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: 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

AWF18: Still Lives: A.S. King

AWF18: Still Lives: A.S. King

‘Praised for her “difficult, resonant and compelling characters and stories” (Kirkus Reviews), A.S. King is also heralded by the New York Times Book Review as one of the best YA writers working today.’

Tara Black attended and reviewed her session with Kate De Goldi.

AWF18 9 AS King
Read Sarah Forster’s review of Amy Sarig King’s Schools Fest session too!

And go and buy one or four of A.S. King’s books. We promise they are amazing.

Her most recent release is :

Still Life with Tornado
Published by Text
ISBN 9781925498646

 

 

 

 

Book Review: A Dash of Belladonna, by J Rackham

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

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: 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: Tasting Stars, by Karen Mills

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Karen Mills grew up in Otara in Auckland in a household of abuse, so she writes from the heart in her first novel dedicated to inspiring young adults to believe they have the power to change their future.

Tasting Stars is the story of thirteen-year-old Rose Ann Dixon a Pakeha growing up in the 1960s in Otara. The eldest in the family of six children Rose tries to protect her siblings from her father’s abuse but she is often his target along with her mother.
Her teacher gifts Rose a gold fountain pen for her thirteenth birthday urging her to “Write me your dreams, Rose”.

After hearing Martin Luther King’s inspiring speech, Rose realizes that every child can have dreams and that what’s more they have a right to expect them to come true.
Rose begins a journey from Otara to Wellington and finally to India, after competing in a speech contest. Sustained by the love and wisdom of a recently deceased aunt and the kindness of her best friend’s family, Rose learns things that give her the strength she needs to save those she loves.

It is a gripping story about family violence with profound understanding and delightful humorous touches best suited for 11-18 years. I found it an easy read but also very moving and sad to think so many children live in similar circumstances. During her trip to India Rose realises, “When I go home I have to stop him. I don’t know how. But I will. I want my brothers and sisters to feel some of what I have felt over the last two weeks”.

Karen Mills left home at the age of fourteen to live with Jim and Kay Tichener, both teachers at her local school, before going on to teach for thirty years in South Auckland. She now volunteers for Destiny Rescue and has included an information page at the rear of the book as well as a website for further research.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Tasting Stars
by Karen Mills
Mary Egan Publishing
ISBN 9780473394974