Sunday, 22 December 2013

The 5th Wave, by Rick Yancey

For anyone looking for a great adventure/thriller – perhaps to replace that hole left by The Hunger Games – then look no further than The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey. It seems a bit cliché to describe it as gripping or edge-of-the-seat, but that is exactly what this book delivers. It’s a little bit sci-fi, a little bit horror, a little bit post-apocalyptic, but mostly it’s just about a family trying to survive, trying to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

Cassie’s world has been destroyed. Four waves of terror spread across the world when the aliens came. First the lights went out. Then tsunamis spread across the land. The third wave was pestilence, the fourth the silencers. What will the fifth wave be and when will it come? Separated from her family, Cassie is living day by day, living by the principal of trust no-one. Which seems pretty sensible, except that sometimes you have to decide to put your faith in someone, sometimes you need that someone to help you survive. But is Evan the right someone for Cassie to trust? He saved her life, but is he telling her everything? Can he help her find her little brother?

Rick Yancey’s telling of The 5th Wave is done in such a way to make you 95% certain that you know what’s going on, who to trust, who to doubt, and right from the very beginning we know what the 5th wave will be, even if Cassie doesn't. And yet that 5% somehow takes on a disproportionate weight, making us question what we believe to be true, to want to shout out at Cassie and warn her whilst also making us want to believe the opposite. And thus, tension abounds, the heart races, and you just have to simply keep turning the page, and the next page and the next page and the next page.

Ironically, Cassie has never met an alien; as far as she knows they’ve never set foot on the planet, never shown their faces. Instead they wreak their havoc from above, watching, waiting, playing. This makes it seem so much more about humanity, about how we respond to apocalyptic situations, how we choose to treat each other, how we find safety or how we gang up against one another; what we’re willing to sacrifice. This is a story that has been told time and time again, yet Yancey imbues it with a fresh sense of adventure and trauma and tension. And, given as this is a concept that has been told time and time again, what does that say about our enduring fascination with the real subject matter: ourselves?

Whether you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, The Passage, I Am Number Four, The Host, or none of the above, read The 5th Wave. Whether you’re young or old, or even older, read The 5th Wave. It’s brilliant.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

St Agnes' Stand, by Thomas Eidson

As a bookseller, I read an awful of lot of children’s books, especially young adult titles, and when I do read adult books they tend to be recent releases. This is great, and I read these books because I want to read them, but it does mean that I miss a lot of good stuff that has been around for longer. Like St Agnes’ Stand, a book I most certainly wouldn’t have looked at twice had it not been for a recommendation by my cousin, someone who is so extremely well read that perusing her bookshelves can have the effect of making me feel very small. Ironically, really, my role as a bookseller should be to introduce readers to these rarer, lesser publicized titles, to champion the books that get tucked away into corners, but it’s so easy to become swept up by the marketing machine that I had almost forgotten. So, thank goodness for my cousin C and her fascination, in particular, for the literature of the American West.

Nat Swanson is a young man with a dream: a piece of Californian land. He has the deed in his pocket and a plan in his head, but already things are going awry: in the last town he stopped in, he got into a fight and killed a man. Pursued across the desert by the man’s friends, can he reach California before they catch him? But when he comes across a band of Apache holding up a wagon trail he’s haunted by the face he sees hiding there, and something makes him turn back to help. What he finds is not what he expected: three nuns and seven small children desperate for their lives. For the next five days, Swanson and Sister St Agnes must face their personal demons, overcome loss and injury, and struggle against drought and starvation while the Apaches close in around them.

Thomas Eidson’s language is simple and bold, and he tells his story through a series of different perspectives: Swanson, Sister St Agnes, and the Apache warrior Locan. St Agnes is adamant that God sent Swanson to save them, and she and her companions do seem strangely blessed despite their circumstances, but Swanson is determined – mostly – that it was just chance; chance that he was passing by and chance that made him turn around to help. Locan, however, as Swanson picks off his men, sees this luck as an evil magic created by the strange black-clad women and, while his compatriots wish to cut their losses and leave, he sees that if they follow that path his reputation will be forever lost – the only way to restore it will be to destroy the white man and the black-clad women.

I was a little wary, to begin with, with the depiction of the Apache as a group of blood-lusting warriors who, as St Agnes says, “know no better”. However, I assume that Eidson has based their aspects on historical behaviors by the Apache. What is not explained is exactly why the Apache raided the nuns’ wagon party to begin with. Once things begin to go wrong for them, it becomes a matter of pride and honor for Locan to see things through to their conclusion. That I understand. But what was the original purpose? Just theft?

Of course, all of mankind is entirely capable of carrying out atrocities equal to and worse than Locan and his compatriots. What is frustrating in traditional Westerns is that cultures are frequently painted in a right/wrong, white/black way – white good, everyone else bad. Eidson treads a difficult line here, but his intention is not to dispel such myths, rather to step authentically into the minds and opinions of his characters, the people of the time in which he is writing, and tell a story. This he does with aplomb. Furthermore, although he dabbles in the discussion of God and faith, by telling the majority of this aspect of the story from the mostly agnostic Swanson, Eidson avoids making it into an agenda. It is a deft and accomplished piece of storytelling, and certainly makes me want to read more about this era and/or setting. Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy has been on my list of must-reads for a while, and I think perhaps it’s time I brought it the top, and I’ll be thinking more about reading and recommending those rarer seeds, books that are as evocative and unusual as St Agnes' Stand.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Picture Me Gone, by Meg Rosoff

Picture Me Gone is breathtakingly wonderful, Meg Rosoff at her absolute best. Just when I’d given up on her (I didn’t manage to finish her last book), she goes and writes this. It is heartbreaking and tense and a sort of sadness permeates the text, yet it’s neither weepy nor depressing; instead it is simple and tidy whilst filled with beautiful and wonderful thoughts, sentences, ideas. It is a story of loss, of being lost and of getting lost, and yet a lot of things are found in it.

