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.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Every Day, by David Levithan

Every Day is the story of A. Every day, A wakes up in a new body. Every day, A has to start again, to access the body’s memories, to learn the basics of who this person is, to walk a day in their shoes, blending in with their life and their lifestyle. It’s just the way A is, the way A has always been. A has accepted that this is simply the way his/her life works, but when A wakes up in the body of Justin he meets Rhiannon, Justin’s girlfriend, and everything changes. Even as A creates the perfect day for Rhiannon, and falls in love, he/she knows that tomorrow will bring another body, another town. Will A be able to hold onto her?

This book is a thoroughly modern and thoroughly excellent love story that keeps readers questioning and asks us all who we really are. David Levithan is an author who doesn’t flinch away from subjects that for many other writers and publishers are taboo, or that are tiptoed around within carefully constructed lines. He captures all the emotions of growing up and being alive, whether of being in love or struggling with simple, every day things, all whilst subtly and quietly opening his readers to new ways of thinking. His writing and stories are open, non-judging and equal, simply showing the world as it is – or as it should be. A contemporary of John Green, Levithan’s latest offering surely cannot fail to grip and engage teen and adult readers alike.

As A jumps from body to body, not knowing why or how, he/she experiences a multitude of perspectives, of ways of being and ways of living. Boy, girl, heterosexual, homosexual, high, sober, depressed, addicted, religious, agnostic, rich, poor, beautiful, ugly, sporty, geeky, smart, slow, mean, kind, selfish, selfless. The only thing missing, really, are bodies with disabilities – A mentions being in a body that was blind once, but it’s not really something experienced within the confines of these particular pages.

The main concept that sticks out, though, is that of gender. A has no gender, and this can actually be quite difficult to get your head around. A spends pretty much just as much time being a girl as being a boy, and is equally comfortable in either shoes. In fact, it’s such a normal thing for A to switch gender on a daily basis that it isn’t even a thought, an issue, a concern. But for someone who is acclimatized to the concept of male and female, it’s very difficult to not try and pin a gender on A. My instinct is to think of A as a boy – albeit an extremely well-adjusted boy who can also think like a girl. Why is this? Is it because in the first chapter A is in a boy’s body? Because A is in love with a girl (or a being that lives inside a girl’s body)? Or because the book is written by a man?

There is also the question of whether or not what a person looks like from the outside has any impact on who they are on the inside. Most people strongly believe that appearance shouldn’t matter, but more often than not, when it comes to practice over principal it can be very hard not to take the outside of a person into account.

Once Rhiannon learns A’s truth, they begin to meet every few days or so, A in a different body each time. Although she knows who A is inside, she naturally responds very differently to each body that A shows up in. Studies have shown that the chemical make-up of a body – pheromones, etc – do influence how we react to different people, but Levithan’s attempt to strip all of this away and focus just on the personality is really interesting. Rhiannon, for instance. I don’t recall Levithan ever giving us a full description of her – I couldn’t tell you what colour her skin is, her hair, whether she is short tall, large or skinny. Instead, Levithan shows her to us through abstract details – the emotions she exudes through her body language, the type of shoes she is wearing. Not knowing her physical description makes her no less real to me as a reader, no less interesting or emotional or worthy.

In essence, Every Day is a love story. But there are many other questions here waiting to be answered. What makes us human? What makes us the same and what makes us different? A doesn’t have a body, so does this mean he/she isn’t human? As the story progresses, A and Rhiannon not only begin to face some tough decisions about their relationship, but A is pursued by Nathan, a boy who’s body A lived in for a day, and the mysterious Reverend, both of whom begin to question who A is, and what he/she is capable of. Because, after all, is A the only person to exist like this? What if there are others?

A does show us that bodies have a mind of their own sometimes, that a body’s chemical make-up has an impact on who we are and what type of personality we might have – it’s not the be-all and end-all, but it’s a contributing factor.  Personally, I do believe this is the case, but if A does not have his/her own body then how has he/she become the person he/she has become? Perhaps only because A knows that every body responds to the world and to it’s own chemical structure in a different way; perhaps the fact that A has experienced 6000 different bodies is as much of a determining factor to who he/she is as the experience of just my one body is in who I am. What, then, does living in 6000 different bodies mean? Having tasted a little bit of everything does this make A the most average a person can be?

A book that kept me turning the page to find out who A would be the next day, and the next day, and the next day.

