Book Review: Unpacking Harper Holt, by Di Walker

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_unpacking_harper_holtWhat happens when your life doesn’t look the way you imagined it? Many of us face this challenge at some point during our lives – something unexpected happens and alters us, changes our view on life and what we do within it in a way that can never be undone, even if we want it to be.

Teenager Harper Holt has just moved to Melbourne, Australia, with her father Hugh and mother Helena. Harper has been warned, they’ll only be there for six months max. The Holts move so often that Harper never fully unpacks her belongings and cannot call any house her home. She is sick of always being the new girl at school, sick of leaving friends behind and having to make new ones, she just wants to stay in one place long enough to call it home. It has always just been the three of them as a unit, with their special bond, their jobs within that unit, and their weekly habits to tie them all together. But then something unimaginable happens and Harper Holt’s life will never be the same again, even though she wishes it could be.

Di Walker’s debut Unpacking Harper Holt is a Y A novel that explores the effects of grief, bullying and feeling lonely, even when you’re in a crowded place. Written as a novel for teens, complete with listed internet resources for dealing with bullying and grief, I was also struck by the feelings this work brought out in myself as an adult. Grief and loneliness is a personalised thing, everyone experiences it differently, but Di Walker manages to include everyone in the experience, to the point that the book reminded me of my own losses and experience of a world and viewpoint forever altered by something beyond my control. This novel explores the desire to control your own experience, the want to change things back to the way you used to know it, and the reality of there being no way back.

I recommend this novel for anyone going through a tough time, for anyone needing help in finding sunshine again. Unpacking Harper Holt provides a vision of what is possible in dealing with life-altering circumstances, how one can accept what life has dealt them and move forward into a new way of life. It shows how friendships and connection with others can help to heal the wounds of grief and bullying.

This book is perfect for that teenager in your life who needs help and reassurance. It is also a good read. In the future I could see this book becoming part of a school’s curriculum to help all students understand what lies behind bullying and also the potential effect of grief on fellow students as well as oneself. This isn’t something I’d normally pick up to read, but I’ve found it very therapeutic and highly recommend it.

Review by Penny M Geddis

Unpacking Harper Holt
by Di Walker
Published by Walker Books, Australia
ISBN  9781760650599

Book Review: On the Come Up, by Angie Thomas

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_on_the_come_upI grew up never worrying the power was going to be cut off, never worried about rent. Brianna lives in a poor suburb, and her mum has lost her job, which sees the gas, the electricity and the rent in arrears. My life up to age 16 is about as different from Brianna’s as it is possible to be. That is why I read, and why I have always read widely.

‘We can’t have any power, either… All these people I’ve never met have way more control over my life than I’ve ever had. If some Crown hadn’t killed my dad, he’d be a big rap star and money wouldn’t be an issue. If some drug dealer hadn’t sold my mom her first hit, she would’ve got her degree already and would have a good job.’

Bri lives in the Garden, where the recent shooting of an unarmed African-American boy saw their part of town erupt in riots, resulting in a destroyed suburb centre. She reflects, ‘I’m a hoodlum from a whole bunch of nothing.’ She is 16, and meant to be studying for her SATs, but she’s a talented rapper who can’t help seeing a career in hip-hop as a way out for her family. Her mum Jay is an ex-drug addict who is doing college classes to help her get ahead, and her brother Trey graduated college but hasn’t yet got a decent job. Her Aunt Pooh is the biggest supporter of her dreams, getting her a breakthrough invite to The Ring, where Bri battles another rapper to be the best.

Angie Thomas has evoked setting and characters effortlessly. Bri’s habit of thinking in rhyme, in couplets fills in her life for us. Her relationships with best friends Malik and Sonny, as well as with her brother, help us understand her motivations. One day, at school, she is slammed on the ground by a pair of racist security guards. Soon after, faced with the chance to write a song for a beat with a small-time music producer her Aunt knows, she wrote about her experience, then some – ‘Strapped like backpacks, I pull triggers; all the clips on my hips change my figure.’

Despite those who know her well urging caution – that’s not the life she lives – she uploads it, and her dad’s former manager Supreme picks up the song and sends it viral. Soon enough, she realises she has made a mistake, as kids follow her, rapping those lines; and as kids sing her song before a riot begins. Bri’s journey towards understanding herself and what she wants from the world of hip-hop is the centre of On the Come Up. The tension is real as she navigates racism, false expectations and infamy, as well as her own rage and frustration, to own her own narrative.

One of the other themes of the book is friendship & romance. Sixteen is an age at which friendships begin to either intensify or wane. Bri thinks she is in love with her best friend Malik, but Malik gets a girlfriend. The fallout from this barrier drives a wedge between she and Malik and their friend Sonny, who is gay and in love with someone else entirely. This is a universal theme, complicated by circumstances. ‘I know your mum works hard and y’all aren’t rich, but you’ve got it better than me. We didn’t have lights for awhile, Malik. We’ve barely had food some days… My freaking shoes fell apart, bruh.’

