Book Review: Thicker than Water, by Brigid Kemmerer

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_thicker_than_waterThicker Than Water is a gripping psychological thriller with a supernatural twist. The narrative is shared between the two teenage protagonists: Thomas Bellweather and Charlotte Rooker.

Thomas is bad boy personified; not only is he devilishly good-looking, but he’s also the prime suspect in his mother’s murder. Charlotte finds herself drawn to him, despite the somewhat extreme measures her three brothers (all policemen) will go to keep the two of them apart. Thomas, adamant in his innocence and fighting through his grief, finds himself bullied, taunted and maligned. He has no support from anyone, except for his mother’s new husband, Stan, and Charlotte. And, as events unfold and darker truths begin to surface, it seems that support too will crumble.

It is a powerful and somewhat intense book, with events seeing Thomas spiral further and further from redemption and making the reader strongly question his innocence. Charlotte, in typical teenage-girl protagonist fashion continues to put herself at risk, ignoring the well-meaning (if somewhat overbearing) advice from her brothers, and seeking out this potentially dangerous newcomer. Meanwhile, Thomas battles a maelstrom of emotions ranging from grief to anger and to despair. Then, the two make a discovery and the tale takes a (somewhat, slightly) supernatural twist.

Things, it turns out, are not all they seem, and Charlotte’s instant, and naïve, infatuation may not be entirely natural. I am still not sure I feel entirely comfortable with the romantic overtones and the conclusion but that is, is it not, the mark of a good psychological thriller?

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Thicker than Water
by Brigid Kemmerer
Published by Allen & Unwin Children’s Books
ISBN 9781743318638

Book Review: Speed Freak, by Fleur Beale

Speed Freak is a finalist in the Young Adults category of the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

speed_freakArchie Barrington is fifteen years old, and is preparing for the biggest race tournament of his life. He has been a kart driver since the age of six, and has always loved the thrill of speeding down the track, the roar of the kart and the tension of the race itself. Archie has often dreamed of competing against the best of the best, on the finest racecourses – and this could be his chance.

The Challenge series is about to begin, and the prize is a race in Europe. Archie will be racing against old friends, new enemies, and everyone in between. Craig is desperate to win, and will do anything to beat the other teens. Silver has just returned to racing after a family tragedy, and is infuriating everyone with her wild driving and constant silence.

As the competition ensues, Archie must deal with pressure at home as well – his dad’s girlfriend and her seven-year-old son Felix are moving in. Felix is instantly fascinated by Archie’s karting tournament, and wants to learn to drive too…but his mother isn’t impressed by this at all, and she blames Archie for her son’s dangerous new interest.

While trying to keep an eye on Felix, Archie must push the limits of himself and his kart to beat Craig and come out on top. But when the rules are manipulated, will Archie be able to cope with the pressure on him? One thing is for certain, though – this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity won’t wait for him…Archie is going to have to chase after it at full speed.

Speed Freak is a Young Adult Finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards for 2014, and it is exactly the sort of book you might expect from award-winning author Fleur Beale; captivating, honest, and completely unique. This book will be one that I will constantly reread, and Beale certainly has my vote for the Book Awards this year.

Reviewed by Tierney Reardon

Speed Freak
by Fleur Beale
Published by Random House NZ
ISBN 9781775534709


Book Review: Half Bad, by Sally Green

Now available in all bookstores. 

For the Council, the world is definitely cv_half_badblack and white. White witches are good, lawful and to be protected. Black witches are bad, wild and to be hunted down and brought to justice. Fains, non-witch humans, are essentially irrelevant, although there are many witches who are half fain, half white witch. And then there’s Nathan.

Born of a black witch father and a white witch mother, Nathan is a half-code and the only one of his kind. According to the Council, he is a dangerous anomaly and must be closely monitored to see which of his halves will win out. As he approaches his seventeenth birthday, when he will come of age and discover his “gift”, the Council interferes more and more in his life, until he winds up literally caged, which is where we meet him in the opening chapter of the book.

It soon becomes clear, however, that what the Council wants more than anything is to use Nathan as bait to catch his father, Marcus, a notorious and wanted black witch. However, while the Council might see the world in black and white, it is pretty clear that the self-proclaimed “good” white witches are often as bad as their “bad” black witch foes, and the distinction between killing for “good” and killing for “evil” is very tenuous.