[Interested in gender equality? Please read Maureen Johnson’s ‘coverflip’ discussion on her blog and gender coverup article in the Huffington Post, where she highlights questions surrounding boy books, girl books, boy covers, girl covers, and gender misperceptions.]

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Ethan's Voice, by Rachel Carter

Ethan’s Voice is the touching story of a young boy who has become trapped in his own world after he stopped speaking four years ago. His life revolves around mum, dad, and the canal on which he lives. He has no friends, became home schooled after he could no longer stand the teasing at school, and communicates only through nods and shakes of his head.

Why did he stop talking? It’s been so long now that he can’t even remember the reason; all he knows is that not talking is not a choice, it’s a physical act that he can no longer perform. He is too scared even to write things in a notebook. But when Polly moves to the canal Ethan finds in her someone who accepts him for who he is, someone who doesn’t question him or force him or tease him, someone whom he can call friend. And for Polly, Ethan decides that he wants to be able to talk; he wants to be able to ask her questions and be able to tell her things, to make her laugh. But first he must find out why he stopped talking in the first place. Is he brave enough?

This is a gentle story written for 9-12 year-olds, though just as pleasurable and revealing to read as an adult. Ethan is afraid of the world, but as little clues to his past appear, instead of trying to shut them out, to run from them, he tracks them down and faces them head on, no matter how much it scares him. And, when he thinks he has found the truth, what will he do with it? Can he tell? A story about the power of friendship, it’s also a not-so-subtle reminder that children see more than we think they do and while, more often than not, they also understand more than we might think they do, misinterpretation is also dreadfully easy and can have terrible results. Rachel Carter’s book deserves to join the ranks of titles such as Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time for its insight and cross-over potential.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Elliot Allagash, by Simon Rich

Elliot Allagash is a rich little snob of a boy with a huge God complex and absolutely no moral compass. People bow down to his every need and every whim – and if they don’t… well, you probably don’t want to learn the hard way what the consequences will be. Because: You. Do. Not. Cross. Elliot Allagash.

Seymour Herson, by contrast, is mediocre in every aspect. While his parents may dote on him and pay out for his private school education, Seymour is a serial un-achiever. Until he meets Elliot and Elliot takes him under his wing. Although to say ‘under his wing’ implies there is some sort of caring aspect to their relationship; there isn’t. Elliott is conducting an experiment with Seymour in much the same way that when he was younger he probably tore the wings off butterflies to see what the consequences would be (and, going by how spoilt he is and how inept his father’s parenting skills are, there probably weren’t any consequences). Elliot’s experiment? To make Seymour popular.

Reading Elliot Allagash reminded me a little of the storyline to 1990s film Cruel Intentions, where rich step siblings Kathryn and Sebastian make a bet that Sebastian can/can’t bed goody two-shoes new-girl Annette. Simon Rich’s creation, however, is considerably darker and Elliot plays considerably dirtier. And as Elliot’s games began, at first I took a sick kind of pleasure in them, rooting for the two boys as they took on and manipulated the jocks and the all-stars, wanting the underdog to win. Except, of course, it soon became clear that as long as Elliot Allagash was bankrolling the project, the real underdog would never win.

This a slick piece of writing, drawing me in to Elliot’s world, making me simultaneously dumbfounded and wanting a piece of the action. Elliot has many guns to his arsenal, and the different manipulation techniques he employs veer from clever and artistic to brutal and crass. He truly knows no bounds and, as the story goes on, the term psychopathic comes to mind.

I began by hoping that Seymour can make a friend of Elliot. Even as Elliot announces, “I’m not doing this out of kindness or generosity. I’m doing this purely for sport. It’s an intellectual exercise – a way to occupy my days during this hellish period of my life” (pg. 37), I assumed this was simply a na├»ve statement, a brush-off, a side comment to deflect the fact that Elliot wants a friend as much as Seymour does… But perhaps Seymour and I should both have taken him a little more at his word? Soon the question becomes: when is Seymour going to wake up and smell the music? And, even as Seymour does begin to emerge from his dream state and begins to lie to Elliot, you know – surely – there can’t be a happy ending? Can there? Because no-one crosses an Allagash.

