Sunday, 29 July 2012

Jamilia, by Chingiz Aitmatov

JamiliaThis is a story about a world unimaginably different from my own. Set on the wild steppe of Kyrgyzstan, it is told by Seit, the youngest son of the family clan. His older brothers have gone away to war and he must help his family work the land and bring in the harvest. He sleeps in the threshing shed, listening to the river splash its way to the sea, and spends his day hauling grain across the tameless land, delivering it the weighing station in town care of horse and cart.

This is as down to earth as life can probably get. Through Seit’s eyes, Aitmatov paints a picture of the wild Kyrgyz landscape, of hard work taken for granted and unquestioned, and of the ties and tradition bound up in extended families. He is joined in his toil by his sister-in-law Jamilia and by Daniyar, a former villager returned from the war, and as the days go by Seit watches Jamilia and Daniyar form a secret and almost imperceptible bond.

Billed as a love story, at first glance (and from the blurb), one would think Jamilia is about the blossoming relationship between Jamilia and Daniyar. The reality of the book is quite different; more than anything else, it is a love story for the land. As Seit’s tale unwinds, it becomes a love song for his homeland, through the descriptions of his surroundings, through his family values, and accompanied and brought to life in Seit’s mind by the songs that Daniyar sings as they ride  across the steppe. The moment Daniyar starts to sing, late one evening as they trek back from the town, is the moment Seit begins to come alive, the moment everything changes, the moment he will never be able to turn back from.

The Waterstones chief, M.D. James Daunt, has selected Jamilia for the August book of the month. It’s an unusual, atypical choice because it is not a new book, and its far from the typical commercial affair. Its a brave choice, and I’m sure there are many different reasons for its selection, but one of these is presumably because he feels it’s a very special book that deserves to be read on a wider scale. It is, after all, a book that has been raved about for its beauty and for what it seeks to say about the world - “The most beautiful love story in the world,” claims a quote on the front cover.

Does it live up to expectation? It is certainly well written, full of descriptive language, conjuring a rural lifestyle on an unforgiving land and in an unforgiving culture. It has a timeless quality, and has certainly got me thinking. But... But I wasn’t blown away; I wasn’t unerringly transported. I am tempted and intrigued by the mental image of the steppe that Aitmatov’s words have given me, but I am not in love. I have an idea of Seit’s soul, of what he values, but I am lost when it comes to Jamilia and Daniyar. Daniyar is blocked off by his silence, by Seit’s prejudice against him, by the assumptions he has made. These begin to be broken down when Daniyar begins to sing. Seit writes of how he is transported by the songs, but somehow they did not transport me. Daniyar remains locked away - we do not hear from Daniyar himself, only the reaction to the songs that Seit experiences. The consequence of this is that I could not feel for Daniyar and Jamilia what Seit felt for them; a relationship that is so pivotal for Seit was relatively meaningless for me.

This does not mean the book shouldn’t be read: it should. I am not as in love with Jamilia as others have been, but I am in love with Seit's idea of being in love. At only 96 pages long, Jamilia evokes a time and a place and a voice that is different from anything else you are likely to read this year. It steps outside normal boundaries and, whilst being about song, is a song in itself.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Wolf Princess, by Cathryn Constable

The Wolf PrincessSophie Smith is an orphan. With only snatches of memory and a piece of special glass to remind her of her father, she endures a dreary boarding school in London, but dreams of adventure, of forests and snow. Hoping against hope, she can barely believe her luck when she and her friends land a place on the school trip to St. Petersburg in Russia. But things don’t go quite to plan once they arrive. First their host abandons them on the train, then they’re pushed out a station not only in the middle of nowhere, but in the middle of a raging blizzard; and then they’re collected by a bear of a man, Ivan, who takes them to stay with the mysterious Princess Anna Volkonskaya at her Winter Palace.

