Book Review: Flight of the Fantail, by Steph Matuku

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

Flight-of-the-Fantail.pngOn the way to a school camp, a bus full of Kōtuku High students crashes in remote New Zealand bush. Devin, Eva and Rocky are three of a handful of students to survive. As they try to find food, shelter and safety, it quickly becomes clear that their broken phones are the least of their problems – something terrifying is haunting this temperamental valley. With a supernatural force taking over their minds and refusing to let go, the problem for Devin, Eva and Rocky is not whether they can survive the bush: it is whether they can survive their own worst nightmares.

A novel which begins with a fast-pace crash scene and ends with a blood-curdling finale, the plot of Flight of the Fantail hurtles along at a break-neck speed. The first YA novel from award-winning Taranaki writer Steph Matuku, Flight of the Fantail will appeal to those who enjoy horror, thriller and a science fiction adventure with an Aotearoa twist.

Flight of the Fantail
may have a pretty name, but it is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Teenagers physically and mentally fight against supernatural forces, while also fighting against themselves (with plenty of gore and grisly death involved). There are moments of levity amid the darkness – such as the accidental playing of the Simpsons theme tune on a glitchy cellphone during a burial – but the overall tone is grim.

Matuku’s strength is in her characterisation. As well as introducing a diverse range of well-developed characters, she does a fantastic job of slowly revealing each character’s inner motives, the nightmares that haunt their waking dreams, and the deep secrets they would much rather keep hidden if they were given the choice. In a complex plot with multiple main characters, this is an impressive achievement.

With symbolic pīwakawaka, kōtare, eels and patupaiarehe, Flight of the Fantail is a distinctly New Zealand novel infused with te reo and Māori mythology. It is also unabashedly contemporary, with teenage jargon juxtaposed against conversations about ancient myths. Eva finds moa bones in a cave and her description highlights this juxtaposition: ‘Rocky referred to it irreverently as Big Bird, but Eva was in awe of it. Those massive birds had always seemed more like myth than fact to her, and here one was, just lying there. It was like finding the remains of a dragon.’

The chapters switch between the main teenagers and the adults who are searching for them, and the motif of the foreboding fantail flits and darts to connect the scenes. As Rocky later explains, pīwakawaka are known to be messengers of death: ‘If a fantail flies into your house … it means that you or someone you know is going to die.’ Like the pīwakawaka’s presence and the kōtare preying on the fish in the river, Flight of the Fantail is full of unresolved tension which keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense.

However, while the teenage characters are convincing, the adult characters fall slightly flat. The company who own the land where the students went missing – Seddon Corporation – keep not only the families but also Search and Rescue ‘out of the Zone’ during the ‘rescue mission’. Although it later becomes clear why this is the case, it is difficult to believe the families and rescuers would be so easily duped. The reasoning for the electrical disturbances – the minerals tokatanium and terrascious – are also too obviously made-up for the reader to suspend disbelief.

Despite these minor issues, Flight of the Fantail is effortlessly readable. There are beautiful descriptions, such as: ‘He scrambled forward into the cluster of nīkau. Nothing but muted browns and emerald green and flashes of sunlight through the filigree of tree ferns, no sound but his own harsh panting and the drumbeat inside him. The smell of wet earth was cloying, ancient, suffocating.’ With short chapters and a fast pace, this is an addictive novel and a great read for those who enjoy a gritty, gory adventure story. Even better, it is set in the wild unpredictable nature of our own country.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

Flight of the Fantail
by Steph Matuku
Published by Huia Publishers
ISBN 9781775503521

Book Review: Ezaara, by Eileen Mueller

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_ezaara.jpgEzaara lives a relatively peaceful life in Lush Valley, learning swordcraft with her brother and collecting herbs for her mother. But things change when the dragon appears, and carries her away into a life she has only ever dreamed of. It is a life of danger and excitement, of intrigue and tangled politics, and Ezaara must prove her worth not only to the dragon council, but also to herself.

Written in an eloquent and gripping style, Ezaara intrigued me from the start, but it was only when our, relatively naive, heroine was thrust into the midst of conspiracy and corruption that it really clutched me tight, and kept me reading far too late into the night! Along with her relatively rural upbringing, Ezaara has a strong heart and fiery determination, but will she prove a worthy companion for the queen of the dragons? Her wits and skills – and also her emotions – will be tested to their limits, carrying the reader along, on an emotional rollercoaster ride of their own!

