Saturday, 29 June 2013

MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

The simply-worded opening pages of MaddAddam form the perfect introduction to this crazy world (or not so crazy?) that Margaret Atwood first introduced us to ten years ago in Oryx and Crake. 'The Story of the Egg' recounts how the Crakers were born in the Egg, brought to life by Oryx and Crake, surrounded by the Chaos until Crake washed the Chaos away, and perfectly encapsulates the essence of the Crakers and of the storyteller, Toby. The Crakers' history, their penchant for singing and praise, and their idealised view of the world is laid out alongside Toby’s frustration with the Crakers’ quirks and yet simultaneous desire to maintain their innocent view of the world.

Simultaneously bringing the reader up to speed with previous events whilst giving us a taste of where the story is going to go - the Crakers’ world and the Crakers’ worldview - even if you haven't read any of the series before you'll surely be hooked, wanting to find out what it all means and what on earth the author is thinking. MaddAddam is everything I expected and hoped it would be - the continuation of this strange, potential future world that in some ways is a warning alarm for our own suspect future, whilst also being a proper kick-ass read and a thought-provoking piece of speculative fiction from one of the masters of the genre.

Unlike The Year of the Flood, the 'sisterbook' which ran alongside Oryx and Crake, detailing the same world and the same timeframe, but with mostly different characters, MaddAddam ties the two together, the stories from the first two books converging here into a single narrative; like two forks in the road becoming one path. Although, actually, to describe MaddAddam as having a single narrative would be entirely wrong. Rather, it is a collection of stories and perspectives and pieces of the jigsaw:

Toby continues the narrative in present time, keeping us apprised of the events going on in and around the new MaddAddam compound, where, a little less than a year on from the Waterless Flood, the survivors have converged – a mixture of God’s Gardener’s, MaddAddamites, Crakers, and Snowman-the-Jimmy. Woven into this timeline is Zeb’s story, the man whom Toby loved from afar in The Year of the Flood, and as he tells his history, we begin to see how intimately linked it is with everything that has happened so far. And then there are the stories the Crakers persuade Toby to tell them each evening - they want to know the histories too, how Zeb ate a bear, of Zeb’s birth, of Zeb and the Snake Women. And so we hear the ‘real’ version, or Zeb’s version, and then the simplified version that Toby tells the Crakers.

Through Toby's narrative we see how this band of survivors are trying to make a new life, to find food, to protect themselves in the aftermath of the Waterless Flood. Alliances and dalliances are formed, jealousies diverted, human assumptions are challenged. But fears are ever-present: fear for the future, fear of the Painballers, the roaming Pigoons, and whatever else might be lurking outside the compound they’ve set up home in. And Zeb is sure that Adam is still alive, but can he find him?

The backbone of MaddAddam, though, are the Craker stories; there is the distinct sense that, continuing on from where Snowman-the-Jimmy began in Oryx and Crake, Toby is creating a mythology for the Crakers, something they will hold onto and repeat through the generations. But myths, of course, twist and turn the truth, building gods and heroes out of ordinary people, creating explanations for un-understandable events – if these are the tales that will be passed into the future, then the kernels of truth from which they began will be lost as Crake and Oryx, Zeb and Toby and Jimmy become new beings, beings to be semi-worshipped rather than beings whose actions are, by Toby’s standards and by ours, questionable, morally debatable and, sometimes, fearsome. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

And for every new thing that Toby tells the Crakers, every new thing she introduces them to or tries to explain to them, is she changing who they are and who they will become? Is she removing their innocence? Would it be better to leave them uninfluenced? It's just one of Toby's many worries, and a relevant one, but in the end it’s perhaps irrelevant because from the moment, at the beginning of MaddAddam, that the Crakers and the humans begin to properly interact with one another, the Craker evolution is inevitably set on a new path.

I would have liked there to have been a bit more about Adam and the beginning of MaddAddam and the God’s Gardeners, as I don't feel completely aquainted with the history of this part of the story - but in the long run perhaps these inner details aren’t relevant, or aren’t relevant to the formation of the Craker mythology, on which MaddAddam is focused. Or perhaps if I re-read Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood again, the pieces will be filled in for me there. What I especially enjoyed, though, was the way in which Atwood challenged our human assumptions about certain aspects of this new world and how, gradually, the Crakers, instead of relying on Snowman or Toby,  begin to take over the formation of their stories for themselves. Towards the end of the book we see 'The Story of The Battle' and 'The Story of Toby' only through Craker eyes, a subtle reflection of the new world order as it gradually comes about.

