Sunday, 22 December 2013

The 5th Wave, by Rick Yancey

For anyone looking for a great adventure/thriller – perhaps to replace that hole left by The Hunger Games – then look no further than The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey. It seems a bit cliché to describe it as gripping or edge-of-the-seat, but that is exactly what this book delivers. It’s a little bit sci-fi, a little bit horror, a little bit post-apocalyptic, but mostly it’s just about a family trying to survive, trying to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

Cassie’s world has been destroyed. Four waves of terror spread across the world when the aliens came. First the lights went out. Then tsunamis spread across the land. The third wave was pestilence, the fourth the silencers. What will the fifth wave be and when will it come? Separated from her family, Cassie is living day by day, living by the principal of trust no-one. Which seems pretty sensible, except that sometimes you have to decide to put your faith in someone, sometimes you need that someone to help you survive. But is Evan the right someone for Cassie to trust? He saved her life, but is he telling her everything? Can he help her find her little brother?

Rick Yancey’s telling of The 5th Wave is done in such a way to make you 95% certain that you know what’s going on, who to trust, who to doubt, and right from the very beginning we know what the 5th wave will be, even if Cassie doesn't. And yet that 5% somehow takes on a disproportionate weight, making us question what we believe to be true, to want to shout out at Cassie and warn her whilst also making us want to believe the opposite. And thus, tension abounds, the heart races, and you just have to simply keep turning the page, and the next page and the next page and the next page.

Ironically, Cassie has never met an alien; as far as she knows they’ve never set foot on the planet, never shown their faces. Instead they wreak their havoc from above, watching, waiting, playing. This makes it seem so much more about humanity, about how we respond to apocalyptic situations, how we choose to treat each other, how we find safety or how we gang up against one another; what we’re willing to sacrifice. This is a story that has been told time and time again, yet Yancey imbues it with a fresh sense of adventure and trauma and tension. And, given as this is a concept that has been told time and time again, what does that say about our enduring fascination with the real subject matter: ourselves?

Whether you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, The Passage, I Am Number Four, The Host, or none of the above, read The 5th Wave. Whether you’re young or old, or even older, read The 5th Wave. It’s brilliant.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

St Agnes' Stand, by Thomas Eidson

As a bookseller, I read an awful of lot of children’s books, especially young adult titles, and when I do read adult books they tend to be recent releases. This is great, and I read these books because I want to read them, but it does mean that I miss a lot of good stuff that has been around for longer. Like St Agnes’ Stand, a book I most certainly wouldn’t have looked at twice had it not been for a recommendation by my cousin, someone who is so extremely well read that perusing her bookshelves can have the effect of making me feel very small. Ironically, really, my role as a bookseller should be to introduce readers to these rarer, lesser publicized titles, to champion the books that get tucked away into corners, but it’s so easy to become swept up by the marketing machine that I had almost forgotten. So, thank goodness for my cousin C and her fascination, in particular, for the literature of the American West.

Nat Swanson is a young man with a dream: a piece of Californian land. He has the deed in his pocket and a plan in his head, but already things are going awry: in the last town he stopped in, he got into a fight and killed a man. Pursued across the desert by the man’s friends, can he reach California before they catch him? But when he comes across a band of Apache holding up a wagon trail he’s haunted by the face he sees hiding there, and something makes him turn back to help. What he finds is not what he expected: three nuns and seven small children desperate for their lives. For the next five days, Swanson and Sister St Agnes must face their personal demons, overcome loss and injury, and struggle against drought and starvation while the Apaches close in around them.

Thomas Eidson’s language is simple and bold, and he tells his story through a series of different perspectives: Swanson, Sister St Agnes, and the Apache warrior Locan. St Agnes is adamant that God sent Swanson to save them, and she and her companions do seem strangely blessed despite their circumstances, but Swanson is determined – mostly – that it was just chance; chance that he was passing by and chance that made him turn around to help. Locan, however, as Swanson picks off his men, sees this luck as an evil magic created by the strange black-clad women and, while his compatriots wish to cut their losses and leave, he sees that if they follow that path his reputation will be forever lost – the only way to restore it will be to destroy the white man and the black-clad women.

I was a little wary, to begin with, with the depiction of the Apache as a group of blood-lusting warriors who, as St Agnes says, “know no better”. However, I assume that Eidson has based their aspects on historical behaviors by the Apache. What is not explained is exactly why the Apache raided the nuns’ wagon party to begin with. Once things begin to go wrong for them, it becomes a matter of pride and honor for Locan to see things through to their conclusion. That I understand. But what was the original purpose? Just theft?

Of course, all of mankind is entirely capable of carrying out atrocities equal to and worse than Locan and his compatriots. What is frustrating in traditional Westerns is that cultures are frequently painted in a right/wrong, white/black way – white good, everyone else bad. Eidson treads a difficult line here, but his intention is not to dispel such myths, rather to step authentically into the minds and opinions of his characters, the people of the time in which he is writing, and tell a story. This he does with aplomb. Furthermore, although he dabbles in the discussion of God and faith, by telling the majority of this aspect of the story from the mostly agnostic Swanson, Eidson avoids making it into an agenda. It is a deft and accomplished piece of storytelling, and certainly makes me want to read more about this era and/or setting. Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy has been on my list of must-reads for a while, and I think perhaps it’s time I brought it the top, and I’ll be thinking more about reading and recommending those rarer seeds, books that are as evocative and unusual as St Agnes' Stand.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Picture Me Gone, by Meg Rosoff

Picture Me Gone is breathtakingly wonderful, Meg Rosoff at her absolute best. Just when I’d given up on her (I didn’t manage to finish her last book), she goes and writes this. It is heartbreaking and tense and a sort of sadness permeates the text, yet it’s neither weepy nor depressing; instead it is simple and tidy whilst filled with beautiful and wonderful thoughts, sentences, ideas. It is a story of loss, of being lost and of getting lost, and yet a lot of things are found in it.

Mila likes to solve puzzles – and she’s good at them too, good at seeing things other people don’t see, that other people don’t feel. Like the waitress who doesn’t know she’s pregnant, or the father who forgets his child is only a child. But now, Mila’s father’s best friend has gone missing, has simply walked out on his life. Can Mila help her father figure out where Matthew’s gone and why he left? Matthew, though, is a stranger to Mila. She only knows him through her father’s eyes: friends from childhood, the man who saved his life. But who is Matthew really? What will Mila find when she starts to see him through other people’s eyes? What secrets has he been hiding, and what really happened the night that his son Owen died?

Mila and her father, Gil, were already planning a visit to America to see Matthew, so when he goes missing, they continue with their plans, hoping instead they’ll be able to help his wife find him. Gil is a translator, a master of languages, and translation is a strong theme wound through Rosoff’s story: how we translate what others tell us, what we see, what we choose to see. Mila’s self-appointed task is to translate all the little bits and pieces she gathers from her father, from Matthew’s wife and family, and turn them into an explanation for Matthew’s behavior. But can a person ever really be wholly translated to someone other than themselves?

It is a far more difficult exercise than Mila ever imagined. In the beginning, in many ways Mila takes on the role of the grown up, and we can’t help but think of her this way as she looks out for her father, but as the story develops and her discoveries get progressively darker, her assertions that she is a child become ever stronger. Her emotions are swept into a whirlwind, the world she thought she knew turned into a mountain of questions and uncertainties. The bright lights and bright colours of the book’s cover belies what Mila finds inside – reflected further by the snow storm that dampens everything down, covering the world in a blanket of white – but it’s not a blanket that can protect Mila from the future, from growing up.

