WORD Christchurch: Juno Dawson Gender Games

WORD Christchurch Juno Dawson: Gender Games

Given the subject matter at hand, a 10am Saturday session with Juno Dawson could easily have been a dark and morose affair – addictions, mental illness, gender and sexuality are all key themes in Dawson’s body of work, though it was ultimately a light and enlightened session, which has encouraged me to look deeper into her work.

Juno-DawsonGender-GamesDawson has published work in both Young Adult and Non-Fiction. Conversation for a time moved around the way that Young Adult, as a category, is often very liberating for writers in terms of genre, with romance, horror, fantasy or drama all ultimately ending up in the same place in the bookstore. This has allowed her writing to shift between styles in a way that Adult Fiction’s more rigid genre divisions wouldn’t allow. Dawson’s background is in education, though she deliberately doesn’t use her fiction as a means to try and educate young people, there is a wonderful sense here of the ability to create worlds where the hard discussions and intensely personal feelings of youth around identity and substance (ab)use and sex can be raised and thought about and considered in a safer way by locating them in fiction.

Of note also was discussion on Doctor Who (Dawson has been commissioned to write the first novelisation of the Dr) and of the transformative power of the Spice Girls, for those who were of the right age in the 90s. I can only look back hazily on the world before those 5 iconoclasts entered, but it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to consider their important part in making the world a safer place to be queer or questioning as a teenager than it was before.

Reviewed by Brett Johansen

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: 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: 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: The Locksmith, by Barbara Howe

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_locksmithWho is the Locksmith, and what role does he play in this fantasy tale? You will keep this question in mind as you read through the adventures of Lucinda Guillierre, a young girl living with her stepsister Claire and her stepmother, in the magical world of Frankland, ruled by The Office.

The Office was created in historic times by the Great Coven, which established the four offices of Air, Fire, Earth, and Water, and their leaders. Each Office has a Guild, for the study and training of Witches and Wizards of each element.

Unsettled by her lack of magical progress, she resigns herself to a future as a normal person, but agrees to take her sister Claire to challenge the path to meet the Fire Warlock, to have a wish granted. She takes with her, her only true possessions her father left her —two large books of the history of the magic which fills their world. Hold that thought as you read…

Claire wants to use Lucinda to pass the challenge and meet the Warlock, to make her wish, and to have Lucinda work off the exchange for the spell. That’s not quite how things turn out. Lucinda is the one who gets the wish, and in her three years at the Fire Guild serves in the kitchen, between her studies of magic. She takes some time realising that those who see her as a potential Fire Witch are right.

As her studies progress, so do her feelings for the Fire Warlock, and she realises he is the writer of her own two history of magic books. As the story develops, the realm in which they live becomes turbulent with political rumours of the threat of attack from Europa, which surrounds Frankland. Amid the turmoil, we are with Lucinda as she faces rivalry, hostility, and jealousy—and fear.

Lucinda’s story in this book ends most satisfactory, yet with just enough unknowns to make the reader want, as I do, the second in the series. A really great closing, and of all the modern fantasies I have read, this is a definite leader.

Reviewed by Lynne McAnulty-Street

The Locksmith: Book 1 in the ‘Reforging’ series
by Barbara Howe
Published by SQ Mag
ISBN: 9781925496284

 

Book Review: Ruined, by Amy Tintera

cv_ruinedAmy Tintera places her reader right bang in the middle of the action in her intense, adventure fantasy novel Ruined.

Ruined tells the story of Emelina Flores’ quest for revenge. Once a princess of Ruina, Em’s whole world was turned upside down when Lera invaded her country, taking away her everything. She had parents, but now they are both slaughtered, she had a home, but now it has been burnt to the ground, and she had a sister, but she has been locked up in an enemy kingdom. Hunted as one of Ruina, now all Emelina has is her thirst for revenge.

Armed with a fierce determination to make the Lera King pay, Em sneaks into her enemy’s kingdom, posing as his son’s betrothed. Possessing no magic as a useless Ruined? It won’t matter to Em as she uses her sword skills and intelligence to complete her mission, that is, if her rage-filled heart can withstand the tentative touch of an enemy prince.

