The Young Adult finalists in the NZCYA Awards encompass a variety of approaches to fantasy, a touch of dystopia, political intrigue and coming of age storytelling. The Young Adult category also happens to be one where the target demographic is full of some super talented writers. So we asked a couple of Toitoi Journal-ists – alumnae of the celebrated children's literary journal – to provide us with their reviews. Here's what Stella Weston and Tasmyn Kibblewhite shared with us.
Ash Arising, by Mandy Hager (Penguin Random House). Reviewed by Stella Weston.
Mandy Hager’s Ash Arising is the kind of book that mocks action thrillers throughout, while being a fantastic example of the genre. The book is crazy and knows it, giving it all the realistic authority it needs. This is a thriller, not a love story; if you’re looking for a sappy romance, this is not your book. This is a book about standing up for people’s rights and learning to “walk the bloody talk,” as one of the characters, Jiao, says.
Being the second book in the Ash duo, Ash Arising is slightly easier to get into than The Nature of Ash, however, to fully understand the plot and the depth of the characters, the first book is an essential read, but I guarantee you won’t regret it. The places where I come from are vividly described, and the New Zealand settings and language ring true. While the writing style is informal, it works well with the whole New Zealand thriller vibe giving the story a unique point of view.
The places where I come from are vividly described, and the New Zealand settings and language ring true.
Ash Arising is set in a futuristic wartime. Through political uprisings and government overthrows, Ashley McCarthy struggles to protect his brother, who has Down syndrome. He learns to accept other people for who they are on the inside, regardless of their past or where they come from. Each character in the little group of revolutionaries are well-layered, the kind you care about and want to support no matter what.
It wraps up like most action thrillers in Chapter 12, with hope and a happy ever after. Most books I’ve read have left it there, leaving the reader satisfied, but maybe a little bored and wanting more. Mandy Hager seems to understand this and so ends with Chapter 13. The narrator, Ash begins the chapter with a dose of realism. “In films, revolutions end with the heroes smiling watery eyed, crowds cheering, fade to a cheesy sunset, everyone living happily ever after. Note to self: that’s complete bullsh*t.” Hager proceeds to prove that what Ash says is true by… I’ll let you read it! However she does wrap everything up in the end with a bow and a ribbon as we finally see the characters relaxed and at peace with each other.
The book is similar to Tomorrow When the War Began, and if you enjoyed that series, I think you’ll enjoy this. It is well written with a strong plot line that will keep you wanting more with every twist. The scenes are described well and that, along with the strong personality of the narrator, makes the book a good read. However there is one odd inconsistency, from the first book, the name of the father changed from Shaun, to Sean.
The book is similar to Tomorrow When the War Began, and if you enjoyed that series, I think you’ll enjoy this.
Ash Arising is a good read, however, there is swearing and often descriptive violence. For older and more experienced readers I would highly recommend it.
by Mandy Hager
Published by Penguin Random House NZ
The Children of the Furnace by Brin Murray (The CopyPress). Reviewed by Tasmyn Kibblewhite.
Wil Shirwud had spent his 14 years in a remote village with his adopted father. The only child in the community, and the youngest by far, he is soon taken from his normal life by the Revout, the iron ruling commander of the Revelayshun (yes, it really is spelt like that) who murders his adopted father.
‘’This place should be a paradise. It's men that makes it not so.’’
With no family, no memories of his real parents, and marked as a heater by the mysterious love-knot tattoo on his forehead, he is dragged off to a Redukayshun center to be taught the way of the strong. Having never learnt to read, and knowing so little of the Revelayshun, the other boys in the Redukayshun center think of him as stupid. In a place where any step out of line will land you in the whipping house, Wil somehow manages to stay optimistic, befriends a boy called Patrice, and earns the respect of the squad boy captain, Jace.
Will is haunted by his father's last words to him: “You must find the midwife.” But there is no escaping the Revelayshun: until a doctor arrives, with a group of girls. Having never seen a girl in his life, Wil is picked by Jace to collect them from the dock. There he meets Leah, a slightly spoilt girl from the Southern.