Rosoff’s language is so clean and sharp that it forced me to read slowly, to take in and appreciate every part of the story and the poetry she invokes, yet it’s impossible not to keep turning the page as her words seeped into my everyday life, taunting me until I could return to the story. Undoubtedly one of the most accomplished young adult books of 2013.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Story of the Treasure Seekers, by E. Nesbit

The Story of the Treasure Seekers was first published in 1899 and I’m trying to picture what a totally different world it was back then, before motor cars, before electricity, before the start of women’s emancipation, before free medical care, before everyone was entitled to an education; a world on the verge of enormous change. I imagine that neither E. Nesbit nor her heroes, the Bastable children, would have been able to fathom the type of people who would be reading their story a hundred years down the line. A hundred years! It’s amazing to think of that and think how the power of words and storytelling can survive long beyond their first conception, no matter how much the world might change around them.

The Bastable family are down on their luck. The silver has been sold, the servants have left, the children pulled out of school. Pocket money has dried up, and there are no more cab rides or dinner parties or new dresses for the girls. Thus it is clear to the six Bastable children that something must be done: they must restore the family fortunes. But how? Answer: through a series of somewhat naïve and hair-brained schemes that extends from digging for buried treasure to rescuing old gentlemen from Highwaymen, kidnapping, going into business, publishing poetry in the newspaper, and dowsing. With varying degrees of success and disaster, so the children are left largely to entertain themselves and their reader from page to page, as told in a sweet mishmash of first and third person perspective by one of the children, who employs a certain amount of hindsight and, amusingly, is always certain to explain that he knew what was the ‘right’ thing all along.

E. Nesbit is perhaps best known for The Railway Children and Five Children and It, and The Story of the Treasure Seekers possesses a similar feeling of timelessness. Reading it does feel a little old-fashioned to begin with, but after the first couple of chapters that sense went out of the window and I was swept up by the sheer wonder of the children’s imagination and their capacity for play.

The Bastables are, of course, extremely good children, and their kindness and consideration for others (especially for those who they believe are less well off than themselves) is ultimately the key to finding their sought-upon treasure – typically moralistic for this era of children’s writing, but heartening too. What really stood out for me though, was their role playing, their innovativeness and their imagination – and their ability to get adults to play along with them. Perhaps their father can no longer afford to send them to school, but I would argue that an active imagination is as equally important as a sit-down education (or, alternately, I would perhaps argue that education is best served when it actively engages the imagination).

It’s engaging and sweet, and while there are inevitably some old-fashioned ideals in the story’s pages – the boys, for instance, do not cry, while other particylar behaviours are deemed inappropriate for girls – these things only popped up here and there and didn’t override the fun of the story. The edition of The Treasure Seekers I read is a beautiful new publication by Hesperus Press, just one of a new collection of children’s classics to be made available over the coming year, and I was delighted to discover that another on the list for publication is The Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marryat, a book which I had entirely forgotten about until it was mentioned by one of the Bastable children in The Treasure Seekers. It’s going on my list.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch

OhMyGod, I love Locke Lamora. The Republic of Thieves is the third and much anticipated outing for this fantastic character and his fellow ‘Gentleman Bastard’, Jean Tannen. Thief, trickster and con man, whatever scheme you can dream of, you can pretty much guarantee that the Gentleman Bastards have already been there, done that. Locke Lamora’s more than your average loveable rogue, and not only because you can’t help loving him a whole lot more than average, but also because he’s the best of the best.

Or is he? Things do seem to have been going poorly for Locke and Jean in recent years, and now he’s being twisted and turned - mostly against his will - and pitted against the one person most likely to beat him in any game: the elusive Sabetha. Anyone who’s read Locke’s earlier adventures, The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies, will be primed for the proper introduction of Sabetha, long lost Gentleman Bastard and long lost love of Locke’s Life. Who is she? What happened between them? All will be revealed in the following pages via Scott Lynch’s typical style of modern mayhem coupled with childhood flashbacks.

Reading The Republic of Thieves has been like getting reacquainted with old friends – friends who you’d kind of forgotten who totally awesome they are because it’s been so long since you last saw them. It was, however, absolutely worth the wait – I was a little worried when I first opened the book that the story would be overshadowed by Lynch’s personal difficulties (the reason, I understand, for the large gap in time between books), but before I knew what was happening he’d transported me straight back there in all it’s grit and glory, just as I remembered it from the past. More of the grit and less of the glory, though, perhaps!

Locke’s world is one of fantasy and yet it’s not entirely fantastical – the lands are a little different, the people are a little different, there is the Eldren legacy and there is magic, but everything else pretty much works just the same as our own world. Gradually, though, book by book, Lynch is revealing a little more of the fantasy element, and The Republic of Thieves is particularly rich with hints of the Eldren and questions about their history. How did they build the magnificent glass structures that have endured for the thousands of years that they have? What happened to the Eldren themselves – were they wiped out or did they simply leave? Why, and how?

And will Locke and Sabetha ever manage to sort themselves out? She is certainly a conundrum – though she features strongly in this volume, she remains rather hard to understand and interpret, changeable and quick to burn as she is, perhaps because as strong as Locke’s love for is, he doesn’t entirely understand her either. Lot’s of food for thought for future volumes – of which I hope there will be many. Witty, fun, and totally engaging, I rather like the idea of spending my lifetime getting to know these wonderful characters and this intriguing world in ever more detail.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, by Holly Black

I thought that ‘dark fantasy’ had seen it’s day, that it had been wrung dry, but somehow Holly Black has taken this genre, twisted it around, turned it upside down, and created something entirely new, fresh and exciting. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a little like a mix between True Blood and Twilight, simultaneously pulling the same strings whilst also making something new. It’s raw and exciting; the vampires are bad – very bad – and the world Black has dreamed up is eerily similar to our own and yet entirely changed.

When Tana wakes up the morning after the party, the house is strangely quiet. Normally her friends would be jostling and laughing, recounting tales from the night before, but as Tana emerges into the day she finds the worst possible scene: a window open, the party-goers dead. All except one: her ex-boyfriend, Aidan, trussed up in one of the bedrooms, a vampire trussed up on the floor next to him.

Tana’s world is one where the vampire virus has spread into the wider population. A world where you lock your doors at dusk and don’t open them again until the sun rises. A world where cities have sealed-off ghettos – Coldtowns – keeping the vampire scourge at bay. New rules apply both inside and outside the Coldtowns; vampires are simultaneously worshipped and feared; and if you get bitten and the Cold takes hold you can be sure that everyone you love will be in danger.

I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this book – Tana is the perfect balance of strong heroine acting in the moment versus naïve girl running from her past, trying her best to find the better future and protect those she loves. Black’s writing and the speed of the plot completely sucked me in – the continuous changes of fortune, the black, white and grey characters dancing in and out of the storyline, the intriguing history of both the vampire Gavriel and the vampire menace. I’m fairly good at unpicking plots, seeing where they’re going to lead, but at several points in this story I really didn’t know who was misleading who, who knew who was telling the truth, or who was going to come out the winner.

Anyone can enter a Coldtown, but no-one can ever leave. After she finds Aidan tied up on the bed, everything changes for Tana – for the second time in her life – and while she may have a plan, who knows what turns of fate are going to get in the way of her seeing it through. I liked lots of things about this book, not least the fabulous new take on the vampire genre, Black’s witty banter, and the tentative feelings between Tana and Gavriel, but also the fact that while in some ways Tana’s world could be considered post-apocalyptic – struggling against a mass epidemic with no cure – instead of falling to its knees, it remains a fully functioning modern society, simply one that has adjusted it’s ways accordingly.

I have one simple question: Will there be more?

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The School for Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani

The School for Good and Evil has been one of those sneaky summer bestsellers that seems to have utterly captured the hearts of a whole bunch of 10 - 13 year olds, so I thought I’d give it a read to find out why.

In Sophie and Agatha’s world, the land of fairytales is all too real. Every four years, two children are stolen from their village in the dead of night and taken away to attend the School for Good and Evil. For most villagers this is something to be feared, by Sophie dreams of being taken, desperate to prove her worth in the School for Good. But when the night of reckoning arrives and it seems as if her dreams are about to come true, a terrible mistake is made. Or is it a mistake? For while Sophie has been snatched by the Schoolmaster, she’s been delivered to the School for Evil, and her reclusive, witchy friend has been delivered to the School for Good.