The girls aren’t quite sure what make of the Princess, who is by turns beautiful and warm, then cold, distant, and raging. But who is the Princess really? Why is the Palace so run down? And why does she seem to have such a particular interest in a scrappy little orphan like Sophie?

The Wolf Princess invokes the perfect feeling from page one, a feeling that ties in just right with the cover artwork. It opens with a dream that turns out, later on, to be rather important , and just lovely writing. Styled in quite a traditional way, with three friends - the smart one, the beautiful one, and the one stuck in the middle - an enemy, a turncoat, a twist, a mystery to be solved, and a life-or-death showdown. It could be said that this is not especially original, but its a format that works so well it simply can’t be argued with. With elements of fairytale and packed full of adventure, The Wolf Princess ticks all the right boxes for 9-12 year-old fiction. In places it reminded me of my favourites, Eva Ibbotson, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and it has a magical feeling that no ten year old could fail to fall in love with.

From the moment the girls first meet her, the Princess is presented as an enigma, so beautiful that Sophie can barely remove her eyes, yet Cathryn Constable, right from the outset, drops in quiet hints that all is not quite as it might seem. This is perfect plotting - when things start to take a new direction, it’s not out of character or a shock to the system. As an experienced adult reader, I did find this very easy to suss out, and thus very predictable, but I’m sure that a younger reader would find it pitched at just the right level. Additionally, I felt that there were a handful of plot-holes - of conveniences, as it were - particularly toward the end of the book. Aside from being questionable, this gave me the impression that Constable rushed the ending a tad, without necessarily thinking through the small print.

My two main niggles are, firstly, exactly how the Princess located Sophie in the first place. If Sophie’s family knew nothing of her heritage, how on earth did the Princess work it out?
And secondly, I love the idea of the ‘Wolf’ Princess, the Palace with all of it’s wolfy references, and the wolves themselves. But, as the story tells us, if the last Princess was the first one to tame a wolf, why exactly is the palace, which is hundreds of years old, full of these references? Given this, it would have been much more effective to have made the whole line of Volkonskys wolf tamers. However, this said, if I was ten again and reading it, if I even noticed these quibbles, I doubt they would detract from my enjoyment and appreciation of the story.

Overall, The Wolf Princess is a well crafted story in a traditional and magical vein. The descriptions and the action scenes are vivid: as I read I could picture the events movie-style and was itching to get to the Winter Palace myself. It will make perfect autumn reading for dreamy youngsters.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Journey to the River Sea, by Eva Ibbotson

Journey to the River SeaEva Ibbotson is a wonder, and her books never fail to transport me into her world. For a long time I have attempted to put my finger on exactly what it is that makes them so enchanting, and I think reading Journey to the River Sea has finally enabled me to do so.

Although mostly written within the last three decades, all of her books - or those  I’ve read so far - are set at the turn of the twentieth century, or during the second world war period. They are traditional, everything is always terribly proper, and there is always an element of having fallen on hard times. Think Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, or White Boots - books I have adored since I was a child and could read over and over again. Yet, the characters within her books break out of the boundaries she sets for them, they win out against the odds, they show themselves to be strong, determined women (despite the constraints set upon them by the times), and - perhaps most importantly - they have a happy ending and all the pieces come together.

Journey to the River Sea is no exception to this rule. It is 1910 and Maia, an orphan, is being shipped off to her only surviving relative, a man named Mr Carter, who lives deep in the Amazon. She couldn’t be more excited and spends the journey imagining the lives of her cousins, the things they get up to and the exotic pets they might have. But when she finally arrives, the reality is disastrously different to her wild imagination: the Carters are stoically British and unadventurous. Mrs Carter refuses to eat locally produced food, is obsessed with sealing her house off from creepy crawlies, and won’t let the children play outside; Mr Carter is oblivious and uncaring of anything other than his glass eye collection; the twin girls are rude, ignorant and unfriendly. They only agreed to take Maia in because of the money she brings with her - something which is much needed thanks to Mr Carter’s complete lack of business sense. The only brightness in Maia’s new life is the governess, Miss Minton, who quietly pulls the wool down over the Carter’s eyes, giving Maia a little touch of freedom.