Highly recommended for fans of fantasy novels such as Throne of Glass, The Winner’s Curse and Cruel Beauty. Although the plot sounds a bit cliché with the whole main character playing a role in order to infiltrate the enemy but falling in love with the enemy part, Ruined is by no means boring. In fact, it has an action-filled plotline and a story that takes place over the course of only a few days. Also, it gets into the nitty-gritty very quickly. During the first chapter, I was immediately shocked into attention. Amy Tintera introduces us to Ruined’s brutal world with a cold-blooded murder of Princess Mary by none other than the protagonist of the tale herself. Yet despite the ruthless attitude of many of the characters, including Em, we find ourselves unable to condemn them because of the merciless world they live in. Also, it sometimes adds to our curiosity and the intrigue of the novel.

Overall, I enjoyed this book with its intense action and interesting romance as two people from totally contrasting situations come together: Em with her dark world, and Cas with his mostly worry-free one. However, if I had to criticise the novel, I would say that events developed a little too quickly since Em and Cas go from not feeling anything for each other at all to suddenly being quite in love. Also, the characters could have been developed more so we grow a stronger attachment to them. But as a whole, a wickedly good start to an awesome trilogy. Looking forward to finding out what becomes of Em and Cas in the next instalment.

Reviewed by Elinor Wang
A & U Reading Ambassador

Ruined
by Amy Tintera
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760290641

Book Review: Smoke, by Dan Vyleta

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_smokeI chose to read and review this book because of its intriguing premise – what if sin were visible? What if, every time you did (or even thought) something ‘bad’, your body emitted smoke?

Dan Vyleta’s new YA novel imagines a Victorian England where smoke has become not just the visual manifestation of sin but a tool of class oppression: upper-class people never smoke, working-class people smoke all the time. Rich people’s white clothing remains white; poor people’s clothing is covered in soot. (The middle classes don’t really appear, apart from the odd mention: “Burghers may smoke, once in a while. One does not expect better of them.”)

I found the premise of human smoke to be utterly fascinating, and a good thing too, because plot- and character-wise Smoke is almost completely run-of-the-mill. Keen YA readers will find all their favourite tropes: young people who have to save the world, a teenage girl torn between two male love interests (one of whom is kind and openly in love with her, and the other of whom is a sexy bad boy whose attentions are more ambiguous), adults who turn out to be untrustworthy and/or dangerous, etc.

Smoke opens in a vicious upper-class boarding school near Oxford where the children of the rich are sent to have the smoke beaten out of them. Our heroes are two schoolboys: Thomas (brooding, dark past, possibly a ‘chosen one’) and Charlie (helpful, kind, faithful companion). They are tortured by an older boy, the prefect Julius (cruel, entitled, arrogant). Over the Christmas hols they’re sent to stay with Thomas’s uncle, Baron Naylor, where they meet the baron’s daughter & third protagonist, Livia (pretty, and thus a romantic goal for both Thomas and Charlie; intelligent, self-disciplined to the point of aggravating piousness). Lady Naylor, a scientist and revolutionary, reveals that All Is Not As It Seems, that the aristocrats appear smokeless not because they’re morally superior but because they’ve found a way to game the system, and that the conspiracy to maintain the oppressive status quo goes All The Way To The Top. But can she be trusted? Our heroes must set off on a Quest to Discover the Truth!

Despite its occasional clunkiness, Smoke is an enjoyable read, with enough mystery and adventure to keep the reader turning pages. Although Vyleta seems to be more concerned with investigating the mechanics and meaning of human smoke than in the readability of his novel, this didn’t bother me, because I too found the whole concept intriguing.

Various adult characters serve as mouthpieces for different ideologies of smoke. The religious interpretation states that smoke is the manifestation of sin, and must be punished. The Enlightenment-inspired philosophers attempt to study smoke in a rational manner: “Every transgression leaves behind its own type of Soot and those versed in such matters can determine the severity of your crime just by studying the stain’s density and grit.” Maybe smoke is the symptom of a disease that science can cure? The Marxist interpretation says that smoke is a tool of class oppression: “Smoking ain’t a sin. It’s a weapon. Toffs use it to keep us down.” The humanist-socialist interpretation says that smoke is a natural expression of passion: “It’s the animal part of us that will not serve.”

At its best, Smoke is a fascinating alternative history that fully explores the central question, what if human bodies smoked? At its worst, it’s a trope-ridden YA novel that doesn’t quite manage to lift itself up from under the layers of plot strands and furious philosophising. An enjoyable light read.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Smoke
by Dan Vyleta
Published by Weidenfield & Nicolson
ISBN  9780297609933