I really love the idea of showing that good and evil rarely conform to the stereotypical packages that society, literature and myth traditionally place them in. To approach it in this way is a very intriguing concept, and I wondered how successful Soman Chainani would be in bringing it fully to life. The story he’s written is a bit of a mixed bag, sometimes striking out against the stereotypes, sometimes conforming to them. As Sophie becomes ever more determined to prove she should be in the School for Good, becoming more and more devious in her attempts to win the prince, her looks gradually turn from beatific princess to craggy hag. Meanwhile, as Agatha becomes ever more determined to help her friend and save the school from the path down which Sophie is steering it, she conversely loses her ‘outsider appearance’, ultimately wowing the other students with her beauty – although, in Chainani’s favour, this beauty is shown to have been hers all along, she simply didn’t know how to ‘be’ it before.

Chainani builds his story around the traditional fairytale arc, simultaneously using fairytale elements and trying to work against them, which must have been an incredibly difficult balance to strike. My assumption was that this would be a story which tried to show that the Cinderella aspects of fairytales aren’t relevant to real life – that how you look isn’t representative of the person you are, that a girl mustn't have a boyfriend in order to be considered worthwhile, and Chainani does touch upon this. Perhaps, though, my assumptions were wrong – rather, they were hopes. Perhaps Chainani’s intention was purely to write an amusing and adventurous story set in a fairytale world with a twist. And this he has certainly done. While I personally found it a little hard going in places, really disliked the Sophie character from beginning to end, and clearly would have liked to have seen more substance, it is definitely a book that is capturing the imaginations of its intended audience. That alone is a significant achievement, though it’s not a book I personally feel inspired to recommend. Am I being harsh? Is any reading is good reading? This book is a cunning and rip-roaring adventure, but I’m afraid there is simply something about it that doesn’t sit quite right with me - but maybe I just need to be 10 years old again.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Metropolis, by Shaun Tan

Who says colouring is just for children or art just for adults?

Shaun Tan is an author-artist with a huge cultural following, whose stories and pictures have a fantastically surreal approach. In Metropolis he’s created a brand new piece of artwork that shows a mash up of organic and mechanical creatures that grow across the page into a living, pulsing cityscape. This is art as detailed and intricately imagined as any other, but the twist? It’s all in black and white, waiting for it’s new owner to add colour – to make it their own with their own unique layer of life.

Metropolis is just one example of a wonderful new range of art/colouring books, the Pictura collection. Unwrap the cover, open it up and fold it out – the Pictura books take the form of a long concertina that you can stretch out to make a long mural. Metropolis uses the whole length to tell a story, the birth of a city, it’s teenage years, adult years, and ultimate demise, while other Picturas seem to take the form of individual panels that you could separate into a collection of different images should you wish.

I may be in my thirties, but after a busy day at work, I find that stopping to do half an hour’s colouring just before bed settles my mind and I always sleep better on the evenings that I do this. Honestly! The only problem is that I’ve had Metropolis sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks now and I’m a little afraid to start colouring - because I’ve got a brain freeze around the fear that whatever I do won’t live up to the wondrousness of the starting artwork. The key to overcoming this fear, though, is printed inside the front cover: “Make mistakes; make it your own,” it says. And that’s the truth of the matter: there is no right or wrong, and the beauty of the Pictura is that whatever colours I choose, whether I colour lightly or heavily, that will give it its own, special life.

I do think this is such an inspired idea. When reading novels, we attach our own interpretation to them, take from them what we choose or what is important to us. Here, you can do that in a much more literal sense. What story does the Metropolis tell you? Colour it all, colour bits of it; use pencils, paints, pens, whatever you like; none of the above or all of the above. But, perhaps most importantly, whatever your age: relish it.

Check out to look at the different pictures to choose from.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

This Song Will Save Your Life, by Leila Sales

This Song Will Save Your Life is a perfect example of what I love about young adult writing: it has got everything I look for in a teen coming-of-age type story, so much so that I read it in almost one sitting. Morgan Matson, Sarah Dessen and Jenny Han commonly write this type of book too, so I’m very happy to have another author to call on when that’s just the kind of story I crave.

Elise is your average teenage girl except, for some unbeknownst reason, she’s unable to fit in. All she wants is to be included, to have friends, to not be the outsider. And so she spends her summer learning how to be cool – watching the right TV shows, picking out the right clothes, reading the right magazines. But life, of course, doesn’t work out the way we want it to, and when she returns to school all of her efforts - all of that work and research - none of it makes the slightest difference.

Time passes. Elise, to escape school and parental pressures, takes to long walks around the town at night. And there, out of the darkness, she stumbles upon an underground dance club. Suddenly, here is a place where she can be herself, where she makes friends, and where the young DJ takes her under his wing, tapping into Elise’s love of music and introducing her to the art of the DJ. Soon, Elise’s weekly visit to Start becomes the highlight of her week, the thing that helps her get through the school day, but she has to sneak around behind her parents’ backs to get there. And just when the biggest and best opportunity presents itself, the real world clocks back in and threatens to steal it all away again. Will she lose everything? Or can she find a way to have the best of both worlds?

Elise is a girl that surely everyone can relate to: she just wants to belong. She’s trying desperately to understand the multitude of unwritten rules that will enable this and when she finds a place where the rules fit her it’s like a gift. Leila Sales has written a story that captures the wants and needs of every girl, tapping into those hidden feelings and desires we all hold within our hearts. It is insightful and realistic - well, ok, so becoming an overnight teenage DJ sensation might not be terribly realistic for most of us, but the way that Elise and those around her are and how they respond to events is (or feels) realistic. For instance, though suave DJ ‘This Charming Man’ winds his wiley way through the story and into Elise’s head, he does so without taking charge of Elise’s story or choices, a decision on Sales’ part that is excellently down-to-earth no matter how much we might all yearn for a Cinderella ending to our stories.

Whether a sunny summer day or a wintry wet one, This Song Will Save Your Life is a wonderful piece of escapism in which we can all dream about banishing loneliness to the edges of our world, and there isn't a single thing I'd change about it. I’ll definitely be looking out for Sales’ other books.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

I read a really excellent review for The Interestings which was instrumental in my picking it up to read, predominantly because of the reviewer’s gently scathing view of how books about families were looked down upon until men started writing books about families. Meg Wolitzer, obviously, is a woman and has, according to the reviewer, been writing excellent books about families for several years and because it is now – thanks to those male writers out there – ‘cool’ to be writing about families, her newest offering is set to make her name more solidly recognized within the public and literary domain.

As for 'The Interestings', they are a group of teenaged New Yorkers who attend a yearly arts camp and strike up a set of friendships and intimacies that will follow most of them far into their adult lives. From innocent beginnings, however, a dramatic act a couple of years into their group life sets waves rolling through their future  that, while they may get smaller as time passes, never fully disappear. Chopping and changing between past and present, young and middle-aged Interestings, we see the changing of their lives, the ebb and flow of their friendships, the good and the bad within each of them.

We have Cathy, a talented dancer, but cursed by her body shape to never be more in that arena beyond her teenage years, and after ‘the event’ she drops out of their group physically, though perhaps not emotionally. Secondly, Goodman, Cathy’s occasional paramour, and the cause of all the trouble. Ash, Goodman’s sister, a fey hypocrite who lies to her husband about Goodman’s disappearance and refuses (despite the pursuit throughout her life for women’s equality) to even consider the possibility of Goodman’s guilt – a man who never grows up, relying instead on his family to provide for him and never taking responsibility for a single action he makes. Or perhaps Ash is simply unable to consider Goodman’s guilt because of what it would mean?

Fourth, we have Ethan. Ethan is Ethan, and that’s about all there is to it. He gets caught up in the opportunities afforded him, and if he lies to his wife on occasion or struggles to connect with his son, hiding behind his work, is it any worse than Ash’s lies and denials? Jonah, meanwhile, spends his entire life overshadowed by the events of his tweens. Would it have been any different for him if he had told somebody what happened? Or would he still feel the same about it all anyway?