I could have gone right back to the beginning and started reading MaddAddam all over again as soon as I finished it. But what I want to do even more now is go to the very beginning, back to Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood and read all three parts of the trilogy again, to see how all the dots connect up, how the threads of all the different stories and characters weave and warp together. MaddAddam is a wonderful conclusion to this immense and foresightful story. It is full of human drama, human weakness, and human strength. By turns humorous and poignant, I can't for all my friends to read it as well so that we can gather round and 'discuss'...

Monday, 24 June 2013

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Ursula is born into the middle of a snowstorm. She is born to a family of middling privilege, the middle child of what will ultimately be a family of seven. It is January 1910.

She dies.

She is born again and survives to the age of four.

She dies.

She is born again and survives to the age of five.

Life after life, this is the story of Ursula and the infinite variations by which she lives and survives and dies and lives again. Her lives are as turbulent as the period of history through which lives: WWI, WWII, and all the changes around and in between. They are lives of passion and plenty, of desperation and survival, heroism, love and despair, mistakes and fixes, frustrations and foresight. All of these things make Life After Life an amazing and intriguing book, and you feel Ursula’s love and frustration and determination in every word and on every page.

Why does Ursula live again and again? To get it “right”? But what is “right”? As her reincarnations build up, echoes seep into her consciousness, causing little changes here and there, unexplainable fears that – for the most part – seem to prevent her from repeating past tragedies. With every chapter I wondered: what will change here? How will she fix this problem? Which path will she choose this time? Generally, she follows a similar route through adolescence and early adulthood each time, with just the occasional larger deviation. What does this say about theorized forces of fate and destiny – that, at heart, we are always the same? Perhaps that the same wants and desires will always drive us (no matter how many chances at life we or Ursula may get), and thus the outcomes will always be similar. We cannot control everything around us, after all; other lives will inevitably bounce off our own.

How much, though, does Ursula really take with her each time she starts again? As time goes on, it seems as if her previous lives become more and more distinct, her decisions more determined and precise, more planned to a specific end. The dramatic opening chapter gives a hint as to what she might be capable of changing, but what happens next?

While some characters appear and disappear, others pop up again and again; similarly the same tragedies weave their way through her lives, some of which she can limit - or even prevent in some lifetimes - while other incidents remain frustratingly out of her sphere of influence. Or are they? And where does it end?

Life After Life is a bittersweet story that brings to life the turmoil of WWII and the turbulence of being alive. A “high concept” novel this may be, but Kate Atkinson realizes it truthfully and tragically.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Aftermath, by Rhidian Brook

Rhidian Brook’s extraordinary new book, The Aftermath, is a disarmingly good piece of writing. Set in 1946 in Hamburg, a city virtually destroyed by allied bombing towards the end of the war. Orphans roam the rubble strewn streets and shelter in broken houses, work is spare, and a huge chunk of the population live in camps for displaced persons. Brook’s writing conjures the tragedies of a country brought to its knees. It seems almost unbelievable the way that war wipes out towns and cities and families – what happened to the people who survived? When do they stop going to work? What happens to the shops, shopkeepers; how do people, live, eat, sleep in this mess? And yet they did – as they do today, in cities that are being destroyed right now, Syria today, Yugoslavia twenty years ago.

Into this destroyed world come the allied forces – British, Russian, American - tasked with re-educating the German people, sorting out the country and getting it on its feet again. It is Colonel Lewis Morgan's job to oversee the rebuilding of Hamburg, and his staff have requisitioned a large house for him and his family – a wife and son on their way over from England – to live in. But instead of sentencing the house’s owner to camp life, Lewis makes a radical proposal: they should share the house, thus setting up a small, close-set reflection of the social and environmental tensions taking place in the country as a whole.

One of the biggest problems, as Brook quickly makes clear, is the tension and communication between the two ‘sides’ – the Germans and the Allies. Each stereotypes the other, making sweeping statements and criticisms: Germans “have little moral compass” (pg. 5); “the English may be uncultured” (pg. 13).