Leah is appalled that Wil knows little about the world beyond Sekkerland, but she becomes a close friend, joining forces with Wil and his friends to reveal the truth about the Revelayshun once and for all. But not all secrets want to be revealed. Spoiler after the quote!
“Hear the rhythm beat, feel the hearts-blood warm.”
After a while I realised Sekkerland is Greenland and the whole world has heated up due to climate change. It was a really intriguing story, and I liked how Wil spread hope to the other children. It was hard to read at the start, as some words are intentionally misspelled, but apart from that, it was a fantastic book.
The ways that The Revelayshun treats the boys, and how they made them ‘strong’ made me think of a cruel version of extreme religious army training, minus the weapons. But at the same time as beating the boys into shape, they all were made to plant trees and help the land regrow. It's as if the Revelayshun wants to repair the world, while controlling the people. Wil finds that the Revelayshun's version of 'strong' is more of plain cruel than strong.
This eco thriller is packed with action and adventure. This book has to be one of my favourite books I have read. I can't wait to read the second in the series!
Children of the furnace
by Brin Murray
Published by The CopyPress
Invisibly Breathing by Eileen Merriman (Penguin Random House). Reviewed by Stella.
Invisibly Breathing is what I would naturally describe as a coming of age story, and it is the kind of book you pick up and a few hours later you find yourself reading the final lines.
By the end of Merriman’s book I can guarantee the story of socially awkward, anxiety-driven Felix and confident, caring Bailey’s love will make you worry about what society puts teenagers through and how much we have still to learn about acceptance. The story will open your eyes and tear down the idea of ‘fitting in’ through pages of beautifully written prose and a roller coaster of emotions.
Sixteen-year-old Felix finds people hard to cope with and wishes he were a number: numbers make sense to him and they can be solved. Still coming to terms with his homosexuality, Felix even goes on a double date with his friend and two girls, with unexpected results. Love is not so easy for Felix to solve and when new kid, Bailey Hunter moves to Wellington, it gets a lot harder. The two are drawn to each other and as they struggle with who they are, their true friends become clear and they learn to trust them and each other.
Through family struggles – separation and abuse – the boys try to ignore what the people around them think. Knowing who you are can be hard, being who you want to be and accepting yourself for who you are, a thousand times harder. The pace is steady and I liked that the author didn’t start panicking halfway through and jumping large periods of time, choosing rather to keep moving steadily along Felix and Bailey’s winding road of a love story.
Knowing who you are can be hard, being who you want to be and accepting yourself for who you are, a thousand times harder.
For me, the story being set in New Zealand gave it an extra layer of authenticity. The characters are extremely well set up, although at times the “socially awkward nerd” borders on the stereotypical American high school movie tropes.
To put it plainly, for me, Invisibly Breathing was scary. For some of us, the themes in this book of abuse and homophobia are no more than whispers, statistics and numbers on a graph, so it was shocking to have them brought to life so vividly on the page. Bailey’s father particularly struggles with the boys' relationship, telling them, “Marriage is meant for a man and a woman, not queers to play house.” – and this relationship becomes increasingly traumatic.
Themes of loving the ‘right’ people and staying true to yourself through adversity ring clear in the pages of this book and I highly recommend for older and more experienced readers. There are sex scenes but in no great detail, also violence which may not be suitable for younger readers. It is an amazing book however and illustrates perfectly the struggle of not knowing who you are and tells the difficult story of love and identity.
by Eileen Merriman
Published by Penguin Random House
Legacy, by Whiti Hereaka (Huia Publishing). Reviewed by Stella.
Legacy, by Whiti Hereaka, is a clever time travel novel which moves between three time periods – the present where Riki learns some startling news,1975 where Riki’s grandfather is interviewing his grandfather Te Ariki about World War One, and 1915 where the bulk of the action happens, making the book largely historical fiction. If that sounds challenging, at times it can be, but once you get your head around it, Hereaka’s story becomes engrossing.
The book is funny and the characters all have strong, well-defined personalities. At times the book does feel slightly rushed because weeks and months are skipped over. Personally I also found the novel a bit hard to get into, partly because it is written in the present tense. Looking back though, the tense is important to the time travel aspect of the book.
