Book Review: Wedlock, by Denis Wright

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_wedlock.jpgWedlock is the third book from Denis Wright, a High School English teacher. Aimed at teenagers, and intended as a quick, gripping read, it deals with some quite heavy stuff – but in a very accessible and easily relatable manner.

Lucy Sorrenson wants to be an average teenage girl. At home, she’s feels like the only responsible adult: with her father acting like a teenage muso, and her grandfather acting somewhat like a petulent child. She wants to be in the school play, go to parties, have fun with friends, maybe meet a nice guy.

What she doesn’t expect, and certainly doesn’t want, is to be kidnapped by a group of religious fantatics and snatched off into the remote countryside.

For Lucy now has a new role to play, the role of the “Maiden”. She has been chosen to save the world, or to be precise, to marry the leader of the cult, Master Isaiah, and bear to him a child – a child that will save the world.

Needless to say, Lucy isn’t particularly enthused by her newfound fate, and will go to any extent to escape, but playing against a cult is a dangerous game, and when you become too comfortable with your captors, are you really still a prisoner?

Wedlock explores the seductive power of fanatasism, and explores the effects of “Stockholm syndrome”. It is intriguing to watch Lucy transform from a fierce, stubborn teenager into a more complacent member of the group. Or is she?

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Wedlock
by Denis Wright
Published by OneTree House
ISBN 9780473421861

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Book Review: Finding, by David Hill

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_findingDavid Hill has a remarkable output of fiction for young readers. This latest novel traces the history of several generations of two New Zealand families, one tangata whenua, the other Scottish immigrants.

There are eight sections to the novel, each written from the perspective of a family member of each generation. I found this a really interesting way to bring the history of this place and these people to life.

Hill builds an interesting, well-balanced and credible picture of life in New Zealand, in a country area, and is particularly effective in drawing the relationships between the families. There are shared stories which are retold and sometimes recreated in each succeeding generation.

The importance of the land on which the families live, and the river which runs through it, comes through strongly; the shared experiences – happy, sad, dangerous, amusing – help in developing a real sense of knowing the families and understanding the need for and importance of trusted friends and neighbours.

The voices in each section are authentic and the stories are full of interest, danger, excitement and a great understanding of how New Zealand has been shaped by our inhabitants.

There are things which I am sure readers will identify with – for example the axe which almost did for Duncan becomes a kind of taonga and helps to save Alan’s life; the reaction of Hahona’s family when they first hear the bagpipes, and how that reaction becomes part of the shared family histories; the interconnections of the families through marriage – all these and much more are woven into a lovely generational story.

I can see this being a great book to use as a teaching resource, but as well I think it will appeal to a wide readership.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Finding 
by David Hill
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143772392
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Book Review: A Memory of Fire, by R.L. Stedman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_memory_of_fireThe spell-binding conclusion to the trilogy, A Memory of Fire is as memorising and eloquently written as its predecessors. Even without reading book two, it had me engrossed, although I would definitely recommend reading the trilogy in order (and a re-read will be in order for me!).

R.L Stedman is a New Zealand author, living in Otago. The first book in the trilogy, Necklace of Souls, received the Tessa Duder award in 2012 and has gone on to receive several more. It begins with Dana, a princess with a haunting destiny, bearing the burden of true dreaming. An orphaned boy, Will, takes up residence in the castle, first baking bread, then training as a warrior. He and Dana become drawn to one another, and romance blossoms.

A Memory of Fire begins with Will and Dana separated. Dana has sacrificed herself to save those she loves, and is now held captive in a strange city, her mind kept harnessed with drugs. She will have to entrust an unlikely ally to escape. Half a world away, Will is learning a new discipline in fighting – being trained by an enemy-turned-friend. But for all that he is learning, he wishes for nothing more than to be reunited with Dana, and with the help of his companions, an enchantress and a warrior, he will set out across an earthquake-ravaged landscape to be with her. However, many obstacles stand in their way, including betrayal.

With strong characters, especially in Dana, I would recommend this series to young adults (and adult adults!) who enjoy the likes of Sarah J Maas. They are engrossing, well-written, and evocative, compelling enough to draw you thoroughly into their worlds and hold you captive until the conclusion. Best read together, in close succession.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

A Memory of Fire
by R.L. Stedman
Published by Waverley Productions
ISBN 9780473399573

Book Review: 1918 Broken Poppies, by Des Hunt

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cv_1918.jpg1918: Broken Poppies is the latest (and final) book in the Kiwis at War series, where well-known New Zealand authors write fictionalised accounts of the war for the YA market. It marks a departure from Des Hunt’s other books, which are usually modern-day, dealing with topical issues (such as bullying etc), and with a strong ecological or scientific bent to them. However, all of the trademark characteristics are there: short chapters, lots of action, and a wry sense of humour, designed to appeal to boys. It is based on the experiences of two of his uncles.