From a distance, with the perspective of time, this riles me. But of course, they are people who have just been through a terrible thing, and they are still in the midst of it, prejudiced by the horror, terror and monstrosity of how they have torn each other’s countries to pieces. It reminded me, actually, of the dystopia I like to read; trying to de-Nazify a population who have been trodden down by their regime, backed into corners and taught to think one way and one way only. It must have been a nightmare, trying to distinguish between those who were true Nazis and those who essentially had no choice but to toe the line. But then there is also the idea that the nation as a whole was responsible – that if you did not stand up against Hitler and his ideology then you were basically accepting it. As Herr Lubert, the owner of Colonel Morgan’s requisitioned house comments,

“He had performed his act of self-recollection – Besinnung – which all Germans had been encouraged to make as part of the process of acknowledging their part in the great crimes their nation had committed. He disliked the idea of collective guilt, but he was not one of those yesterday’s men who blamed the Allies for Germany’s current woes.” (pg. 157)

Into this world steps Morgan’s son Edmund and his wife Rachel, grieving for another son who died in a bombing, a woman who, like much of England, holds/held the Germans responsible for all the ills of the world, not least her son’s death. And now she must share a house with two of them, Lubert and his strange daughter Frieda, in turn grieving for a lost mother. Morgan soon shows himself as person who is not quick to judge – the simple idea of sharing the house with Germans a clear indicator of his temperament and attitude – but Rachel struggles to get Lubert to conform to the boundaries she wishes to lay. What consequences, exactly, will this unusual arrangement lead to? Can Lubert – and, especially, can Frieda, who has grown up knowing only Nazi rhetoric – be trusted?

It’s a fascinating topic. Brook examines it quietly, packing his pages with metaphor and tension, telling his story through lots of different eyes as he flips from side to side with his point of view – Colonel Morgan, Lubert, Rachel, Frieda, Edmund, and feral Ozi. Edmund, for instance, trying to build cred within a group of soldier’s sons on their way to Germany, builds a house of cards as he tells his war stories, only for it to collapse in perfect timing as an older boy in the group blows smoke – literally and metaphorically – on his tales.

The Aftermath’s trajectory takes all sorts of twists and turns, deception and betrayal not least among them, as Rachel, Morgan, Lubert and Frieda try to step their way into a future they either want to believe in or escape from, but what stands out for me – what, for me, is the bigger story – is the background setting, the political and the social tension that runs through everything that happens and makes the people the people they are. Perhaps it’s because I grew up with my parents’ war-associated stories, perhaps because it’s near and yet so far, but there’s something about WWII fiction that I find fascinating. In the privileged lifestyle I have today, it can be hard to imagine how it must have been to live through that turmoiled and tragedy-filled period. But what seems oft forgotten is that on VE day and VJ day, while the war was over the fight certainly wasn’t, and I’ll admit that I hadn’t much thought about how England, Germany, Europe – and everywhere else – got from that disaster zone to where we are today. Rhidian Brook's Aftermath summons this dark world with astonishing and devastating clarity.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Race the Wind, by Lauren St John

Race the Wind is Lauren St John’s second book following the story of Casey Blue and her horse, Storm, and begins exactly where The One Dollar Horse left off. It is the morning after Casey’s dramatic Badminton Horse Trials, but all is not well in the house. If Casey thought life was going to be easy and full of roses after defeating all the odds stacked against her in One Dollar Horse, she was wrong. Just when it seems St John couldn’t throw anything else or anything new at Casey, guess what? She does.

Hands down to St John for writing a book in Race the Wind that does pretty much exactly the same thing as The One Dollar Horse does, and yet is as equally enjoyable and satisfying. This time, Casey’s father’s criminal past has come back to haunt her. Or not so much his criminal past, but the implication of a criminal present, and this time it’s even worse: he’s been arrested for murder. He’s adamant that he’s innocent, and Casey believes him, but will it get in the way of her friendships? And what can she do to prove his innocence? Nothing, it would seem. At first, anyway. Surely he has to have been set up. But why? And by whom?

To add to Casey’s worries, not only does a creepy guy seem to be following her, but Storm is acting up and seems to have reverted to his wild self, refusing to let her near him. And then things crystallise: blackmail is on the cards. Those responsible for her father’s detention want Casey to win the next big championship, the Kentucky Horse Trials. Can she do it? And even if she can, should she acquiesce to their demands?

Race the Wind is fast-paced and contains everything that made The One Dollar Horse a bestseller: tension, moral questions, friendships to be made and frayed, dreams to be fought for. Covering just a period of weeks, as opposed to the two years that passed in book one, it’s a shorter book that reaches its conclusions and finds its footing faster than its precursor. It’s no less satisfying, though, and I can’t wait to see what trials and tribulations will be thrown Casey’s way in the promised third book. Presumably St John will take us to The Burghley Horse Trials, the third event in the Eventing Grand Slam - although I wouldn’t put it past her to change the game...

