Book Reviews: New YA from Mountains to Coasts

There are all manner of different YA titles hitting Aotearoa’s shelves this autumn, with a focus on real life storytelling and issues relevant to teen readers. Librarian Dave Tucker shares his take on four new books, including three authors already familiar to New Zealand kids’ lit aficionados, and one title from an illustrious Kiwi author making his YA debut.

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If Only, by Adele Broadbent (OneTree House)

Kayla is 15 and curious about a lot of things in the world – but the answers aren’t always found in her classroom. It’s a big wide world out there, with lots to do, try and explore. Popular and persuasive Tam has always been her best friend; where she goes, Kayla follows.

One night, a party for the cool kids separates these two friends, leaving more questions than answers as to what went down.

Like life, If Only introduces choices and consequences. Real scenarios are served up in bite-sized chunks. Family, friends and even the mysterious creatures of our mighty oceans have lessons to share on love, loss and loyalty.

Family, friends and even the mysterious creatures of our mighty oceans have lessons to share on love, loss and loyalty.

Doing the right thing for Kayla is a constant struggle of second-guessing and sneaking suggestions, balancing boys and best friends in an attempt to discover her own personal truth. Trying to impress a young eco-warrior Alex, she gains new hope by saving whales, while she herself is stranded by the sadness and lost identity of her aunt who has left her side.

If Only plays out the inner dialogue of a teenage girl confused, conflicted and coming to terms with having to deal with life’s bigger problems. Kayla conceals her feelings and thoughts from that big world: ‘I turned away, mad at the sudden tears threatening to spill down my face.’ By keeping that internal dialogue hidden, she feels that her true self is safe from harm. Much of what we find out about Kayla is revealed through secretive, very personal chatter, and this lets us in to her true thoughts and identity.

This beautifully honest and perfectly captured teenage experience touches all the elements of a sensitive and complex time, offering insight and understanding for us all.

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If Only

by Adele Broadbent

OneTree House

RRP $24

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Half My Life, by Diana Noonan (OneTree House)

Listen, do you want to know a secret? Katie Papahadjis sure does.

As a 16-year-old Greek girl growing up in New Zealand, she serves fish and chips in her family’s takeaway shop where she gets to know her customers – and yet she knows nothing about her father, her family or their past.

When Katie’s grandmother falls ill, her family makes the decision to travel back home to Greece, a place of mystery, misinformation and murmurings of who they really are. Accompanied by taunting voices in her head, Katie travels with a heavy heart and busy mind, bombarded by put-downs and self-doubt, eager to unload her unnecessary baggage along the way.

…Greece, a place of mystery, misinformation and murmurings of who they really are.

Katie carries her own personal chorus of criticism and cat calls, all found within her poor sensitive hidden head of twisted hair and handpicked self-harm. She longs for help, support and someone to be there for her. Her love of sport and winning leans on a solo stab at life. Katie’s hidden belief that ‘the problem with team sport is that people always let you down by not doing things just right’, supports her inherent avoidance of being let down. This recurring theme of blame and a lack of self-responsibility is echoed by her aching feelings of abandonment and family secrets.

Half My Life tells of a migrant life, losing identity and struggling to find meaning and connection in a new home. As she leaves her family’s place of birth and belonging, Katie seeks to find answers and herself within the fibres of those close to her.

Along the way, the reader’s travels unearth buried secrets and unspoken truths that reveal a truly inspiring story of strength and survival.

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Half My Life

by Diana Noonan

OneTree House

RRP $24

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Spearo, by Mary-Anne Scott (OneTree House)

Sean is new to New Zealand, a place his mother brought him to after losing his father back home in Zimbabwe.

Struggling to find his feet, he feels the emptiness of grief, as an outsider in a strange country. To fit in, Sean wants his own friends, and to not be sad anymore.

Diving into his new environment, Sean links up with ‘mad keen spearo’ Mason, a popular guy who makes a real splash in his life. Mason offers to mentor Sean on all things underwater, teaching breathing, buoyancy and bait techniques to catch his eager attention.

This new world is scary, unusual and most things feel wrong and uncomfortable. As a reader, I wanted to offer a hand to help and ease Sean’s constant unease. Even when Sean takes his first dip into Mason’s safe and secluded pool, I felt his fear as ‘he clutched the ladder, his knuckles white with cold’, wanting to reach out and make things alright for him. The reader gets a real sense of Sean’s world from the shivering short sentences and impending doom of making that next choice.

I felt his fear as ‘he clutched the ladder, his knuckles white with cold’…

Spearo offers a deep expedition of adventure and self-discovery through the foggy goggles of a young man swimming in a new ocean for the first time. Each dive builds Sean’s confidence, helping him to conquer his fears beneath the surface, enabling him to emerge with hope and courage to guide him.

You don’t need to be aquatically active to appreciate this tale of scaling life’s challenges; Spearo caught my interest through complex characters and a believable Kiwi plotline. This authentic tale targets that all too familiar space of being young and alone, yearning for friends and fun when things aren’t going right for you. I was hooked.

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by Mary-Anne Scott

OneTree House

RRP $24

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Aspiring, by Damien Wilkins (Annual Ink)

Tall stories with real meaning are a rare commodity to find in young adult fiction.

Small communities with large characters offer the reader a perfect ticket to play book detective from the mind of a young man with a stretched sense of imagination.

Aspiring is a town growing fast, with tourists and mysterious strangers arriving to pass through and rifle through the everyday lives of the locals. Many colourful characters feature in young Ricky’s life. There is the oddly omnipresent and slightly sinister Mr Le Clair and his many supposed dodgy dealings.

Aspiring captures all that inescapable insider knowledge and slightly suffocating aspects of growing up in a small town or community. How does one reinvent oneself or discover personal parameters and push the boundaries, when restricted by tiny town ideals?

How does one reinvent oneself or discover personal parameters and push the boundaries, when restricted by tiny town ideals?

At 16, Ricky is a small town boy who towers above his friends at a lofty six foot seven. He plays basketball and is rather good and yet he lacks the confidence and chances to get ahead of his shortcomings.

Ricky is the storyteller of his own life, so we readers experience the unfiltered internal dialogue of a slightly confused but immensely sensitive young man. His personal narrative speaks volumes to the endless possibilities of daily life, often complicating facts with a healthy fictional take on small town living. When cornered or questioned he would stumble: ‘I tried to speak but there was only wheezing and struggling’. You get a sense that at some stage soon, his words and world will form around him.

Although not a detective, Ricky’s head is full of theories and his microscopic mind of muddy plots, carefully collects clues, all in the hope of solving whatever is going on in the town.

Aspiring is a cleverly crafted and uniquely positive portrayal of a young man making his mark his way in a small but largely untapped world. The story is one you want to stick with, an elaborate yarn told with honesty and hope, mixed with just enough Kiwi quirkiness to smile about in each chapter.

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by Damien Wilkins

Annual Ink

RRP $22

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Dave Tucker
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I am an English born; Kiwi raised grown up library boy. My past work life has seen me sell holidays (Flight Centre), sell albums (Sounds/Marbecks/Real Groovy) and now I immerse myself in the wonderful world of libraries. I am currently the team leader at Glen Eden Library. Prior to that I wore many hats (picture Dr Seuss and many more) as a Children’s Librarian with Auckland Libraries. For over a decade I told tall tales, shook my sillies out and shared my love of literacy and acting up and out with the cool children of Auckland. My favourite children’s book is ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and the first book that I fell in love with was ‘Where the wild things are’. This gave me the courage as a shy boy to roar on stage at the school play.