For the young adult market – and anyone who has ever wanted to befriend a dragon – Ezaara is a spell-binding tale of friendship, courage and determination.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Ezaara
by Eileen Mueller
Published by Phantom Feather Press
ISBN 9780995115200

Book Review: The Rift, by Rachael Craw

Available today in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_riftA few years ago, Rachael Craw captivated me with her excellent Spark trilogy. Now, in November, she returns with her new young adult novel, The Rift. Taking us on a new journey, to an island inhabited by a mysterious herd of deer, deer which hold the cure for any ailment. These deer must be carefully managed, and conserved, both for their safety and the safety of their world.

Engrossing and immersive, Craw has created an elaborate mythos, and settled it in with science. She has given us two heroes: Cal, a fisherman’s son, now initiated into the rangers, the people that protect the Herd; and Meg, the daughter of the head ranger, who has not set foot on the island for 9 years – since the tragic event that wounded her, and changed Cal and the rangers forever.

Now, she must return with her mother to settle an argument over property, only to find new turmoil. The way of the rangers is being challenged, and conspiracies and intrigue abound. As she becomes entangled in the complex snare, she cannot deny her growing attraction to Cal. Once childhood friends, could they now be something more? But their shared past has left him altered irrevocably – he can no longer bear the touch of another person.

The writing is eloquent and evocative, thrusting the reader into this strange and otherworldly place, whilst also delivering a modern political theme of corporations and greed, of putting profit before people.

I also especially loved the scouts (the rangers’ bird companions), and the manner in which  Reeve (a crow) communicated with Cal and Meg – and manipulated events to bring them together, added not only a touch of humor, but also unexpected delight.

Overall, another engrossing and thought-provoking tale from an NZ writer who deserves to be ranked highly in the young adult market. I look forward to reading more!

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Rift
by Rachael Craw
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781760650025

Book Review: Front Desk, by Kelly Yang

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_front_deskWhat a fascinating read this is. Mia and her family are immigrants to the US from China, and this is the story of their American dream and how against all odds they actually realised it.

Mia and her parents land what seems to be a dream job, managing a motel. However all is not as it was cracked up to be in the interview and the owner is a really mean-spirited, grasping piece of work. He is quick to impose penalties and wage reductions for perceived errors and unexpected costs, and takes every opportunity to make life really hard for the family. To make things worse, his son is in Mia’s class at school and he too is quick to make Mia’s life miserable.  Her language skills are not wonderful and she struggles with English until she finds a real friend, also the child of immigrants, and they join forces.

Mia decides, as she observes the crazy workload her parents struggle with, to take on front-desk responsibilities herself. She is only 10, but the work ethic of her parents is strongly implanted in her too. She has some problems, of course, but the depth of the story lies in how Kelly Yang brings to life the issues of discrimination, poverty, and language barriers which are known to immigrant families everywhere. She also sheds light on the Cultural Revolution in a way accessible to young readers.

Mia is a clever, thoughtful and resilient girl who – as we see often in immigrant stories – wants things to go well for her parents, and for them not to lose face among their friends and relatives both in the US and back in China. She has a gazillion ideas for improving how the front desk operates, and is able to get some of them in place. She makes friends with the “weeklies” – the people who live semi-permanently at the motel – and their willingness to help her and her family provides a good counterpoint to the owner’s attitudes and behaviour. The parents in turn are generous and welcoming to friends and acquaintances who are in need of temporary support or accommodation. All of this comes at considerable cost and stress to the whole family, as they find ways to do this without having the motel owner in the know!

The story careers along, from crisis to crisis but it works extremely well. The book is based on Kelly Yang’s own experience, and this is why it rings so true. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Front Desk
by Kelly Yang
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781760650469

Book Review: Sticking with pigs, by Mary-Anne Scott

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sticking_with_pigsWell this book gets off to a high-intensity start. In the first chapter we have a kid with Addison’s disease, an alcoholic uncle, a disenchanted teenager and a vague, cello-playing mother (she does not have a great part in this book).

Add to the mix that the uncle is a pig-hunter who is not hugely favoured by his brother (our hero’s father) because of an earlier incident, and you have quite a lot going on.

Wolf the disenchanted teenager does, to be fair, have a bit of an axe to grind, what with his brother being so ill and his parents taken up with that. So when his uncle offers to take him pig-hunting he decides to go. He even gets fit before the big event.

