem is that in such close-knit communities there’s always someone watching.

Much of the book’s power and plausibility lies in its characters: strong, intriguing, complex. They are a mixed bag of different personalities – some of whom you adore, some of whom you hate. If you analyse closely, you can notice that they represent typical Samoan traits: conformity; abasement; dominance; humbleness; kindness; attachment to tradition. Despite their apparent similarities, they couldn’t be less alike. The story lays bare a striking generation gap between older and younger Islanders – the former treat their culture as immutable; the latter try to reconcile ancestral values with the pleasures of modernity. And it seems that this silent battle can have only one winner. In Samoa, triumph comes with age.

Sia Figiel’s exposure of growing up in Pasifika is written in the most impressive way possible. The style, the rhythm, the pace make the words flow like the ocean waves. The novel has virtually no action, yet it doesn’t fail to engage the reader. This is largely the result of vivid descriptions, which let you find yourself in the middle of a buzzling market, at a girly meetup gossiping about boys, or in Mr Brown’s house looking at the box of Cornflakes (which supposedly make palagi people happy). And although you may feel that the atmosphere is a bit heavy, the occasional bouts of humour bring a wonderful (and much-needed) sense of playfulness. These are the tropics, after all. Dark clouds might cover the sky, but the rays of light are still there.

‘Where We Once Belonged’ is a big surprise. This delightful collection of vignettes shows a place trapped between the past and the present. A place where ‘we’ means ‘I’ and ‘I’ simply doesn’t exist; where some should be seen and not heard. This is Samoa far from paradise. Real, unembellished, alluring. So, are you interested in paying a visit?

‘CONQUERED’ BY PAULA QUINENE

‘Conquered’, Paula Quinene’s debut novel, is a historical erotic romance set in Guam. It follows Jesi, a young Chamorro woman, who finds love and happiness amid the turbulence of war.

conquered

Summary

Ever since the Japanese invaded her homeland, Jesi has been forced to hide in a cave. Her father and brother left the safe place a week ago. They told her they would return, but they still haven’t shown up. Suffering from loneliness and afraid that something might have happened to them, Jesi decides she needs to start her search.

As she battles her way through the island, her worst nightmare of being captured by the Japs comes true. She desperately tries to fight, but they are stronger. She begins to lose consciousness when someone manages to save her.

Not wanting to leave the rescued girl all alone, Johan Landers, an American soldier, follows her to the cave. The little time they get to spend together is enough for them to fall in love with each other.

Review

An erotic novel written by a Pacific author? That doesn’t happen very often. Sex is still considered a difficult, embarrassing, and forbidden subject amongst Pacific communities, so discussing it publicly – in a book – is quite a rarity. However, there are writers bold enough to try to break down this taboo. Paula Quinene is definitely one of them.

‘Conquered’ is a novel in which eroticism is prominent, but not overly so. You might be surprised how little is actually described. Sex doesn’t fill the pages of the book to the brim – it is only an addition to the plot, not its main focus. I have to admit that the author handled all the lovemaking scenes very gracefully, minding the language but not sparing the juicy details. As befits a historical romance – let’s don’t forget the story is set in the 1940s – the book contains no lewd phrases. Ms Quinene maintained the highest standards of eloquence, choosing her words with due regard to the time period, setting, and the nature of her tale. Your cheeks probably won’t turn red, but your heart might start beating a little bit faster than usual.

The plot itself is extremely engaging, but it also feels slightly rushed. Everything happens very quickly, and you are not given enough time to savour the moments. Of course, not all readers will find this unappealing. The storyline flows smoothly from one event to another, and because it never slows down, there is no chance of getting bored. Yet still, most people crave depth and complexity, at least to some extent. In this novel both are virtually non-existent. The briefness of the scenes and the narrative as a whole is – unfortunately – more irritating than pleasing.

One thing Paula Quinene didn’t skimp on is Guam. References to the Chamorro culture are omnipresent. Each chapter unravels the beauty of the local customs and traditions, letting you either discover the exotic and foreign world or come back to the place you already perfectly know. What is more, the book serves as a fantastic history lesson which brings to life the tragic and painful period in Guam’s past – the Japanese occupation of the island. We tend to forget that World War II in the Blue Continent was not limited to Hawaii only. This title is a wonderful reminder. Wonderful and well-researched. The author made sure to check the facts, so this part of the story is very believable and convincing.

Can the same be said of the characters? Absolutely. Both Jesi and Johan are richly developed protagonists who change considerably throughout the course of the novel.

Jesi, although young and inexperienced, is a real fighter. The cruelty she witnessed during the occupation has toughen her up, shaping her adult personality. Being Chamorro, she has the utmost respect for her parents, yet she is not afraid to do things her own way. A gentle rebel of sorts who impresses with bravery and resilience.

Johan, on the other hand, is a mature man. He battles his own demons and is well aware of the fact that life is no bed of roses. Having lost his wife and desire to live, he has dedicated himself to serving his country – he fights, so he can forget. It is not until he meets Jesi that he rediscovers the purpose of his existence and the power of love. He starts to understand that the commitment made to the US Army cannot be more important than the commitment made to his significant other.

We all must agree that Paula Quinene did something quite extraordinary with this novel – she proved that with a little creativity you can tackle even the most taboo topics. Reading ‘Conquered’ is a very pleasant experience. It’s a daring book any fan of Pacific literature will appreciate and enjoy.