Thursday, 30 January 2014

After Eden, by Helen Douglas

Eden is your average teenage girl: worrying about impending exams, planning parties, hanging out with her friends, balancing study and play. She’s not terribly interested in any of the boys at her school, and when new boy Ryan appears she’s determined not to fall into the same trap all the other girls do: falling head over heels to try and get noticed by him. But Eden soon suspects something’s a little off about Ryan – does he really not know pizza when he sees it, has he really never heard of Hitler? Or is he just teasing her? His accent is a weird mish-mash and he names her best friend Connor as his hero – despite having only met him about two days ago.

The main reason I picked up After Eden was because it is set in Cornwall (my home county), but I was quickly swept up by the mysteries of the storyline as Eden and Ryan were inexorably drawn together. And when Eden uncovers Ryan’s secret, she finds herself caught up in a mission to both change and protect the future. Will they succeed, or is their timeline written in the stars, unchangeable? To say more would be to give away the twist, to reveal Ryan’s secret, but rest assured it’s something a little different to most young adult storylines: no vampires, fairies or werewolves here, only humans and human folly.

Helen Douglas has written a classic YA romance with a nice twist that perfectly straddled the line between predictability and surprise. I could see where some parts of the story were going, but I was completely unable to predict the ultimate outcomes, which was not only refreshing, but meant that it kept my pulse elevated and made me want to keep turning the pages, as Douglas maintained a good pace to the storyline, throwing in a couple of shocks and ‘Aha!’ or ‘Oh no!’ moments here and there.

There are a couple of things I’d like to quibble – such as why Ryan wouldn’t have been better prepared for visiting Eden’s town, or the fact that his very visit could surely have risked delivering to Cornwall the very thing that he was sent there to prevent happening, never mind Eden’s occasional stupidity and thoughtlessness in the things she says just after she’s been outright told the dangers of revealing what she knows – but then, two of these issues help move the story forward to where Douglas needed it to go. If Ryan had been better prepared, would Eden have questioned his story in the first place? Probably not.

Overall though, After Eden ticks all the boxes for a an enjoyable YA read that is both recognizable as typical YA read whilst simultaneously being something a little different from the norm. And apparently there’s going to be an explosive sequel, which I am definitely interested to learn more about and see what is in store for Eden next. Can she and Ryan hide what they know? Will Ryan’s elders come after him for what he has done? Will Eden and Connor ever manage to mend their friendship?

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Let It Snow, by John Green, Maureen Johnson & Lauren Myracle

I saved Let It Snow for Christmas Day reading as I figured it would be the perfect Christmas Day treat. And it was! How great is it when something like that works out perfectly? Of course, it’d be great reading for any time of the year, but especially for a snow day or a holiday day. In fact, the only thing that would have made it better when I started reading on Christmas Day would have been if it had started snowing too. But hey, we can’t always have everything we wish for.

Let It Snow is composed of three short stories or novellas (what exactly is the difference? Is it just word count?): The Jubilee Express by Maureen Johnson, A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle by John Green, and The Patron Saint of Pigs by Lauren Myracle. All three of them are set in one small U.S. town in the middle of a massive snowstorm, and while each story features different characters, the people and events within them overlap. Oh, and it’s Christmas. Yay!

It’s Christmas Eve and Jubilee has the next twenty-four hours all planned out, but when her parents get arrested at a shopping stampede she’s somewhat unceremoniously shoved onto a train off to her grandparents’ house. But then the storm comes in and the train breaks down and instead of sitting in the cold like a martyr (surrounded by an incredibly irritating group of cheerleaders who are, yes, practicing) she decides to pursue other options and makes for the diner she can see over the way. Here she meets Stuart, and a small-town adventure ensues that includes getting very wet feet, breaking up with her boyfriend, and losing her phone in a snow drift. It’s great: Maureen Johnson at her typical Maureen Johnson best.

Cut to… Tobin and his friends JP and the Duke. Tobin’s parents are out of town and can’t get back in time for Christmas thanks to the storm. Tobin doesn’t really have a problem with this: he, JP and the Duke are just gonna sit and watch Bond movies. At least, that’s the plan until they get a call from their friend who works at the diner: the diner has been taken over by cheerleaders. This makes JP very excited indeed, and he persuades Tobin and the Duke that they should drive over there and witness the cheerleading miracle. This, given the raging storm outside, is easier said than done. Cue road-trip style adventure, albeit on a very small and snowy scale, but with just as many disasters along the way, like sliding backwards down a hill, abandoning the car in a snow drift and, er, getting very wet feet. Ditto the above: John Green at his typical John Green best.

Lastly we meet Addie, who is feeling extremely sorry for herself because she hasn’t heard from her boyfriend Jeb at all across Christmas. They sorta broke up last week, but she asked him to meet her at Starbucks on Christmas Eve so they could figure stuff out. But he didn’t show. Come Boxing Day, she still hasn’t heard from him, but has the early shift at work and has promised to collect a ‘parcel’ from the local pet store for her friend. Addie is a bit scatterbrained, especially when all she can really think about is Jeb, but collecting the parcel goes rather wrong and it’s really not her fault (though her friend blames her) – can she fix it? And can she get over Jeb?

