Book Review: Queen of Shadows, by Sarah J Maas

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

‘Be prepared to lose yourself in the most dangerously captivating series ever.’cv_queen_of_shadows

Sarah J Maas’s writing has never let me down. Her books, filled with elaborate, twisting plotlines and the best-developed characters, seem to come with a guarantee of being unputdownable. Queen of Shadows was no exception.

Queen of Shadows  is the highly anticipated fourth book of the ‘Throne of Glass’ series. In this book, Aelin Galathynius returns to claim what is rightfully hers, embracing her destiny as the Queen of Terrasen. Gone is her past self: Celaena Sardothein, the enslaved assassin trying to hide from her past. This time round, it is Aelin who returns to Adarlan and she does so prepared to fight for her friends, her people and her country. Yet, her evil foes are not as weak as she would like them to be (Of course, since one of them is the King of Assassins and the other, the King on the Glass Throne). The only question is, will Aelin be able reap vengeance from her previous masters or will she be the one to pay? Read it to find out and once again, be drawn into our favourite badass heroine’s story as she battles for the greater good.

Although I preferred the intrigue and romance of the first and second books more, I nevertheless enjoyed Queen of Shadows with its brilliant characters, vivid fantasy universe and racing plotline. If you are looking for a book with a strong, sassy female protagonist, a heart-pumping narrative and a beautiful yet dangerous fantasy universe to lose yourself in, then look no further than Queen of Shadows.

Warning: I advise you to wait until the weekends to read this book because once I picked it up, I found myself unable to put it down.

Reviewed by Elinor Wang, as part of the Allen & Unwin Ambassador programme.

Queen of Shadows
by Sarah J Maas
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN 9781408858615

Book Review: Hucking Cody, by Aaron Topp

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_hucking_codyFinally, a young adult book written with boys in mind that isn’t about trolls, gnomes, monsters or some magical geek in a purple robe.

Set in the very real, very accessible Hawkes Bay, Waipukerau native Aaron Toop has created a very believable story about growing pains set around a mountain biking adventure, with a bit of dirt, a bit of tumble and a few scratches thrown in for good measure. That’s the claim of the publisher, Mary Egan. And I’d have to agree.

The main character, Cody Harrington, has had a bit of a hard time of late – stuff not going his way, people blaming him when he’s not to blame, that kind of thing. A universal plot set up, and, yes, standard fodder of every Disney film. First, he’s being blamed for not locking the door at the bike shop and letting in a burglar. Then, there’s his unpredictable brother, Zane, who gives his brother $500 from his gambling receipts to buy the bike of his dreams. But Cody is disgusted with where the money comes from.

Girls don’t exist in his world, peer pressure and rugby louts run interference constantly. It’s only when he’s flying down bush-lined tracks and hitting stunts that Cody can feel truly free. But then cupid’s arrow hits its mark and that all changes. But can a huckster (an ‘industry’ word for a rider) ever really change? Will he spend the ‘illegal’ money? Will he get the girl?

I was a little unsure if this would work. But the fast paced, clinical, almost journalistic approach, which often works like a sports commentary, seems to deliver. It’s an engrossing story, with all the adolescent awkwardness, lows and highs you’d expect. And, of course there’s that essential realisation that if you want to really make it, sometimes you have to let go of everything to find out who you are.

Overall, a good story for older boys, if slightly contrived here and there. There’s plenty of spills and thrills along the way. It would make a great Disney movie, but, secretly, I hope they don’t.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Hucking Cody : A Tale of Betrayal, Jealousy, Brotherly Love and Free-riding
by  Aaron Topp
Published by Mary Egan Publishing
ISBN 9780473326685

Book Review: The River and the Book, by Alison Croggon

Available in bookshops nationwide.cv_the_river_and_the_book

I want to describe this book as an allegorical fable – maybe that’s a mixed metaphor, but it will have to do for the minute.

Simbala lives in an unnamed village in an unnamed country. The village is on a river, which is essential to the survival of the villagers, but also to the rest of the country. Simbala is one of a line of women who are the keepers of “the Book” – a book which provides answers to almost any question asked of it. The Book and the women who guard it are as important to the village’s wellbeing as the river.

A visitor – an ethnographic researcher – comes to the village because she has heard about the book and its power. She interviews many people, including Simbala. After she leaves, Simbala discovers that the book has gone.

