Book Review: Scythe, by Neal Shusterman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_scytheIn a world where an artificial conscience maintains peace and prosperity, death has been conquered; no longer are you likely to die from disease or fatal accident, even age can be reversed. The only hand dealing death are the hands of the Scythes: humans selected specifically to keep the population stable and to maintain balance. It feels like a Utopia.

It is not.

Our female protagonist Citra Terranova’s life changes the day the Scythe knocks on her door. He’s not there to glean any of her family, but to take the life of her neighbour. While he waits for her to come home, he joins them for dinner. For no-one denies a Scythe anything. Male protagonist Rowan Damisch meets his first Scythe when he comes to glean a classmate. Rowan’s act of compassion – sitting with the boy as he dies – leads to alienation amongst his peers.

Both are soon recruited as apprentice Scythes: weighed down with the responsibility of selecting victims, and learning the art of killing. But corruption is growing within the Scythe society, and Citra and Rowan must band together to fight it – then they are informed of the final test: There can be only one, one of them must glean the other…

Utopia-turns-dystopia in a world where death has been defeated, but with it, some of the passion has leaked from the world. This story has been branded (by Young Adult author, Maggie Stiefvater) as “A true successor to The Hunger Games” and it does live up to that tagline, whilst retaining an intriguing freshness, despite following what is a very common theme within Young Adult fiction (the apprentice learning their trade).

The Scythe society is particularly novel: here is a profession in which you are truly forced to a distance by the general population, you are something of a celebrity, but everyone fears the day you turn up on their doorstep. The characters are each their own individuals, and watching the effect of their new responsibilities and how they react is both inspiring and terrifying.

For a fresh take on a tried-and-true formula, I would recommend Scythe to fans of The Hunger Games, Divergent, and other dystopic novels.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

by Neal Shusterman
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406379242


Book Review: Rain Fall, by Ella West

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Sarah also reviewed this on RNZ Nine to Noon 

cv_rain_fall‘Even if you wear a coat or use an umbrella it doesn’t stop you getting wet. This rain doesn’t just fall. It wraps itself around you, you breathe it in, the whole world becomes water, constant falling water. And we drag it inside with us. Small rivers run off our clothes and our shoes onto the floor as we sit in class…’

By page 20 of this YA novel I was crying with the recognition of the description that author Ella West has written of Westport. I am from Westport, my mum is from Westport, her mum’s mum was from Charleston. The West Coast often arises in New Zealand’s literary narrative as wild and full of wild people. No book that I have read previously has captured my coast. With rain, puddles, and the smell of drying wool – taking your chance and biking to the shops, just to get caught in it again on the way home. With miners, and farmers, railway men and school teachers. With unemployment due to economic depression. With regular people just living their lives in the place they ended up.

‘When it rains, the only difference between the days is the size of the drops and the time it takes for them to fall.’

15-year-old Annie has decided to cycle to her basketball match one day, when she is stopped by a stranger, who tells her to go home and stay inside because they are watching a house nearby. She does, and learns the person they are watching is their neighbour Pete, who – as it turns out – shot up the police station the evening before. The armed offenders’ squad is there from Greymouth, getting some pies and watching the house, when it suddenly explodes, shattering Annie’s window and throwing everybody to the ground.

Annie has a horse, Blue, who she feeds and rides regularly. Because the ground is so boggy, to minimise the mess Blue makes of the paddocks, she takes him to Fairdown Beach for his regular ride. This isn’t the only reason that she goes down there the first time we join her – Pete is missing and she knows that he stayed in their shed overnight after the explosion, so she is tracking him to make sure he is safe away. Pete and she have a history – he saved her once – so she owes him one. On the beach, she meets a boy. They race.

‘If anyone describes galloping to you a the same as flying, don’t let them fool you…For starters you’re connected to this animal that seems like nothing but fluid, moving muscle beneath you…One move from me could send us both crashing down.’

Horse-lovers are going to adore this book. Blue is a former racehorse, and the boy – Jack Robertson – rides Tassie, a barrel-racing horse, smaller and more powerful. It turns out he is the son of the man who is leading the murder investigation – because there has been a murder as well, of a local drug dealer.