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Coverflip Debate (though, really, what is there to debate?)

I have a confession to make: I judge books by their covers. I know it’s kind of inherently wrong, but we all do it, don’t we? After all, covers give us that first impression about what kind of story is going to be hidden within a book’s pages. Something with a spaceship on the front: sci fi. Sepia image of barbed wire with silhouette of a soldier: war fiction. Partial body-shot of a woman in soft tones? Chick-lit.

I find cover design and cover conventions endlessly fascinating, but author Maureen Johnson recently got me thinking even deeper about it than I had ever done before. After tweeting, ‘I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, “Please put a non-girly cover on your book so that I can read it – signed, A Guy” ’ Johnson set her followers a challenge: take a popular book, and reimagine what the cover would look like if the book had been written by someone of the opposite gender. The results are not only fascinating, but also quite revealing.

First, though, take a moment to visit your local Waterstones. Wander down the bookshelves, through fiction and teen fiction, and take a look at the covers. What do they say to you? How often is a book written by a female author (particularly in the teen section) given a pink or ‘girly’ cover? What reaction does this illicit from you? What, after all, does ‘girly’ mean?

Johnson (and others) argue that there is a tendency for books by women to be given a female cover, no matter what the subject matter actually is, or even whether or not the protagonist is male or female. Sarah Rees Brennan points out that books by female authors are, more often than not, “Packaged in a way that clearly indicates that they’re a girl – and thus that the work isn’t as good as a guy’s… Books that look like that are girl’s books. Girls’ books aren’t good.”  The perception is that if a book has a girly cover then the words inside are fluffy, light, breezy, when in fact they are just as likely to be anything but. Why are we, and the publishing industry, bowing down to this?

Consider this: John Green’s bestselling The Fault in Our Stars. A book written by a guy, but told by a girl. It actually has a very non-descript cover that doesn’t tell you much about who the people inside are likely to be or what they’re likely to be doing and, as such, is not marketed specifically to boys or to girls, but is (theoretically) equally likely to be picked up by either. But what if John Green was Joanna Green? Most likely result: female author writing a female protagonist, equals female audience, which equals female cover, such as with Jenny Downham’s Before I Die (a book which covers a similar subject to Green’s).

What, then, makes one book a girl’s book, and what makes another book a guy’s book? Is there – or should there be – such a thing? Why does a book featuring a girl and written by a girl have to be marketed exclusively for the domain of girls? Why should it be that boys can’t read books about girls? I’m a girl and I’m perfectly happy to read books about boys and by boys, and I’m sure there are plenty of boys out there equally interested in reading about girls - as highlighted by Maureen Johnson’s tweet. But when they’re put off by overtly girly covers it’s surely a knock back for everyone involved.

The correlation between cover style and content means that because I think I know what kind of book I like to read and what kind of covers are generally used on those kinds of books, I know what sort of covers to look out for. But does this limit my reading choices? Surely putting pink and girly covers on books – covers that put boys off – means that boys are missing out on these great books, their thoughts, ideas and adventures.

Some of the new book covers created by Maureen Johnson’s coverflip challenge are absolutely brilliant, and in some cases (particularly where a female author is reimagined as a male author) much better and more imaginative than the originals, not only proving Johnson’s original point, but also made me interested in books that I hadn't been grabbed by before. After all, cover design is ultimately about getting as many people as possible to buy the book, isn’t it? And when marketing departments choose to stereotype books by female authors as being appropriate only for a female audience - targeting only half their potential audience - aren’t they automatically cutting out a big pile of revenue?

Finally: will the industry sit up and take notice, or will the internetish stir Johnson’s post has caused simply be a flash in the pan? Gender stereotyping shortchanges everyone involved, so why don't we put a stop to it? Either way, all hands down to Johnson for raising (or re-raising) a thought-provoking issue and asking thought-provoking questions. I don’t think any teen (for she is commonly categorised as a teen author – though that’s a matter for a whole other discussion) could go wrong by having her as a role model – whether they are male or female.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

White Dolphin, by Gill Lewis

I am very impressed by White Dolphin. For some reason – and I’m honestly not sure why – I was expecting an average tale of frustrated childhood made right by saving wildlife via clunky writing. What I found was a deftly crafted and real story that encompassed a whole lot of different issues, yet presented in a simple and straightforward style that simultaneously respected every character whilst summoning on the page the intricate and intertwined feelings of childhood and growing up.

