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.