And, lastly, Jules. She is so determined and desperate to be away from what she feels is her small family and small life, she abandons it at the drop of a hat to infuse herself in the busy and glamorous city life of her 'Interestings' friends. Ironic that she winds ups spending so much of her life struggling to make ends meet and envying Ash, even after she grows up.

Each member of The Interestings is likeable and unlikeable, each one of them trying to escape something or find something. Is Jules cruel in the abandonment of her childhood? It’s ironic that she’s so desperate to grow up when she is young, only to spend much of her adult life desperate recapture those feelings she had when The Interestings first came together, trampling everyone in her way to get what she thinks she wants only to find it’s not what she thought it would be once she gets there. Is this what we are all really like? I guess so: the good bits and the bad bits; perhaps it’s only that by reading five, six lives condensed into 500 pages makes everything so much more apparent, human behaviors more alarming somehow than how we see each day as we take on our own lives.

The passing of time and the changing of the New York streets was perhaps most interesting to me, along with the subtle feminism that Wolitzer works into the book: just because you’ve slept with a person before doesn’t mean it’s not rape if a girl says no this time, or asks you to stop; and the fact that any media attention Ash receives for her theatre work always comes with the addendum of who her husband is, her work never held up purely for it’s own merit, as if she is worth that bit more merely by being married to who she is married to.

The Interestings, thus, is an intriguing and thoughtfully interwoven story of life, love and friendship, the twists and turns we cannot predict, the choices we do or don’t take. Life is an odd thing and Wolitzer shows this without reservation.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The Great Unexpected, by Sharon Creech

The Great Unexpected is a strange and magical story in which I was never entirely sure what was real and what was imagined. Two apparently separate storylines run alongside each other, one surrounding two elderly ladies in Ireland plotting some sort of grand revenge for who-knows-what, and one surrounding two odd little girls in the dusty little American town of Blackbird Tree, a town with what must surely be an abnormally high number of orphans, peculiar residents and unusual happenings.

It all begins when a body falls out of a tree and lands at Naomi’s feet. Who is this strange boy, Finn? Where did he come from and what is he doing in Blackbird Tree muttering about gold, rooks, and orchards? Finn himself is obviously somewhat unexpected, and a good number of other unexpected things take place in the following pages, some of them good and pleasant surprises, some of them sad ones, as Naomi and Lizzie both go about their daily lives whilst getting gradually more caught up in the mystery of Finn.

As for the unexpected events, they are each and every one, for the most part, entirely normal happenings, and yet Sharon Creech makes each one special and strange and magical, and exactly how she manages to do so is as much a mystery as many of the little connections flowing throughout the story are. I think perhaps life is full is full of mysterious and wondrous things, certainly if you take each thing at face value without trying to interpret or place too much emphasis on them, and Creech captures this feeling, this innocence, in her characters, especially the young ones, Naomi, Lizzie and Finn. They are able to turn the littlest, everyday things into something magical and special – an especial achievement for children whose lives are far from easy – and pass this on to the reader. Much like books by Neil Gaiman, you feel as if anything could happen inside this book, that everything is connected...

I thought about all the things that had to have spun into place in order for us to be alive and for us to be right there, right then. I thought about the few things we thought we knew and the billions of things we couldn’t know, all spinning, whirling out there somewhere.” (pg. 219)

Meanwhile, what is this wondrous plan that old Mrs Kavanagh is cooking up across the ocean? What is her connection to Blackbird Tree? And, if any, is Finn’s connection to Mrs Kavanagh? The Great Unexpected is a slow burner of a story with a fairytale ending, an apt title, and a mysteriouser and mysteriouser middle. Strange yet lovely, and beautifully packaged.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Split Second, by Sophie McKenzie

Split Second is an excellent young adult thriller set in a near-future London, where austerity measures have been extended to the nth degree and where extremist groups are popping up on every street corner.

When a devastating bomb goes off in a Saturday market Nat and Charlie’s lives are changed forever: Charlie’s mum is killed, Nat’s brother thrown into a coma. Nat, though, has an added worry: he’s sure that his brother, instead of being an innocent bystander, was actually the bomber, working for the group that claims responsibility: The League of Iron. Charlie is hell-bent on revenge for her mum’s death, Nat is desperate for answers to his brother’s betrayal, and soon they are each drawn into the dark underworld of London, of terrorism, and the blurred lines of justice.

With short, action packed chapters told from Nat and Charlie’s alternating points-of-view, it’s almost impossible not to feel like you’re racing the same clock our two protagonists are. Recruited by the mysterious EFA – English Freedom Army - a group purportedly trying to stop the violence being spread by terrorists such as the League of Iron, will they question what they’re being taught to do, what they’re being shown, or will their hate for the League spur them each on, blindly?

I got on well with both of the characters, my only niggle being Charlie’s complete refusal to be even slightly considerate toward her cousin – obviously I can see why the two of them grated and why Charlie responded the way she did, but I’d like to think if it was me in Charlie’s position I’d be a little more tolerant! But then, I’m not Charlie and haven’t experienced what Charlie does.

Sophie McKenzie also does a great job of keeping us guessing about the right and wrong sides – if there even is such a clear delineation as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – and about who is or isn’t trustworthy. And, of course, there is a mother of a twist at the end, which I kind of did and kind of didn’t see coming: she took my expectations for a dramatic ending and multiplied them. Expect twists, turns, a strong dose of betrayal, and a great British setting.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

More Than This, by Patrick Ness

Is it a part of the human condition that we all feel, somehow, that there has to be ‘More Than This’? More than what we have, more than what we know, right now? But if there is more, what is it? Where is it? And what if it’s not at all what we’re expecting?

A boy is dying. He’s drowning, spluttering, gasping; it’s not an easy death. He dies. And then he wakes up. Is this heaven? Hell? Or somewhere else? He’s all alone. Or is he? Everything he thought he knew about the world, about himself, his parents, is about to be brought into focus and questioned. Everything you thought YOU knew about the world, yourself, your parents, is about to be questioned. What if what we think is real, isn’t? What if a choice was made, years ago, that you can’t undo?

When Seth dies, he wakes up in a place both familiar and fathomless. Just when he thinks he is beginning to understand it, a new layer and then a new layer and then a new layer is revealed. Even when you think you know - when Seth thinks he knows - what is going on, you are still left wondering whether it’s the whole truth or just another layer. Patrick Ness plays with this and bends our perception of reality in a multitude of ways, blurring the boundaries of time, of life and death, of the virtual and the real. Although packed with action, he writes in a way that is kind of slow and steady, but instead of drawing away the intensity, it makes it feel as if we’re viewing the story through a glass, darkly, adding texture and another subtle layer of the surreal to Seth’s experiences.

In More Than This, Ness has created a world that is at once explained and unexplained. Is it the future, or is it the now? He simultaneously answers all the questions his writing raises - almost as they pop into my mind – yet without actually really answering them; it’s a book that could be filled with holes, but by the end, none remain. And it’s a book that at first glance is something entirely different from his most popular previous work – The Chaos Walking trilogy – but which quietly nudges its way close to the ideas and techniques used and interpreted in that previous world.

More Than This is surely the most extraordinary book of the year. It is mind boggling, it will strip all speech from your brain. It will make you want to grab hold of Patrick Ness and shake him and ask ‘Why?’ over and over again. But it’s a book that cannot be explained without ruining it - I cannot précis the plot any further, or give you a run-down of the settings or the characters because in order to appreciate its sheer wonder and brilliance you have to experience the unfolding story for yourself. The most important thing that I can tell you about More Than This is that you simply have to read it.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Downside Up, by Hayley Long

Downside Up by Hayley Long pretty much screams tweenage girl from beginning to end, and is perfect for anyone that liked Catherine Wilkins’ My Best Friend and Other Enemies or Holly Smale’s Geek Girl, from the clever use of word scatterings, thought bubbles, tweets and sarcasm to the completely wondrous fun of getting to read half of the book upside down. Yes, folks, upside down (or should that be downside up?). Ah, the joy of those second takes as people realize your book is the wrong way up, the looks on their faces… priceless.

