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The Prison Healer

by Lynette Noni

Cover of The Prison Healer book by Lynette Noni. Image features flowers and  vines crawling through a prison gate set against a dark background. Image is to accompany book review on the same page.

Seventeen-year-old Kiva Meridan has spent the last ten years fighting for survival in the notorious death prison, Zalindov. Prison life is brutal – vicious guards monitoring the prisoners’ every move, fatal work and abhorrent conditions – every prisoner is expendable. Kiva survives by being impassive and earns herself the privileged position of working as the prison healer. She dreams of one day being free of Zalindov, a prisoner no longer, free to reunite with her family on the outside.

When the Rebel Queen is captured and brought to Zalindov, Kiva is charged with keeping the seriously ill woman alive long enough for her to undergo the Trial by Ordeal – a series of elemental challenges against the torments of air, fire, water and earth. The Trial by Ordeal is assigned to only the most dangerous of criminals and no one has ever survived. Then a coded message from Kiva’s family arrives, containing a single order –

Stay alive.
Don’t let her die.
We are coming. 

Aware that the Trials will kill the sickly queen, Kiva risks her own life to volunteer in her place. If she succeeds, both she and the Rebel Queen will be granted their freedom. With an incurable plague sweeping Zalindov, a mysterious new inmate fighting for Kiva’s heart, and a prison rebellion brewing, Kiva can’t escape the terrible feeling that her trials have only just begun.

This is the first novel I have read in the Young Adult Fantasy genre and to say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. I just loved getting lost in this world. And I think that’s the attraction with the fantasy genre. The reader is transported to a kingdom which is so alternative to the one in which we exist, yet you’re so invested in the characters, perhaps because the conditions and situations they are in are so extreme. The Prison Healer is masterful storytelling by Australian author, Lynette Noni. The ending was both surprising and exhilarating and had me eagerly anticipating the next book in the series.

You may be familiar with the #1 New York Times best selling author, Sarah J. Maas, who penned the seriously popular ‘Throne of Glass‘ series and the ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ series. Authors such as Lynette Noni and Sarah J. Maas create worlds that are so richly imagined – their books have intelligent, strong and determined female heroines, people with special powers, a renegade group of friends, they inhabit strange, deadly worlds, there are kings and queens and war, a slow burn love interest and the main character is also grappling with a greater internal struggle, haunted by the past which is teased out throughout the story. The Young Adult Fantasy genre is immersive and transportive. There is so much to enjoy, it is captivating reading.

So if you would never typically pick up a Young Adult Fantasy fiction, I recommend you give them a try – you will not regret it! The Prison Healer is suitable for anyone aged over 14 years. The ending will have you running to the bookshelf to make way for the entire series of The Prison Healer. And you will need to get ready, because the second book in the series, The Gilded Cage, is out on 28 September. I can’t wait.

The Prison Healer, published 2021 by Penguin Random House Australia, 403 pages.

Why Everyone Should Read Young Adult Books

What book do you remember reading in your teenage years? Perhaps it was Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery? Or Lord of the Flies by William Golding? How about Are You There God, it’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume? For me, it was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Certainly, the books you read in those teenage years can leave a lasting impression.

Often referred to as ‘coming-of-age’ novels, Young Adult (YA) books are aimed at the teenage market, generally aged 14 – 18 years. They are characterised by a teenage protagonist who will navigate several difficulties and crises and consequently their character will grow and develop throughout the story. These days, the content of Young Adult fiction is as diverse as the teenagers they represent. Indeed, Young Adult fiction is responsible for leading important conversations around topics such as friendship, love, identity, mental health, gender, racism and family.

Interestingly, over half of the Young Adult market are adults, aged 18 – 60. So what attracts adults who already have a plethora of fiction available to them to Young Adult novels?

Firstly, Young Adult books are highly consumable. They pack a big emotional punch and are highly engaging without being overly heavy or distressing. Further, Young Adult books tend to blur the boundaries of genres. After all, teenagers are never dealing with one incident in isolation – they are navigating friendships, love, relationships, school and family whilst opening their eyes to the world and finding their place in it. Such multi-layered story-telling makes for really interesting reading.

Finally, Young Adult novels are so diverse. From fantasy to psychological thrillers, suspense to romantic comedy, drama and mystery. Check out the diversity in this list of 10 Must Read Young Adult Novels.

10 Must Read Young Adult Novels

1. Honeybee by Craig Silvey
In Honeybee, author Craig Silvey presents a truly unique perspective on teenagers in modern Australian society. The story starts late at night, fourteen-year-old Sam steps onto a quiet overpass and notices an old man at the other end of the same bridge, smoking his last cigarette. It’s a chance encounter that ultimately changes both their lives forever – one offering hope, the other offering redemption.

2. Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
Thirteen-year-old Charlie Bucktin is startled late one hot summer night by an urgent knock on his window. It’s Jasper Jones, a teenage outcast in the mining town of Corrigan, begging for Charlie’s help. What Jasper will lead Charlie to discover must remain a secret, one which Charlie will carry like a brick in his belly throughout a simmering summer when everything changes. Jasper Jones is a quintessential Australian coming-of-age story made all the better for the hilarious banter between Charlie and his stoic, ever-smiling, cheeky, cricket-mad, Vietnamese best friend, Jeffrey Lu.

3. The Prison Healer by Lynette Noni
Seventeen-year-old Kiva Meridan has spent the last ten years fighting for survival in the notorious death prison, Zalindov. Kiva earns herself the privileged position of working as the prison healer and dreams of one day being free of Zalindov to reunite with her family. But first she must undergo the Trial by Ordeal – a series of elemental challenges against the torments of air, fire, water and earth. With an incurable plague sweeping the prison, a mysterious new inmate fighting for Kiva’s heart, and a prison rebellion brewing, Kiva is all too aware that her trials have only just begun.

4. 100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze by Clayton Zane Comber
Xander Maze loves lists. Then one day, from the palliative care ward at the hospital, Xander Maze’s beloved Nana asks him to write a list of 100 remarkable feats that he can achieve by the end of the school year. But can this list of 100 remarkable feats really save Nana’s life? A thoroughly heart-warming read about never accepting the unacceptable, the power of lists and one boy’s unconditional love for his Nana.

5. Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Challenger Deep is a moving and compelling journey of a teenager grappling with his mental health through increased paranoia, anxiety and depression. This story is so cleverly written by Neal Shusterman. Constantly moving between two worlds – Caden’s increasingly detched version of reality, and life onboard an imagined pirate ship journeying to the deep. The startling connections between the two worlds becomes apparent as the story unfolds and it serves to convey what it would be like to sail the dark, unpredictable waters of mental illness. 

6. Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller
Ghost Bird is a wonderfully original and frightening suspenseful novel by First Nations author, Lisa Fuller. Stacey and Laney are twins. When Laney disappears one night, Stacey can’t believe she’s just run off without telling her. As the days pass and Laney doesn’t return, Stacey begins dreaming of her twin. The dreams are dark and terrifying and Stacey can’t tell what’s real and what’s imagined. All she knows for sure is that Laney needs her help. Will Stacey find her sister in time?

7. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson
This is an entertaining whodunnit! The investigator is teenager Pippa Fitz-Amobi, an A-grade student with a shameless love for homework and an obsession with the closed-case murder of schoolgirl Andie Bell from five years ago. Pip aspires to be an investigative journalist so when it comes time to apply for her English extension project, she proposes to use Andie Bell as a case study. But Pip’s investigations soon start to uncover secrets that someone in the town desperately wants to remain hidden. Could the real killer still be out there? And do they now have Pip in their sights?

8. Small Spaces by Sarah Epstein
A psychological thriller from Australian author Sarah Epstein. Tash Carmody has been traumatized since childhood when she witnessed her gruesome imaginary friend Sparrow lure young Mallory Fisher away from a carnival. At the time, nobody believed Tash and she has since come to accept that Sparrow wasn’t real. Now fifteen and mute, Mallory has never spoken about the week she went missing. As disturbing memories resurface, Tash, who struggles with severe anxiety, starts to see Sparrow again. And she realizes Mallory is the key to unlocking the truth about a dark secret connecting them. Does Sparrow exist after all? Or is Tash more dangerous to others than she knows?

9. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
A teenage perspective on the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. After the incident, what Starr says could not only destroy her community, it could also get her killed.

10. All the Bright Places by by Jennifer Niven
All the Bright Places is a tear-jerking romantic drama that will leave you sobbing. Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him. Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death. As their friendship grows, Finch knows that it’s only with Violet that he can be himself. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink. How far will Violet go to save the boy she has come to love?

Controversial or Captivating?

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Image of the cover of the book American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page. Cover image features a repeated pattern of blue birds and barbed wire against a white background.

Right from the very first chapter, American Dirt is a thrilling and captivating read. It begins in Acapulco, Mexico as Lydia and her family host a backyard party to celebrate her niece’s 15th birthday. During the celebrations, while Lydia and her son cower in the bathroom, all 16 members of their family are gunned down by a notorious drug cartel, seeking to make an example of her journalist husband. 

