Friday, 31 May 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Bernadette Fox has gone missing. This much we know. What we don’t know is how or why - but her daughter, Bee, is determined to find out.

Told through a combination of letters, emails, notes, and reports, and tied together by Bee’s personal account of the events transcribed within them, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is immensely enjoyable, fun and funny. I swung from sympathy to outrage to sorrow to laughter and roundabout and back again during my reading. It’s extremely well written and so cleverly plotted that I failed to predict a single outcome (at least, not until it was so obvious that the characters themselves had figured it out). It’s nice to see where a story is going sometimes, but it’s also so fun and refreshing to be kept guessing right up until the end. Maria Semple twists her characters around from bad to good, and good to bad, and twists her readers and their emotions right around her little finger along with them. It is just awesomely done.

So, to Bernadette. She’s a complicated figure: a mystery to her husband, best friend to her daughter, enemy, it seems, to everyone else. And to the reader? Lonely and reclusive. She has an infernal dislike for the other mothers at Bee’s school (or ‘gnats’, as she refers to them), one of whom is unfortunately a neighbor. Right from the get-go, we can see exactly what sort of person this neighbor is: selfish, self-righteous and self-absorbed. It's no wonder Bernadette calls her and her cohorts the gnats, and the go-between letters between the gnats and Bernadette’s response to the subsequent events are hilarious. Semple sets everything up just perfectly.

Every character gets a look-in in this book, Bernadette, Bee, the gnats, her eccentric husband Elgin with his penchant for chronically misinterpreting everything (although, I guess, to give him his due, it’s fairly understandable why he gets to the conclusions he gets to), just as they all, except for Bee, have a part to play in the outcome. Each has their individual blindnesses that contributes in its own way to Bernadette’s disappearance, Bernadette included – you know as soon as she starts giving out her bank details to her 'online assistant' Manjula that tears are going to be shed. But they each make up for it in the end, except perhaps for one particularly nasty gnat who just can’t break her evil ways, try as she might.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a book that defies classification – I wouldn’t want to risk anyone missing out on it’s heart and wit by giving it any form of label. Heart is perhaps the best way of describing it, though: the heart that comes from this collection of characters, their weaknesses and their strengths. During the first part of the story, I found myself asking not, Where Did Bernadette Go? but, What Happened Bernadette? What happened to make you the person you are today? Although, thinking about it, perhaps Semple’s title is asking the same thing. Because maybe the title's question refers not just to Bernadette’s present disappearance, but also to the more metaphorical one, where she disappeared into herself after The Horrible Thing that happened of twenty-ish years ago. Can Bee and Elgin get her back?

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Monument 14, by Emmy Laybourne

Monument 14 is an absolutely brilliant new offering for any readers who love to be kept on the edge of their seat.

Monument 14 has everything a good apocalypse novel needs: tension, human frailty and human interaction, a disaster or five, and plenty of cliff-hangers. There is blood and bodies, people to trust, people to fear, and people with questionable motives. There are boys with crushes on girls and girls with crushes on boys, and there is the question: who will live and who will die?

When a freak hailstorm hits the town of Monument one morning during Dean’s bus ride to school, he and the other kids on board are forced to take refuge in the local supermarket. It’s a chaotic and dramatic few moments, featuring a nasty crash, screaming, trauma, smoke and a heroic rescue. But this is only the beginning.

The following story covers a period of just twelve days, in which the group’s allegiances, survival skills and mental wellbeing are put to the test and pushed right to the edge. Because pretty soon it becomes clear that the hailstorm was not a one-off event, but one in a long line of disasters to hit the US on this September morning. Desperate as the children are to get home to their parents, when the riot doors of the supermarket come down, they find themselves trapped inside, a blessing in disguise as the world outside falls apart. Here, they have all they could possibly need: food, medicine, sleeping bags, you name it. But other people need it and want it too. Can they be trusted?