Ronni’s life has been turned kinda upside down before the story even really begins, since the day that her dad walked out. Ever since, she’s been exerting control by playing up with her mum, staying in bed as long as possible, acting out at school, and generally living in a fantasy land where she’s a mega famous pop star, a world she slips into at will when the real world gets too much to handle. But when Ronni gets a bump on the head, she seems to have been knocked into an alternate reality where she really is a mega famous pop star. A mega famous pop star surrounded by people who are strangely familiar and yet somewhat different… But is being a mega famous pop star all it’s really cracked up to be? Especially when your biggest nemesis is there on the next stage, taunting you, taking over from you…

Hayley Long brings Ronni to life with wonderful clarity, acutely tapping into the pain and emotion of big family issues whilst writing a story that is fun and funny, and seamlessly blending Ronni’s real world with the fantasy one. She is the epitome of the teenage conundrum: she simultaneously wants people to listen to her, but doesn’t actually want to talk (though I don’t think this particular emotional status is actually exclusive to teenagers). Then there is spikey haired Nan to contend with, and Yuri, who is a slightly strange, quite tall, quite thin and quite ordinary looking, but generally invisible Russian boy – isn’t he? So why does he keep turning up? Ronni, though, only has eyes for Stuart – or StuBo - who is generally acknowledged as the best-looking boy in the entire world, if not the entire universe. Isn’t he?

Overall, Downside Up is a brilliantly packaged and cunningly told story that is sure to get the thumbs up by 11-14 year old-ish girls around the country.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is such a wonderful book. It’s a book that makes you question worlds and question reality, and yet everything it makes you question feels innately true and real. It’s simple but intense, magical but scary, dark but hopeful. It’s perfect.

It’s been well publicized that the story of Ocean began to form in Neil Gaiman’s mind when he discovered that a lodger in his childhood home had, one night, stolen their car, driven it down the road, and committed suicide inside it. And, essentially, this is where Ocean begins too. When our narrator’s lodger commits this very same act, it opens up a rift, awakens an old sort of evil, and mistakes compounding mistakes brings it into our world. But is it truly evil? What does it want? Can our narrator avoid its clutches? Can they put the world back to rights? And what will be the price to do so?

“I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. 
But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them” 
        – Maurice Sendak, 1993

This choice of introductory inscription to Ocean speaks volumes, somehow encompassing all that is to follow. Our young narrator is about to learn terrible things about the world. It has the same sort of creep factor that Gaiman created in his earlier book, Coraline – you know that something is terribly, terribly wrong with what is happening, but no-one else seems to notice. Only the Hempstock family, who live on the farm down the lane and on whose ground the ocean lies, can help. They are a family who are as equally unknowable as they make perfect sense. It seems entirely normal - and right - that the strange Hempstock family should exist.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is beautiful and terrifying and touching and utterly, totally, overwhelming good. Everything is up for question and yet it is hard to pinpoint exactly what I should be questioning. Gaiman writes about a world in which the abnormal, the magical, the mysterious, makes perfect sense. Knowing the origins of the story and the way in which the narrator remains unnamed leads us quietly to question how much of this story is based on reality. But it can’t be – can it? In any other circumstances such a thought would be preposterous, and yet Gaiman’s beautiful evocation of this tale makes it seem not only entirely valid but a completely reasonable possibility.

Monday, 23 September 2013

The River Singers, by Tom Moorhouse

Sylvan, his brother and his two sisters are water voles, river singers, their lives tapped out by the rhythms of the Great River. Sylvan is desperate for adventure, desperate to get out and into the big wild world, and when he steps outside for the first time he’s assailed by new sights and sounds and scents. But the first trip out is also a lesson in the dangers of the world – predators are everywhere and singers must always be alert and careful. This is a warning, too, for what is to come: right from this first trip onto the river bank, there are hints that all is not as it should be in their world – an unusual scent, a missing neighbor, a twist in the river’s song.

So begins the journey of a lifetime for four small voles. When, in the dark of night, tragedy strikes, the singers must make the almost impossible choice to search for a new home. After a dramatic encounter with the treacherous Mistress Valerie that is sure to get youngsters sitting on the edge of their seat, the singers leave their childhoods behind and start to make their way downstream, entering a new world and beginning a new adventure. Through encounters with rats, otters, foxes, mink, and other voles, calm and turbulent waters, will they find a new place for themselves? Will they escape the terror that stalks the riverbank behind them?

The River Singers is being likened by many to Richard Adams' modern classic Watership Down, and I can see where the connections lie, but while it is quite dark and scary in places, The River Singers does not go as far down this route as Watership Down does, forming a comparatively lighter and considerably shorter story that would be perfect for young readers of around 9+. Secondly, a significant undertone in Watership Down is that of human destruction and terror, whilst all the dangers our cute little voles meet in The River Singers are principally sourced from nature. Although, having said that, while the singers never meet humans or come across human constructs, the two main problems the singers face are actually a result of human interference: the introduction to the landscape of American Mink and the reduction of their natural habitat, both of which have contributed to the fact that today the water vole is Britain’s fastest declining wild mammal - as author Tom Moorhouse well knows from his day job at The Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford.

What Moorehouse has achieved with The Rivers Singers is a wonderful animal tale that quietly explores the interconnection of nature without being in any way, shape or form preachy. I loved the connection Sylvan feels with the Great River, which they name Sinethis – he loves to listen to her song, and it’s almost innately understood that she both gives and takes life, depending on her fickle mood.
Each of the four voles are independent characters, though Sylvan and his brother Orris are perhaps more rounded and easier to interpret than the two girls, feisty as the girls are; and each of the other characters we meet are wonderfully individual as well, from the funny speech forms of Fodur the rat, the playful otter, the paranoia of Mistress Marjoram, the openness of Camilla.

This book is smart and witty and faces the realities of life and death head on but without over-analysing them. A pleasure to read. I can picture the cartoon adaptation now: little voles nibbling on stems and reeds, trekking through the foliage alongside a quiet Sinethis, fighting for the surface in her rapids. Sinethis sings to the singers – but what does she sing?

Friday, 13 September 2013

Shaman, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Shaman is breathtaking. For a book that, in it’s most basic interpretation, is about a boy – or young man – growing up in the ice age of 32,000 years ago, following the daily, monthly, and yearly routines from hunting and fishing to shoring up for the winter, it is a compelling and epic piece of storytelling.

A boy by our standards, a man by ancient standards, Loon is twelve at the beginning of the story, and we are introduced to him as he’s sent off by his pack, his family, on his Wander: two weeks alone on the land to fend for himself. He is stripped of everything he owns before being turned out in the cold and the next few days are dedicated not just to gathering together the things he needs to survive, but also evading the danger that constantly lurks outside the safety of camp – the cold, the animals, the Neanderthals. Through Loon’s travels we gradually learn the intricacies of ice-age living: family dynamics, pack dynamics, the turning of the seasons, the interaction of Homo sapiens with Neanderthals and with the animals and land they cohabit, the constant pressure to find food, the shaman’s role.

It’s a strange and fascinating telling; a story that begins as a simple recanting of daily life, but which takes a turn in the middle as events converge and Loon and Thorn, chief shaman of Wolf pack, must make a life or death decision after Loon’s wife is stolen by a pack of ice-cold Northers. What will Loon do? How will his pack respond? Can Loon follow, and if he does, how will he get Elga back? From following the Northers’ tracks north, to a cold cold winter in the shadow of a giant ice shelf, this phase of Loon’s path to Shaman-hood culminates in a dramatic race for life across the tundra, down mountainsides, over raging rivers, and through forests, all the while pursued by howling wolves, angry men and the pangs of hunger while Loon fights with injuries old and new, Thorn with instinct to protect his pack versus the instinct to do right by the spirits. The decisions made here will change everything forever, as his wander changed everything forever, as his marriage changed everything forever.