Immediately following the brutal attack, Lydia and her eight-year-old son Luca are on the run, fleeing for their lives with targets on their back and no idea where to head next. Lydia soon learns that the reach of the cartels runs deep, with roadblocks on every highway and police and migration officers in their pay. She quickly realises that in order to make it to the Mexico/United States border as quickly as possible, the most dangerous route is also the only route. And so begins a heart-stopping journey riding illegally atop the freight trains, known as la bestia, with thousands of other migrants just like them who will risk everything in the desperate hope of starting a new life in the United States. 

Despite its harrowing storyline, American Dirt was nowhere near as violent or confronting as I was expecting. There is a constant thread of fear and sense of urgency throughout as Lyndia and her son struggle to flee Mexico to the assumed safety of the United States. Lydia’s fear of the cartel discovering them propels her and Luca forward into dangerous, unknown territory daily. At every turn, Lydia is forced to make hasty decisions that rely on instinct rather than careful consideration and rationale. Together as they flee for their lives, Lydia and Luca must suppress their grief for the loved ones they have lost, their only goal each day is to stay together and survive.  

Upon the release of American Dirt in 2020, the hype machine went into over-drive. The author earned a much publicised seven-figure advance from the publisher, it was endorsed by high profile authors such as Stephen King, it was selected as an Oprah Book Club pick and the film rights were sold to Imperative Entertainment, the studio responsible for Sierra Leone civil war drama, Blood Diamond. But the hype was soon followed by extensive criticism. It was labelled as stereotypical and culturally insensitive and there was much pushback from Chicana writers about the author, Jeanine Cummins, who identifies as white, writing a story about a Mexican migrant experience. Chicana writer, Myriam Gurba, expressed that with American Dirt, Cummins has ‘‘identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it’’. Ouch. 

Cummins insists her intention was to put a human face to the story of the Mexican/US border and to give a voice to the marginalised migrant community. She acknowledges in the author’s note at the beginning of American Dirt:  

“I was worried that, as a non-immigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants. I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.” 

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt

In American Dirt, Cummins reminds the reader that migrants are human beings, not criminals and their reasons for fleeing are diverse and complicated. For reasons good and bad, American Dirt has certainly got people talking. Ultimately, if it makes people aware of the danger and desperation faced by so many migrants, not just in Mexico, but all over the world, then stereotyping or not, it is an important book.  

Despite all the criticism, American Dirt is a compelling, entertaining and thought-provoking read. I was right beside Lydia every step of her heart-stopping journey to freedom. 

Reference: Jane Sullivan, Sydney Morning Herald, February 11 2020

Published 2020 by Hachette Australia, 352 pages. 

Scandal and Glamour in Old Hollywood

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Tara Jenkins Reid

The cover of the book The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by author Taylor Jenkins Reid to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page. Cover image features a blonde woman wearing a green gown with a pearl necklace set against a rich red background.

Ageing Hollywood icon, Evelyn Hugo, is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. When she personally selects unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant to write her life story, no one is more surprised than Monique herself.

Evelyn Hugo’s life as an actress and Hollywood icon through the 50s, 60s and 70s, has been a string of scandals, marriages and divorces. It’s sure to be one hell of a story and Monique is determined that this opportunity will be the one that jump starts her career. After all, she didn’t choose to stay in Los Angeles while her husband moved to New York so she could stay on the editing desk at Vivant magazine forever. But as Evelyn’s story nears its end, it becomes clear exactly why Ms Hugo sought out this unknown writer, as the lives of the two women intersect in tragic and irreversible ways.

Set in Los Angeles and steeped in old Hollywood glamour, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is everything we love about the lives of the rich and famous. It’s gossipy, scandalous, sexy and has a surprising twist. This makes the story sound frivolous, but in terms of storytelling, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is no lightweight. It weaves themes of ambition and success, love and friendship, loyalty and betrayal. Evelyn herself is glamorous, sultry, ambitious and formidable. One cannot help but be seduced by the famous Ms Hugo. Her seven husbands were only ever extras in the story of her extraordinary life.

Me, I’ve always gone after what I wanted with everything in me. Others fall into happiness. Sometimes I wish I was like them. I’m sure sometimes they wish they were like me.

Evelyn, page 344

I loved how the story was interspersed with news, tabloid and blog articles to give the reader a perspective of Evelyn from the outside world at that particular time. I also loved how each section of the book devoted to a particular husband opens with an illustrative moniker, such as ‘Poor Ernie Diaz‘, ‘Goddamn Don Adler‘ and ‘Gullible Mick Riva‘. It really set the tone for the character of that particular husband that was to follow.

