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The Source Reviews Our New Novels

The Source is a subscription subject guide to children’s literature. Trevor Agnew recently reviewed Nor'East Swell and Neands 2 for The Source and has kindly allowed us to reproduce the reviews here.

Author: Aaron Topp

Subject headings:

  • Fate.

  • Fathers.

  • Friendship.

  • Grandfathers.

  • Hawkes Bay region,

  • NZ.

  • Maori.

  • Maui.

  • Music.

  • Ocean.

  • Self-perception.

  • Soul.

  • Storms.

  • Supernatural.

  • Supernormal powers.

  • Surfing.

Aaron Topp, the author of the award-winning Single Fin (2006) has written another novel about growing up in Hawkes Bay, one with an interesting supernatural element. Nor’East Swell is a richly-detailed account of an 18 year old Maori lad, Witi, and his complex relationship with his long-absent father. His mother has suffered the stress of having to cope alone; she is very protective of Witi.

Witi, now in his final year at high school, sees himself as just ‘another loner whose old man disappeared eight years ago.’ He has the friendship of Alana who shares his love of surfing, although Witi knows she is out of his league. Jordy is a new guy at school, an Aussie, a ‘dumbass blond newbie,’ who comes to Witi’s aid in a playground scuffle. A mutual enthusiasm for the sea and surfing brings them together.

‘You always scrap on your first day?’

‘I’m meant to be quitting.’

While Witi’s speech may be laconic, he regularly writes in his treasured notebook.

Interspersed chapters present the thoughts and memories of Witi’s (un-named) father, so that the reader gains a picture of his arrival as a Maui-like orphan from the sea, and his unusual education in music and surfing by Father O’Reilly, as well as his complex later life. We can see features which will recur in his son Witi, such as his love of the sea, of surfing, of music and of writing in a notebook. We learn of the father’s meteoric career as a professional musician and singer and subsequent disappearance.

Jordy is intrigued by the story of Witi’s father’s short period of fame, particularly when Jordy sees the collection of his memorabilia that Witi and his mother have set up at their home.

As Alana and Jordy begin to strike up a friendship, Witi feels excluded and is disturbed by the strength of his emotions. ‘It wasn’t how things worked with him and Alana. She was his safe place … and Jordy was infiltrating it.’ A violent incident, centred on Jordy, erupts at a school dance and has wide-ranging consequences for the trio. Witi is distraught at the damage done to his father’s guitar, while Alana realises that a number they find on the guitar is important. Almost simultaneously Jordy learns of the location of a perfect surfing spot, and Alana and Witi locate a notebook. This is Witi’s father’s diary, which the reader is already familiar with.

Just after Witi reads about his maternal grandfather Koro in the diary, Koro arrives at the house, much to the vexation of Witi’s mother. The strands of narrative are coming together as the surfing spot is the one close to Koro’s marae, where Witi’s father learned to surf. ‘It’s the same as Jordy’s map,’ Witi said, ‘Same spot.’ Is some power controlling events? Witi’s destiny seems to be calling him but there are also several dramatic surprises in store for him and his friends and whanau.

In his writing, Aaron Topp often uses a pattern of short sentences and fragments of sentences. While this may annoy pedants, young readers will appreciate the way it speeds the narrative and gives it a sense of immediacy. It also captures the flavour of speech. Aaron Topp has a good ear for the speech patterns of Witi and his friends. Often a character’s ideas will appear in the middle of a third-person narrative, such as ‘Yeah, nah, just another thought to package there eh.’

Nor’East Swell is a fast-moving, richly atmospheric novel about a teenager discovering his Maori identity and wairua. Wairua refers to the human spirit or soul.

In his notebook, Witi’s father describes his life with Witi’s mother, living with her at ‘her whanau’s home on the coast, just before Witi’s birth. In a poetic passage Witi’s father combines his definition of wairua with his love of the ocean and joy in surfing.

