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2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards Finalist: The Nature of Ash by Mandy Hager

Mandy Hager’s The Nature of Ash is one of the finalists in the Young Adult category of the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.  It was one of my favourite Young Adult books of 2012 so I’m really glad to see it as a finalist.  I reviewed it back in June last year, so if you want to hear all about it and find out what makes it such a worthy finalist, read on.

I love books with lots of action, but I also want to read about characters that I care about and can relate to.  Those books are the ones that make me keep reading furiously, just to make sure the characters make it to the end of the book alive.  I love books like Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner for this very reason, but there aren’t many books like this for teenagers set in New Zealand (Fleur Beale’s Juno series and Brian Falkner’s Tomorrow Code are the only ones that come to mind).  Mandy Hager has set a new standard in thrilling, action-packed stories for NZ teens with her new book, The Nature of Ash, and I’ll say it can proudly stand alongside these international, best-selling dystopian thrillers.

Ash McCarthy thought he finally had it made: away from home and all its claustrophobic responsibilities, he’s revelling in the freedom of student hostel life. But life is about to take a devastating turn, when two police officers knock on his door. Their life-changing news forces him to return home to his Down Syndrome brother Mikey, and impels him into a shady world of political intrigue, corruption, terrorism and lies . . . so many lies. As if this isn’t bad enough, the whole country is imploding, as the world’s two greatest super-powers start a fight that leaves New Zealand ‘piggy-in-the-middle’ of their deadly games. While trying to protect Mikey, along with strangers Travis and Jiao, his fight to uncover the truth turns into a nightmare race to save their lives and stop the destruction of all the principles he holds dear.

The Nature of Ash is an exciting, explosive, action-packed thriller that had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish.  From the first page I got caught up in Ash’s life and the horrific situation he finds himself in.  Mandy Hager has painted a picture of a future New Zealand that you could imagine turning from fiction into fact.  Our country is caught in the middle of a conflict between the two super powers of the world, the Western Alliance (USA, UK, Australia, Taiwan, Malaysian Federation, Republic of Indonesia, Peru) and the United People’s Republic (China, East Russia, United Korea, Japan, Republic of Indochina, Fiji, Chile).  Our Prime Minister is corrupt and will sell his loyalty to the highest bidder, there are protests, riots and looting breaking out all over the country, and food is running low.  In short, the country is falling apart and things keep getting worse.  In the middle of it all is Ash, who had gone to study in Christchurch, but gets called back to Wellington when a bomb explodes at his dad’s office.

In my opinion, Ash is one of the most authentic male teen characters in New Zealand fiction.  Mandy Hager is absolutely spot-on with Ash’s voice, his actions and decisions.  Sure, he swears, he drinks, and smokes some weed, but in the crappy situation that he’s in you can completely understand why he talks the way he does and makes those decisions.  He’s fiercely loyal to his family, especially his brother Mikey, who has Down Syndrome.  Even though it’s hard to look after Mikey and keep him calm and happy, Ash does all that he can to help him and protect him from harm.  I also loved Jiao and Travis, the other teenagers that escape from the city with them.  Jiao is an Asian girl who often looks after Mikey and is someone that he trusts (and has a bit of a crush on) and Travis is the son of policewoman Jeannie.  The group have some tense moments but they pull together when they need to.

The adult characters are a real mixed bag.  Ash and Mikey’s Dad is a very loving parent who really cares about his kids.  He’s always telling them he loves them and provides them with what they need.  Ash is left with no doubt that his father loves him and does all he can to protect them, even hiding secrets from them so they don’t need to worry.  There are many other adults who help them along the way, including Jeannie, Lucinda, Simon, and one of my favourite characters, Erich.  Then there are the immoral, sadistic characters, like the members of Muru, whose actions made me so angry.

Mandy Hager has created a story and characters that will stay with me long after I’ve put the book down.  I’m sure that teenage boys in particular will relate to Ash and his struggle to do what’s right.

5 out of 5 stars

Please note:  Ash uses some quite strong language (which I think is perfectly acceptable because of his situation) so please consider this if buying for your school library.  I would recommend the book for 13+.  Teaching notes are available through the Random House New Zealand website.

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