It starts out okay; Wolf copes and despite himself, seems to get a kick out of pitting himself against nature. But of course, it turns to custard when uncle’s knee gives out – after sticking the pig, otherwise it would be a really sad story!

The parts about Wolf’s resilience are well-done, as he struggles to carry out his uncle’s instructions. There are a LOT of difficulties for him to deal with, possibly too many for my taste, but I am sure other readers will thrill to the challenges overcome!

While I didn’t enjoy the book, I think it will very likely appeal to younger male readers and the design of the book is such that it will be appealing to dyslexic kids – double-line spacing, off-white paper, both good things.

So, personally it’s not my sort of read, but I can see it going quite well with younger male readers.

by Sue Esterman

Sticking With Pigs
by Mary-Anne Scott
Published by OneTree House
ISBN 9780995106406

Book Review: The Promise Horse, by Jackie Merchant

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_promise_horseThis is a great book for young adults and horse lovers.

Harry is redheaded, tall, with what she sees as very large feet. Her family have moved to the country after her older sister tragically dies of cancer, going back to where her parents had both grown up. Harry’s way of coping is to have conversations with her dead sister Sissy. She has had counselling and to keep the peace she tells everyone the voices have gone, but they haven’t. Harry still regularly has conversations with Sissy. They move to be near grandparents, along with the carrot that Harry she can at long last have her promised horse.  She’d been having riding lessons for years at a riding school.

Harry’s mum Jenny is inconsolable with the loss of her daughter, burying herself in her work and her father Mick is often away with work. They forge friendships in the local community and Lizzie a local who works with horses suggests perhaps her borrowed horse Marksman might be suitable for Harry, as she was looking for a new one. The owner Jack is happy for Harry to take over Marksman from Lizzie, but Jenny takes one look at the large horse (over 15 hands high) and gets concerned – having lost one daughter, she is not ready to lose another. Between grandparents and her father, Harry is allowed to keep the horse for the time being, but with strict rules in place.

Friendships are forged through Harry’s involvement with Marksman along with encouragement to join the local pony club. Local girl Josie is about Harry’s age, and have a lot of fun together which makes for a happier life for Harry.

This is a great story which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s a great human-interest story about loss, grieving, and new friendships between people and horses.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

The Promise Horse
by Jackie Merchant
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781760650568

Book Review: We See the Stars, by Kate Van Hooft

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_we_see_the_stars.jpgSimon is an eleven-year-old boy who lives in a world of silence, lists and numbers. He hasn’t spoken for years and at times lives in a fantasy world.

We See The Stars is set in rural Victoria where Simon lives with his Dad and younger brother Davey, and also his Grandma, who spends much of her day at the hospital with Granddad.

School is not easy for Simon as the other kids think he is weird and at times he feels his only friends are Davey and Superman who is always there when he needs him. Simon is often bullied and he has a variety of coping mechanisms when he begins to feel overwhelmed.

‘I tried to go invisible. I tried to turn into air. I stood right where I was, right there on the spot, while it all just kind of played out around me, and I felt heavy in my tummy when the noise came up over the top of me and broke over my head’.

One day Simon shares his Vita-Weats with Cassie, a girl from his class with a physical disability who has also faced ridicule, and a friendship starts to form. Their new teacher Ms Hilcombe also takes a special interest in him, and it is while he is at her house he begins to talk again.

‘I like your class’ I said, but quietly.
‘Oh Simon!’ she said, and her voice came out all in a rush of air. ‘Did you just….?’

This book is listed in the Mystery/Crime category but the author takes the reader on a fantasy journey with Simon as he searches for Ms Hilcombe when she goes missing, while at the same time Simon seems to be the only person in his household who visits his mother in her bedroom.

Kate van Hooft was born and raised in Melbourne and lives there with her husband Paul Carter, also a writer. She is currently working as a disability advisor at Swinburne while finishing a Master of Social Work. She has worked for more than ten years in student wellbeing and disability support in tertiary education and is passionate about youth mental health. We See the Stars is her first novel and will appeal to a wide age range of people especially those working in the disability field.

The novel is a beautifully written, gentle, compelling read and drew me in from the beginning, Simon’s thoughts giving the book a haunting appeal which kept me turning the pages. Mystery and fantasy combine as the story progresses into escapism keeping the reader guessing right to the end and beyond.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

We See the Stars
by Kate Van Hooft
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760632526