Filled with brilliant quotes and terrifying tales, the politics of high school writ large, this is a story of power and persuasion and our willingness to see what we want or chose to see, rather than what is actually in front of our eyes. Simon Rich has got to be one of the cleverest satirical writers around. And he’s annoyingly young to boot. Read anything by this guy and you will not be disappointed.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Fortunately, The Milk, by Neil Gaiman

There is no milk. Not only does this mean no breakfast for the children – unless they fancy pouring orange juice over their cereal – but no morning tea for dad. Mum’s gone away to a conference and although she did remind dad that he’d need to buy milk, he forgot. But when he pops around the corner to get some – morning tea is vital to the day, after all - he takes an awfully long time. An awfully, awfully long time. What were you doing? The children ask when he finally returns. Well, he says…

And so begins an awesome and almost unbelievable tale (almost unbelievable?) of what happened to dad on his way back from the corner shop. It’s an adventure and a half – and some – involving space aliens, dinosaur police, volcanoes, time travel, wumpires (yes, wumpires), pirates, and a rather special hot air balloon – sorry, I mean a Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier. Brilliantly illustrated by Chris Riddell, Neil Gaiman’s story goes in and out, around in a circle, back and forth through time, and back to the beginning – or should I say the end? Fortunately, the milk survives this incredible journey.

Gaiman’s prose is simple, his story funny, clever, incredibly tightly plotted and wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, while Riddell’s illustrations bring the amusements to life, including a dad who looks suspiciously like Gaiman. Is this story perhaps semi-autobiographical? And if it is a tale of milk and adventure that he told his own children, would you believe him?

Fortunately, The Milk will undoubtedly appeal to all generations, be read aloud at bedtime (or perhaps breakfast time), engage new readers, elicit sniggers and ‘ohs’ as all the dots begin to connect up. Check out the brilliant names of the lesser characters in the back of the book and, once you’ve read it, go back to the beginning and look again at the first illustration… (no cheating beforehand though). This man is a genius.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Madness Underneath, by Maureen Johnson

I hate you, Maureen Johnson. How could you do this to me? How could you leave The Madness Underneath on such an exquisitely painful cliffhanger? Grrr.

Picking up shortly after the edge-of-the-seat events of The Name of the Star, the first title in Johnson’s Shades of London series, The Madness Underneath continues this immensely enjoyable series.

And The Name of the Star has everything you’d expect from a young adult book, yet it is something a little different too: little bit gothic, little bit thriller, little bit supernatural, little bit ‘coming of age’. Yet each is in perfect balance with one another; each aspect has plenty of breathing space without overwhelming the storyline. Rory is American, but has just joined London boarding school Wexford. While adapting to her new surroundings, new friends, new expectations, on the city doorstep a creepy and brutal series of murders is taking place. Murders with unexplained aspects; murders with suspicious similarities to those committed by Jack the Ripper over a century ago. Ripper fever sweeps across town and, when Rory becomes an unwitting witness, her life is turned upside down: not only does it mean she gets introduced to the ‘Shades’, an under-the-radar crime unit of the British police, but she also becomes one of the murderer’s targets.

In The Madness Underneath, it has been several weeks since Rory’s ordeal at Wexford came to its dramatic conclusion. She’s at her parent’s house in Bristol, recuperating and trying to come to terms with everything that happened. This, though, is not an easy process, especially when (a) she can’t disclose any real information about her experiences to her shrink, and (b) she is completely cut off from the only people she can talk to – and needs to talk to. So when her shrink advises to her get back on the horse, per say, and go back to Wexford, she figures it’s just as good an idea as any other.

But the events of The Name of the Star have changed Rory. She has lost the outgoing, happy-go-lucky, anything-goes type of personality she had before. Now, everything feels wrong and nothing seems to go right. She can’t explain to her friends or teachers what's wrong, and she sees trouble where maybe there isn’t any. Or is there? Johnson let’s us know early on that all is not quite right in London, but what exactly does this indicate? And who is this fairy godmother character that formerly up-tight Charlotte introduces Rory to? Is she really who she appears to be?

Madness is not as heavily plotted as Star, and instead of focusing predominantly on one major storyline, it develops the characters and deals with the aftermath of book one. It is almost a quieter book; Johnson doesn’t build the tension to quite the same heights or around one particular event, building it instead around several different undercurrents - the madness running under the streets of London, the madness that may or may not be being hidden by Rory’s new friends, and the madness underneath Rory’s own skin as she tries to figure why she feels so lost and what the heck to do about it.

Will Rory be able to figure things out? And what will the future of the Shades be? And the cliffhanger? Well, after spending a goodly chunk of the book hoping for Rory and another character to figure out their feelings, Maureen Johnson goes and turns it all upside down in the most devastating of ways. Not only is she one of the smartest and savviest of voices around, she clearly has some grand plan for the Shades of London and I really can’t wait to find out what it is.