Henry Hunt starts life as a farmer’s son, working the land in the North Island of New Zealand. He’s hard-working, diligent and has a penchant for exploring. One day, he and his cousin George are exploring a cave on their property, when the roof collapses. Henry is buried, and almost dies, and only his cousin’s quick actions save his life. The fear of being buried alive, however, never quite leaves him. Then World War I happens, and George enlists. Henry follows him a year later, determined to fight by his side, but finds himself assigned, not to the Wellington group, but to the Otago. Here he makes friends, and catches the eye, and ire, of a superior officer, who seems determined to prove him a coward.

Whilst passing a group of refugees in France, Henry’s regiment pass a cart bearing a young girl and a small terrier. With little warning, bombs start raining down, and the child and dog become separated. After the shelling has stopped, Henry finds the dog – but is unable to return her to her owner. Poppy soon becomes a mascot for his squad, and her ratting skills earn her infamy. She provides comfort to the soldiers, keeps their tents free of vermin and delivers fresh meat to the cook (in the form of rabbits). Despite tragedy, the hardships of war, and suffering several life-changing injuries, Henry never forgets the promise he made to Poppy and her girl: that he would see them reunited.

The First World War was an horrific affair, and 1918: Broken Poppies spares few details on the unpleasantness of the terrain, pitted with crater holes, corpses and mud – a lot of mud – as well as the rats, the lice and many other obstacles the young soldiers had to endure even before facing off against the enemy. It truly brings the war to life, painting a vivid mental picture in the mind of the reader, without getting bogged down on descriptive prose. Brutally sad and undeniably engrossing, the easy language and fast moving plot should immerse anyone with any interest in military history, and should especially appeal to fans of Michael Morpurgo. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

1918: Broken Poppies
by Des Hunt
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775432821

Previous books in the series:
1917: Machines of War, by Brian Falkner (not on our site)
1916: Dig for Victory , by David Hair
1915: Wounds of War,
by Diana Menefy
1914: Riding into War,
by Susan Brocker

Book Review: A Dash of Belladonna, by J Rackham

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cv_a_dash_of_belladonnaMagic and potions abound in this adventure set in modern New Zealand. The protagonist is 14 year old Charlotte, a potion apprentice who arrives to further her studies under the best potion maker of them all: Mikaere Tahuriorangi. Shortly after she moves in to his rural dwelling, complete with a garden brimming with herbs both familiar and strange, she finds herself at the centre of an international magical crisis and her life is at stake. Around the world, potion apprentices have been disappearing, a rogue potion-maker is suspected of kidnapping them to use their blood for his own super potion and Charlotte is next on his list.

What follows is an adventure full of schemes, plans, failures and deals made with the magical agency The Order. Charlotte continues her learning and stumbles upon her ability to call up the spirit of the highly dangerous and poisonous Belladonna plant. This unusual ability, though perilous, has potential to help the Order catch their villain, so she sets about learning how to control the Belladonna spirit. Things invariably get out of hand and as they do so she comes to understand herself better, realising her limits and accepting that it is okay to ask for help when you are unsure.

Despite the story being told from Charlotte’s point of view, I personally didn’t feel a strong connection to her. This may be due to the style of narration, which is “Charlotte M Underwood’s collection of letters, notes and relevant excerpts related to the incident now known as ‘A Dash of Belladonna.’” While the mix of alternating styles and viewpoints a great idea to move the story along, I found these jumps distracted somewhat from the flow of the story; one minute we are reading one of Charlotte’s letters, the next an agent’s report, then onto a progress report from one of her tutors and back to more letters, some with herbology notes included.

That said, the writing is strong, the plot has a good pace with great moments of tension to keep you guessing, especially when there are magical spirits who destroy everything around them and uncertain alliances. The cast of characters, Charlotte included, are interesting and with well-rounded personalities and I wanted to keep reading to see how the adventure would resolve. Resolve it certainly did, and Charlotte does learn her lessons (both personal and academic) and finds a new level of understanding about her place in the world where magic and non-magic can live together.

From a book design perspective, the cover is brilliant – bright, lively and engaging, and the spell pages add a nice touch, however they could do with being enlarged and made clearer. On the whole, A Dash of Belladonna is certainly an entertaining read that will appeal to readers who enjoy contemporary fantasy and who wish for their own magic wand.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

A Dash of Belladonna
by J Rackham
Published by Lasavia Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9780473397654

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

Scythe
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