What follows is a wonderful story of how Simbala vows to find the thief and bring him, or her, to justice – or at least to a realisation of the impact the theft has had on the village.

It’s a powerful little story, and touches on themes of conservation, indigenous custom and its rights, and not least, disempowerment. It’s well-written and well-crafted and keeps the reader keen to find out what follows. Simbala is a wonderfully-drawn central character, and other characters also leap off the page

I’d recommend it to anyone at all. It’s an undemanding but very engaging read.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The River and the Book
by Alison Croggon
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781925081725

Going West Festival: Anna Smaill and Paula Morris in conversation

cv_the_chimesAnna Smaill’s dystopian adventure story, The Chimes, has perched itself on a shelf inhabited by my favourite books. It sits with Atwood and Byatt and Janet Frame and McEwan and Orwell. And it well and truly holds its own. This young New Zealander has crafted a vision of post-‘Allbreaking’ London, which is poetry and music and quest all in one. Smaill spoke with author and friend Paula Morris about her novel, just a few days before the announcement of the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize.

Smaill is disarmingly articulate. She dances us through the concept of the book, and recreates the setting – an indeterminate future in London where a musical instrument, the carillon, casts a mass amnesia over the bulk population. She describes the city and ‘the under’, the complex of tunnels below ground wherein the protagonist and his pact mudlark for palladium. She tells us about the way music is both breaker and maker of memories, and describes how people can use music to encode a sort of topographical map, by which they might navigate during the course of a day.

It would seem that music, and the order that promotes it, is an oftentimes malevolent force in Smaill’s story. But she tells us it is more Platonic ideal, a striving for order, a weeding out of ‘dischord’, than malevolence per se. That leads Morris to question Smaill’s own relationship with music. Smaill relates her past as a musician and a student of music, her own limitations as a violinist, and her ambivalence about the musical world. She hints, however, that she may make a return to playing, with a different instrument.

pp_anna_smaillSmaill and Morris discuss memory, and the lack of memory, as a very central aspect of the book. Smaill talks about the difficulty of creating first person narrative under such constraints. Simon, her central character, is under the grip of the carillon’s amnesiac chiming, and so has a slippery hold on notions of other characters and events and places. Smaill tells us that, with these conditions in play, she was unable to employ many of the usual tools which help a writer create an idea of character.

Morris asks Smaill about the lexicon of her story – the portmanteaus, neologisms, musical terms and archaic words. Smaill says that many of the words, especially the portmanteaus, came about ‘organically’. There are words, too, where spelling has been chosen to give a word multiple meanings, as with her use of ‘mettle’. She credited Riddley Walker as an inspiration here.

Smaill and Morris also spoke about living in London, and about Smaill’s own process of, once back in New Zealand, trying to remember the city she left so as to finish the novel – a process, Morris notes, that is akin to the straining-to-remember that her characters endure.

Finally, there was talk about Young Adult fiction as a genre, whether The Chimes fits the Young Adult brief, and Smaill’s dismay at the banning of Ted Dawe’s award-winning book for young adults, Into the River. Oh, and she mentioned that she’s creating a new novel, set in Tokyo.

A splendid session. Anna Smaill was all I imagined her to be, and then some. I thoroughly recommend you acquire a copy of her novel.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Morton
Sunday, 13 September at Going West

Book review: The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness

Available today in bookstores nationwide. cv_the_rest_of_us_just_live_hear

Patrick Ness has nothing to prove, and this book is yet more evidence of his formidable talent. He has taken every one of the paranormal tropes so common in YA at the moment, and pulled them all into one brilliant story about Mikey and his friends, “normal” kids just trying to finish their final year at high school without any paranormal interruptions.

Mikey remembers the vampires who made everyone fall in love with them, and he knows about the undead soul-eaters from when his parents were teens, but he has never had anything to do with them, because he’s not an indie kid. The indie kids are the ones who usually have to save the world, and when they begin to die once again, Mikey is not surprised. As the title says, the rest of them just live there.

He has other things going on his life. He is in love with his friend Henna, his sister is showing signs of back-sliding into anorexia, his mum is running for Congress, he is in a car crash with a possessed deer, and he keeps getting stuck in loops…again. Mikey has OCD, and is rapidly veering into depression. One of the stand-out sections of the book is when Mikey finally goes to see a shrink:

“…I feel like I’m at the bottom of a well. I feel like I’m way down this deep, deep hole and I’m looking up and all there is is this little dot of light and I have to shout at the top of my lungs for anyone to hear me and even when I do, I say the wrong thing or they don’t really listen or they’re just humouring me.”