I hope they make this book into a movie! It would be stunning on screen – from Evelyn’s early years growing up poor in New York, through her successful years as a famous Hollywood actress in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the marriages, the love affairs, the celebrity, all set against a backdrop of Old Hollywood glamour and an enthralling tale of what one woman was prepared to do and the sacrifices she would make to ensure the longevity of her own success.

Published 2018 by Simon & Schuster, 385 pages.

A Captivating Story of Identity

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Cover of the book The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett featuring two facial profiles lying side by side, one black and one white, Image is to accompany book review on the same page.

The Vanishing Half is the story of identical twins, who grow up in the small, southern, black community of Mallard until they run away together at age 16, seeking a better life.

Mallard isn’t a typical black community. It is idealistic in that it values lightness of skin. Hence how many years after leaving the town, one twin has returned with her black daughter, while across the country, the other twin secretly passes for white, living a privileged life with her white husband and blonde-haired daughter who know nothing of her past. 

Once inseparable twins who ultimately choose to live in two very different worlds: one black and one white.

For over two decades, the twins live separate lives, without ever seeing or having contact with each other. That is until fate intervenes and the lives of their daughters’ intersect – revealing confronting admissions and revelations from them both. 

The story is told over several decades, from the 60s through to the late 80s, from Mallard to New Orleans, Los Angeles and New York. It is a wonderfully engaging story and a very unique approach to the topics of race, segregation and prejudice. 

But surprisingly, so much deeper than the story itself, is the underlying concept of identity. The story is told through each twin, as well as their daughters, introducing several multi-layered perspectives of identity with respect to race, gender, privilege and class.

Through her subtle and intelligent writing, Bennett prompts the reader to consider why a person would seek an identity so opposingly different to the one into which they were born. Such self-determinacy does not come without challenge and sacrifice, but the possibility lies in opportunity, freedom, self-expression, privilege and the potential to live a happy and fulfilling life without fear or prejudice. 

‘She hadn’t realised how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.’

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (page 169)

With so much to unpack in this novel, The Vanishing Half would make a fascinating book club discussion and is one of my favourite books that I’ve read this year. This one won’t be vanishing from the shelves anytime soon.

Published 2020 by Dialogue Books, 343 pages.

Over 10 million Copies Sold!

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Image of the cover of the book Where the Crawdads sing by Delia Owens featuring a girl in a canoe paddling out to sea with a pink sky in the distance. Image is to accompany the book review on the same page.

I admit, the swamps and marshland of North Carolina aren’t my usual go-to setting for a novel. But in Where the Crawdads Sing, Owens paints such a beautiful picture of this region and demonstrates such care and knowledge of nature beyond aesthetics, that you can’t help being swept away in the peace, light and beauty of coastal Carolina.

As a young girl, Kya is abandoned by everyone in her family. Alone in the family shack on the marshlands of North Carolina with only the seagulls for company, Kya must learn to survive on her own.

But Kya is resourceful and resilient and has talents she doesn’t know exist. Throughout the story, she forms connections with a handful of people from the town. Some of these people become firm friends and an anchor for Kya as she navigates life alone in her marshland home. Others arrive, only to leave her hurt and adrift, with renewed feelings of distrust and abandonment.

As well as weaving a careful story of Kya’s journey through her teen and young adult years, there is also the unraveling story of the town’s star quarterback, Chase Andrews, who has been found dead in the marsh. Soon, Kya, the ‘Marsh Girl’, is the prime suspect and facing a future in prison, far away from the safety and comfort of her beloved marsh.

Where the Crawdads Sing is the debut novel by Delia Owens, a 70 year old, retired wildlife biologist. Prior to penning her first novel, a New York Times article describes Owens as ‘a reclusive, 70-year-old scientist, whose previous published works chronicled the decades she spent in the deserts and valleys of Botswana and Zambia’. 

Perhaps understandably then, the publisher originally only published 28,000 copies of the book. Two years later, Where the Crawdads Sing has sold 8 million copies worldwide. It has topped the New York Times Fiction Best Sellers of 2019 and 2020 for a combined 100 non-consecutive weeks. 

I love that this same New York Times article quotes Owens as saying “I have never connected with people the way I have with my readers…….I wasn’t expecting that.” Seems as though there might more than a little of the author reflected in spirited, nature-loving, loner, Kya. 

Published 2019 by Hachette Australia, 384 pages.