Brave new worlds, Joan de Hamel

The Tomorrow Code
Brian Falkner  
Walker Books, $19.99,
ISBN 781921150340

Juno of Taris
Fleur Beale   
Random House, $18.99,
ISBN 781869419882

About Griffen’s Heart 
Tina Shaw  
Longacre Press, $19.99,
ISBN 87746015

Chronicles of Stone: Scorched Bone
Vincent Ford 
Scholastic New Zealand, $18.99, 
ISBN 9781869438302

In the prologue to The Tomorrow Code, the US Army Bioterrorism Response Force is entering the Viral Research Centre in Alaska. Every room is covered with ice; even the piles of discarded clothes are iced over. There are no people. The leader of the force, from inside the bullet-proof glass of his bio-suit, mutters “There’ll be some rational explanation for this.”  Such as changing the past in order to change the future? Or is this the beginning of the end of humankind?

In Falkner’s books for younger readers, every “hero” has some amazing power. Henry the Flea can run so fast he wins a place in the New Zealand Rugby League team. In The Real Thing, Fraser can taste the difference between individual bottles of coke. Super Freak is able to “think” people into action. In The Tomorrow Code, Rebecca’s and Tane’s powers lie in their intelligence and perseverance. This long and absorbing book tells how these exceptional teenagers, with some vital help from Tane’s elder brother, decode messages, survive threatening events and eventually work out how to save the world from total destruction.

Rebecca is a brilliant mathematician, a logical thinker who works out solutions and backs them up by means of her computer expertise. She explains to Tane exactly how she decodes these mysteries, so readers have a reasonable chance of latching on to her esoteric vocabulary and keeping up with her trains of thought. Tane is a lateral thinker, sometimes rejecting Rebecca’s rigid approach, though he’s also interested in her. And he recognises Morse code, which is one up on Rebecca.

When the two come up with the winning numerals of the next Superball Lottery draw, they can’t buy a ticket because they are under 18, so they ask Tane’s elder brother Harley for help. Harley, known as Fatboy, may not be totally trustworthy but has practical abilities. He is interested in money and machines, especially in his motorcycle. And in Rebecca. He values his Maori heritage and can effectively wield his patu pounamu. After some argument he agrees to buy the ticket for a third of the winnings.

Rebecca and Tane spend their shares on a submarine that Fatboy controls. But none of them can control the swarming macrophages and antibodies. In spite of their efforts the climate changes, Auckland is overwhelmed, district by district, by a fatal fog. Aucklanders, identifying their home areas, will find this gripping. This book runs to over 400 pages, but breaking it into more than one volume would have diminished the impact.

Falkner has an astonishing command of vocabulary, ranging from laconic teenage understatements to beautifully worded descriptions, especially of the city of Auckland. It is Falkner, not Rebecca, Tane or Fatboy, who notices that:

across the stillness of the evening water the lights of central Auckland made a city of gold, radiant against the dark of the sky. The lights were reflected also in the calm harbour rippling softly as a light breeze sculled across the surface of the water.

 

“ ‘Don’t give up, don’t let them kill your spirit. Things will change. You need to be ready. And you need to have courage,’ ”  Juno’s grandmother advises her in Juno of Taris. Fleur Beale is one of New Zealand’s most respected and appreciated authors, so there is no need to bolster this book by listing her previous successes. Very welcome, however, is the double spread following the page of contents, giving names and distinguishing details of all key characters. I kept a marker in that page and referred to it frequently and gratefully.

The story has a quick-fire opening, stating in six words: “On Taris, we shave our heads.”  Juno goes on to explain that Taris, created in the 21st  century, is an island with an artificial dome enclosing a balmy climate, basic food sources, and “a bunch of carefully chosen people.” Juno is one of their descendants. Life here is very different from what Juno refers to as “The Outside”, the Tarian phrase for what we would consider “normal”. Beale has created a totally new civilisation down to the smallest detail.

The island is ruled by six intransigent and remorseless Governance Companions. Juno has law-abiding parents and, at school, is closely bonded to the other students in her “learning stratum”. She has an enquiring mind, which is a fault, not a talent. She questions the custom of shaving heads, but it is her best friend, Vima, who is the first to refuse to undergo this weekly ritual, challenging the traditions of Compliance and Conformity. Juno and Vima sow the seeds of revolution. At the end of each chapter, in italics, we hear the local gossip, inaccurate but creepily near the truth.

Meanwhile the reader experiences, through Juno’s eyes, the “normal” life and customs of Taris, from conception to death, in fascinating and logical detail. Juno’s wise grandmother has taught her to read, and Juno passes on this knowledge to Vima. They discover an ancient “transcorder”, in reality an early 21st-century mobile phone. From this they learn about Hitler and begin to draw parallels between Nazis and the Taris Governance Companions. Under suspicion, but able to communicate with each other, their lives are at risk.

