New Zealand under occupation by an Asian nation, a puppet prime minister, a Western Alliance hovering, waiting for an excuse to invade and liberate its allies: it’s a nightmare scenario. Mandy Hager is no stranger to writing about conflict – although THE NATURE OF ASH (Random House, $19.99) is set closer in time to the world we know than was her Blood of the Lamb trilogy. Set against the kind of devastation that’s all too familiar since the Christchurch earthquakes, the plot follows Wellington teen Ash after a bomb blast kills his dad, a union official. Ash is saddled with an often endearing Down syndrome brother who also gives him hell, an Asian student caregiver and a policewoman who seems to be on his side. He also finds out the mum he’s long believed dead may not be after all. As chaotic as many kids’ lives – and equally believable.
The goodies and baddies are not easily identified in MARKED (Walker, $19.99), either. In Denis Martin’s new young adult thriller – set further north than his Marlborough Sounds adventures – Cully, facing yet another change of school when his writer dad moves into a small town on the Coromandel Peninsula, keeps an eye on the elusive Kat, who is being tailed by a threatening bloke in a station wagon. Twists and turns in the life-and-death plot make this first-person narrative a page-turner, with the reader as much in the dark as Cully right up to the last pages.
There’s more than one death, too, in Mary-Anne Scott’s SNAKES AND LADDERS (Scholastic, $19.99), a story laced with secrets, lies and current issues. Finn, living with his over-anxious mum in a sleepy seaside town, is coasting along, wagging school, borrowing wheels when he needs them from his dropout muso dad and falling in lust with a local girl. Offered the chance to board at a posh Auckland school, he’s less than keen – until his father is charged with manslaughter. At his new school, he makes fresh friendships and his musical talent gets him a date with the orchestra’s hottie, clarinettist Mia. But New Zealand’s too small to keep anything secret for long, and the school’s bully, Ernie, has Finn in his sights. Tragedy at an after-ball party forces him to face his own demons.
Fleur Beale does small towns so well even the most ordinary kids can see themselves in her perceptive portrayals. In novels such as the award-winning Juno, her characters are caught up in world-changing events – but she can also take down-to-earth scenarios and offer hope amid the humdrum. THE BOY IN THE OLIVE GROVE (Random House, $19.99) is as grounded in practicalities as Beale’s Dirt Bomb: Bess, whose dad owns a furniture factory, must pick up the pieces when he suffers a heart attack. There’s still plenty of drama: in the teen’s relationship with a pathologically dominating mother, her growing attraction to Nick – the boy of the title – and in interpreting the recurring visions from a past life that plague her.
In a historically real conflict, two brothers – one a soldier, the other a conscientious objector – go off to World War I in Europe. Acknowledging his debt to Archibald Baxter, in MY BROTHER’S WAR (Pu¬ffin, $19.99), David Hill brings to life in sickening detail the horror and inhumanity of the conflict in which so many men of his grandfather’s generation were lost. Nearly a century on, this is an important and highly readable book to add to the growing library of titles covering the wars in which New Zealanders have taken part.
Ann Packer is a writer and journalist.