There are obvious similarities between Monument 14 and other apocalyptic stories of children cut off or separated from adults - Gone by Michael Grant, The Enemy by Charlie Higson, Ashes by Ilsa J Bick. Personally, I think this is the best of them all. It tackles similar issues, namely what happens to a group of children when left without parental supervision, how the big children must take responsibility for the littlies, power struggles, who to trust and who to fear, but two things really stand out in Monument 14. Firstly, the quality of the writing (I confess, I thought Gone was terribly written, and I think I’m one of perhaps only half a dozen people in the world who actually dislikes the enormously popular series) – but Emmy Laybourne’s storytelling is smooth and realistic, with no drag to the framing of situations or with her word choices, and she really kept me on the edge of my seat literally throughout the whole book.

Secondly, the series of events that take place to create the disaster the Monument 14 children witness are incredibly realistic. There are no mysterious domes, zombie-producing viruses, or weird unexplained supernatural explosions in this book, only natural disasters. One disaster triggers another, which triggers another, which causes a nasty, experimental chemical spill. The chemical is the only thing that could be argued against in my reasoning, but actually pretty similar things are created and played with by scientists today. And so this is what is really scary about Monument 14: IT COULD HAPPEN. It’s enough to give a person nightmares (ok, another confession: it did).

Scary, totally gripping, and really well executed. If only part two wasn’t a whole six months away.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Urgle, by Meaghan McIsaac

What happens when everything you’ve ever known and believed in gets turned on its head? What happens when you come face to face with the group of people you’ve always been taught to hate? What happens if you can’t save the one person you’d do anything – anything – for?

The Ikkuma Pit is a harsh place to live in, a volcanic hot-pot with a sky of smoke and steam, a place where one wrong step could end your life. But for Urgle and his brothers, like the brothers before them and the brothers before them, right back to the time of Rawley, the Pit is their home, the only place they have ever known. Each boy is left at the edge by their heartless Mothers when they are born, to be taken in and looked after by a Big Brother, until the time when the Big Brother leaves. Everyone must leave to make room for the new, but no-one knows what lies beyond the Pit’s walls.

But this is all about to change: against the odds, a Brother has returned. He brings with him unwitting devastation and the strange yellowish creatures that pursue the Brother are just the first in a multitude of new experiences thrust upon Urgle. For when these creatures, Tunrar Goblins, can’t reach who they want, they take the next best thing: Cubby, Urgle’s Little Brother. Without thought or hesitation, Urgle leaves the Pit and everything he’s ever known to find Cubby, to save his Little Brother and bring him home. It's a race for his life, for Cubby's, and perhaps even for every Ikkuma Brother.

Right from the beginning, Urgle reminded me of Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go – the themes are similar, as is the sense behind the words and the story. I can see similarities between the storylines too, though actually Urgle’s world is very different to Ness’s. When Urgle leaves the Pit, all the things he’s taken for granted are pulled out from under his feet. There’s the basic stuff like the fact that he’s never experienced full sunshine before, never seen an old person, never had to barter for food or goods, never heard of such a thing as a soldier. But there is bigger stuff too, things he never imagined he’d have to face or to consider, like the fact that maybe the tale of Rawley and the Mothers isn’t the whole story. But who can he believe, who can he trust to tell him the truth?

Meaghan McIsaac has written a mind-blowing and outstanding adventure. This is where fantasy excels: the creation of another world to get us to think about life’s bigger questions. It made me think again of Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave (which was first introduced to me by A S King in Ask the Passengers): “People chained in a cave are only able to see a wall. The wall has shadows cast from a fire they can’t see. They guess at what the shadows are. Their entire reality becomes these shadows.” (Ask the Passengers, pg. 111). Urgle and his brothers have grown up in a Socratic Cave, knowing only what is passed down to them from their older Brothers. They can interpret the events of their past and their existence only according to this basic knowledge, but of course the information they have is severely limited and full of holes. How will Urgle react when new information comes to light? Will he ignore it, deny it, incorporate it into his known reality, or have to completely rebuild his reality from scratch?

When he leaves the Pit, Urgle finds himself caught between two worlds and in the middle of an age-old battle, the story of Belphoebe and Ardigund. Thrown from pillar to post and manipulated by both sides, he must face some really difficult choices, life and death, and figure out which path to take. He doesn’t always make the best choices, though, so the question is, will he take the right one in the end? And which is the right one?

