Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch

OhMyGod, I love Locke Lamora. The Republic of Thieves is the third and much anticipated outing for this fantastic character and his fellow ‘Gentleman Bastard’, Jean Tannen. Thief, trickster and con man, whatever scheme you can dream of, you can pretty much guarantee that the Gentleman Bastards have already been there, done that. Locke Lamora’s more than your average loveable rogue, and not only because you can’t help loving him a whole lot more than average, but also because he’s the best of the best.

Or is he? Things do seem to have been going poorly for Locke and Jean in recent years, and now he’s being twisted and turned - mostly against his will - and pitted against the one person most likely to beat him in any game: the elusive Sabetha. Anyone who’s read Locke’s earlier adventures, The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies, will be primed for the proper introduction of Sabetha, long lost Gentleman Bastard and long lost love of Locke’s Life. Who is she? What happened between them? All will be revealed in the following pages via Scott Lynch’s typical style of modern mayhem coupled with childhood flashbacks.

Reading The Republic of Thieves has been like getting reacquainted with old friends – friends who you’d kind of forgotten who totally awesome they are because it’s been so long since you last saw them. It was, however, absolutely worth the wait – I was a little worried when I first opened the book that the story would be overshadowed by Lynch’s personal difficulties (the reason, I understand, for the large gap in time between books), but before I knew what was happening he’d transported me straight back there in all it’s grit and glory, just as I remembered it from the past. More of the grit and less of the glory, though, perhaps!

Locke’s world is one of fantasy and yet it’s not entirely fantastical – the lands are a little different, the people are a little different, there is the Eldren legacy and there is magic, but everything else pretty much works just the same as our own world. Gradually, though, book by book, Lynch is revealing a little more of the fantasy element, and The Republic of Thieves is particularly rich with hints of the Eldren and questions about their history. How did they build the magnificent glass structures that have endured for the thousands of years that they have? What happened to the Eldren themselves – were they wiped out or did they simply leave? Why, and how?

And will Locke and Sabetha ever manage to sort themselves out? She is certainly a conundrum – though she features strongly in this volume, she remains rather hard to understand and interpret, changeable and quick to burn as she is, perhaps because as strong as Locke’s love for is, he doesn’t entirely understand her either. Lot’s of food for thought for future volumes – of which I hope there will be many. Witty, fun, and totally engaging, I rather like the idea of spending my lifetime getting to know these wonderful characters and this intriguing world in ever more detail.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, by Holly Black

I thought that ‘dark fantasy’ had seen it’s day, that it had been wrung dry, but somehow Holly Black has taken this genre, twisted it around, turned it upside down, and created something entirely new, fresh and exciting. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a little like a mix between True Blood and Twilight, simultaneously pulling the same strings whilst also making something new. It’s raw and exciting; the vampires are bad – very bad – and the world Black has dreamed up is eerily similar to our own and yet entirely changed.

When Tana wakes up the morning after the party, the house is strangely quiet. Normally her friends would be jostling and laughing, recounting tales from the night before, but as Tana emerges into the day she finds the worst possible scene: a window open, the party-goers dead. All except one: her ex-boyfriend, Aidan, trussed up in one of the bedrooms, a vampire trussed up on the floor next to him.

Tana’s world is one where the vampire virus has spread into the wider population. A world where you lock your doors at dusk and don’t open them again until the sun rises. A world where cities have sealed-off ghettos – Coldtowns – keeping the vampire scourge at bay. New rules apply both inside and outside the Coldtowns; vampires are simultaneously worshipped and feared; and if you get bitten and the Cold takes hold you can be sure that everyone you love will be in danger.

I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this book – Tana is the perfect balance of strong heroine acting in the moment versus na├»ve girl running from her past, trying her best to find the better future and protect those she loves. Black’s writing and the speed of the plot completely sucked me in – the continuous changes of fortune, the black, white and grey characters dancing in and out of the storyline, the intriguing history of both the vampire Gavriel and the vampire menace. I’m fairly good at unpicking plots, seeing where they’re going to lead, but at several points in this story I really didn’t know who was misleading who, who knew who was telling the truth, or who was going to come out the winner.

Anyone can enter a Coldtown, but no-one can ever leave. After she finds Aidan tied up on the bed, everything changes for Tana – for the second time in her life – and while she may have a plan, who knows what turns of fate are going to get in the way of her seeing it through. I liked lots of things about this book, not least the fabulous new take on the vampire genre, Black’s witty banter, and the tentative feelings between Tana and Gavriel, but also the fact that while in some ways Tana’s world could be considered post-apocalyptic – struggling against a mass epidemic with no cure – instead of falling to its knees, it remains a fully functioning modern society, simply one that has adjusted it’s ways accordingly.

I have one simple question: Will there be more?