Kara is angry, and she has every right to be. All the things she holds close to her heart are in the process of being ripped away. Kara lives by the sea, in a small fishing town in Cornwall, though she also lives by the sea in another sense too – the ocean, the tides, and the marine life beneath the waves are a part of who she is. But it all seems to be disappearing before her eyes: not only will the lifting of a dredging ban destroy this hidden world, but her father must sell their boat, Moana, one of the last things Kara has to connect her to her disintegrating family life. And when she finds a young dolphin beached on the shore, fishing wire wound around its mouth, it only adds to her devastation and frustration with the world. Will the white dolphin help knit back together this divided community, or will all that she represents tear it further apart?

There is so much going on this book it could be overwhelming, but while each of these ‘issues’ are important and have a role to play, author Gill Lewis doesn’t give them loose rein. Rather, they take their place within the story, balancing it out in much the same way that all of these things are ever-present in everyday life. This, I think (along with her natural, free-flowing writing style), is what makes White Dolphin feel so real.

As well as the obvious environmental issues and the debate over fishing sustainability – the balance of livelihood against environmental protection – there is small-town politics, grief, disability, and social concerns. One of the most impressive things for me, though, is the way in which Lewis confronts disability. Kara has dyslexia and her new friend Felix has cerebral palsy, yet both of these things are simply incidental to the story. I really like that while these characters each have a disability this is not a book about overcoming it, or being a champion despite it. It is simply incidental – and that is the best thing ever, because I think that is how disability should be viewed (and represented in literature, movies etc): as incidental. For us to tackle any inequalities around disability, it has to be shown that it really doesn’t matter – and one of the best ways of doing that is to not make a thing out of it, which is exactly what Lewis does. The differently abled-ness is there, but it doesn’t have any impact at all on the greater storyline.

Secondly, I really like how Lewis deals with the storyline around Kara’s mother. It would have been really easy for her to write in some miracle solution, some stroke of luck, but she doesn’t. Instead it is tentatively resolved in a real-world way. Because in White Dolphin the characters make their own luck; change comes about because they do what is necessary to make it happen rather than relying on some benevolent external force to look kindly upon them.

I picked up White Dolphin because of its Cornish setting – the county where I live and work – and Lewis, on top of everything else, brings this place to life as successfully as she does everything else, from the sounds and scents of the sea to the social difficulties of towns and villages which are divided by the gap between both the wealthy tourists/retirees and the low in-county wages, as well as the clash between environmental and business needs. While it could be said that much of this might be incidental to the book’s target audience of 9 to 12 year olds, what it does do is softly introduce such intricacies to them whilst creating a story that feels very real and whole. Plus, of course, it’s a great ride – action, debate, friendship - and everything is tied up in a most satisfying manner at the end. Brilliant.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Noble Conflict, by Malorie Blackman

Under what circumstances can a conflict be considered noble? When it’s for a noble and necessary cause? When the ends justify the means? (do the ends ever justify the means?) In Malorie Blackman’s new dystopia novel, Noble Conflict, the government refers to its war as such because they never kill their enemy combatants, only incapacitate them (or do they?).

Kaspar is a newly trained and newly graduated Guardian, a peacekeeper, a protector of the people. The Alliance is stuck in a quagmire of conflict with the Crusaders, terrorists who attack with both stealth and brutality. It’s the Guardians’ job to prevent the Insurgents – Crusader terrorists – from infiltrating society and creating the havoc they seem to love so much. Everyone knows it’s because the Crusaders destroyed their own lands and want to take the Alliance’s lands for their own, but why in their latest infiltrations do they seem intent only on breaking into the computer system and looking at innocuous and out-of-the-way geographical locations?

Noble Conflict starts with a bang, straight into the action and straight into the muddy politics of this world as Kaspar’s graduation ceremony is attacked. It’s a dramatic start to his new career, and drama is certainly something that Kaspar seems to attract. The fact is, he’s just too good at his job – he sees things and questions things that nobody else does and – it soon becomes apparent – things that nobody else is supposed to see or question.

Why did Kaspar’s dead mother leave instructions for him to drink only from the well on his Uncle’s farm? Why do there seem to be two entirely different groups of Insurgents, the phantoms who kill and destroy versus the ninjas, who are more intent on the computer systems? Why does nobody ever try to organize any peace talks? And why do the phantoms only ever seem to go for soft targets? And why does he suddenly have memories - memories that he practically smell and taste - of a place that he’s never been?