The relationship between Annie and Jack is managed well. Annie isn’t a soppy girl – she’s quite pragmatic, figuring they are just having a bit of fun, thinking Jack has another girlfriend who is in the States competing in Rodeo. They aren’t full-on, there isn’t paragraphs dedicated to mooning over his eyes or smile, nor is there any dramatic sexual awakening. The driver of the plot is not only the relationship, but the murder, the outsiders and the small town’s need to protect their own.

Annie knows a bit more about Pete than most, and without realising she was also the only one to see the dead body float down the Orowaiti river. She thought it was a jacket. She and Jack also discover the body when it washes up on Fairdown Beach.

Westport is a small town. Writers who have never lived in one get these towns wrong constantly – Ella has lived there, and it shows. She knows the schools, the layout, the need for the townspeople to protect their own.  She knows locals count. She knows the economic situation of the coast. ‘Brunner, Dobson, Strongman, Pike River – these are the ghosts that walk among us… But not only the dead, the coalmines themselves are now becoming ghosts.’ She has used all of this to build a plot that brings the coast to life.

The final chapters are fast-paced and thrilling. A run into the bush, guns, and desperate men. Will everyone come out alive?

Read this book if you know the Coast, if you want a read you can sink into, with a character who pulls her own weight and loves the place she lives. This is a great read, and while I’m not sure my background hasn’t influenced how much I loved it, I have been reading NZ-based YA critically for more than a decade now, and it certainly stands out. Well done, Ella, for getting it right. And thank you for writing about my town. I’m going to buy several copies of this and send them to my cousins.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster, who is also Editor of The Sapling.

Rain Fall
by Ella West
Published by Allen & Unwin Australia
ISBN 9781760296834

Book Review: The Dangerous Art of Blending In, by Angelo Surmelis

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_dangerous_art_of_blending_in.jpgAs painful as it is powerful, The Dangerous Art of Blending In is not a story to be read lightly. It is one that will reach deep within, and squeeze painful fingers around your heart, making you ache with sorrow for the protagonist Evan Panos, rage with anger at his mother, and slap his father until he does intervene. It is a story about struggling with identity in a world that doesn’t readily accept you, about struggling to live up to your parents’ expectations, even though your mother will never accept you, about learning how to fight just to be yourself. Thus it will almost certainly kindle the emotions of the modern-day teenager, who will be able to identify with some, if not all, of Evan’s struggles.

Evan Panos is still coming to terms with the fact that at summer camp he kissed a boy, and he liked it. He’s gay, but terrified of his mother. Strongly religious, with a troubled past of her own (which is, obviously, no excuse for how she treats her son), she bullies, belittles and outright abuses Evan. His father, also afraid of his wife, seeks to comfort Evan in small ways – such as stealing him away to treat him to early morning donuts – but does very little to stop the abuse, or to reveal it. Instead, Evan must hide it, shrouding his bruises and cuts with lies of bicycle accidents and general clumsiness.

His only way to live is to blend in, to remain invisible, but events will conspire against him. It begins with a growing attraction to his best friend, Henry. An attraction that Henry reciprocates. But as their relationship heats up, so does his mother’s abuse, and some of his fellow students are, likewise, less than accepting. Evan’s only escape now lies in casting off his camouflage, and finding his voice in a world where he has survived by avoiding attention at all costs.

For anyone struggling in similar situations, Evan’s tale will likely be a painful but inspirational read. The author, Angelo Surmelis, is an award-winning designer and TV host, and, judging by the author’s note, although this is not intended as an autobiography, he “gave” Evan his story.

So how much of it is fact and how much fiction? I cannot say for sure, but I know that you will yearn for Evan to make his stand against his mother, to finally say “Enough”. That you will love the touching moments between he and Henry. And that you won’t want to put this down until you’ve turned that last page.

Recommended for fans of John Green, Jennifer Niven (who inspired Surmelis to write the story), and Rainbow Rowell.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Dangerous Art of Blending In
by Angelo Surmelis
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780143790150

Book Review: Air Born, by J. L. Pawley

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_air_bornJ.L. Pawley is a young writer, hailing from Auckland, New Zealand. Air Born first found its wings via Wattpad, where Pawley established quite a readership – and with good reason – before self-publishing her book, then having it picked up and refined by local publisher, Steam Press, and it can now be found in bookstores across New Zealand.

