Monday, 29 October 2012

Things We Didn't See Coming, by Steven Amsterdam

Things We Didn’t See Coming follows a nameless narrator as he navigates his way through the 21st century. It begins on the eve of the millenium, the narrator a nine-year-old boy torn between his father, who is panicking and paranoid about the Y2K bug, and his mother, who is trying to maintain a semblance of normality. Chapter by chapter, the story moves through the following thirty or so years, jumping about five years at a time, as he encounters an increasingly devastated world.

The overall feeling I took away with me after finishing Steven Amsterdam’s debut was one of bleakness. The chapters are peopled with floods and drought, plagues and cancer, medical advancements and societal deterioration. Nevertheless, the blurb on my copy describes it as mesmerising, and this is a description I would have to agree with. I had to keep reading to find out what was going to happen next - would he find peace and contentment? Would he be able to stop moving,? Would the world sort itself out? Would I ever learn the bigger picture?

Ultimately the bigger picture is not revealed. This is one man’s story and, as thus, it is highly biased toward his lone perspective. Consequently, there is never a clear outline of the state of the country or its government, or an explanation of why the narrator is caught up in these devastating events. Only the ‘how’ as he sees it is covered: its the way of the world he is living in, its impossible to escape, and he is simply trying to find the best way to survive. I can only assume the ‘why’ is that this is a world racked by climate change.

Even the ending is ambiguous and left open to interpretation. It’s strange that sometimes, when reviewing books that I didn’t massively enjoy, thinking about how they are put together, I find myself awed by the author’s approach, their technique and story building. Although I certainly didn’t dislike Things We Didn’t See Coming, it was so overwhelmingly bleak that I couldn’t really categorise it as an enjoyable reading experience. But: it is well written and is interesting and has made me think. From a writer’s perspective I find it has a lot of value.

This is a book that has been likened to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (which is, incidentally, incredible), and I can see the link: a desolate world with little to hope for. Yet somehow The Road leaves you with a feeling of hope, and the love between the man and his child is heartbreakingly beautiful and pure. Because these positive emotions are stronger, so the feelings of tension and danger and anticipation are stronger. Things We Didn’t See Coming doesn’t quite manage to strike the same line - even though the world still functions (in The Road it does not), it is more depressing. Our narrator seems permanently lonely and struggling, even when he has a partner. The only hope I have is that the other citizens of the narrator’s world have a more hopeful and love-filled tale to tell.

Things We Didn’t See Coming is certainly one to add to anyone’s wish-list of apocalyptic fiction. As someone who is fairly obsessed with this particular genre, as well an interest in environmental catastrophe, I am left thinking of a small speech the narrator’s father makes in the opening chapter. Although he is referring to Y2K, its a speech that, to me, resonates very strongly when put in the context of climate change: “This whole thing is symbolic, symbolic of a system that’s hopelessly shortsighted, a system that twenty, thirty years ago couldn’t imagine a time when we might be starting a new century. That’s how limited an animal we are... We are arrogant, stupid, we lack humility in the face of centuries and centuries of time before us... What we know now is that we didn’t think enough. We know we aren’t careful enough and that’s about all we know.” (pg. 22-23) Should we be afraid?

Monday, 22 October 2012

What's Left of Me, by Kat Zhang

Eva is in hiding. Only her twin, Addie, knows that she is still alive. But Eva and Addie are not twins in the way you might expect: in their world, everyone is born a twin. Every body is born with two souls residing inside, sharing one body, taking turns to walk and talk. But in Eva and Addie’s world, it is also normal for one of these two souls to slip away, to pass on, leaving their body for their twin. This ‘settling’ is supposed to happen when they are five or six years old, but Eva and Addie never settled. Now fifteen, every day Addie pretends to her friends and family, to the world around her, that Eva doesn’t exist anymore. Because if they find out she’s lying, they will - at best - lock her up, and at worst, hunt her down and forcibly remove Eva from their body. Because hybrids - bodies where two souls remain - are the enemy. They are considered wrong, dangerous.

What’s Left of Me is Eva and Addie’s story. It’s another title to file under the heading of ‘teen dystopia’, yet it’s fresh and different. The basic concept reminded me of a mix of Stephenie Meyer’s The Host (where an alien soul takes over and shares a human body with a human soul), and Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (where an evil faction are experimenting on the separation of humans from their daemons), but the treatment reminded me strongly of Ally Condie’s fantastic dystopian love story, Matched. For this is where the strength of the story lies, and where the dystopian factor comes in: government conspiracy and manipulation; the discovery that everything you’ve been taught is a lie, the discovery that everything you trusted and believed in is wrong.