The response that the shrink has to Mikey’s explanations is very good, and highlights the essential problems of being a teenager, without belittling what is a serious mental illness – not “just teen angst.” I hope that the teens who read this and recognise something of themselves in what Mikey says gain courage from Mikey’s actions.

Mikey’s best friend Jared is a bit of an enigma throughout the novel. He is quarter-god, as his grandma is the goddess of cats (who is back in the realms just now) – this fact is underlined by the line-up of cats that appear whenever Jared uses the healing abilities that go with his genes.

Ness tells the stories of the indie kids in the prefaces to each chapter. This could be galling, but somehow works – we get that the characters are intended to be just anybody, while waiting in the coming chapters for the outcome of each preface’s activities. Dead bodies appear, people, deer and even lions, acquire glowing blue eyes.

This is a pitch-perfect graduation story with a paranormal twist, which gets right into the heads of the teenagers it is targeted at.

My 16-year-old reviewer Tierney Reardon confirmed my view of the book, saying ‘It’s one of the best books I’ve read all year (and I’ve read quite a few!)… It covered so many important, relevant topics that you don’t see all that often in YA novels (like anxiety issues, anorexia and obsessive compulsive disorder), but it did so in such a light way – the book was still a hilarious read. The idea behind it is so wonderfully original, and I’m sure I’ll be rereading it sometime soon. Mikey is one of my new favourite book characters.’

Reviewed by Sarah Forster, with help from Tierney Reardon

The Rest of Us Just Live Here
by Patrick Ness
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406331165 – Hardback

Book Review: Evie’s War, by Anna Mackenzie

cv_evies_warAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

Evie’s War follows four turbulent years in the life of a young New Zealand woman, whose first trip to London, 1914, coincides with the beginning of World War I. Instead of meeting eligible young men, touring the continent and enjoying parties, Evie finds herself helping the greviously wounded. Written in diary form, this tracks the various events as they occur, from the point of view of someone who sees the terrible after-effects.

The diary format makes this an extremely easy read, allowing the reader to rush through, and would well suit the abilities of a reluctant teen reader or a younger reader (10/11+) who is reading above their level.

Whilst there are some horrendous injuries – including a rather gruesome description of effects of the mustard gas – these are not dwelt on in too great depth. I am not sure, however, that I find the diary form quite as engaging as a more conventional format would allow. Characters come and go, especially the many injured soldiers, giving little chance to empathise with their plights or even remember who was who. This format, and the era, also made the romantic moments feel less romance and lacked rather in passion- however, that does make it safe for the younger-but-mature reader.

There is plenty of historical matter in here, the results of meticulous research. The diseases, the injuries, the events, all allowing the reader to experience the true tragedies of a world at war. The ANZAC Gallipoli campaign earns a few entries: the landing is recognised (25th April, 1915), and the evacuation of soldiers, from the 15th December.

Overall, it was a good and relatively engaging read, with Evie proving a spirited heroine. Whilst I found the diary form a bit distancing, I think that it is required of the material, for otherwise it would be a truly grim read and off-putting for the target audience. As it stands, it provides a strong insight into darker times, of which the youth of today (and even those well-past youth, like myself) cannot truly imagine, whilst also being a story of courage, love, compassion and friendship.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Evie’s War
by Anna Mackenzie
Published by Longacre Press
ISBN 9781775537656

Book Review: Recon Team Angel – Vengeance, by Brian Falkner

Available in bookstores nationwide.

This is the best action writing that I have read.cv_recon_team_angel_vengeance

Structured in three parts, each part builds on the other and leads to a great ending. The action is brilliant, with outstanding dialogue and relationships details.

Falkner has a great sense of the absurd and the obvious in dealing with action talk. It made me laugh. His metaphors can be illuminating, as when he describes something as “standing out like skid marks on a wedding dress.”

The best part for me is that the Bzadians are not bad aliens. They have a crime-free society. They have a spiritual leader, Azoh, and they are neat and tidy. They have their faults and importantly, they have developed a bomb – the positronium bomb – that makes nuclear weapons look like firecrackers. The point is will they use it when chips are really down? More importantly, would humans use it in the same position?