Many of us have dreamed of flying, and for American teenager Tyler Owens, that desire is about to become heart-racing reality.  Despite suffering from recent, almost debilitating back pain, he’s not about to let that stop him from experiencing his first solo sky dive. But it all goes horrendously wrong, when the swelling along his spine ruptures into a glorious pair of wings. With the entire event captured on video and broadcast across the world, Tyler does not have much chance to enjoy his new mutation – instead he’s running for his freedom, pursued by the sinister Evolutionary Corporation and heralded by the  impassioned Angelists.

But Tyler is not alone, because across the world other teenagers – all recently turned 17 – are experiencing similar “wing births”.  These seven teenagers are drawn together, to become a flock (or rather, a flight). Together, in the Californian desert, they must learn how to control their newly-sprouted limbs and master the art of flight, before they are hunted down.

Adrenalin-fueled and engaging, this is an action-adventure that should appeal to fans of the CHERUBS series, and James Patterson’s Maximum Ride. Flying is no easy feat, and Pawley has put a lot of thought into the biology of her icarian race. Whilst the story is fast-paced, and the characterisation strong – I particularly liked the character of Tui, a bold and out-spoken girl from New Zealand – there are perhaps not as many questions answered as I would have liked; there is much to be learned of the background behind these winged teenagers, which I suspect will be explored in further novels.

A strong debut, and I look forward to following the adventures of this Flight further.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Air Born
by J. L. Pawley
Published by Steam Press
ISBN 9780994138798

Book Review: All Our Secrets, by Jennifer Lane

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_all_our_secretsI began this novel with no expectations at all beyond the blurb, which made it sound dark and murderous, something along the lines of your usual crime fiction novel. And yes it would suit those who enjoy that type of read: but it is much much more than this. This is your ultimate immersive summer read.

Our 11-year-old narrator Gracie is the eldest in her family, which comprises of her mum, occasionally her promiscuous dad, and her extremely Catholic Grandma Bett; plus Elijah, and the 3-year-old twins Lucky and Grub. She and Elijah have a secret spot that they hide in while their Mum & Dad fight (usually about his indiscretions), but she is quietly proud to be his daughter. He is, to her eyes, the best-looking man in Coongahoola. Unfortunately, many other women agree.

‘At approximately three thirty in the afternoon, while walking on the banks of the Bagooli River, Martha Mills alleges she saw a vision of the Virgin Mary.’

The Bagooli River was not somebody anybody from the town went. ‘Not after the River Picnic. Not after Stu Bailey’s wife drowned in it, and whatever else happened that night.’ But one week after the vision, the Believers arrive. There are 500 of them, to camp beside the river and to worship the Virgin Mary under the tutelage of the self-named Saint Bede.

And then the murders began. ‘From every telegraph on Main Road, Nigel’s face looked down at up. His brown hair was bleached by the November sun and the sticky-taped ‘missing’ posters were crinkled and curling.’ Nigel is the beginning of a spate of murders centred on the River Children – the group of kids born 9 months after the River Picnic, many of whom don’t resemble their purported fathers.

Gracie’s brother Elijah is a River Child.

Author Jennifer Lane has drawn the small town of Coongahoola expertly. Martha Mills (who saw the vision) was there for Gracie’s birth when her mother’s waters broke at the supermarket at which Martha worked. Gracie’s godmother the nosy Mrs Ludlum was also there, and the rest of the characters making up the small town are all brilliantly drawn, with complexity where it is warranted, through a child’s eyes. Grandma Bett is another key character – as the main caregiver when times are tough, she is Gracie’s hero, albeit with a bit more praying than Gracie would like to do.

‘Grandma Bett was always talking to God – how could he hear what Mum was saying at the same time? And what about everyone else in the world? How could he hear them all at once?’

