From trenches to terrorism, Barbara Else

Denis Martin
Walker Books, $20.00,
ISBN 9781921977541

My Brother’s War
David Hill
Puffin, $15.00,
ISBN 9781742532653

Into the River
Ted Dawe
Mangakino University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780473205089

The Nature of Ash
Mandy Hager
Random House, $20.00,
ISBN 9781869799038

Two thrillers, one war novel, one rites-of-passage story: with three novels by male writers, one by a female, this quartet offers a range of material to the YA audience. Marked by Denis Martin and My Brother’s War by David Hill are suited to the lower bracket of the age range. Into the River, Ted Dawe, and The Nature of Ash, Mandy Hager, are for the upper end. To my mind The Nature of Ash is also a successful cross-over novel.

With Martin, Walker Books Australia continues its interest in New Zealand authors. Younger teenagers who need to be encouraged into reading, boys in particular, are likely to enjoy the straightforward mystery of Marked. It begins with Cully, new kid in a small Coromandel town, left pretty much on his own by parents intent on their careers rather than parenting their 14-year-old. The narrative sets up standard devices such as “Burger” King, the bully at the new school, and Kat, the attractive girl who doesn’t appear to notice Cully’s existence. The pace is steady, the language and narrative workmanlike: nothing here to make a reluctant reader baulk.

Some of Cully’s more philosophical moments are wry and endearing, as with his explanation of how he’s learned to fit in at innumerable new schools. Tension builds with his unease about a man – perhaps with a gun – who seems to bully Kat. This mystery deepens, while at the same time Cully finds himself set up for a school boxing match with bully Burger. Boys are sure to appreciate the technical material and Cully’s feelings about the fight. This reviewer, perhaps the last on the planet who wants to read about boxing, found it both gripping and funny.

The book grew on me the more the author played with comedy as well as straight action. Revelations at the end about Kat and her family come with an interesting moral ambiguity. Cully seems more articulate about his feelings than most 14-year-olds, and the ending has a touch of corn, but it’s appropriate to the age group. He became a 14-year-old I’d like to meet. And I would really like to (verbally) slap both his parents. They are only too convincing.

Hill’s work is probably known by every school-age reader over the last 20-plus years for countless pieces in the School Journal and a range of novels for children and YA readers. He’s particularly thorough at researching his novels without letting the weight of information bury the plot and characters.

Some of his strongest work has been historical, like the Tangiwai and Wahine novels, Journey to Tangiwai (2003) and No Safe Harbour (2003) respectively. In My Brother’s War, Hill uses the letters of two young men to illustrate opposing attitudes to WWI. William joins the army to “do his bit” after the Gallipoli campaign. His younger brother Edmund refuses to enlist and is arrested. He believes his duty to fellow human beings should come before duty to King and Country. Edmund is sent to the battle zone of France with other conscientious objectors to do menial work.

During the course of the novel William experiences the horrors of war close up and begins to understand his brother’s pacifist beliefs. Edmund suffers the horrors of prejudice but also sees heroism and fellow-feeling among men in battle-torn and blood-stained uniforms. Each brother has to readjust. Eventually not much older but heart-breakingly wiser, they come together.

The novel clearly and simply introduces the younger group of YA readers to WWI and local historical issues. Battles and incidents are not named, which has caused comment among reviewers. It is also unlikely that such full and frank letters could bypass a military censor. But that is poetic license. To my mind Hill’s condensation of many historical episodes and experiences suits his story, the characters of the opposing brothers and the intended audience.

Dawe made his mark on YA literature with his first novel Thunder Road (2003), senior fiction winner in the 2004 New Zealand Post Awards for Children and Young Adults. Into the River is his fifth book and a self-published prequel to Thunder Road. I suspect it is one of a few manuscripts that tumbled between the cracks when Random House took over Longacre Press. And if Into the River indicates the strength of other manuscripts similarly left on the sidelines after publishing mergers, literature has suffered. At least we have this, from Mangakino University Press, and good on Ted Dawe, say I.

It is a particular challenge to write a prequel. How to make the story self-contained when it continues in an already-published narrative?

Dawe concentrates on a character who is not the protagonist of Thunder Road though crucial to it. Into the River has enough material of a kind to appeal to a cross-over audience, partly because it doesn’t sit neatly in the younger or older YA bracket and sometimes sounds to me as if written in an older more thoughtful voice. I think schools should read it first to check whether an episode of teenage sex will be too strong for their particular demographic. It would be a pity if that’s what they decide.

The main character of Into the River is Te Arepa Santos. At 13 he has a formative experience. A giant eel battles with him to a point where he feels that he touches the spirit world of his ancestors. Much of the first two chapters details the history of Diego, a particular ancestor of Te Arepa’s who reinvented himself several times in order to survive. Te Arepa wins a scholarship to a prestigious Auckland boarding school where he starts calling himself Devon. He has to deal with racism, the snobbery of wealth and aspects of the gay world. While some of the characters play stock parts, they’re still convincing.

Finally Devon has to decide whether to adopt a mask in order to survive or simply trust where the river of the future will take him. It’s a book that speaks to that shape-changing period of adolescence. Boys will enjoy it, and I think they should be encouraged to read it. Though I felt the early chapters didn’t quite gel with the later ones, this novel will make readers who haven’t yet visited Thunder Road very interested to do so.

One last note, though. Indie-publishing is increasingly necessary for some otherwise overlooked writing. But Into the River deserves better design and format.

The last of this quartet is The Nature of Ash. Hager’s recent dystopian Blood of the Lamb trilogy edged her close to the cross-over audience. This new novel straddles any remaining divide with utmost confidence.

Ash has just managed to escape to university from a difficult home life: his mother is long dead, his father overworked, his younger brother Mikey has Down syndrome. When police knock on the door of his student flat, he expects to be busted for smoking a joint. To this point the setting seems just a little grittier than the now of 2013. Then Ash learns his father has been killed by a terrorist bomb. We realise that the now of the narrative could be frighteningly close.

The novel is best described as a political thriller – that should at least make the right people read it. And it is definitely a page-turner, one of those novels that refuse to leave your hands. Political, economic and ecological issues sizzle in the action, dialogue and reactions of the characters. Just as often they lie in chilling specific detail, like the retired neurosurgeon Eric Surring’s old Nissan running on waste oil.

But the strength lies in Hager’s attention to how her characters feel. The heart of the book is Ash’s love for his less able brother. Mikey must be one of the most successful characters in recent local writing. He’s funny, heart-rending and, in this bleak view of the future, strangely brings a smile to the reader, a lift of the heart. In the end, the novel challenges the reader to think about politics and family in equal measure. And Random House has done a fine job with the simplicity of the black, grey and red cover. The Nature of Ash is a novel very hard to forget.


Barbara Else’s The Queen and the Nobody Boy is reviewd on p13.


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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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