I am forever fascinated by the lines between science fiction and fiction – why is one author classed as sci-fi while another isn’t? Where does the distinction lie? Kim Stanley Robinson writes the kind of literary books that should be placed alongside ‘mainstream’ authors such as Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, J G Ballard – and Shaman is no exception. Atwood traditionally refers to her more sci-fi-esque fiction as ‘speculative’ rather than sci-fi, which is a very apt description, and this is absolutely the category to which I think Kim Stanley Robinson’s work most closely matches.

I found myself biting back tears in several places. Who were these people really? How much is Robinson’s writing based on imagination, how much on research? Do these exact paintings exist? Shaman is not the first time that an author has recreated ancient times – Jean Auel and Michelle Paver come first to mind – but it still feels unusual and fresh for a science fiction author to turn his powers of world-building away from the future and into the past. Robinson is visionary in the way he builds this world and these characters, from the cold winters to hungry springs to summer eight eight festivals, the snow and the wind, the caribou hunt, the impenetrable blackness of the caves where they paint. This is a tale of life on the edge, life in the extreme, and it’s beautiful.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Dead Man's Cove, by Lauren St John

Laura Marlin dreams of being a detective – just like Matt Walker in her favourite stories. But when she expresses this wish to her new guardian, a long lost uncle, she’s surprised at the vehemence with which this kind man reacts: “Well, that’s about the worst idea I’ve ever heard.” But for Laura, being a detective is what comes naturally, and so she can’t help but question the events and people around her in her new home, St. Ives.

Why is her uncle so secretive? Where does he go at night? What is the deal with her new friend Tariq – where do his mysterious bruises come from? Who is leaving secret notes for Laura in the sand - is their writer really in danger or is it just a prank for the new girl? Why is she forbidden from going to Dead Man’s Cove? And is the nasty housekeeper really who she says she is?

Dead Man’s Cove taps into Cornwall’s smuggling past in a very modern way, creating a wonderful little mystery that romps along, introducing not only a wonderful new heroine for youngsters to engage with but also an evil new nemesis in the form of terrorist gang The Straight As. Can Laura unravel all the strings of the mystery that her life has suddenly become tangled up in? Is being inside a real life detective story all it's cracked up to be? And – even if she can defeat the Straight As and save her friend today, something tells me they’ll be back again, causing more trouble in the future…

Lauren St John writes an engaging adventure mystery that has already captured many young people’s hearts and minds and surely will capture even more in the years to come. Read Dead Man’s Cove if you dare.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, by Emily Danforth

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is one of the most exquisitely written and outstanding books for young adults I’ve ever read. It’s like an adult book written for teenagers, a book that treats its readers not as ‘older children’ but as mature and intelligent young people. Emotionally charged from beginning to end, it’s a coming of age novel that takes the world of bigotry to task without being preachy; a LGBT novel that is only barely about being LGBT. Rather, it is about figuring out who you are and sticking to your guns no matter what anybody else tries to tell you is right or wrong.

Cameron is almost 12 on the day she kisses a girl for the first time. It’s also the day before her parents die in a tragic car crash and when she’s told the news, her first reaction is to feel relief they’ll never find out about Irene. Her second reaction is to throw up on the bathroom floor. This is the beginning of a chain of events that will follow Cameron through the next four years of her life. A chain of events that, when she’s 15 years old, will cause her guardian, Aunt Ruth, a born again evangelical Christian with some pretty strict views on how a wholesome person should live their life, to pack Cameron off to God’s Promise Christian School and Centre for Healing. A school which deems homosexuality a sin and a sickness, and of which it is their mission to ‘cure’.

We follow Cameron through these four years, witnessing her loss, the friends she makes, the beer she drinks, the summers of swim team and hay rides and prom and building refuge and kissing boys and kissing girls. When Coley comes to town, it’s love at first sight for Cameron. But will Coley ever reciprocate Cameron’s feelings? And what will happen if or when she does?

While The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a story about sexuality, it’s also about far more than that: it’s a story about life and growing up. Her sexuality is simply one of the many different parts that make Cameron who she is, not a single defining factor. Nearly every character is as rich as Emily Danforth’s writing. I wanted to hate Ruth, but she does what she does only because she genuinely believes it to be the right thing, to be her responsibility, which is actually just very sad. And I wanted to hate Reverend Rick, but at the end of the day he’s surely just as confused as the kids he’s trying to change, yet remains true and compassionate at the same time.

Meanwhile, the themes of shame and desire and betrayal weave their way through the different characters and different events, from Cameron’s shame at her reaction to her parents deaths, to Coley’s shame at being ‘found out’, while desire pumps through almost every page – Cameron’s desire for Coley, Jamie’s desire for Cameron, Ruth’s desire to make everything ‘right’ – except, of course that what is right for one person is not necessarily right for another. But shame is something other people make you feel for yourself, for not fitting their personal profile of who you should be. And who’s to say what desire should be? For each and every one of us desire is different. Danforth expresses all of these things and more with what feels like barely any effort at all on her part, and it’s wonderful to read.

As to Cameron’s miseducation, is it the part that leads up to God’s Promise, God’s Promise itself, or the whole caboodle? And what is miseducation anyway? In the context of Cameron Post, at least, I’d say it’s a misnomer, something that is controlled by one person’s perspective, much like everyone is so set on controlling Cameron’s innate being. For Cameron, God’s Promise is her miseducation; as far as Ruth is concerned it’s the time before God’s Promise – but each and every part of it, before, during, and after, goes toward Cameron finding out what she wants and what she’s willing to do to get what she knows is right for her, no matter what box the people around try to fit her into.

Undoubtedly, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is one of the best young adult books I’ve ever read with its clear and strong-willed storytelling; a piece of writing that is just out of this world, with not one word or sentence or idea is out of place. Everyone should read it.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Skull in the Wood, by Sandra Greaves

Have you ever been somewhere so empty and wild and desolate, it seems like you’re the only person in the whole world? Have you ever been somewhere so old and ancient, it feels like the trees and the rocks around you, the earth beneath your feet, are somehow alive? Breathing and listening and watching you? Welcome to Dartmoor. Welcome to the home of the Gabbleratchet, an ancient evil that sits and waits, biding time until the right people harbouring the right anger and resentment come along and awaken it from its slumber…

When Matt decides to escape the city and his unwanted step father and go to his uncle’s farm on Dartmoor for half term, he doesn’t realize what a simmering bird’s nest of family troubles he’ll be walking into and stirring up. Matt is selfish and bitter and wrapped up in his problems in much the same way that his cousin Tilda is. Everything precious to each of them is going pear-shaped. Tilda blames Matt for the many of the problems in her family, while Matt is incapable of seeing that Tilda’s problems are just as upsetting as his own. This is not a recipe for a happy household. And then they find the skull in the woods.

The skull – a curlew, with its elongated beak and hollow eye sockets – is simultaneously beautiful and creepy, simultaneously drawing the children in and repelling them. They both want possession of it, and it begins to exert a strange sort of power over each of them, pulling them even further in their different enmities. And to top it off, the old farmhand Gabe keeps talking about warning signs, portents, harbingers. But it’s just an old man’s silly tales – right?

The wild moor is the perfect place for this atmospheric tale. And atmospheric it certainly is. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Matt and Tilda, Sandra Greaves builds the tension masterfully, winding in the children’s anger with each other and with the world, hints at family enmity, hints at the old tales of the land on which they’re living, building the emotions – and the creep factor – into an edge-of-the-seat tale. Can the two children outrun this ancient hunt? Can they outrun their owns hurts? Can they step back into Old Scratch Woods, where the gabbleratchet resides, and bury the enmity for good?

The Skull in the Wood is an all-round excellent adventure-type story – though perhaps not for the faint of heart. And what an inspired idea to create a story around an old curse, tales of which amassed through the generations on dark and stormy nights.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

13 Little Blue Envelopes, by Maureen Johnson

Maureen Johnson is the sort of person that every young adult – and adult too – should look up to, not only for her often hilarious take on life, the universe and everything, but because she is smart and intelligent and is really good at showing people what is right and wrong about the world, frequently reminding us of issues of inequality and injustice that we all should be fighting. Oh, and she’s a pretty good writer too.