The complexities of religious belief is an ongoing thread in the book, thanks to the Believers and their inevitable ideological clash with every other church group in town. And while Gracie was never too concerned about being unpopular; thanks to her mum’s relationship with the Believer church, she has to endure cruel bullying. But this is no ‘woe is me’ tale – Gracie is emotionally smarter than that.

Lane’s writing is fabulous for that of a first-time author. The book felt well-edited and polished (as you would expectof a book edited by the wonderful Penelope Todd), and the writing is descriptive and immersive. The moments where Gracie retreats into her own thoughts are managed without dropping the pace of the story, and there is not one chapter that you finish thinking ‘that’s enough for now.’

One of the questions I went into this book was whether it had potential to be a cross-over title – from YA to adult and back again. I think it does. The murders are handled in a clean way, no Stephen King gore to be seen (though the way in which the naive narrator is used reminds me a little of a King novel). The voice is authentically young – you never feel as though an adult’s thoughts are going through a child’s head. But it remains interesting and fascinating.

I’d highly recommend this as a summer read for age 13+. It’s a pleasure to be part of Gracie’s world, dysfunctional though it may be.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

All Our Secrets
by Jennifer Lane
Published by Rosa Mira Books
ISBN 9780994132215




Book Review: Landscapes with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_landscape_with_invisible_handWeird, bleak and oddly compelling. Landscape with Invisible Hands is more closely aligned to social satire than science-fiction. It asks what would happen if the aliens came offering the ability to cure all illnesses and replace the jobs so that you need never work again? Sounds ideal? Well, it’s not.

The gap between rich and poor increases. The rich — and those who’ve managed to work their way into vuvv society — succeed. The others, left below to scrap over the few jobs that remain, suffer. Adam is one of those left below, living in the shadow of the vuvvs floating city. He is an artist, a painter, and something of a dreamer. Not the most ambitious of youths. After falling in love with a neighbour, the two of them decide to earn an income by starring in vuvv reality TV shows. The vuvv don’t form pair bonds but they do enjoy watching human courtship, circa 1950. It doesn’t end well, and thus Adam’s downward spiral begins…

This is a very readable, and quite relatable look at society — at what makes humans human and the lengths that we will go to both to make money and to please our mostly benevolent (but selfish) overlords. It acts as a social commentary on the division between the wealthy and the poverty-ridden, and how the latter are sometimes dehumanised. The ending falls a little flat but given the characters and the circumstances, I wasn’t expecting it to be dramatic. Overall, quite compelling (with short chapters) and one to make you think.

Review by Angela Oliver

Landscape with Invisible Hand
by M.T. Anderson
Published by Candlewick Press
ISBN 9780763687892

Book Review: Tess, by Kirsten McDougall

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tessThis novel, the first by McDougall, who has previously published a collection of short stories, is a gripping read from the first words: ‘at first she was a blur of light and movement on the steaming road’.

The subject is Tess, a young woman on the run from a fairly disastrous relationship. She’s the product of similarly disastrous parenting, saved only by her grandmother. She has the gift of sight – not in the usual sense, but an ability to see what’s going on in the heads of others – which is either a blessing or a curse, depending on your perspective.

It sounds a bit Gothic, and indeed it is, but so cleverly written and with such empathy for the characters that even if gothic literature is not your first choice, I think you’ll still be engaged by this novel.

Tess is rescued by a middle-aged father who has his own raft of issues, none of which Tess wants to hear about: she has enough problems of her own to deal with – a broken relationship with a violent partner just for starters. She is trying to find a way to heal herself, and how this comes about is sensitively done. Family and relationship tensions and difficulties not only in Tess’ life but in the lives of most of the characters ring true.

She is drawn, despite herself, to stay on in the Masterton home where she puts her gardening skills to effective use and where the relationship with the father – which in the beginning feels as if it’s going to be really dodgy – turns out to be something far deeper. The complicated relationships between the characters are well-drawn and credible, and the tensions are effectively maintained. The twist at the end is good, not totally predictable, and there’s a satisfying conclusion to the whole story.

I think it’s a good read and recommend it.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

by Kirsten McDougall
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561001

Editor’s Note: I bought and read this too, and I agree: It’s brilliant, well worth a read! – Sarah Forster