Initially it seemed like this book was going to be an allegory about race in the vein of Mallory Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series. White versus black, discrimination and persecution based on colour are all quite obvious themes in Half Bad, but as the story developed I got less of a sense that “race” was what it was all about. Instead I got the sense that this was more a comment on authority and the dangers of self-proclaimed righteousness – a sort of teenage-fantasy version of Orwell’s 1984.

Being based around witches, Harry Potter comparisons are likely inevitable, but Nathan’s world is certainly no Hogwarts. Darker, and with more adult themes, Half Bad is more likely to appeal to Hunger Games fans.

I enjoyed the structure of the book, which played with time and point of view to good effect. It opens in the little-used second person narrative, which works well to both unsettle and drawn in the reader, but switches back to the more familiar first person a couple of chapters in.

Half Bad is the first of a series and while it is not startlingly new or original it is well-written with interesting, well-developed characters and thought-provoking story line. Fans of young adult fantasy will certainly find a worthy new writer in Sally Green.

Reviewed by Renée Boyer-Willisson

Half Bad
by Sally Green
Published by Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN 9780141350868

Book Review: Forgive me, Leonard Peacock, by Matthew Quick

This book is in bookstores now.

This is a remarkable book, on several levels. cv_forgiveme_leonardpeacockIt may shock you, sadden you, make you laugh and cry at the same time, stretch credibility more than once, but ultimately it carries a great message of hope and encouragement for its readers. I hope that parents, librarians and booksellers recommend this book to kids who are struggling  – with their identity, future plans, feelings of self-worth, and all the myriad issues which they face daily.  It goes without saying that those same librarians, booksellers and parents should read the book themselves.

Matthew Quick bravely addresses that toughest of all topics in young people’s fiction writing, the idea of suicide.  Leonard Peacock, uber hero or anti-hero perhaps, is about to turn 18 and has a plan for celebrating his birthday.

His school life is irksome, he has few friends, is pretty much a loner, and is confused about a whole raft of things – not uncommon for the modern teenager. He also has a severely dysfunctional parent who chooses to spend most of her time away from home, only returning if summoned to deal with a perceived crisis. This aspect of the plot stretched  credibility for me – but perhaps  there are parents out there who would sooner bolt than deal with troubled teens!

Leonard is a complex and intelligent character, and mostly very credible. His relationships with his teachers ring true (particularly if you work in a school, and have observed the teenager at work). He has a healthy disregard for authority, not altogether a bad thing, and a well-developed sense of trying to be a good person.

The other major characters are generally well-drawn – in particular the teacher Herr Silverman, and Walt the aging next-door neighbour. These adults are the most constant and reliable figures in Leonard’s life, and you get a good sense of how these relationships work through clever dialogue and footnotes (more of that shortly).

Some of the other characters are less developed, but the flawed character of Asher Beal, one-time best friend turned tormentor, is a cracker.

There are many twist and turns in this book, and each time you think you’ve got it, something else surprises you. It’s written in the first person, which is not always comfortable for readers. I imagine Matthew Quick intended this – by using this voice you as reader get inside Leonard Peacock’s head whether you wish to or not. It’s not pretty and not easy being there, but it’s a terrific technique for such a powerful novel.

I mentioned footnotes – unusually for a fiction writer, Quick has opted to flesh out details and background  and provide sarcastic comments in Leonard’s voice by using footnotes. The footnotes are informative, funny, enlightening and it’s a very clever way to avoid breaking up strong narrative with too much detail. I think kids will find this appealing. I certainly did. There’s also the use of letters to Leonard from people in the future – again, an interesting way of managing the complexities in the book which might otherwise disrupt the narrative.

I have deliberately not given out any spoilers in this review – or so I hope. Highly recommended for older teenagers. Despite the occasional hiccup (like the mother!) I really enjoyed the book, and I look forward to hearing what my student readers make of it.

Reviewed by Susan Esterman

Forgive me, Leonard Peacock
by Matthew Quick
Published by Hachette (imprint: Headline)
ISBN 9781472208187