This is the perfect book for any young girl, especially one with a sense for adventure. Despite the restrictions the Carters place on her, Maia takes the bit of freedom Miss Minton provides, stretches it out, and makes it her own. As with any Ibbotson character, Maia is instilled with kindness and friendliness, always thinking of and trying to help others, whilst simultaneously creating an adventure of her own. Having made friends with two boys who are as different to each other as two peas in a pod, it falls to her to extricate them from their troubles, which she does with aplomb, while also, of course, solving her own. Adventure is inevitable.

Ibbotson’s own self is reflected in many of the books she writes, as the same themes crop up again and again - themes reminiscent of her own childhood as a Jewish refugee in war era Britain. As recently written in a Daily Telegraph article (Before JK Rowling, there was Eva Ibbotson), her son says, “Ma’s entire work was about her childhood – always on the run, never with a mother and father in the same house. It was more than that she wanted to write happy stories; she couldn’t do anything else.” I can't recommend her enough.

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin

This is a book I have been waiting for for the last two years. The publication date was put back and put back, and put back again - and then an early reading copy landed on my desk (well, after a begging phone call to the very nice publisher, Orion). Was it worth the wait? Oh yes.

The PassageThe Passage
The Twelve is part two of the story that Justin Cronin began in The Passage, one of the most incredible books I have ever read. The premise may sound old-hat, but the execution is fresh and original, and makes for truly compulsive reading.

A new virus has been stumbled upon in a remote forest, a virus which changes its host into a vampire-like creature. In a typical human response, the virus is sampled and studied and manipulated - and then injected into humans for experiment. A group of criminals on death row are on the receiving end; they are the first virals, no longer quite human. All of this we learn in the first quarter of the book, along with other things - the build-up to apocalypse, the event itself and how it comes to be, and those who are caught in the middle of it, both willingly and unwillingly. But then the story jumps, leaping forward almost one hundred years, to a survival colony.

The colony knows very little. They have their survival methods, ways of protecting themselves from the virals that pound at the gates when the sun goes down, and for the most part they get by, but they know they are on limited time and their power source is failing, and this is when Amy appears. To all appearances she is a fifteen year old girl who steps out of the desert one day as if from a mirage. The colonists cannot believe it. How has she survived on her own? Where did she come from? But the reader knows there is more to Amy than meets the eye: for she was there at the beginning, she was there when the viral scourge began a hundred years ago. She is traumatised, silent, but slowly she comes back to herself, and a small group from the colony set out with her to try and uncover their past and her past, and to find out if anyone else survives.

The Passage is written as an amalgamation of disparate stories which, at first, don’t seem to have much in common, but as time and reading goes by, they gradually link together into one immense and breathtaking experience. It's an adventure of epic proportions. Extremely well written and cleverly put together, the story barely lets up for even one minute. By the time I reached the end, my brain was almost fried by the immensity of the storyline - and then, just when it seemed like everything was pretty much concluded, Cronin throws in a nice little cliff hanger for book two.

The Twelve
The Twelve
For anyone who hasn’t read The Passage, ‘The Twelve’ refers to the apocalypse’s viral fathers: the twelve criminals who were experimented on at the start of the story, and changed, and then broke free to wreak their havoc upon the world, spreading the viral disease that makes vampires of men. The Twelve are the key to ending the scourge, the key to releasing the survivors from their terror.

As a book, The Twelve was very surprising, and not what I expected. It simultaneously continues the story begun in The Passage whilst creating a whole new story of its own. It's difficult to describe the storyline itself without giving too much away: Cronin has pieced The Twelve together in a similar, disparate way as he did The Passage, beginning with a set of individual, seemingly unconnected storylines which gradually coalesce into one, culminating in one grand event. To tell the story, I would have to begin with in the middle, and ruin the surprise.