2015 Riki travels 100 years back in time, taking the place of his great great grandfather Te Ariki (his namesake) in the World War One Māori Contingent. He struggles to adjust but is helped along the way by Te Ariki’s friends and fellow soldiers. Riki finds it hard to accept that the people around him actually want to go to war and he realises they have no idea how horrific and costly the battles in France and Gallipoli will be. Riki tries to find his way home, hoping there will be some kind of magical portal back at the place of his arrival in Egypt, but what he finds is far more devastating. Riki is left stranded in the middle of a war, about to be shipped to France.
This wartime narrative is interspersed with Te Ariki’s grandson interviewing him on cassette tapes. At the beginning of these interviews, Te Ariki, commenting on the tapes, points out that “You can loop them so they will play continuously, things will just happen again and again like there is no beginning or end.” I felt that this quote was a metaphor for both the time travel conundrum, and for the idea that we need books like this to ensure the worst parts of history don’t repeat.
I felt that this quote was a metaphor for both the time travel conundrum, and for the idea that we need books like this to ensure the worst parts of history don’t repeat.
At the very end of the book, Te Ariki records himself telling his grandson everything, and says to him, “Do you remember when I read you fairy tales? One day you’ll return the favour and read them to me.” This ending is mainly satisfying for the reader, however I was frustrated that the 2015 strand was left unresolved.
Unlike many books on war, Legacy doesn’t glorify the battles or the deaths, instead wondering at the pointlessness and inequalities of war. The uniquely Māori perspective of this book is one of its greatest strengths, as is the theme of fate versus freedom will that you don’t usually find in YA fiction.
I would recommend this book for more advanced readers, there is swearing and violent descriptions of war, but its unique point of view, and challenging structure provide a great read.
by Whiti Hereaka
Published by Huia Publishing
The Rift, by Rachael Craw (Walker Books Australia). Reviewed by Tasmyn.
The Rift was an interesting read. Cancer has gone crazy, and the best treatment is Actaeon's Bane, the finely ground antlers from the herds of mystical deer that live only on Black Water Island. Meg, a outdoorsy almost-18-year-old, and her mum, Cora, return to Black Water for the first time since leaving nine years ago following a tragic accident, with the sole intention to sell a piece of property they own to raise money to pay for Cora’s cancer treatment. Meg had always wanted to join the Rangers, an elite force that guards the Old Herd and the mysterious Rift Stone. Each full moon, the Rift Stone opens and releases the Rift hell hounds, invisible to anyone that does not have Rift sight.
Enter Cal, who was Meg’s best friend back when she lived on Blackwater. Cal’s father died nine years ago and he was meant to go with social services to the mainland, but Sargent let him stay, as Cal has Rift sight and enhanced senses thanks to a bite from a Rift hound. The problem is he cannot touch another person without their life force knocking him out, feeling the energy of life and death.
Meg is jealous of Cal’s title as a Ranger, but is in love with him at the same time. Complicating things, there is also the cull, an event that takes place every four years. Fortune hunters working for a pharmaceutical company called Nutris are allowed to kill the lower herd for their Actaeon's Bane, but for some reason during this cull, they are targeting the Old Herd. With fortune hunters arriving every day, and Sargent acting weird, Meg and Cal must fight to save the island (and themselves) from the dangers of the Rift, and put the past behind them.
Meg and Cal must fight to save the island (and themselves) from the dangers of the Rift, and put the past behind them.
I liked Black Water Island, and how technology doesn't work there. I also found it interesting how the Rangers can 'recharge' on the ley lines, which are invisible lines of energy running off the Rift Stone. I loved Reeva, Cal’s falcon familiar. I would love to have a familiar, or a guide as the rangers call them, especially one as quirky and cute as Reeva.
Beyond Cal and Meg’s feelings for each other, and the fast paced plot, there are strong messages in The Rift about greed and how people will do anything to get money even if it means destroying mother nature – while there will always be others will sacrifice everything to protect it. .
by Rachael Craw
Published by Walker Books Australia