• Sarah Forster

Book Reviews: Two New Young Adult Titles

This spring season has brought forth some fantastic new titles, and these two YA novels are no exception! Read on to find out what Sarah Forster thinks about Lisette Prendè's latest, Bianca de Lumière, and Dan Salmon's unexpectedly timely YA debut novel Neands.

Bianca de Lumière, by Lisette Prendè (Full Time Unicorn Press)

This novel starts in the middle of a forest, and it soon becomes clear that the forest forms the centre of the narrative. For teenage Bianca, it is a place of mystic power, a place to flee bullies, and also the place she keeps waking nude from sleep-running, as is the case the first time we encounter her.

Bianca is a typical teenager, focused on trying to blend in and hang out with her friends in a town called Pentacle, but her appearance and her special abilities make this tricky. She appears albino, and she has the ability to see and read others’ auras.

'I picked my way through the mass of swirling colour, bracing myself, as inevitably the auras began to intermingle with my own. My heartbeat quickened as the melee of feelings washed over me: shame, hatred, envy, joy, sorrow.'

She is being cyber-bullied by her schoolmate Sheena, by whom she has been victimised by her entire life, without knowing why. She is viewed with suspicion by most of the class for her exotic bright white skin, and colourless hair. But she has one close friend, Fae, with a golden aura that helps soothe her own.

Bianca is a typical teenager, focused on trying to blend in and hang out with her friends in a town called Pentacle, but her appearance and her special abilities make this tricky.

The author builds up Bianca as a character with care, building in other characters: the very hot Caleb, who asks her to prom; her mum Veronica; Fae’s mum Cendrine, skilfully. We know as much as Bianca about what is going to take place, so while we know something uncanny is happening, we can’t pinpoint it until the moment Bianca moves knowingly into her true form.

The story follows some tropes, in that it is unashamedly a YA female-centred coming-of-age faerie story—think Sookie Stackhouse but younger and more naive, or Spark by Rachel Craw—but it does so with a fresh new eye and some unexpected elements.

It’s very difficult not to give away the twist, but let’s just say: the book changes from a high school drama, quite rapidly, to a fight between pure light and pure darkness. There are centaurs, warlocks, skadhavar, and faerie folk. The nearby "vortex", assumed by the teens to be a tourist trap, turns out to be a gateway between our world and a world of faerie, and there is a wanna-be queen who is determined to enslave the universe. Only Bianca can save it.

The story follows some tropes, in that it is unashamedly a YA female-centred coming-of-age faerie story, [...] but it does so with a fresh new eye and some unexpected elements.

The novel has themes of bullying as I mentioned earlier, and some rather surprising resolutions for Bianca. As she discovers her powers and uses them to release people, she is able to empathise with the pain that caused the souls of the evil to turn dark.

I enjoyed this book as a well-measured read in the magical realism universe. There’s a fair bit of death, a little bit of sex, everything a teenager might enjoy.

The thing I probably like the least about it is the cover. It captures some of the mood, but none of the beauty you feel from reading the book, and it doesn’t quite match the quality of trade-produced novels. I hope to see some more startling artwork on the second in this new series.

Recommended—look beyond the cover! 13+ for sex and violence, but as long as you are aware of it, most teens will be well within their comfort zones.

Bianca de Lumière

Lisette Prendè Full Time Unicorn Press RRP $29.50

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Neands, by Dan Salmon (OneTree House)

I had some freaky dreams reading Dan Salmon’s debut novel Neands, which is set in a world where something has gone haywire on human genomes and humans, both adults and children, are turning into Neands.

'When you’re in the middle of something, change is slow, so slow you don’t see it, until one day you wake up and everything’s different.'

Neands are something like neanderthals, but with modern sensibilities. The humans that turn are still able to go about their everyday lives doing the jobs they were doing before, going to school and church, but they are smelly and hairy, they love fighting and sports, bullying and violence excites them, they are gullibly convinced by religion, and they love picking on humans. Think hard-right Trump followers, with more muscles but just as much religious fervour for conformity.

This is a quote from their prime minister: 'We live in a new world now, a better world, and it’s time the troublemakers stopped making trouble, or we’ll make trouble for them.'

Neands are something like neanderthals, but with modern sensibilities. [...] Think hard-right Trump followers, with more muscles but just as much religious fervour for conformity.

14-year-old Charlie’s father, a scientist, is dead in suspicious circumstances. His mother disappears soon after the book begins, so Charlie has slipped into a pattern between school, a part-time job, and home, in case his mum comes back. He is staying in his house, cutting himself off from the world and ignoring all attempts at contact, until one day Ngaire comes knocking.

'The apps I’d spent so much time on talking to my friends were full of hatred, racism, and conspiracy, and my phone was unreliable since the Neands had started knocking out the cellphone masts.'

He doesn’t know her, but she knows who he is, and she and her husband worked with his father in exposing the Neand changes for what they were. He was scorned as a conspiracy theorist in the media, and Ngaire and Alan are continuing his work. Ngaire persuades him to come and live with them, where he meets Iris and Prue, and our story begins.

This book is perfectly pitched to its audience, the climate change generation. I can imagine it garnering Ted Dawe-like levels of hate from certain right-wing groups, due to its placement of (most) religion as base and self-serving, and I really enjoyed it. It is well-paced, controlling the emotions of its readers well, and hope is provided by the love story that grows throughout the overall narrative.

[The story] was well-paced, controlling the emotions of its readers well, and hope was provided by the love story that grows throughout the overall narrative.

I was reminded of Mandy Hager’s The Blood of the Lamb, and Fleur Beale’s Juno series, for its tone and sensibility of a group of people who are the last hold-outs against mass insanity. The three teens band together against Neands and figure out their way through a school full of bully Neands and teachers, a changing home situation, and ultimately their survival as humans.

'Depending on the time of day, the suburbs are dominated by different smells: dawn dew, rush hour exhaust fumes, night flowers, cooking, trampolines heating in the sun, the hard smell of electricity, fresh washing on the line, swimming pool chlorine. Some smells draw you in, others drive you away.'

The only mild criticism I can muster is that the internal narrative wasn’t as well edited for the audience as it could have been, but while some passages were quite adult 'I got that we all contained a human fragility…,' overall this did very little to slow the pace, and this type of thinking will give teens a chance to look at their own feelings about what is happening in this alternate reality, and our own reality at the same time.

Salmon is a gifted writer, and while I’ve been wrong many times before and I have by no means read all of the debut books in New Zealand this year yet, it would surprise me if he didn’t feature in the Book Awards next year. I hope that there is a sequel because while it finishes in a way that gives hope, I felt there could be more to this story.

Neands

by Dan Salmon OneTree House RRP $24

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Sarah Forster

Sarah Forster is the founding editor of The Sapling alongside Jane Arthur. Her day job is writing for Victoria University of Wellington, but her heart lies with children's books. She has two sons, aged 10 and 8. She grew up on the West Coasts of the South Island and of Western Australia, and lives in Wellington.