Friday, 17 May 2013

This Is What Happy Looks Like, by Jennifer E Smith

This Is What Happy Looks Like IS what happy looks like, especially when happy is a good, straightforward boy meets girl story. Or – in the case of this book – boy emails complete stranger by accident.

It’s a really great, really satisfying chick-flick wrapped up in the pages of a really great, really satisfying book. Boy meets girl, boy kisses girl, girl suffers from a crisis of conscience because of her past and because of who the boy turns out to be, but they work everything out and then… (I don’t think it’s really giving anything away to say…) boy gets girl. Perfect. What more needs to be said? Read the first page and a half, laugh, and be hooked.

(Thank you Jennifer E Smith for some very happily spent reading time)

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Universe Versus Alex Woods, by Gavin Extence

The Universe Versus Alex Woods starts at the end of the story: Alex, seventeen years old, finds himself stopped at Dover’s customs as he re-enters the UK, suffering some sort of seizure, with a large quantity of cash, a large quantity of marijuana, and an urn of ashes on the seat next to him. Why are the border authorities looking for him? What, exactly, are his perfectly reasonable explanations for the goods he is carrying? Where has he been and how did he wind up here?

As author Gavin Extence rewinds back to the beginning of the story, we follow Alex from the age of ten and a freak accident that seemingly sets things in motion, through his teenage years and up to present day. It’s probable that, accident or not, he would still have been bullied when he made it to secondary school, but whether he would still have been chased down the lanes of his country village on the particular day and in the particular direction that he was is more questionable. Without that particular day, would he have met Mr. Peterson? And without Mr. Peterson, he certainly wouldn’t be sitting in this particular police station right now.

There are many different things discussed in the pages of this book - things to make you philosophical, things to make you irate, things to make you think. It’s quite a philosophical book overall, actually, although it takes a while to get where it’s ultimately going - for instance, there is really no indication at all during much of the book of the big question Extence really wants to ask. In fact, with this thought in mind, perhaps Extence didn’t set out to ask his Big Question at all; perhaps that is just where the story took him. I think not, though; I think he knew where he was going, and he just took his sweet time to get there. It didn’t drag as such; I simply couldn’t see where it was going, which made me doubt the coherence of the story - but about two thirds of the way through I had that ‘aha!’ moment and everything began to fall into place. And with this in mind, I can see now that The Universe Versus Alex Woods is as brave a story as it’s protagonist is (and that’s pretty brave - Alex always sticks to his guns).

There are meteors and meteorites, neurological details and astrophysical discussions, a visit to The Natural History Museum, a visit to CERN, strange girls and strange mothers, and a rather unusual bookclub. I have to wonder what sort of school experience Extence himself had - or suffered - as Alex philosophises on the ignorance of his school’s practices, not least the way in which they teach only what is necessary to pass his exams, and how he is the one punished following a particularly nasty bullying incident - a punishment that results purely from the fact that Alex decides enough is enough and stands up for himself. The swear word he uses during this ‘showdown’ sparks a debate across several pages: which side will you be on? Alex’s or everyone else’s?

And it’s rather cleverly written because everything that occurs in these earlier chapters are a foreshadowing of what will happen later: the school is a small version of the law that Alex will have to face at the end of his story; the gossiping village is a small version of the media; the incident with Mr. Peterson’s dog is a small version of the Big Question Alex will ultimately have to face. This is a subtle and well-considered type of storytelling often seen in films: introduce the big idea in a small way so when the main story comes to the fore it’s easier for the viewer/reader to accept. Excellently done on Extence’s part.