13 Little Blue Envelopes tells the tale of Ginny, the legacy that her slightly whack-a-doodle aunt has left her, and Ginny’s version of fulfilling it. In the first envelope, Aunt Peg tells Ginny to buy a ticket to England. In the second are instructions of where to go once she arrives there, which turns out to be the slightly unkempt flat of a slightly ruffled Englishman, Richard. The third envelope leads Ginny to kooky playwright Keith. She can only open an envelope once she’s completed the task set out in the previous one, and as the opened envelopes pile up, Ginny’s adventure gains pace and speed and the days merge together as she moves from a relatively sedate trip to Scotland to a mad dash through Europe that ends in disaster. Or does it?

Along the way Ginny meets new people, gets tangled up in other people’s affairs, sees a million new things, pushes her boundaries, and ultimately learns a bunch of new stuff about her aunt and – both gradually and all in one big rush – begins to come to terms with her grief. There are revelations and kisses, boats and trains, new friends and new family, sunrises and sunsets, twists and turns, rushes and rambles, and a whole lot of art.

13 Little Blue Envelopes is the perfect summery read for younger teens who are either waiting for or are already in the midst of the young flush of first love. It's pacey and quirky and has a hint of the fairytale, especially when it comes to Aunt Peg’s secret tower workroom. It wasn’t quite as good as I was hoping it would be – I didn’t feel that it was as sharp as Sarah Dessen’s books, for example, and I didn’t find it as engaging as Johnson’s more sinister and more sophisticated Shades of London series, but really that just makes it all the more perfect for the slightly younger teen audience. And I’m definitely planning to try The Key to the Golden Firebird, Johnson’s first book to be published, but which has only just become available in the UK. Oh, and The Last Little Blue Envelope too – because obviously I’ve got to find out what happens next...

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Severed Heads, Broken Hearts, by Robin Schneider

Ezra Faulkner has a theory: that everyone in their lifetime will encounter a personal tragedy. Something that will change them, something that will make them from one person into another, and after which only the ‘after’ will matter. Ezra, golden boy sports star, whose personal tragedy hits – literally – age seventeen.

Severed Heads, Broken Hearts is the aftermath, Ezra’s story as he comes to terms with his personal tragedy and finds out who he really wants to be. There are old friends and new friends; there are new experiences to try and old experiences to move past; and there is a girl, of course - a girl with her own personal tragedy. But what is it? Why is she hot one minute, cold the next? What is she so afraid of? Can Ezra unlock her aftermath at the same as he tries to figure out his?

Author Robin Schneider is being likened to John Green, and for good reason. Severed Heads is immensely readable and I raced through it no time at all. It doesn’t have quite the same depth as a John Green or A S King novel, but it has the same feel and the same good intentions, making it the perfect recommend for any John Green fan. I am quite tempted to read it a second time, and will definitely be looking out for future books by this author.

And the title? Well, it’s a reference to part of the story inside, obviously, though it’s a slightly unusual choice. Interestingly, in the US it appears this book is called The Beginning of Everything, which is much more clear-cut – I wonder why it’s been changed for the UK audience?

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Thursday's Children and Listen to the Nightingale, by Rumer Godden

I grew up reading the wonderful Rumer Godden – special favourites were Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, Little Plum and The Rocking Horse Secret, but until Virago re-released them earlier in the summer, neither my mum nor I had ever come across Thursday’s Children and Listen to the Nightingale, and when they arrived in the Waterstones children’s department where I work they immediately jumped out at me with their beautiful ballerina and ballerina pump patterned covers.

I’ve always loved stories about ballet, something which I think began with the wonderful classic, Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfeild, another one of those books that I read time and time again, along with just about anything else by her. Thursday’s Children and Listen to the Nightingale fall perfectly into this category of charming children’s stories that just ooze childhood idylls. Exactly why I find these stories so idyllic, I don’t know, especially considering that, really, they are anything but. In both Noel Streatfeild’s books and these by Rumer Godden, life is rarely anything but easy for our protagonists – often they are very poor, living on pennies, and they have to work very hard and make a lot of sacrifices to achieve their dreams. But maybe that is the very reason that I love them: because despite difficult beginnings they always have happy endings.

Thursday’s Children is the story of Doone. Youngest of six children, he was the accidental afterthought following a much-wanted girl child and thus is often ignored or forgotten or dismissed out of hand. Doone’s big sister Crystal is, by contrast, much doted upon and so, because they don’t know what else to do with him, Doone is taken along to watch while Crystal attends her dance class. But Doone is enraptured. By the dance and by the music. He watches and he learns and soon it becomes his dream to be a dancer too. First he just has to convince his mother and his father that he deserves the same chances as Crystal…

In Listen to the Nightingale we follow Lottie. She’s grown up dancing: her mother, before she died, was a dancer and her auntie is the wardrobe mistress at the renowned Holbein Theatre, where Lottie takes her lessons. But when the teaching academy part of Holbein’s must close, Lottie must continue her education at the elite Queen’s Chase, Her Majesty’s Junior Ballet School. Lottie loves the idea of Queen’s Chase, but it’ll mean giving away her beloved puppy, Prince. What will happen to Prince, and what will happen to Lottie as she enters this new world?

Although written about ten years apart, I read these two books one after the other, and it was interesting to note that there are minor crossovers between the two – principally Queen’s Chase and it’s coterie of staff (Doone also attends Queen’s Chase) – which was quite nice, although one character’s role, Ennis Glynn, didn’t quite match up between the two books. And although they were written nearly fifty and sixty years after Noel Streatfeild wrote Ballet Shoes, they certainly have a similar feel – timeless. I honestly couldn’t say what decade either Thursday’s Children or Listen to the Nightingale were intended to be set in, the only allusions to modernity being mention of a television set in Listen to the Nightingale, and the car that Doone’s family owns in Thursday’s Children. Because these children have much greater interests than watching telly and playing video games, and their families automatically travel by bus or underground to save money, that modern life rarely gets a glimpse outside the world of dance and the themes of understanding who you are and your place in the world, and fighting for what you believe in.

Perhaps I love these books because they are a sort of wish fulfillment for me, perhaps because they conjure a world in which everything seems simple (even when it’s not), perhaps because they are just lovely stories. Either way, it makes me want to own every single Noel Streatfeild book ever written and every single Rumer Godden book ever written. And, either way, I suspect I shall still be reading them even when I am 83.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon

The citadel of SciLon, 2059: a London familiar yet strange; a London controlled by Scion for 200 years, pitting 'unnatural' clairvoyants against normal, amaurotic folk. In this world, being clairvoyant is an everyday occurrence, but it’s also illegal, considered a disease, and if you are voyant you have only two choices: to become a pawn of the state, serving in their army for thirty years prior to compulsory execution, or to disappear into the underground and eek out a criminal life on the streets, hiding your true nature as far as you are able.

Paige is a particularly powerful clairvoyant, and she hides herself within the most powerful of the crime-lord gangs, the Seven Seals. But when she is cornered and captured by the state, everything she thought she knew about her world comes crumbling down: Scion is hiding a bigger secret than anyone could have guessed. In a prison she cannot possibly escape, a person named only by number – XX-59-40 - who can Paige trust?

The Bone Season has a little bit of everything – it’s a bit sci-fi, a bit fantasy, a bit dystopian, a bit mystery. Samantha Shannon has created a complex world both just like  ours and yet unrecognizable. She launches us right into the story and Paige’s life and at times, to begin with, it’s hard to follow all the detail, the terms and the divisions that are simply everyday for Paige, but as her story progresses, things are explained, the puzzles pieced together, and I found myself completely hooked. I was totally intrigued by Arcturus, Paige’s Warden in her new life - the mystery of who he is, who his race, the Rephaim, really are, what his intentions are (and yeah, ok, maybe I have a little crush on him too).