The best I can do is this: The Twelve is a whole new aspect of the tale. From page one, it defied my expectations by not beginning where The Passage left off. There is a clever introduction, written as if it is Biblical text, that summarises the events of book one, but then the story goes back almost to the beginning, back to the time of the apocalypse itself, introducing a new set of characters. A little further in and the old characters pop up, but for them time has moved on, they have all grown up a little and lived a little more. They have fallen into lives and routines outside of the colony and outside of their journey undertaken in book one, but those lives are about to get shaken up all over again. I never imagined the story would go in the direction it takes, and that is a good thing: because I would never have imagined something as interesting as this.

The Twelve is similar and yet different to The Passage. It is extremely good, but it is not quite as good as The Passage. It is less journey-based, and thus has a different feel to it, and there was one storyline that I just didn’t 'get'. Whilst that one small thread did have an important role to play in the denouement, my ‘not quite following it’ didn’t take away from the face-down. Said face-down was also slightly more confused than the one at the end of book one - not quite as dramatic or revealing, perhaps, but fairly satisfactory. Ultimately, though, these are two very small things that can easily be forgotten amidst the awesomeness of the book as a whole - they only seem like an issue when compared to the perfection of The Passage.

I am left intrigued for book three, and looking forward to seeing where Mr. Cronin takes the story next. One of the things I have been thinking about most since finishing The Twelve is whether - or how - the rest of the world has been affected. Whilst reading The Passage, I simply assumed that the apocalypse had extended its fingers around the world, but after reading The Twelve I find myself wondering whether this is actually the case. Have the virals been limited to the American continent? If so, what has been going on in the rest of the world since? Even if they instituted a quarantine on the States, would they not have been able to see the survival colonies from satellites? And if so, why would they not help?

Mr. Cronin, I really hope you don’t make me wait too long for the next installment. Or, at the very least, no longer than the the two years I have waited for this one. Please?

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Butterfly Summer, by Anne-Marie Conway

Butterfly SummerButterfly Summer is just the sort of book I’d have loved when I was ten or eleven years old, a summer mystery.

Becky is twelve and she and her mum have just moved to Oakbridge. For Becky it means getting used to a new house and having to make new friends. But her mum has lived here before and Becky soon starts to wonder whether there’s more than just a new job to her mum’s sudden decision to move back. Places Becky has never been before are strangely familiar, she finds a mysterious photo hidden in a box under her mum’s bed, and her mum is starting to fall apart. What is she hiding?

This is quite a well-written little book; the story progresses steadily, and while as an adult I could guess some of the secrets, Conway still managed to keep a lot of them hidden until the final denouement. She builds the picture well, weaving in the different threads: why do people say they remember Becky when she’s never lived there before? Why is her new friend Rosa May so wild and angry? Why is Becky so afraid of the water? From an adult perspective it wasn’t especially stand-out, but I think any young girl would thoroughly enjoy it, especially the build-up to the final reveal and what that means.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles
The Song of Achilles, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012, is a retelling of the story of this Greek hero first immortalised by Homer in The Iliad. I always like to read the Orange Prize Winners, and this is highly deserved.

It is fabulous. The tale is told by Patroclus, Achilles’ closest friend, confidant, and lover. It is the tale of a lifetime, from boyhood to adulthood, the choices that must be made and the choices that are forced upon them. It is a tale of love and power, of betrayal and friendship, brought to life and rendered forever in my mind by Miller’s acute storytelling.

Aside from the fact that he was played by Brad Pitt in the movie Troy, the most memorable thing I knew about Achilles before reading this book was the myth of his imperviousness: that his goddess mother dipped him in the River Styx as a babe, rendering him impossible to kill, except for his one weak point: the heel, thus the naming in modern medicine of the Achilles tendon. Indeed, The Song of Achilles is full of Greek myth, Greek gods and Greek goddesses, and much of the story revolves around prophecy, particularly that made by the Fates when Achilles was born: that he would be a great warrior. The power of the gods and the power of prophecy is inherent both within the story and within the lives of the book’s heroes - it is a given that what is prophesied will come to pass. Even though, as a teenager, no-one has seen Achilles fight, everyone believes that he will be the greatest fighter. They know because that is what the gods say, and nobody - nobody - doubts the gods and their word.