Tension rises as the book scrambles towards a moment of enormous decision. How all this is resolved is absorbing. Beale’s exceptional imagination sweeps us into Juno’s life in Taris – without obliging us to shave our heads.

Tina Shaw has published six adult novels, but About Griffen’s Heart is her first book for young adults. The cover summarises the story: 17 coloured hearts, 15 inscribed with sloguns such as “Be Mine”, “I’m Yours” and “True Love”. The other two depict an anatomically realistic human heart. There is also a small sketch of Griffen’s Vespa.

Griffen himself relates the story. He explains how he feels about Roxy, when he watches her and when, on the phone, “her creamy voice”  slides “like a little worm” into his ear. He is too shy to ask her out and unwisely enlists the help of his younger brother, Ryan. But the confident, energetic Ryan takes her over … and out.

This might sound like an overworked storyline, but Griffen has also had rheumatic fever, which has damaged his heart valves, and he is on the waiting list for open heart surgery. His pursuit of Roxy is hampered by this physical problem as well as by his extreme shyness and unfamiliarity with girls. Also, I reckon, by his well-meaning Mum, recently widowed, who works as a “baby nurse” but can never have read even a magazine article on bringing up adolescent boys. “She can be pretty squeamish,” explains Griffen. “She got our next-door neighbour to tell us the facts of life.” She fails disastrously to discuss death, even when specifically asked before Griffen’s operation. She cannot hide her anxieties, clucks over him, spoils him and neglects younger son, Ryan, who is fed up with being expected to be his brother’s keeper. Ryan becomes jealous and retaliates by keeping bad company and taking Roxy along with him.

All the characters are stressed, their reactions convincing. Fate has not treated any of them kindly. However, as the book nears its conclusion, everyone’s troubles are dovetailed into a happy ending. Justice triumphs, some people are punished, others receive counselling. The conclusion is that open heart surgery, even death on the operating table, can be survived, and bring normality and self-confidence into a bruised life. Some readers may be glad to know, in advance, that Griffen’s operation is not described in detail. Personally, I would rather have left Griffen as he was at the end of the penultimate chapter, unsophisticated and ever-hopeful. “I had the feeling, call it intuition, that maybe one day… Roxy and I might end up being mates.”

Vincent Ford has travelled  aeons of time from the familiar small-town New Zealand of his  Boysanbikes, where circumstances were sometimes 2Much4U. Conversations there were realistically terse, as live possums were collected and baddies smartly outwitted. Scorched Bone is far from modern New Zealand in style as well as time and place. This is the first of a trilogy entitled Chronicles of Stone. Set in pre-historic America, it records the customs and privations of the People of the Canyon, as revealed in the lives of Trei and his twin sister Souk.

The brief prologue grabs attention, but the story starts quietly, with Trei stalking a deer. He is too soft-hearted to kill a suckling fawn, so does not qualify for initiation to the tribe. His family, especially Souk, is disappointed; his enemies jeer. At the initiation ceremony for the successful candidates, Crion, a friend of Trei and Souk, enacts the killing of an elk. His name is established in the readers’ memory as a friend of the twins; later he is their companion on their great journey to the North.

Ford’s prose is fired by factual research and by his imagination. These produce riveting descriptions:

There was a terrifying scream. A dark shape leapt into the firelight from an impossible height, spinning and whirling in a frenzy. The shaman was stripped to the waist, his upper body painted red, his legs a blur of tassels and stamping feet. Seed-pod rattles were tied to his arms and in clusters from his angry hair.

 

The shaman selects Souk for special training, because of her dancing and her occasional glimpses of the future.

Hard times and lack of food mean the twins’ younger sister dies of starvation. A stranger tells of plentiful bison in the North. Trei decides to travel there, and Souk also has the urge to go North. Crion joins them. Subsequent adventures are told as if Ford had accompanied the trio, and we readers do too.

Unfortunately the well-drawn map at the beginning of the book is short on detail. Where in the north does all this “fear and evil” lurk? The reader is left in suspense, impatient for the continuation of the story, wishing that Ford, like Brian Falkner, had written one fat volume. This story, however, relies on imaginative and scholarly detail. It is right and satisfying that the pace is not too hurried. Ford is an experienced writer who knows exactly what he is about. The next two volumes are treats in store.

 

Joan de Hamel is a Dunedin writer.

The Tomorrow Code, Juno of Taris and Chronicles of Stone: Scorched Bone were short-listed for this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. The winner was Kate de Goldi’s The 10pm Question.

 

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