Kat Zhang has done a great job of putting her idea into words. Writing two different aspects of one person, or of two souls in one body, could have proven difficult, but her approach makes it easy for the reader to distinguish between Eva and Addie, and you can even see the different characters that not only these two girls have, but the different characters of the other hybrids they encounter as well. Referring to one body as ‘we’ must have kept Zhang on her toes, but how other people in the story use ‘I‘ or ‘we‘ or ‘they’ also gives the reader lots valuable clues about the people encountered and the events going on. Early on she raises the question over the potential problems of two people living in one body, making me wonder whether the government’s stance on hybrids is actually a wise and sensible one, but she also raises a lot of moral ideas too. Is it murder to remove a co-sharing soul? Just because the body still exists and still has a soul within it, doesn’t change the fact that an equally valuable soul has, essentially, died.

Eva and Addie are both fighting for their rights, for their freedom, but how far are each of them willing to go to get what they want? And how far are others willing to go for what they believe in? Zhang sets a good pace, with lots of tension and action as well as the moral aspect, though I did get a tad bored - or not bored so much as bogged down - around two thirds of the way through, where I started to lose track of where the story was going or how it was going to progress. Progress it did, although not at quite the same rate with which the story began. Things are tied up quite nicely at the end, whilst simultaneously leaving it open for the story to continue into part two of what is currently dubbed The Hybrid Trilogy. It’s not as good as The Hunger Games or Matched, but it’s definitely up there with the better dystopian stories, and bound to be a hit with the teenage audience.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Liar and Spy, by Rebecca Stead

This is a really lovely story about friendship and being brave. It is intelligent and heartwarming, and Rebecca Stead’s writing style, quality and approach reminded me strongly of the fabulous John Green. If you’re looking for ‘John Green for a younger generation’, Liar and Spy has everything and more.

Georges-with-a-silent-s and his parents are moving house - since Georges’ dad lost his job last year, they’ve had to sell their house and move down a few blocks to an apartment building. Georges, although quite sad, is taking all of this in his stride, and quickly makes friends with Safer, another boy in the building. Safer is an amateur spy, and tells Georges eagerly about the mysterious Mr. X who lives on the fourth floor. According to Safer - who, incidentally, has a brother called Pigeon, a sister called Candy, and is home schooled (‘smart bohemians’, Georges’s father dubs them) - Mr. X only ever wears black, never talks, and can be seen carrying suspiciously heavy suitcases in and out of the building. Thus Safer recruits Georges, determined to turn him into a super sleuth.

As the story progresses we gradually learn more about both Georges and Safer, but things don’t seem to quite add up. Why is Safer so upset with his brother? Why does Georges’ mother only communicate via scrabble tiles? How suspicious is Mr. X really? And, can Georges really trust Safer or is it all just a game to him? Gradually, Georges solves the various puzzles, and discovers that both bravery and friends can come in all different shapes and sizes.

It's awesome. Safer and his family are quirky and intriguing, and despite Georges' initial reservations, they make apartment life sound quite appealing. Once Georges figures out what's really going on he is, understandably, quite upset, but by this point he's already figuring out how to stand up for himself and when, with a little encouragement from his dad, he takes a step back to assess, it becomes clear to both him (and to me, as the reader) that Safer's actions were simply misconstrued by Georges and not intended to be misleading. Ultimately, Georges discovers not only to stand up for himself, but to help others - including Safer - do the same. Perfect.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Next to Love, by Ellen Feldman

Ellen Feldman’s superb Next to Love follows three women through the 1940s and 50s as they embark upon adulthood, tracking their ups and downs, their tragedies and successes, and learning to live in the aftermath of war and in a society full of upheaval and change.

The story was initially inspired by that of the Bedford Boys, in which nineteen men from a single Virginia town died on D-Day: “No other town in America,” Feldman tells us in her acknowledgments, “suffered a greater one-day loss.” Thus, in Next to Love, on July 17 1944, Babe, working for Western Union, receives sixteen telegrams in one morning. Sixteen telegrams that must be delivered to houses and families around her town; sixteen telegrams that will change their lives irrevocably. And two of them are destined for her two closest friends, Grace and Millie.

Each of the three women copes with their loss in their own individual way. Grace fills a wall with photographs of her Charlie; he was her one true love and now he is gone; she is utterly lost, bereft, life without Charlie a grey fog. Millie takes all the parts of Pete that she has left - his photos, his letters - seals them in a box and stores it in the attic, locking away the hurt; then, much to the talk of the town, remarries barely a year later. Babe’s husband Claude survives and returns; he is a broken man, traumatised by combat, but she cannot complain, because at least her husband came back.

Feldman writes with grace and clarity, bringing the three women, each so different, alive - I have sympathy and sorrow for them, want to fight for them, find myself irritated by them and their willingness to lie down and be walked over by societal ideals; I envy them the love of their husbands, living and dead, and I want to shout at them to wake up, to fight, to see the world around them. As the years build up, their lives are touched by anti-Semitism, segregation, the construction of the modern consumer society and, perhaps most importantly (to them, at least), the role of women. Feldman reminds us, the readers, of the importance and significance of this post-war period in building the society we know today. She touches quietly on each of these issues, not making a massive deal of them, yet they form powerful themes running through the book. Rather than focussing heavily on a single issue, her ‘skipping’ sort of treatment of them reflects the real life experience these women are likely to have had, the way the issues skirt, for the most part, on the edge of their consciousness, touching them and affecting them, but in ways that they are barely aware - in ways that only now, with hindsight, can we see with true importance.