‘I stared at the ocean and it stared back.’


wairua = the spirit of a person, the soul, the spiritual dimension of existence

whanau = family

Author: Dan Salmon

Subject headings:

  • Bullying.

  • Control.

  • Despotism.

  • Escapes.

  • Genetics.

  • New Zealand.

  • Persecution.

  • Sailing and sailors.

  • Utopias and Dystopias.

  • Violence and non-violence.

This novel is a sequel to Neands (2020) the (pre-Covid) story about a pandemic that turned humans violent and unreasonable. Labelled Neands, the changed humans brought brutish ignorance, violence and uncertainty to New Zealand and the world. Now the Neands run the urban areas, while the surviving humans do the jobs Neands can’t. Underground networks of humans seek to keep human values alive.

The main surviving characters from the first Neands novel, Charlie, Prue and Ivy, are still safe at Paparetanga Bay, a sanctuary for humans, but they want to leave to locate Ngaire through her friend Bill, a scientist with knowledge of Neand biology. Charlie, the narrator, believes they have to make this expedition beyond the safety of the sanctuary in order to find a way to overcome the effects of the pandemic. ‘Deep down, I knew that, if we left the world to burn, its flames would eventually find us.’

Alternate chapters are narrated by Em, who with her brother, Miro, is held in a brutally-run Neand ‘youth centre’ which is more like a prison for young humans. Cruelly treated and desperate, Em escapes with Miro and they stow away on a freight train heading up the South Island to Picton.

Pru has sailing, navigating and fishing skills, which enable her to sail Charlie and Ivy in a yacht to the remote Northland peninsula where Bill and Annie live. There they learn that Ngaire has been infected by the virus and has volunteered to allow Bill to use her as part of his research. ‘He believed the treatment, like the virus, was managing to hack into her DNA.’ Ngaire has changed physically and mentally, so her encounter with the three people she had once cared for does not go well. On the positive side, Bill thinks that Ivy’s blood test suggests she is developing an immunity to the virus.

Because Neands don’t like water, the Cook Strait ferries are operated by humans, tolerated by the Neands. A truckdriver, Niko, helps Em and Miro continue their perilous journey northwards in his vehicle and then introduces them to an informal network of humans, such as Aunt Tui, who may be able to help them escape north.

Bill sends Pru and Charlie off on a difficult and dangerous mission - to locate and bring back Graeme, an island-dweller who has special genetic features. Graeme is a Neand.

Meanwhile, the two prison escapers reach a safe haven in Rotorua, where an undercover scientist asks them to take blood samples to other researchers in the north. Even as Em prepares to leave, she realises that all is not well with Miro, whose personality seems to be changing.

Can the two groups of young people help Bill achieve what seems to be a hopeless dream?

By its nature the second volume of Neands is more positive than the first. All the human characters have lost relatives or friends and thus have had to develop coping skills and look after each other. Subtleties in the interaction between humans and Neands make the quest for some sort of treatment of the virus seem possible. At the same time, the large cast of characters face a myriad of daily problems as they struggle to survive in a hostile world.

Neands 2 is a dramatic and sometimes violent saga set in a dystopia with parallels to our own times. The description of Neands as people who ‘go on driving their big cars and bullying and fighting and buying things they don’t need’ is one which might apply rather closely to all of us.

Neand 2 can simply be read as a suspense-filled action story, or it can be taken as a report by a latter-day Gulliver holding a mirror up to features of our own society. The 2022 protest gatherings against vaccination took place after Neands 2 was published so the attack on science and reason depicted was a strikingly accurate prediction by Dan Salmon.

Note: As the author points out, the term Neanderthal is often inaccurately used to suggest a grunting brutish person. Recent research suggests this is not an accurate description of the real Neanderthals, whose genes many of us carry in our DNA. Dan Salmon stresses that Neand is a work of invention which exists in its own world with its own set of rules.

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