In fact, this is one of the most outstanding things about The Song of Achilles: Miller invokes a world where the presence of the gods is taken for granted; they are an intrinsic part of the daily structure. Today we understand these stories as myths, as something other than real or as allegories, but in Patroclus’s world they are an everyday part of life. People - Patroclus himself, even - meet the gods, converse with them, have children with them. Given these encounters, how could they be anything other than real? Miller makes this unquestionable to the point of making me wonder for myself whether, perhaps, they were real. In addition, she makes Achilles and Patroclus human, and makes the reader a part of the places they visit. Achilles and Patroclus spit olive stones at one another, listen to and tell stories by the fireside. And in reading just a few simple words I can picture the palace of Achilles’ childhood home, join him and Patroclus on the creaking boats journeying to Troy, or their camp on the beach. In this way, Miller makes Achilles’ ‘fearsome warrior’ aspect take a back seat to his humanity.

Thus, the picture of Achilles that Miller and Patroclus paint for us is all the more tragic once the gods and the fates more firmly lodge their claws in him. Reputation and honour are two ideas that run strongly through The Iliad, and through Greek literature as a whole; without these things a Greek man was nothing, worthless. As an adolescent Achilles accepted the prophecy of his warriorship and hero-dom, but it did not appear to affect him or impact his daily decisions; he was his own man. But as time ticks by and the Trojan war rages on he gradually becomes puffed by his arrogance and full of his importance. He starts to wield his power and to hold it over other men’s heads, something he did not really do before; it has changed him, this killing. He becomes obsessed with his reputation and this, in turn, becomes his downfall. Has he been driven insane by the gods, by his mother’s tweakings and interference? Or is it just the Greek way? Pride - hubris is the term Miller uses - and honour being so important to him, he cannot relinquish them, and puts the one thing, the one person, he loves most in danger as a result. Irony piles up upon irony as the final scenes play out. Is it a self-fulling prophecy? Oh, how the gods have played him; how he has fallen into the deep runnels they made.

Ultimately - and to add further irony still - what lives on beyond The Song of Achilles most is the strength of his love. It is not his warriorship that I kept with me at the end of this book, not the otherwordly prowess his prophecy was built around, but his humanity. It is Achilles’ love for Patroclus that makes him come right in the end; it is a love that is incredibly moving, a love that is worthy of having books and poems and tales written about. Gently captivating, The Song of Achilles sent my brain whirring, my sense of right and wrong into overdrive, and set my emotions on fire.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Zom-B, by Darren Shan

On the first page of my copy of Zom-B is a letter from the author, Darren Shan, in which he quotes a plea made by Alfred Hitchcock: “Please don’t give away our ending. It’s the only one we have.” I am lucky enough to be reading an proof edition of Zom-B, an early version of the book sent out to booksellers and reviewers, and Shan is keen to make sure we readers aren’t tempted to give away the two walloping twists when the inevitable raving about Zom-B begins with our customers. “See if you can find a way to discuss Zom-B with those who have not read it, without giving away the cataclysmic plot twists,” he urges. It’ll be harder than you might think right now, he says, and it turns out, of course, that he’s right.

Darren Shan is known for his love of horror, for not shying away from blood and gore and all things that ooze when writing his books. He says it like it is, which is probably why hundreds of thousands of people, young and old alike, can’t get enough of him. He is a taboo breaker and this is hugely influential. Zom-B is the first in a new series, and I’ll give any reader two guesses on the subject matter - but if you need to use the second one, don’t bother.