Thomas has not shied away from using social media and its impact on young lives as a theme in the book; she also uses teenage language so fluidly I’d swear she was a teen. I’ve seen so many authors now set their books in an earlier period, simply to avoid these ways of communicating that they don’t understand. Thomas gets it, and not only that, she was a teen rapper herself – though if you’ve heard her name, it’s probably thanks to her smash hit debut novel The Hate U Give.

Read this book if you enjoy gripping, real YA. It’s a story that needs to be heard, from a part of America that is ignored and disempowered on a daily basis.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

On the Come Up
by Angie Thomas
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406372168

 

Book Review: Outside, by Sarah Ann Juckes

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_oustide.jpgHow do you know there’s an Outside if you’ve never seen it?

Sarah Ann Juckes’ haunting debut novel was twelve years in the making and I can see why as you become deeply immersed in this scary world encapsulated within the walls of a well-planned and written novel.

Outside is the story of Ele. We meet Ele inside her tower. Just like Rapunzel, Ele has been trapped and living ‘Inside’ for almost as long as she can remember, only she doesn’t have a window to escape from, even if her handsome prince from the fairytale were to come rescue her. Is there an Outside? From the few books Ele has read, she thinks there is but the ‘Others’ trapped with her don’t agree. Inside Ele shares her world with Cow, Queenie, Bee and through the taps next door from Jack. Ele is determined to find proof that there is an Outside, after all, her brother Zeb used to say that there was one when he was alive. There’s one big problem: Him. To find this Outside, Ele has to get past Him to escape. Zeb was unsuccessful in his own attempt to do so, Ele has the stain of his blood on the floor as proof of that.

To say that this book is hard to review is an understatement. It isn’t because it isn’t any good, quite the opposite, this work is seriously a literary masterpiece. Outside is hard to review because having completed this fast-paced page-turner, I know the ending. I am  scared that I could give too much away and ruin what is an amazing and thought-provoking read.

Imagine being an alien in your own country, to have never seen the outside of the room you live in? How would you imagine the Outside to look like? I can tell that the author has spent many many painstaking hours working through this scenario. What would Outside food taste like? What would grass feel like under your feet?

Outside is the journey of one young girl’s escape from Inside to Outside and all the obstacles she has to overcome along the way. From the very first page you feel as if you are Ele yourself, experiencing the world through her senses. You are engulfed in Ele’s world and it’s language. I haven’t read a book that has engulfed me in an otherworld so much since I first read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood back in the late 1980s. Pretty impressive, considering that for years Ms Atwood’s book itself has been rated in my top ten books of all time. Juckes’ manipulation of language to convey what we consider everyday items through the eyes of a human devoid of human society is an example of this amazing otherworld construction and life-observation: ‘extra-skins’ for ‘clothes’, ‘sun bars’ for lights, etcetera.

This otherworld exploration isn’t pleasant, it isn’t meant to be, but it is so satisfyingly thought-provoking and clever. All I have left to say is ‘reading is believing’. You have to read it, and once you’ve read it, you’ll know exactly what I mean by understatement and clever. I look forward to Sarah Ann Juckes next work!

Review by Penny M Geddis

Outside
by Sarah Ann Juckes
Published by Penguin Random House, UK
ISBN: 9780241330753

Book Review: The Fire Keeper’s Girls, by L P Hansen

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_Fire_keepers_girls.jpgAs a teenager I loved reading and all my pocket money went on books. I had a few favourite authors, and if L P Hansen had been around back then, I’m pretty sure she would have been one of them.

The Fire Keeper’s Girls tells the story of cousins Gemma and Alice who are sent to spend summer with Samantha, an unusual woman that neither of them know very well.

The two girls resent being sent away and at first remain closed to everything Samantha suggests. Like a good role model or mentor, Samantha slowly draws the girls in, treating them as equals, and they reluctantly realise they’re enjoying themselves.

During their stay Samantha sets the girls a series of tasks that form part of something called The Game. Little by little the girls reveal more about what led to them being sent there for the summer, and are taught ways to overcome their rebellious pasts and create brighter futures.

The book features a number of pioneering women, including some New Zealanders. At the back there is a section with more information on these women, some of whom Gemma and Alice were inspired to research as part of The Game. Some I was familiar with, but I very much enjoyed reading about many others and marveling at what they achieved.

This exactly the kind of book I would want a young adult to read. Quite aside from the fact it’s well written and a damned good read (I started it in the morning and only had a few of the profiles at the back to finish off the following day), it’s a New Zealand book and its treatment of girls and women is inspiring and respectful. It illustrates the importance of finding your passion and following the path that is right for you and not necessarily the one others are pushing you towards.

I’m far from being a young adult, but I really enjoyed this book. L P Hansen was the winner of the Jack Lasenby Senior Award for Children’s Writing in 2012, and also wrote Bad Oil and the Animals, and An Unexpected Hero. If The Fire Keeper’s Girl is anything to go by, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she became one of New Zealand’s most popular authors.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The Fire Keeper’s Girls
by L P Hansen
Published by Onepoto
ISBN 9780473444723

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