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Growing Up In Flames by Zach Jones


Definitely one for the upper teenagers, Growing Up In Flames is one that will (quite rightly) sit on school bookshelves for only a short period of time. It is likely to become one of those stealthy books that gets under the skin of teenagers and smoulders, like the strong images present in the text. Zach Jones, a first time novelist, is careful to craft a novel that ticks all those taboo areas without glamourising or glorifying them: arson; identity theft; criminal intent, just to name a few. It is like he has given the reader just enough to whet the appetite for destruction, without ever encouraging the reader to engage in such activities.


Fire, for Australians, is always going to be a touchy subject. Year in and year out we see the footage of livelihoods, and lives, being lost to the horrendous bushfires that seem inevitable, and catastrophic. Yet, here in Growing Up In Flames Jones tackles the concepts head on, really taking the proverbial bull by the horn and wrestling with it (and the reader) to the ground.

Centred around the life of Kenna, a teenage girl who tragically loses her mother to a bushfire. Add to that a challenging relationship with her father, and a connection with a boy who starts fires - himself battling with his own demons. And that’s just the first few chapters!


The narrative is complex. Some parts took several reading in order to make sense of the events that happen in rapid fire succession. Sometimes a little to the detriment of the overall enjoyment of the book. Certainly the shift in the first person perspective from multiple narrators in each chapter, there is a ‘keep your wits about you’ sort of condition that the reader must adopt. Jones is quite clear to keep the action moving without pause for breath. This makes it a lively, but hectic read and not one recommended for a quiet rainy Sunday.


What is done exceptionally well, however, is the small cast of characters. There are just enough colourful individuals presented to keep a handle on, considering the intensity of the overarching narrative. Had there been more, the whole thing could have spiralled out of control at a rate of knots. However, and this is wonderful learning for other writers, a tight knit group of individuals can make for interesting, perhaps more interesting, prose. Something some of those fantasy writers could take a note from!


When assessing Growing Up In Flames it is easy to focus on the intensity of things: the arson, the medication, the relationships, the lack of control. But, in the end, it is the strong sense of humanity that shines through brightest. The connection that people have with each other, and must be worked at to be successful. Jones achieves this feat through the realism of the dialogue and the scarily close imagery of the bushfires that must pervade consciousness for Australians.


Overall, immersion into this crazy world constructed by Jones is an easy task. While the phrase ‘could not put it down’ is such an overused and almost trite comment, it is true of this novel. The tag line in the marketing talks a lot about being pulled in and never letting you go, and it is an absolute truism for Growing Up In Flames.


Reviewer: Chris Reed

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