At first glance the Alliance doesn’t appear to be typically totalitarian – not to the extent that we see in books like Matched or Delirium, anyway. It seems a comfortable place to live, a prosperous society full of choices, where people live self-determined lives. But as Kaspar begins to peel off the layers, it becomes increasingly apparent how far the Government (‘High Council’) really has extended its web into daily societal life. Kaspar does this not in any standard dystopian search to find some inner truth, but simply as an attempt to understand - to better understand his enemy and thus be a better Guardian.

It is clear from the beginning that Noble Conflict is a dystopian novel and in many ways it’s similar to other dystopia stories – the themes are all essentially the same, let’s face it, and there are plenty of dystopia conventions followed here – but Noble Conflict is different too. It doesn’t follow the path I thought it would: I thought something would happen to make Kaspar question his upbringing outright, that he would get ‘turned’ of a sort, but Blackman has written a story that is much subtler and more of a gradual uncovering. This was enjoyable and fresh, and there is plenty of edge-of-the-seat action and tension, lots of ‘whys’, but it does mean that in some places it took Kaspar quite a long time to reach certain conclusions – conclusions that, to me, were glaringly obvious. However, I think in reality this makes the story more realistic because, actually, I’ve pretty much been trained to see these things (through the piles of other dytsopia novels I've read). Kaspar, though, has never before had to question the reality he’s been presented with, so it’s only natural that it’d take him longer to find his way through. It would never cross his mind, for instance, that the people he interacts with aren’t to be trusted – another interesting twist to the ‘soft’ aspect of the Alliance’s totalitariansim.

Perhaps most interesting is that while I was reading Noble Conflict I also read an article in the Daily Telegraph about Ian McEwan’s new book, Sweet Tooth, where he comments on the use of propaganda by the US government in the 70s to ‘convert’ people to their cause. It made me think: maybe we’re never all that far away from our own version of dystopia, our own version of a totalitarian government. If you’re stuck inside, would you really know it? Especially if choice and freedom is something which is still ostensibly present in everyday life, as it is with the Alliance.

Kaspar is a likeable character, and Blackman’s story trots along with good pace and without any forced elements – it is missing, for instance, the often obligatory heavy romance interwoven within the greater story. And when I say missing, I do not mean lacking. Another article I read recently (sorry, can’t find the source for this one), bemoaned the obsession with many teen writers to include a romance within their pages even when it was completely unnecessary for the story progression. It is great that Malorie Blackman - named yesterday as the Waterstones Children's Laureate for 2013-2014 - has not also fallen into this trap. Don’t get me wrong, there are girls and there is flirtation, but it is a natural part of the story rather than engineered, and does not take over from the bigger themes and the greater focus.

As Kaspar gets drawn progressively deeper into the conspiracies, each apparent truth he uncovers seems to lead simply to more lies. Where does it all end? And what will happen next? A great choice for Waterstones’ Children’s Book of the Month - dystopia is growing up.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer

Artemis Fowl’s father is missing, presumed dead, his mother has left her sanity at the door, and the family’s fortunes are dwindling. Lucky then that Artemis is a genius – a criminal genius, no less. He’s got a bunch of dastardly tricks up his sleeve, but first he needs gold, and he’s got a fail-safe plan to get it. Or has he? Kidnapping a fairy and holding her to ransom might not be your everyday method of acquiring a fortune, but Artemis is confident that he’s calculated for every possibility, especially given as the LEPrecon and LEPretrieval units sent in to recover the captured fairy has to proceed ‘by the book’. But what happens when the LEP decide to break the rules? Can Artemis win out?

This is the first book in Eoin Colfer’s enormously popular series of the same name, a tale that I’ve been told many a time that I should read – and I’m glad I finally did. Artemis Fowl is clever, original, fun and funny. With a cast of characters ranging from Artemis himself and his bodyguard sidekick Butler, to Holly Short (Artemis’ hostage), LEP Commander Root and his own sidekick, the tech-wizard centaur Foaly, there’s always something fresh going on, keeping the plot moving into ever deeper twists and turns. Each of the characters – even Mulch Diggums, a Dwarf pickpocket who could take even Artemis on a run for his money – is immensely likeable, and it’s hard to know which side you want to come out on top.

From goblins to trolls, bio-bombs to time-stoppages, this is a richly imagined world, mixing tech with mythology, the everyday with the dastardly. The characters’ names themselves speak volumes for Colfer’s tongue-in-cheek wit and humour, which is evident on every page, even in times of crisis. Completely enjoyable and a great read for any youngster looking to give their imagination a real kick-start. Will Artemis get his come-uppance in the end?