And when the s**t hits the fan, it’s impossible not to be on Alex’s side, even though it’s nearly as hard not to question some of his responses to the things the Universe throws at him. The people around him made me feel irate and impassioned, and the media furore resulting from his actions - how they twist everything around, take all the facts and make them into something else - reminds me of the recent Hilary Mantel/Duchess of Cambridge ‘scandal’ as well as an idea I recently read of in another book, Ask the Passengers by A S King, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In this, Socrates describes a group of people who lived all their lives chained facing the blank wall of a cave; the wall has shadows cast from a fire they can’t see. As they guess at what the shadows are, the shadows become their entire reality - they know only their interpretation of the shadows, and would not recognise or understand what actually causes the shadows, or even the concept of something being a shadow in the first place. Deep stuff.

So is this what Alex Woods is all about? Well, yes and no. I guess, the Big Question aside, it’s about questioning your reality and not accepting what other people lay down for you - sometimes you have to, sure, but sometimes it’s just as important to understand that, often, there’s more to reality than what meets the eye.

Friday, 10 May 2013

The Obituary Writer, by Lauren St John

Lauren St John is a big, big name in children’s publishing, with her African Adventures series, The Laura Marlin Mysteries, and most recent bestseller, The One Dollar Horse. Now, though, she has set her sights on the adult world: The Obituary Writer is her first published work of adult fiction. It is both lyrical and dark, wild and tame, and sure to be a success.

The premise: London journalist Nick is living a happy-shallow city life as an obituary writer for The Times, but when his commuter train crashes, his life buckles and smashes like the carriages and people around him. It is one of the worst crashes in British history, but Nick somehow walks away. There is PTSD   and survivor’s guilt, but he is seemingly otherwise unhurt - except for the living nightmares that soon begin to plague him. These are dark and creepy and bleed into his waking hours, his day job, his personal life. What does it mean? How can he escape them?

A book written in two parts, the first half sucks you into Nick’s mind and sets a tidy pace as he tries to swaddle himself away from the world and his dreams. It’s creepy and dark and intriguing, and impossible to imagine where it’s going to go. Part two of The Obituary Writer, though, is quite a different beast. Forced by a confluence of events to flee London, Nick seeks solace in Cornwall. His mind is set on a particular course of action, but at the last possible moment it is changed by the vision of a woman, barefoot, on horseback, galloping across the sands of Porthcurno beach. St John’s description of the Cornish air and countryside is so vivid that it’s little surprise Nick’s encounter sets him in a new direction – reading it was enough to make me want to jump out of bed (at midnight, no less) and go and bury my own toes in the sand.

As Nick settles into a new life in Cornwall, at first it seems as if he has left London's demons behind him, but they are only biding their time, soon to raise their ugly heads in ways that are new and just as confusing for our protagonist. It is a constant struggle to find the delicate balance between normal life and his internal fears. The storyline is not as smooth-running and shiney as in St John’s writing for children and here and there just a little convoluted – clearly she knew where she wanted to get Nick to by the end of the book, but the process of getting there is at times not as sharp as in her other writing. Woven into this journey, though, are tremours of darkness, hints at Nick’s confusion over his past and his present. Events float out and around him almost as in a fog, and you know that something, something is going to happen to bring it all to a head, but what? Each time St John puts another rock in his path, you start to wonder, is this how it will end, is this what it means, but then he navigates around it, until, until… the letter.

Nick is both likeable and unlikeable; he has plenty of flaws, but he means well. He has a big ginger cat, Oliver, who is a character in the story all on his own, adding extra life to Nick and his troubles. The thing is that Nick means well, but even when things start to work out for him, part of him left behind by the accident remains shut off. It’s almost as if he knows what is going to happen, what it all means, but like many of his demons, he doesn’t much like having to confront them. Just like most people. I like that St John leaves the ending ever so slightly open – I can take away what I think happened, what I think was written in that letter, but I do wonder, does anybody ever find it? What does it say?

Overall, The Obituary Writer, like Nick’s dreams, casts a shadow of mottled degrees, like clouds on a sunny day: dark in places, lighter in others, with different textures in between. It is hot and cold, a story with an overcast, and a sign that Lauren St John is here to stay.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Valkyrie, by Kate O'Hearn

Valkyrie: “A handmaid of Odin,” says my dictionary, “one of twelve who accompanied the souls of slain heroes to Valhalla, the palace of bliss where the souls of slain heroes feast for eternity with Odin, the supreme creator.”