B is a tough nut. London teenager, bit of a down-and-out family, dad’s not too nice a guy. If B lights up the teacher’s eyes at school it’s more likely to be in terror than admiration.  Naturally skeptical, when reports hit the news about zombie attacks in Ireland, complete with gory footage, B dismisses it as a hoax - there are bigger things to worry about, like how can you love your dad when he’s a bigot and a bully? How can you be so desperate to get his respect when the only way to do so is by behaving in a way you know is wrong? Plus there are weird dreams with killer babies and weird people with owl-like eyes to contend with, and all that’s even before the zombies start to become a real problem.

“Good fantasy is always about the real world, reflections of it,” Shan told me a couple of years ago when he visited the branch of Waterstones where I work - “however fantastical it is, you’re writing about the world you know.” This continues to be true of Zom-B. The theme at the forefront of the story is racism, and B is caught between two worlds: dad’s racist politics versus the better path; disgust at witnessing racism in others versus the pull of using racism as a bullying tool. The story really finds its pace when B’s class is taken to a Holocaust exhibition, and Shan spells it out pretty clearly: this is where racism leads. Genocide is the ultimate conclusion to racism run out of control. Is that a price that B is willing to pay?

Zom-B is very easy reading at a bare 200 pages long, but it’s full of twists and turns and several little threads dangled temptingly in front of my eyes. Who are the Owl Men? What is with the scar on B’s leg? Is the zombie attack an experiment gone wrong, movie story schtick, or some grand, racist genocidal plan being played out by those that be? Who would I rather meet down a dark alley at night: B or a zombie?

And what about that double twist at the end Shan has warned about? Yup, I’m trying desperately not to give it away; it’s really not been easy, but it’s worth it. Zom-B kicks ass and eats brains, and will definitely satisfy all those die-hard Darren Shan fans out there waiting on the edge of their seats for the new installment.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Rogue, by Trudi Canavan

The Rogue: The Traitor Spy Trilogy: Book Two - Traitor Spy Trilogy 2This is a good, all-round fantasy. The second installment of Trudi Canavan’s Traitor Spy Trilogy, it lives up to all my expectations, following the threads on from where they left off at the end of The Ambassador’s Mission: Black Magician Sonea and her search through her home city in Kyralia for a rogue magician; Sonea’s son Lorkin, captured by the rebel ‘Traitors’ in the neighboring land of Sachaka; fellow magician Dannyl and his search for lost magical history, particularly the mystery behind Sachaka and Kyralia’s angst. And it introduces a new character, Lilia, a magical novice who is tricked into learning the forbidden ‘black’ magic by a conniving ‘friend’, and thus becomes embroiled in Sonea’s hunt.

I loved Trudi Canavan’s first books (The Black Magician Trilogy) and The Rogue has given me a craving to re-read this earlier work. The Rogue itself is well constructed and well paced. It is enjoyable, evenly pitched and, though not all-consuming, had me caught up in the story. There’s a good balance of little puzzles woven into the four different yet interlinked plot-lines, some of which get solved along the way, one or two left hanging for book three. As a whole, the story is very cleverly worked out because the reader isn’t left hanging, per se - it doesn’t finish on a major cliff-hanger, but there is enough left unresolved, or enough new ideas introduced toward the end, to make me want to keep reading the series.

My experience with Canavan is that the first book in her trilogies (see also The Age of Five Trilogy) tends to be a little slow to get going, as she sets up the political background, the characters, and their various threads. Book two then takes the story up a notch, furthering the intrigue and character development, before book three where it all really kicks off - the action becomes more intense as all the little threads start to weave together and the denouement approaches. Furthermore, while there are a handful of themes running through the storylines - in the case of The Rogue, ideas of social structure and equality vs inequality stand out - her novels aren’t about ground-breaking theories. They are comfortable, easy. Unchallenging, but with plenty to keep the reader interested, the story moving, the tensions and the puzzles building. I know what I’m going to get with a Trudi Canavan book, and I like that. Roll on August, then, when The Traitor Queen is released.