An excellent novel for a wide range of age groups from intermediate to young adults. Its depth and its humour set this novel aside from most action books. I am sorry to see the end of the series; it would be great if it had been longer. I can imagine more twists that could lead to a whole new series.

Reviewed by Isaac Gilbert-Woodbury, Year 9, Scots College

Recon Team Angel: Vengeance
by Brian Falkner
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781921720574

Previous three books in the series, all published by Walker Books here, and Random House in the USA:
Recon Team Angel: Assault  9781921720543
Recon Team Angel: Task Force 
9781921720550
Recon Team Angel: Ice War 
9781921720567

Book Review: All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven

cv_all_the_bright_placesBooks for teenagers which address suicide have to be really well done to succeed.

There has been a school of thought which suggests that such a topic is not suitable for them to read about. I don’t agree with that. I believe that teenagers should be able to read anything they wish – as should everyone. That said, I am still thinking about whether this is a book I’d put in my school library. I’ll come back to this thought later. (And no, in my opinion choosing not to include a book in the school library is NOT equal to censorship. The book will be obtainable from public libraries and booksellers. But that is another whole discussion and not for now!)

The book is fairly well-written. It’s witty – but this does not diminish the intensity of the story. It’s compassionate, but not overly sentimental. It’s real, but it does not try hard to get there. But there are some problems.

The protagonists, Violet and Finch, are both troubled kids. Finch comes from a deeply dysfunctional place – he’s really clever, kind, but suffers from some kind of psychiatric disorder which makes him “asleep” for long periods at a time. When he is “awake”, he needs to be entirely engaged in whatever he is doing, because “ the thing about being Awake is that everything in you is alive and aching and making up for lost time”. His family circumstances are awful, he is quite a loner, and also recognisably a troubled kid.

However, what exactly is wrong is not addressed, nor is there much help available, and I find this somewhat unsettling. Surely a book which deals with such a difficult subject as suicide could have found a way to address the underlying problems that cause this to be a possible solution.

Violet is a popular, talented girl, one of the “in-group” at school. Her family is far more functional than Finch’s, but her story is one of loss. Her older sister died in a car crash and this has left Violet bereft.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the storyline, but will say that Violet and Finch form an unlikely pair who support and indeed love one another. This makes the end of the story all the more poignant.

There is indeed a message in this book and I think that overall Jennifer Niven delivers it reasonably well. However I am left with the feeling that the message given is not one that I would endorse. To me this book – although it attempts to explain and give reasons for everything – ultimately does not succeed, for me.

I thought it was well-crafted, and could not fault it on many levels, but to attempt to explain suicide and the lasting effects on those left behind by the statement “it’s not what we take, it’s what we leave” is a vast over-simplification, and at some level I find that deeply disturbing and not particularly helpful to kids who may be at risk.

I said I’d come back to the decision about putting this in my school library. I am still deciding. I’ll give it to some of my senior students to read and take their advice.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman, Information Centre Manager, Scots College

All the Bright Places
by Jennifer Niven
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9780141357034

Ed’s note: For another book which deals with teen suicide, I recommend Dear Vincent, by Mandy Hager.

Book Review: Monkey Boy, by Donovan Bixley

Available in bookstores nationwide. 

This is Donovan Bixley’s first shot at writing rather than drawing a whole book, or providing illustrations for someone else’s text.

Here we go: Rating on a boy scalecv_monkey_boy
Jimmy sees dead people 10/10
Real grossness 10/10
Historical accuracy 10/10
Appeal to boys 10/10
Illustrations 10/10

Now, to the reviewing part.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, reluctantly. Recently I gave an opinion about YA literature and said (a comment by which I stand) that literature is literature and YA books are not targeted at a particular audience.

If I define YA to be kids over the age of 12-13, then I think my comment is valid.

When I come to Monkey Boy, however, the target audience is quite evidently not that of a grandmother-aged librarian! My preference is clearly not for scatological reference, in abundance, nor for historically-accurate impressions of life aboard an 18th century gunship. Despite this, I have to endorse Donovan’s first novel. It is revoltingly funny, wickedly violent and although rather stereotypical in its depiction of the officer/crew split, nonetheless it works remarkably well.

The combination of clever text and dialogue, excellent diagrams and quite a lot of graphic detail (aka drawings) makes a well-constructed book. There are enough sub-plots to keep the average reader engaged and guessing, enough grossness to amuse the least literate and enough action to satisfy most reluctant readers. There’s also enough great material to keep most readers (even me!) engaged. Characters are, as I said, a bit stereotypical – but if this gets boys reading, I’m going to endorse it.