There is Millie, whose new husband Al is Jewish. Despite the atrocities uncovered at the end of the war, anti-Semitism is still rife, and we learn of the Jewish jokes that permeate American society, G.I.s particularly, and the way in which Millie’s son Jack is bullied for being a ‘Jewboy’. These are innocuous to the women, but affect Al and Jack deeply. There is Babe, frowned upon by the others when she chooses to go out and work despite having a husband to provide for her. And there is Naomi, Grace’s housekeeper. They sat next to each other in school, but now Grace is not Grace but Mrs. Gooding, and when Naomi’s son dares to visit the local swimming hole, all of the ‘good white folk’ get out of the water as fast as they can.

And as the years go by, the friendship that these three women share changes as well. In the opening chapters, the same day and events are repeated from each of three women’s perspectives, but as time goes by the events told by each the friends become more disparate, more individual, which seems to reflect the disparate elements that have entered their friendship. As they each chock up incidents and feelings and worries that they cannot share with one another, the things they cannot talk about become bigger and more significant.

Full of love and loss, hope and grief, Next to Love is a really superb read that I highly recommend. “War... next to love, has most captured the world’s imagination,” wrote lexicographer and author Eric Partridge in 1914. This book has them both: as well as WWII, the girls are at war with themselves, and with their husbands, and the various parts of society are at war with each other. And, next to love there is grief and there is loss. But then, there is always somewhere or something to love next.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Osbert the Avenger, by Christopher William Hill

“Gruesomely Funny” reads the cover of my copy of Osbert the Avenger. Gruesome it is, but in a bizarrely lighthearted fashion. This is book one of the new Tales from Schwartzgarten series from playwright Christopher William Hill.

Creepy and gothic, from the get-go this book reads like a cross between Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket. Osbert lives in the city of Schwartzgarten. He’s a fairly ordinary little boy, except for the fact that he is incredibly smart, shining at whatever task he puts his hand to. When he has learnt all that his parents are able to teach him, it seems that the only option is for Osbert to sit the entrance exam for the The Institute, a foreboding building that casts its shadow across the city and whose teachers are renowned for their cruelty. This, obviously, is where the trouble begins.

It’s very difficult to say more without going into extensive detail and giving away all the twists and turns, but what ensues is quite an extraordinary series of events, resulting in several murders, several turns of fortune, and a quite unpredictable ending. To start with, things happen rather by accident, or by fortunate (or unfortunate, depending upon your perspective) coincidence. Gradually, though, Osbert’s actions become more deliberate and more determined, quietly egged on by his friend Isabella, a young lady who is all innocence on the outside, but becomes increasingly creepier as the tale progresses. Where will it take them and how far are they each willing to go?

This is definitely a book to stand out from the crowd. Refreshing and quirky, it put chills down the back of my neck, and made me question the author’s moral ambitions. In fact, ‘morally ambiguous’ is the phrase that comes to mind. Great for any youngster looking for something to get their teeth into, and definitely something I’ll be recommending to my customers this autumn.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Atticus Claw Breaks the Law, by Jennifer Grey

Best name EVER for a cat: Atticus Grammaticus Cattypus Claw. Genius. And, with a name like that, Atticus is clearly not your normal cat. No siree. Atticus is the world’s greatest cat burglar. Pun intended.

Atticus Claw Breaks the Law is the first in a new series written for 5 - 8 year olds by Jennifer Grey. Atticus, a green-eyed tabby with a red neckerchief and a soft spot for sardines, has been recruited by a gang of vengeful magpies to steal as much jewellery as he can from the humans of Littleton-on-Sea. He’s never worked for birds before and isn’t too sure how trustworthy they are, but thievery is his forte, a job is a job, and besides, they’re paying him in sardines, so how can he refuse?

A lovely little adventure ensues, with the birds and the cats and the humans all getting themselves into and out of various twists. Atticus has always avoided ‘getting involved’, but suddenly finds himself growing quite attached to the family he’s chosen to stay with in Littleton-on-Sea and thus can’t help but start to question his not-so-lawful behaviour. And so, quietly, quietly, the ‘right thing to do’ becomes apparent. Roll on happy ending.

Atticus, even when in his bad boy persona, is very endearing, Grey writing in lots of perfect little cat-like behaviours for him, such as how gets the family to let him out at night: “Meowing pitifully, he poked Inspector Cheddar firmly in the eye with his paw” (pg. 63). There’s adventure, breaking and entering, a treasure hunt, and a big showdown at the end. Grey’s writing is clear and precise, without talking down to her audience, creating both humour and tension. And every other page is decorated with little sketches of a cat, a piece of stolen jewellery, a rooftop skyline, which is a nice little touch. Atticus, far from being a pussy, stands up and takes what’s coming to him yet still manages to come out on top. Purrfect.