Mila likes to solve puzzles – and she’s good at them too, good at seeing things other people don’t see, that other people don’t feel. Like the waitress who doesn’t know she’s pregnant, or the father who forgets his child is only a child. But now, Mila’s father’s best friend has gone missing, has simply walked out on his life. Can Mila help her father figure out where Matthew’s gone and why he left? Matthew, though, is a stranger to Mila. She only knows him through her father’s eyes: friends from childhood, the man who saved his life. But who is Matthew really? What will Mila find when she starts to see him through other people’s eyes? What secrets has he been hiding, and what really happened the night that his son Owen died?

Mila and her father, Gil, were already planning a visit to America to see Matthew, so when he goes missing, they continue with their plans, hoping instead they’ll be able to help his wife find him. Gil is a translator, a master of languages, and translation is a strong theme wound through Rosoff’s story: how we translate what others tell us, what we see, what we choose to see. Mila’s self-appointed task is to translate all the little bits and pieces she gathers from her father, from Matthew’s wife and family, and turn them into an explanation for Matthew’s behavior. But can a person ever really be wholly translated to someone other than themselves?

It is a far more difficult exercise than Mila ever imagined. In the beginning, in many ways Mila takes on the role of the grown up, and we can’t help but think of her this way as she looks out for her father, but as the story develops and her discoveries get progressively darker, her assertions that she is a child become ever stronger. Her emotions are swept into a whirlwind, the world she thought she knew turned into a mountain of questions and uncertainties. The bright lights and bright colours of the book’s cover belies what Mila finds inside – reflected further by the snow storm that dampens everything down, covering the world in a blanket of white – but it’s not a blanket that can protect Mila from the future, from growing up.

Rosoff’s language is so clean and sharp that it forced me to read slowly, to take in and appreciate every part of the story and the poetry she invokes, yet it’s impossible not to keep turning the page as her words seeped into my everyday life, taunting me until I could return to the story. Undoubtedly one of the most accomplished young adult books of 2013.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Story of the Treasure Seekers, by E. Nesbit

The Story of the Treasure Seekers was first published in 1899 and I’m trying to picture what a totally different world it was back then, before motor cars, before electricity, before the start of women’s emancipation, before free medical care, before everyone was entitled to an education; a world on the verge of enormous change. I imagine that neither E. Nesbit nor her heroes, the Bastable children, would have been able to fathom the type of people who would be reading their story a hundred years down the line. A hundred years! It’s amazing to think of that and think how the power of words and storytelling can survive long beyond their first conception, no matter how much the world might change around them.

The Bastable family are down on their luck. The silver has been sold, the servants have left, the children pulled out of school. Pocket money has dried up, and there are no more cab rides or dinner parties or new dresses for the girls. Thus it is clear to the six Bastable children that something must be done: they must restore the family fortunes. But how? Answer: through a series of somewhat naïve and hair-brained schemes that extends from digging for buried treasure to rescuing old gentlemen from Highwaymen, kidnapping, going into business, publishing poetry in the newspaper, and dowsing. With varying degrees of success and disaster, so the children are left largely to entertain themselves and their reader from page to page, as told in a sweet mishmash of first and third person perspective by one of the children, who employs a certain amount of hindsight and, amusingly, is always certain to explain that he knew what was the ‘right’ thing all along.

E. Nesbit is perhaps best known for The Railway Children and Five Children and It, and The Story of the Treasure Seekers possesses a similar feeling of timelessness. Reading it does feel a little old-fashioned to begin with, but after the first couple of chapters that sense went out of the window and I was swept up by the sheer wonder of the children’s imagination and their capacity for play.

The Bastables are, of course, extremely good children, and their kindness and consideration for others (especially for those who they believe are less well off than themselves) is ultimately the key to finding their sought-upon treasure – typically moralistic for this era of children’s writing, but heartening too. What really stood out for me though, was their role playing, their innovativeness and their imagination – and their ability to get adults to play along with them. Perhaps their father can no longer afford to send them to school, but I would argue that an active imagination is as equally important as a sit-down education (or, alternately, I would perhaps argue that education is best served when it actively engages the imagination).

It’s engaging and sweet, and while there are inevitably some old-fashioned ideals in the story’s pages – the boys, for instance, do not cry, while other particylar behaviours are deemed inappropriate for girls – these things only popped up here and there and didn’t override the fun of the story. The edition of The Treasure Seekers I read is a beautiful new publication by Hesperus Press, just one of a new collection of children’s classics to be made available over the coming year, and I was delighted to discover that another on the list for publication is The Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marryat, a book which I had entirely forgotten about until it was mentioned by one of the Bastable children in The Treasure Seekers. It’s going on my list.