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The School for Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani

The School for Good and Evil has been one of those sneaky summer bestsellers that seems to have utterly captured the hearts of a whole bunch of 10 - 13 year olds, so I thought I’d give it a read to find out why.

In Sophie and Agatha’s world, the land of fairytales is all too real. Every four years, two children are stolen from their village in the dead of night and taken away to attend the School for Good and Evil. For most villagers this is something to be feared, by Sophie dreams of being taken, desperate to prove her worth in the School for Good. But when the night of reckoning arrives and it seems as if her dreams are about to come true, a terrible mistake is made. Or is it a mistake? For while Sophie has been snatched by the Schoolmaster, she’s been delivered to the School for Evil, and her reclusive, witchy friend has been delivered to the School for Good.

I really love the idea of showing that good and evil rarely conform to the stereotypical packages that society, literature and myth traditionally place them in. To approach it in this way is a very intriguing concept, and I wondered how successful Soman Chainani would be in bringing it fully to life. The story he’s written is a bit of a mixed bag, sometimes striking out against the stereotypes, sometimes conforming to them. As Sophie becomes ever more determined to prove she should be in the School for Good, becoming more and more devious in her attempts to win the prince, her looks gradually turn from beatific princess to craggy hag. Meanwhile, as Agatha becomes ever more determined to help her friend and save the school from the path down which Sophie is steering it, she conversely loses her ‘outsider appearance’, ultimately wowing the other students with her beauty – although, in Chainani’s favour, this beauty is shown to have been hers all along, she simply didn’t know how to ‘be’ it before.

Chainani builds his story around the traditional fairytale arc, simultaneously using fairytale elements and trying to work against them, which must have been an incredibly difficult balance to strike. My assumption was that this would be a story which tried to show that the Cinderella aspects of fairytales aren’t relevant to real life – that how you look isn’t representative of the person you are, that a girl mustn't have a boyfriend in order to be considered worthwhile, and Chainani does touch upon this. Perhaps, though, my assumptions were wrong – rather, they were hopes. Perhaps Chainani’s intention was purely to write an amusing and adventurous story set in a fairytale world with a twist. And this he has certainly done. While I personally found it a little hard going in places, really disliked the Sophie character from beginning to end, and clearly would have liked to have seen more substance, it is definitely a book that is capturing the imaginations of its intended audience. That alone is a significant achievement, though it’s not a book I personally feel inspired to recommend. Am I being harsh? Is any reading is good reading? This book is a cunning and rip-roaring adventure, but I’m afraid there is simply something about it that doesn’t sit quite right with me - but maybe I just need to be 10 years old again.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Metropolis, by Shaun Tan

Who says colouring is just for children or art just for adults?

Shaun Tan is an author-artist with a huge cultural following, whose stories and pictures have a fantastically surreal approach. In Metropolis he’s created a brand new piece of artwork that shows a mash up of organic and mechanical creatures that grow across the page into a living, pulsing cityscape. This is art as detailed and intricately imagined as any other, but the twist? It’s all in black and white, waiting for it’s new owner to add colour – to make it their own with their own unique layer of life.

Metropolis is just one example of a wonderful new range of art/colouring books, the Pictura collection. Unwrap the cover, open it up and fold it out – the Pictura books take the form of a long concertina that you can stretch out to make a long mural. Metropolis uses the whole length to tell a story, the birth of a city, it’s teenage years, adult years, and ultimate demise, while other Picturas seem to take the form of individual panels that you could separate into a collection of different images should you wish.

I may be in my thirties, but after a busy day at work, I find that stopping to do half an hour’s colouring just before bed settles my mind and I always sleep better on the evenings that I do this. Honestly! The only problem is that I’ve had Metropolis sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks now and I’m a little afraid to start colouring - because I’ve got a brain freeze around the fear that whatever I do won’t live up to the wondrousness of the starting artwork. The key to overcoming this fear, though, is printed inside the front cover: “Make mistakes; make it your own,” it says. And that’s the truth of the matter: there is no right or wrong, and the beauty of the Pictura is that whatever colours I choose, whether I colour lightly or heavily, that will give it its own, special life.

I do think this is such an inspired idea. When reading novels, we attach our own interpretation to them, take from them what we choose or what is important to us. Here, you can do that in a much more literal sense. What story does the Metropolis tell you? Colour it all, colour bits of it; use pencils, paints, pens, whatever you like; none of the above or all of the above. But, perhaps most importantly, whatever your age: relish it.

Check out to look at the different pictures to choose from.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

This Song Will Save Your Life, by Leila Sales

This Song Will Save Your Life is a perfect example of what I love about young adult writing: it has got everything I look for in a teen coming-of-age type story, so much so that I read it in almost one sitting. Morgan Matson, Sarah Dessen and Jenny Han commonly write this type of book too, so I’m very happy to have another author to call on when that’s just the kind of story I crave.

