Monday, 23 September 2013

The River Singers, by Tom Moorhouse

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 13 September 2013

Shaman, by Kim Stanley Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Dead Man's Cove, by Lauren St John

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, by Emily Danforth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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