Sent to live with his grandmother in Hastings after his father is jailed, Matt becomes the victim of bad friends and false accusations. Packed off to a military-style school camp in the wilds beside Lake Waikaremoana, Matt again gets in trouble for something he didn't do, and is unjustly punished.
Not allowed to join his school friends on their activities, he spends time alone down by the lake where he discovers a massive eel. Unfortunately, the class "bad boy", Cam, is determined to kill it. But it's a strange twist of fate when Matt finds himself in a position to save Cam's life.
I picked up this book this morning with the intent to read just the Prologue and maybe the first chapter while my daughter was cleaning up her toys. Instead a little over three hours later I found I could not put the book down and sadly had finished it. It is so well written and extremely relatable, being set in New Zealand and included places that I have actually visited before that I just had to find out what would happen next. It is a very easy read and as it deals with everyday issues like bullying, friends, peer pressure, crime, and solitude.
Every scene is explained perfectly and when Matt has his first encounter with Elsa (the Eel) on land it was so surreal it was as if you were watching the scene being played out right in front of you. I love Eels and enjoy taking the girls into town and feeding them under the bridge - the way they stick there noses up out of the water and how they swim with so little effort. Growing up my babysitter had a creek with pet eels in it that she used to hand feed them and hold them without any issue. There is something about the way they move that is so captivating and magical and I am so glad that this book captures this all so well.
I enjoyed the evolution of Matt as at first he is accused of being a criminal and then a hero and then back to being a criminal. I also enjoyed Karma raising her head and serving her revenge on a big platter but at the same time pointing out that revenge is not always the best path to take. I also like the story started off with a watch and came full circle finishing off where it began and with the answers I so desperately wanted.
This book was so captivating that I am sure would suit any age group - I am going to put it away for safe keeping for another year or so before I give to my daughter who by this stage should be able to read and appreciate it. I absolutely adored it and only wish there was a sequel to it so I can find out more about Elsa's adventures. Well worth a read.
Over recent years, New Zealand young adult fiction has really taken off with characters that are based on real people rather than a romanticised view of what young people should be. Growing up in New Zealand is quite different from what is the norm in other countries, and in the past it has been all too common to see a composite Western view of society based on American and British movie stereotypes. This book has the ring of authenticity; it refers to those things that are dear to all Kiwis - the native bush, Maori mythology, school camps, and the care of our environment.
Although the story is about a group of pre-teens who all attend the same intermediate school, it would appeal to a much wider range of readers. After I had finished it myself, I loaned it to one of my students (aged 16) as she was fascinated by the cover graphic and wanted to explore the story. She read it overnight, returning it next morning with the comment that she had not finished her homework because she could not put the book down! She is a discerning reader so this is high praise indeed. As an adult, I can confirm that I, too, enjoyed it and was particularly impressed that it does not dumb down the language used. The expectation is that readers will be challenged by the occasional unfamiliar word and be prompted to look it up.
The story includes themes of friendship, loyalty, isolation, bullying, and the importance of not judging by appearances. All of these are very real issues both for children and for young adults. And, in contrast to the setting, these themes are not New Zealand specific; they are universal elements that apply to all young people, wherever they might live. There is a strong overarching message that it is important to be true to yourself and take pride in who you are, not try to change in order to fit some artificial norm imposed by "the cool people".
I would recommend this book as a great read on many levels - strong storyline, true to life characters, sympathetically presented ecological issues, and a genuine love for the New Zealand landscape. It would make a wonderful present for the teenager in your life!
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