While all the pieces of the puzzle do fit together, I’m left feeling that I’m not sure I fully understand the world of Scion. It might be because there are things Paige doesn’t understand, or because Shannon’s imagination hasn’t been interpreted on paper as clearly as it’s present in her head. Paige is a character I got on with really easily, though I did feel frustrated with her here and there – sometimes she grasps information far quicker than I could as a reader, but at other times she seemed a bit slow on the uptake – for instance, even though it was quite clear from the word go that Arcturus was not like other Rephaim, it took a good 200 pages for Paige to get there. Although, credit where credit is due, this was basically because Paige was blinded by her hate, a perfectly respectable character flaw. However, this uncertainty was exacerbated by the fact that the passage of time was rather unclear – the structure of the storytelling made it seem as if only a couple of days had gone by, that Paige had only had one training session with Arcturus to develop her clairvoyancy powers, but it was then implied that several weeks had actually passed, which slightly threw me.

These are minor things though, and didn't detract from the experience of the book - for, while The Bone Season isn’t always as slick as it could be, it is a great new fantasy. I think it probably asks more questions than it answers, and brings ideas to fantasy writing that I haven’t seen before. The Rephaim dose out plenty of detail about their history, but how much of it should Paige believe? What exactly are the Emim? Who are the Scarred Ones? What is freedom worth? And in the land of Scion, can anyone be truly free?

Friday, 2 August 2013

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, by Matthew Quick

Today is Leonard Peacock’s 18th birthday and he has a plan. It’s not the average eighteen-year-old’s birthday plan, though. Leonard has four gifts to give out – he doesn’t expect to receive any himself, he doesn’t expect anyone to remember it’s his birthday – and then he’s going to rid the world of the person whom he hates most, followed shortly thereafter by the person whom he hates the second most: himself.

Right from the opening page, we know that Leonard is in a bad place, the contradictory image of a Nazi handgun and all that it represents placed next to an innocent, neutral bowl of breakfast cereal. Leonard himself takes a mad sort of pleasure in this, feeding on it; Matthew Quick using it to show us the destructive mental place Leonard is in. And then, slowly, like moving through molasses, Leonard moves through his day, distributing his four gifts to the people who have bumped up against his life. Not friends, exactly - not always, anyway – more simply, the people that acknowledge him. An elderly neighbor, an immigrant student, a preacher girl, his history teacher.

As Leonard moves through his day we see how he met these people, how they have or haven’t influenced him, the questions they’ve made him ask, the questions they’ve failed to ask. Strongly reminiscent of Jay Asher’s outstanding novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is a dark and heartbreaking read. We know what Leonard’s goal is, but is he going to go through with it? Will somebody stop him? And what happens if he gets there? The people he meets during the day question his unusual behavior, but then, for the most part, sweep it aside, just like he has always been swept aside. And what is the terrible secret that Leonard is keeping, that has brought him to this place? What is the hold over him that Asher Beal has?

Matthew Quick writes with the proficiency of John Green and his contemporaries, weaving in undercurrents of ideas that reflect and balance and expand upon the main storyline, whilst implying a deep understanding of what it feels to be at the bottom of the social pile. There is the running theme of the Nazi regime, introduced by Leonard’s handgun and carried through by history teacher Herr Silverman’s lectures and thought-provoking scenarios, from the use of symbols to show power and belonging to the concept of doubling – the ability of humans to behave in seemingly contradictory ways, something which everyone in Leonard’s life, Leonard included, is clearly undertaking. There is the god debate – Leonard’s acquaintance, Lauren, is a fully-fledged god enthusiast; Leonard is not, and the outcome of this match-up inevitably results in more existential queries. There are the Humphrey Bogart quotes, most of which I fear went over my head, having not seen the movies they are referencing. And there are the letters from the future.

The letters from the future are one of two unusual quirks in Quick’s writing. The first letter appears seemingly randomly between two ‘normal’ chapters; it isn’t until later that we're shown where they come from. But, later again in the story, I found myself questioning whether this explanation is true - perhaps the letters really are what they claimed to be in the first place? I would like to think so, for Leonard’s sake anyway, if not for the rest of the world. Only in such well-executed fiction could I accept such an idea, something that in every day life would seem preposterous.

Quick’s second quirk are the sets of footnotes. Footnotes can be good, and can add an extra dimension to a story, but in this case they are my only criticism of Leonard Peacock. There are just too many of them. They broke up the flow of my reading too much and I found myself turning the page with an almost dread, waiting to see what footnotes were going to be there. And the thing with them is, the details would work just as well if they were contained with the main text. After all, you have to interrupt the main text to read the footnote anyway – why not just include it in the main text in the first place?

Quirks aside, reading Leonard is a dark and engaging experience; putting the book down at its end was like dragging myself back up into the daylight. It’s heartrending and unnerving and real, and its lack of any true conclusion is more reflective of life than surely any other ending could be, and makes it even more dark and sad and insightful than the alternatives. Read it and you won't be disappointed.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett

Eden: A planet shrouded in darkness. A colony living in stasis, unquestioningly repeating the annual ceremonies, living by the laws set five generations ago. Waiting for rescue. Waiting for Earth to return, to take them to a home they have never known. When will they come?

This is the world in which John Redlantern has grown up. Nobody questions the status quo. It is what it is. They do what they must to survive, to find food, though it gets harder every day as their numbers grow and their food sources dwindle. But John; John has different ideas. He thinks they should travel across Snowy Dark, explore beyond their safe circle, find out what other secrets Eden hides. But the Family Heads, Oldest and the Council, they live by the teachings of Angela: stay in Circle Valley and wait for Earth to come. This is what they were told and this is what they must do. Otherwise, when Earth comes, they will be left behind.

They have been waiting for 160 years and John, while he dreams of light and Earth just like everybody else does, can’t help but wonder: are they going to come at all? Probably not in his lifetime, he realises. He can’t help but question the laws and the reasoning behind them and, gradually, as his questions go ignored, he is compelled to force change, committing an act so heinous that even after he’s done it he can hardly believe what he has done. An act that causes ripples that become rifts that become chasms in understanding and tolerance, from this action and those that follow, the formerly serene – if hungry – family life is forever changed, changing both Family and himself beyond anything he could have foreseen.

A societal earthquake.

I love the way that Chris Beckett ever so subtly plays with language in Dark Eden, just slightly altering word forms and sentence structure here and there to help enforce the differences in this new world without alienating the reader from the world which we know. And I love the way he plays with his characters, circling around them and Family and Family’s origins before launching John fully onto his path; the way that he makes me want John to do the things he is compelled to do, yet simultaneously creating in John, through these acts and the changes he invokes, a character that you start to question.

Right at the beginning John tells us, “Never mind drowning or starving from lack of food, though. I was going to starve inside my head long before that, or drown in boredom, if I couldn’t make something happen in the world, something different, something more than just this.” (pg. 33) Does he do what he does out of sheer boredom? Later on it seems perhaps that this is so, yet I felt as a reader that the changes were absolutely necessary, especially as John and his new Family come up against the despicable David Redlantern, a truly nasty and hypocritical character I cannot help but hate with all of my soul. Why, when David is the one who introduces the concept of murder and rape to Family, is John the one who gets the blame for it? And why, when David criticizes John for introducing new thought and ideas to Family, is he so eager and willing to incorporate these supposedly hated things into his own new way of organizing Family?

With each new step into the unknown that John takes, others will hate him, yet they will eventually follow in his footsteps. And with each new step into the unknown that John takes, he gets closer to uncovering a secret that could either destroy Family or free them. Is John a hero or a destroyer of peace? A foresightful leader or a calculating dictator?

Whichever viewpoint you choose to take, Dark Eden is a fantastic new piece of world building. Winner of the 2013 Arthur C Clarke award; I’m quite excited by rumours of a follow-up. As John’s cousin Jeff says, “We are here. We really are here.” So you better get used to it.