Elise is your average teenage girl except, for some unbeknownst reason, she’s unable to fit in. All she wants is to be included, to have friends, to not be the outsider. And so she spends her summer learning how to be cool – watching the right TV shows, picking out the right clothes, reading the right magazines. But life, of course, doesn’t work out the way we want it to, and when she returns to school all of her efforts - all of that work and research - none of it makes the slightest difference.

Time passes. Elise, to escape school and parental pressures, takes to long walks around the town at night. And there, out of the darkness, she stumbles upon an underground dance club. Suddenly, here is a place where she can be herself, where she makes friends, and where the young DJ takes her under his wing, tapping into Elise’s love of music and introducing her to the art of the DJ. Soon, Elise’s weekly visit to Start becomes the highlight of her week, the thing that helps her get through the school day, but she has to sneak around behind her parents’ backs to get there. And just when the biggest and best opportunity presents itself, the real world clocks back in and threatens to steal it all away again. Will she lose everything? Or can she find a way to have the best of both worlds?

Elise is a girl that surely everyone can relate to: she just wants to belong. She’s trying desperately to understand the multitude of unwritten rules that will enable this and when she finds a place where the rules fit her it’s like a gift. Leila Sales has written a story that captures the wants and needs of every girl, tapping into those hidden feelings and desires we all hold within our hearts. It is insightful and realistic - well, ok, so becoming an overnight teenage DJ sensation might not be terribly realistic for most of us, but the way that Elise and those around her are and how they respond to events is (or feels) realistic. For instance, though suave DJ ‘This Charming Man’ winds his wiley way through the story and into Elise’s head, he does so without taking charge of Elise’s story or choices, a decision on Sales’ part that is excellently down-to-earth no matter how much we might all yearn for a Cinderella ending to our stories.

Whether a sunny summer day or a wintry wet one, This Song Will Save Your Life is a wonderful piece of escapism in which we can all dream about banishing loneliness to the edges of our world, and there isn't a single thing I'd change about it. I’ll definitely be looking out for Sales’ other books.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

I read a really excellent review for The Interestings which was instrumental in my picking it up to read, predominantly because of the reviewer’s gently scathing view of how books about families were looked down upon until men started writing books about families. Meg Wolitzer, obviously, is a woman and has, according to the reviewer, been writing excellent books about families for several years and because it is now – thanks to those male writers out there – ‘cool’ to be writing about families, her newest offering is set to make her name more solidly recognized within the public and literary domain.

As for 'The Interestings', they are a group of teenaged New Yorkers who attend a yearly arts camp and strike up a set of friendships and intimacies that will follow most of them far into their adult lives. From innocent beginnings, however, a dramatic act a couple of years into their group life sets waves rolling through their future  that, while they may get smaller as time passes, never fully disappear. Chopping and changing between past and present, young and middle-aged Interestings, we see the changing of their lives, the ebb and flow of their friendships, the good and the bad within each of them.

We have Cathy, a talented dancer, but cursed by her body shape to never be more in that arena beyond her teenage years, and after ‘the event’ she drops out of their group physically, though perhaps not emotionally. Secondly, Goodman, Cathy’s occasional paramour, and the cause of all the trouble. Ash, Goodman’s sister, a fey hypocrite who lies to her husband about Goodman’s disappearance and refuses (despite the pursuit throughout her life for women’s equality) to even consider the possibility of Goodman’s guilt – a man who never grows up, relying instead on his family to provide for him and never taking responsibility for a single action he makes. Or perhaps Ash is simply unable to consider Goodman’s guilt because of what it would mean?

Fourth, we have Ethan. Ethan is Ethan, and that’s about all there is to it. He gets caught up in the opportunities afforded him, and if he lies to his wife on occasion or struggles to connect with his son, hiding behind his work, is it any worse than Ash’s lies and denials? Jonah, meanwhile, spends his entire life overshadowed by the events of his tweens. Would it have been any different for him if he had told somebody what happened? Or would he still feel the same about it all anyway?

And, lastly, Jules. She is so determined and desperate to be away from what she feels is her small family and small life, she abandons it at the drop of a hat to infuse herself in the busy and glamorous city life of her 'Interestings' friends. Ironic that she winds ups spending so much of her life struggling to make ends meet and envying Ash, even after she grows up.

Each member of The Interestings is likeable and unlikeable, each one of them trying to escape something or find something. Is Jules cruel in the abandonment of her childhood? It’s ironic that she’s so desperate to grow up when she is young, only to spend much of her adult life desperate recapture those feelings she had when The Interestings first came together, trampling everyone in her way to get what she thinks she wants only to find it’s not what she thought it would be once she gets there. Is this what we are all really like? I guess so: the good bits and the bad bits; perhaps it’s only that by reading five, six lives condensed into 500 pages makes everything so much more apparent, human behaviors more alarming somehow than how we see each day as we take on our own lives.