I am about to test-drive it on some 12-13 year olds. We’ll see how that goes. I am expecting good reviews.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman, Librarian

Monkey Boy
by Donovan Bixley
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775431862

Book Review: When We Wake, by Karen Healey

When We Wake is a finalist in the Young Adult category of the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. It is available in bookstores nationwide. Karen Healey is touring Nelson during Festival week 17 − 25 May. 

When We Wake, by Karen Healey, WhenWeWake_CVR_128x198x21.5_FA.inddbegins in Australia in the year 2027. It’s all told from the point of view of 16-year-old Tegan, who is cryogenically frozen and wakes up in the year 2128. She is still in Australia, but climate change has taken hold: temperatures are rising and, while the world’s population increases, available land is shrinking. Apparently ignoring the plight of its distressed neighbours, Australia has completely closed its borders.

The well-drawn setting of When We Wake and the exploration of big ideas are undoubtedly the strengths of this interesting and well-written YA novel. The Australias of both the near future and more than a century from now feel very real; recognisable, yet with intriguing technological and cultural differences − houses are mostly underground (to escape the sun), human manure is used for compost, eating meat has gone almost completely out of fashion, phones are the size of an earring and personal computers can be scrunched up and shoved in your pocket.

The big idea behind the book, and the driving force of the plot, is geopolitical responses to climate change. When We Wake is mostly concerned with Australia’s closed doors policy, which has resulted in the creation of camps of would-be migrants who are stuck in limbo between the ocean and a barbed wire fence. (Sound familiar?) With a twist on the theme of racism, Australia’s citizens refer disparagingly to inhabitants of less environmentally fortunate countries as “thirdies”. And, while the scientific side of cryogenics is largely glossed over (it’s all based on tardigrades*− pictured below), there is an interesting exploration of the nature of personhood in the face of this new technological advance.

tardigradeWhile you’re frozen, are you alive or dead? What happens to your immortal soul? When you are revived, are you still fully a person? How do you know you’re you?

Another strength of Healey’s writing is her expression of the voice and mindset of a teenage girl, which she captures perfectly. Tegan’s very black-and-white judgments are redolent of that extreme moral certainty and outrage with the state of the world that teenagers possess: being ‘totally ok’ with lesbians is good, closing the borders of a country in the face of a global crisis is bad; radical freethinkers are good, The Establishment is bad; free healthcare for those in need is good, pharmaceutical companies determined to earn profit from their IP are bad. While spending time in Tegan’s head made for a largely enjoyable read, I couldn’t help sympathising a bit when one of the other characters bursts out with: “You’re an ignorant little girl, and your politics have always been a pose.”

Diversity in speculative fiction
One of the things that When We Wake really got me thinking about was the continuing hot topic that is diversity in speculative fiction (an umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy and horror) – or lack thereof.

An overwhelming majority of spec fic books feature straight white male protagonists, which, from a reader’s point of view, tends towards the tiresomely predictable. Healey’s approach to this issue is to populate her book with non-straight, non-white, non-male characters. While this undoubtedly does make the world she creates more interesting, it unfortunately does feel like a box-ticking exercise: here is the black character, here is the gay character, here is the Muslim character, here is the transgender character.

But maybe we need this sledgehammer, explicitly issues-based phase of speculative fiction, before we can move into a generally better and more interesting world of reading where we will no longer assume characters to be straight and white until proven otherwise. (It is also worth noting that, although Tegan is surrounded by queer, culturally diverse characters, she herself is a straight, white Christian girl who is slender, pretty and large-breasted. The cover of When We Wake, showing a close-up of her face, emphasises her whiteness. You can read an interesting analysis of the racism of YA book covers here).

Overall, I found When We Wake to be an entertaining and thought-provoking piece of speculative fiction. Happily, Healey has managed the trick of making her novel narratively satisfying enough to be a stand-alone read, while retaining enough unanswered questions to keep the series going − the sequel While We Run has just been published. Healey’s voice is a welcome addition to the New Zealand spec fic community and I shall follow her career with great interest. Long live the tardigrades.

*Tardigrades – which are real – are absolutely extraordinary animals and worth learning more about. 

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

When We Wake
by Karen Healey
Published by Allen & Unwin (AU)
ISBN 9781742378084