I studied Greek mythology and Roman mythology at school, but never, to my recollection, Norse mythology, which is where the Valkyries hail from… Growing up in Asgard, the upper world where Odin rules, Freya knows what will be expected of her when she turns fourteen: she will have to take her place among the Valkyries, traveling to battlefields on Earth to select human heroes and bring them to Asgard, where for all eternity they can feast in Valhalla by night and practice their battle skills by day. But it all leaves rather a bitter taste in Freya’s mouth. The warriors that fill Valhalla are repulsive to her, interested only in drinking and fighting, and she doesn’t want to have anything to do with them. But she has no choice, she is Valkyrie and to reap the dying is her fate, her destiny.

Kate O’Hearn is probably best known for her Pegasus series, bringing Greek mythology to modern times, throwing a human girl into the Greek world, but with Valkyrie she has turned the tables, starting with a character from Norse mythology and throwing her into the human world. Because, despite her dislike of human beings, when Freya collects her first soldier from the battlefield she makes a promise to him, a promise she is determined to fulfill: to help his troubled family. And so, with the help of the trickster Loki, against all the rules, she sneaks across Bifrost, the light bridge that connects Asgard to Earth, and goes in search of Tyrone’s family. The trouble with Loki, though, is that he thrives on mischief. Can Freya do what she needs to and return to Asgard before Loki stirs up trouble?

In Valkyrie, O’Hearn has cooked up an interesting blend of myth and modernity. Although I would have liked a little more myth and a little more pace, Valkryie is filled with moral dilemmas, action, and one girl’s determination to do the right thing. I wasn’t always entirely convinced that what Freya thinks is the right thing is actually the right thing – time and time again she is told she should not interfere in the mortal world, that it will have consequences far and wide beyond each of her seemingly small acts – and she swings contradictorily from wanting to save humans to hating them and back again, but at least she means well, and overall she takes the right path. “Kate O’Hearn serves up a winning mix of modern adventure and classic fantasy,” Rick Riordan (author of Percy Jackson) is quoted as saying, which sums the book up extraordinarily well.

Gradually Freya learns that battles and wars are not the only things that drive humans and that the things they care about are worth fighting for. With flying horses, Dark Searchers, guardian angels, and quite a lot of running and fighting, Valkyrie has much to entertain young readers and, just maybe, will spark an interest in a different mythological realm that is just as rich in history and lore as that of the Greeks and Romans.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Infinite Sky, by C J Flood

Does it begin when her mum leaves, or is it when the gypsies move into the back field? Does it happen because her brother Sam falls in with a bad crowd, because her dad hates the gypsies, or because she makes friends with them? Is it someone’s fault at all, or is it events just spiraling out of control? Either way, Iris is standing in front of the coffin, and she can’t believe he is dead.

Infinite Sky is the story of one devastating summer, a summer filled with new experiences, both good and bad, but also a summer filled with tension and anger. Iris’s mum has left to ‘find herself’, her dad is lonely and drinks too much, her brother, equally lost, is acting out in every way imaginable. The presence of the gypsies only adds to the tension, especially when Iris is caught sneaking off to meet the young boy living with them.

C J Flood has written a powerful coming of age story that subtly touches on lots of both adolescent and adulthood issues, dealing with them in a quietly thoughtful and considered way. The focus here is not the blush of first romance between Iris and Trick, but rather the dynamics of a family in crisis, how when one small, loose thread is pulled, the whole sweater can unravel before your very eyes. There is much here to applaud, adding another choice to the genre of teen issues that Annabel Pitcher, Jenny Downham and Laura Jarratt are becoming known for.

The story flows, following the peaks and troughs of adolescence, building and building, leading us toward the moment when we figure out who is in the coffin Iris introduced us to in the prologue. It’s emotionally tense, made more so by the fact that the malice both leading up to and following this terrible event is so utterly misconstrued, and the refusal of the adults in the picture to listen and understand what Iris is trying to tell them, to make them see. Gripping.