The passing of time and the changing of the New York streets was perhaps most interesting to me, along with the subtle feminism that Wolitzer works into the book: just because you’ve slept with a person before doesn’t mean it’s not rape if a girl says no this time, or asks you to stop; and the fact that any media attention Ash receives for her theatre work always comes with the addendum of who her husband is, her work never held up purely for it’s own merit, as if she is worth that bit more merely by being married to who she is married to.

The Interestings, thus, is an intriguing and thoughtfully interwoven story of life, love and friendship, the twists and turns we cannot predict, the choices we do or don’t take. Life is an odd thing and Wolitzer shows this without reservation.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The Great Unexpected, by Sharon Creech

The Great Unexpected is a strange and magical story in which I was never entirely sure what was real and what was imagined. Two apparently separate storylines run alongside each other, one surrounding two elderly ladies in Ireland plotting some sort of grand revenge for who-knows-what, and one surrounding two odd little girls in the dusty little American town of Blackbird Tree, a town with what must surely be an abnormally high number of orphans, peculiar residents and unusual happenings.

It all begins when a body falls out of a tree and lands at Naomi’s feet. Who is this strange boy, Finn? Where did he come from and what is he doing in Blackbird Tree muttering about gold, rooks, and orchards? Finn himself is obviously somewhat unexpected, and a good number of other unexpected things take place in the following pages, some of them good and pleasant surprises, some of them sad ones, as Naomi and Lizzie both go about their daily lives whilst getting gradually more caught up in the mystery of Finn.

As for the unexpected events, they are each and every one, for the most part, entirely normal happenings, and yet Sharon Creech makes each one special and strange and magical, and exactly how she manages to do so is as much a mystery as many of the little connections flowing throughout the story are. I think perhaps life is full is full of mysterious and wondrous things, certainly if you take each thing at face value without trying to interpret or place too much emphasis on them, and Creech captures this feeling, this innocence, in her characters, especially the young ones, Naomi, Lizzie and Finn. They are able to turn the littlest, everyday things into something magical and special – an especial achievement for children whose lives are far from easy – and pass this on to the reader. Much like books by Neil Gaiman, you feel as if anything could happen inside this book, that everything is connected...

I thought about all the things that had to have spun into place in order for us to be alive and for us to be right there, right then. I thought about the few things we thought we knew and the billions of things we couldn’t know, all spinning, whirling out there somewhere.” (pg. 219)

Meanwhile, what is this wondrous plan that old Mrs Kavanagh is cooking up across the ocean? What is her connection to Blackbird Tree? And, if any, is Finn’s connection to Mrs Kavanagh? The Great Unexpected is a slow burner of a story with a fairytale ending, an apt title, and a mysteriouser and mysteriouser middle. Strange yet lovely, and beautifully packaged.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Split Second, by Sophie McKenzie

Split Second is an excellent young adult thriller set in a near-future London, where austerity measures have been extended to the nth degree and where extremist groups are popping up on every street corner.

When a devastating bomb goes off in a Saturday market Nat and Charlie’s lives are changed forever: Charlie’s mum is killed, Nat’s brother thrown into a coma. Nat, though, has an added worry: he’s sure that his brother, instead of being an innocent bystander, was actually the bomber, working for the group that claims responsibility: The League of Iron. Charlie is hell-bent on revenge for her mum’s death, Nat is desperate for answers to his brother’s betrayal, and soon they are each drawn into the dark underworld of London, of terrorism, and the blurred lines of justice.

With short, action packed chapters told from Nat and Charlie’s alternating points-of-view, it’s almost impossible not to feel like you’re racing the same clock our two protagonists are. Recruited by the mysterious EFA – English Freedom Army - a group purportedly trying to stop the violence being spread by terrorists such as the League of Iron, will they question what they’re being taught to do, what they’re being shown, or will their hate for the League spur them each on, blindly?

I got on well with both of the characters, my only niggle being Charlie’s complete refusal to be even slightly considerate toward her cousin – obviously I can see why the two of them grated and why Charlie responded the way she did, but I’d like to think if it was me in Charlie’s position I’d be a little more tolerant! But then, I’m not Charlie and haven’t experienced what Charlie does.

Sophie McKenzie also does a great job of keeping us guessing about the right and wrong sides – if there even is such a clear delineation as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – and about who is or isn’t trustworthy. And, of course, there is a mother of a twist at the end, which I kind of did and kind of didn’t see coming: she took my expectations for a dramatic ending and multiplied them. Expect twists, turns, a strong dose of betrayal, and a great British setting.