Life's bitter sweet for Merci Suarez as she deals with trouble at home and school in this realistic, yet heart-warming children's novel.
Mercedes (Merci) Suárez is an eleven-year-old scholarship student, living with her large family in three modest houses (Las Casitas – the little houses) that sit side by side. Besides her parents and brother, Roli, there are her grandparents, Lolo and Abuela, her aunt Tía Inés and cousins Tomas and Axel.
Life as a scholarship student presents its own special demands: Merci must make sure her behaviour and grades are exceptional. A major challenge comes in the form of Edna Santos, a bossy, rich girl who runs the social life of her class. Edna's catchphrase is “no offence”, which she uses to preface her put downs. (“No offence is what Edna says before taking a hatchet to your feelings.”) When Merci is assigned tall, handsome Michael Clark as her Sunshine Buddy (school policy assigns new students with a buddy to help with orientation) Edna gets jealous and starts to cause havoc.
If school problems aren't enough, then there are secrets being kept at home. Merci's grandfather, Lolo, has been acting strangely. He is becoming forgetful and causing much stress in the tight knit family. Merci senses something is not quite right and when all is finally revealed, she feels betrayed.
Cuban-American children's writer Meg Medina has created a realistic, funny, heart-warming story about family and the dramas of school. The large cast of characters are well drawn and the dialogue is punchy and smart, without being brassy. The pushy Edna Santos is an absolute hoot, somewhat like Lucy Van Pelt out of the Peanuts cartoons. Despite her jealousy and deviousness, she's also a consummate socialite who is easy to like. Even Merci admits to her charms.
Merci manages to get through her difficult year and celebrate Christmas with her family at Las Casitas. Life may be difficult, full of unwanted change, but the closeness of her family, with its celebration of food, song and togetherness, ensures life will always have a certain sweetness.
Merci Suarez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina. Candlewick Press $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Niki Savva examines in forensic detail the 2019 election of the Morrison government.
Who were the plotters in Malcolm Turnbull's downfall, and why did they want him gone? And how did Scott Morrison come up the middle, surprising everyone to win the Liberal Party leadership? These questions and more are answered in Plots and Prayers, a detailed account of the tumultuous leadership challenges of 2018.
Author Niki Savva has worked both as a political journalist and as a Liberal staffer, giving her unique insights and a broad range of insider contacts. She brings all this into play, painting a drama of almost Shakespearean proportions, with a cast of ego driven, ambitious men and women, all sharpening their knives and either plotting or planning. The book is a stark, if ugly, reminder that politics is primarily about personalities, with policy coming a poor second.
What went wrong? A decade long war between two of the party's titans, Abbott and Turnbull, meant the Liberals were in constant turmoil. Turnbull didn't help. Brilliant, yes, difficult according to his friends, he was a poor communicator with a Quixotic streak who couldn't see what was happening around him.
Comprehensive and with a wealth of fascinating interview material, Niki Savva has given us a definitive document of the times.
Plots and Prayers, by Niki Savva. Scribe $35
Review by Chris Saliba
Peter Polites second novel is a witty exploration of class, race, sex and money, firmly set in gay Sydney.
Pano is slumming it, his work as a poet barely making an income. When he sees an advertisement on a gay website, he moves in with Kane, an IT specialist. The designer house, in upwardly mobile Pemulwuy, is everything he's ever aspired to. When Pano and Kane fall into bed together, Pano almost allows himself the fiction they are a happy couple. Kane is more interested in a proposed Albanian mosque, to be built across the road. He talks Pano into a plot to discredit the mosque. Meanwhile, Pano has taken on work as a ghostwriter for a dodgy property developer. Can Pano maintain this middle-class facade, or will it all come undone?
Peter Polites' second novel is a dry, witty exploration of class, race, sex and money, firmly set in Sydney and with a cast of mainly gay men. The Pillars drips with an irony worthy of Jean Genet and Joe Orton. One of its main concerns is artifice and the presentation of self. Everything – clothes, décor, cosmetics – are described in mesmerising detail, working up a picture of a superficial, branded world and its deluded denizens.
An astute work of social observation that entertains with a seductive, sly humour.
The Pillars, by Peter Polites. Hachette Australia. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books