Denika Mead unpacks two (one updated and one new) YA titles in this latest batch of reviews.
Blackmail & Lies, by Mary-Anne Scott
In Blackmail & Lies, a tense YA novel by New Zealand author, Mary-Anne Scott, sixteen-year-old Finn must face boarding school, blackmail, and growing up in the shadow of his dad being charged with manslaughter. This suspense-filled novel has been updated and re-released, from its original 2012 version titled Snakes and Ladders, by Scholastic New Zealand.
Not wanting to reveal his bloody history, Finn hides his dad’s plight from his new friends at boarding school. He just wants a fresh start, but someone suspects Finn’s secrets, and a game of blackmail and tripwires begins.
[Finn] just wants a fresh start, but someone suspects [his] secrets, and a game of blackmail and tripwires begins.
I was kept on the edge of my seat throughout the entirety of the book. The last third is particularly riveting as Finn’s web of lies comes undone. The characters are well-developed with realistic friendships and rivalries. It’s easy to slip into Finn’s world and become invested in his life. The closer he grows to his friends, the more his fear builds that his secrets will be discovered.
Not all the characters are as easy to like as Finn. Eddie is a bully and inspires fear and revulsion. When he discovers Finn’s secret, he drags Finn into a web of blackmail that’s impossible to untangle. Finn must balance his new, fragile life built on lies with the secrets Eddie is threatening to reveal. The tension only grows throughout the story with one problem bleeding into the next. There was always something to keep me turning the pages, be it Eddie, Finn’s secret past, or what was going to happen at the school ball. There is never a dull moment. Even when I thought I had figured out all the twists, I was still surprised.
Even when I thought I had figured out all the twists, I was still surprised.
The pacing of the book is excellent, however, I found the depiction of Mrs. P, a character with dyslexia troubling and unrealistic. Mrs. P is kind but is seen as a bit dim. She mixes up words: “I hope he’s brought his appetite and not been stopping at the King Burger”. She’s also clumsy and doesn’t pronounce dyslexia correctly.
I found this portrayal of dyslexia to be stereotypical and negative, and I could see no plot relevance for her character apart from being the comic relief at her expense. The other characters were also mean and poked fun at her. “He felt like jamming her fingers in the compartment door.” I enjoy seeing characters with dyslexia in literature, but I believe that adding Mrs. P to Blackmail & Lies did more harm than good and only added to the negative, stereotypical views that some hold regarding learning differences.
I enjoy seeing characters with dyslexia in literature, but I believe that adding Mrs. P to Blackmail & Lies did more harm than good…
Finn’s grief isn’t over and done with in a chapter. It felt like a realistic, grounded interpretation of how someone can experience grief. This portrayal brought me closer to Finn and made him more believable. Sometimes the experience of grief can be treated as a fleeting part of a book—, something that is necessary, but not dwelt on and quickly forgotten. Particularly in fantasy, characters lose parents or a mentor, pick up their swords, and keep going. This wasn’t the case in Blackmail & Lies.The ending is left open for readers to draw their own conclusions while having enough information to provide a satisfactory finish and give an idea of where Finn’s story will go. Blackmail & Lies isn’t without its flaws, but if you like high stakes and tension, prepare for a boarding school novel with a twist of murder.
Blackmail & Lies
By Mary-Anne Scott
Published by Scholastic NZ
The World I Found, by Latika Vasil
“We seemed to be wandering around in a ghost world.”
Do you ever worry about being one of the last people on Earth? Fifteen-year-old Quinn is faced with this terrifying reality after she returns from a trip to Campbell Island to find most of humanity wiped out by a virus.
The World I Found, published in 2023 by Black Giraffe Press, is Latika Vasil’s first YA novel. Quinn has never been one for the outdoors, so is less than pleased when her mum drags her to Campbell Island for a research trip. I related to Quinn’s hesitance and desire to stay on the mainland and have access to the internet, but it was exciting to see her growing love of nature and the outdoors.
I related to Quinn’s hesitance and desire to stay on the mainland and have access to the internet, but it was exciting to see her growing love of nature and the outdoors.
Only a few chapters into the novel, a sense of dread starts to grow. Campbell Island loses contact with the outside world and the research team decides to head home and make sure everything is normal back on the mainland. The adults are putting on brave faces, but Quinn knows something is seriously wrong.
The storm Quinn and the research team fight their way through on their way home makes their journey far from dull. Quinn and Jeroen, a handsome young man Quinn has a rather large crush on, are thrown overboard and forced to fend for themselves.
After washing ashore on the mainland, they meet Cal, a young boy living by himself in this new nightmarish world where a virus has reduced the world to scattered pockets of civilization. Quinn is pushed way beyond her comfort zone, and I enjoyed watching her rise to each challenge.
Quinn is pushed way beyond her comfort zone, and I enjoyed watching her rise to each challenge.
When Cal takes Quinn and Jeroen back to his house, they meet Pirate, Cal’s border collie. Jeroen is nearly unconscious, and Quinn doesn’t know whether her mum is alive, but she’s excited by the dog, saying, “What an awesome dog!” I love border collies, and I think Pirate was an excellent addition to the story, but I found Quinn very light-hearted given the situation, and I didn’t feel this reflected the high stakes the characters were facing.
Thanks to COVID-19, we have all had first-hand experiences of a pandemic, and Vasil’s portrayal of the post-apocalyptic world felt scarily possible. The depiction of a virus that takes out every response team and decimates the planet was like reading an alternate reality.
The novel is split into five sections, and each opened with an image of a bird which mirrored the circular cover artwork. Organising the story this way contributed to my experience and wonderfully demarcated the steps in Quinn’s journey.
…Vasil’s portrayal of the post-apocalyptic world felt scarily possible. The depiction of a virus that takes out every response team and decimates the planet was like reading an alternate reality.
The World I Found is set in New Zealand and I enjoyed the location references, from Quinn’s Campbell Island journey to her quest across the Remutaka Range to reach Wellington and find her mum. Anyone familiar with these landmarks will appreciate the references, and those who aren’t, will get a tour of New Zealand. I would have liked to see even more of these mentions as Quinn travels to Wellington, but the ones that are included are well-placed and don’t overpower the story.
I really liked how the author dives deep into what our world would look like if most of the population was wiped out. During Quinn’s journey, she discovers pockets of community who have been forced to reshape how they live. Some are hostile, others appear welcoming, and danger is always lurking. Are you brave enough to join Quinn in her post-apocalyptic journey to Wellington?
The World I Found
By Latika Vasil
Published by Black Giraffe Press
Denika Mead is 19 and lives in Wellington, New Zealand. She has an unrelenting passion for fantasy and dystopian writing. She is the author of the Royal Orchid series and The Last Kingdom. She is currently working towards the New Zealand Diploma of Writing for Creative Industries at Whitireia. She also runs creative writing classes for children. Find out more at her website, denikameadauthor.com
Photo credit: Tabitha Arthur Photography