I’ve never read anything by Lauren Myracle before, and her style is similar to her two co-authors, but I’m afraid I was a bit disappointed by The Patron Saint of Pigs, especially after reading the other two brilliant stories. Addie was very hard to like, even when some of the things that went wrong weren’t really her fault (although some of them were), but I also felt that the threads of the story didn’t completely add up. We know from the first stories that Jeb is actually on his way to meet Addie, but got held up by the storm. My question is this: Jeb tries to phone Addie multiple times, but for some unknown reason never gets through to her: why not? And, seeing as everyone else manages to plough their way through the snowstorm, if he is supposedly so desperate to get in touch with her, why doesn’t he venture out as well?

Of course, it all works out in the end – there’s a reason why the subtitle of Let It Snow is Three Holiday Romances. I can see that Lauren Myracle perhaps had the trickier job: to tie up all three storylines and bring all the characters together. She does succeed, it’s just that I wasn’t that bothered about Addie and her whining. I was bothered about the other protagonists, though, Tobin and the Duke (who is, by the way, a girl with an unusual nickname), and Stewart and Jubilee. And although I wasn’t swept away by the third romance, it’s a book worth reading for the first two. So next time the sky turns black, the temperature falls, and you need a little romance in your life, Let It Snow will surely meet all your criteria for a cosy afternoon read in front of the fire.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith

On the front cover of my copy of Grasshopper Jungle, there’s a quote from Michael Grant, which calls it: “A cool/passionate, gay/straight, male/female, absurd/real, funny/moving, past/present, breezy/profound masterpiece of a book.” This sums up Andrew Smith’s work of genius absolutely perfectly.

Grasshopper Jungle is everything Michael Grant says it is, which might sound like a pretty tough thing to achieve, yet Andrew Smith does this without seeming to break into a sweat. Our protagonist Austin, however, probably sweats quite a lot. What with the unleashing of the end of the world and the running for his life, not to mention the heartache of being in love with two people at once.

It all begins in the small American town of Ealing, Iowa. One question is whether it began fifty years ago, or whether it began four days ago. Either way, an army of six foot tall praying mantises have been accidentally unleashed into the town. Right now, though, nobody really knows anything about it. But the grasshoppers don't care; they only want to do two things: they’re hungry and they’re horny. Which is, when you think about it, maybe kinda like the average teenage boy?

Grasshopper Jungle is not so much an apocalypse book as a coming-of-age story, because it’s Austin’s story - his and Robby’s and Shann’s – so even while the shit is hitting the fan around them, Austin is still, you know, a person. With personal stuff going on. More precisely, he’s wondering how he can be in love with both Robby and Shann at the same time. He doesn’t want to hurt either of them, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is an unstoppable dynamo of a horny sixteen year old boy, slave to his instincts, and this makes him selfish. So it’s kind of inevitable that he’ll hurt someone, and probably himself too, as he tries to figure it all out. Oh, and try to save the world.

I spent about 90% of the book debating how literally I should take Austin’s account of “the end of the world”. Is it really the end of the world as in The End Of The World, or is it (a) just the end of the world in Ealing, Iowa, (b) what could have been the beginning of the end of the world but fortunately turns out not to be, or (c) maybe simply, given his heartache, just the end of Austin’s world? In many ways Austin’s account of what could be the more terrifying aspects of this story are almost blasé and almost (almost) so taken-for-granted that it’s difficult to divine how serious it all is. Is this because by the time he comes to write this account, he’s pretty much inured to the whole thing? Or because, at the time it’s all happening, it’s overshadowed by the bigger question in his life: how can he be in love with two people? Plus, you know, giant grasshoppers.

Is Austin to blame? The Hoover boys? Dr. Grady McKeon? The world’s need for unstoppable corn? Told not as a diary, but as a personal historical account, Austin likes details and he likes connections, and his history includes both of these, linking together what could be considered unrelated events into a big spider’s web of a retelling. Ultimately, of course, all the connections become clear, but can there be a happy ending. What, after all, is a happy ending? It’s immense and tiny, intense and careful, pacey and thoughtful, funny and sad, and it’s impossible not to root for Austin to get everything he wants, even when all of those things are seemingly contradictory to one another.

I loved every part of this book, from Austin’s complete confusion over his two best friends to the frankly rather bizarre apocalypse he’s caught up in the middle of, the brilliant antics of these three kids in their small hometown and the eclectic way that Smith/Austin goes about writing the story, sliding from personal account to family history to multiple viewpoints as the praying mantises take over. I want to tell you it’s one of the most interesting and unusual novels I’ve ever read. I want to tell you it’s genre busting, and gender busting too. I want to tell you it will appeal to fans of John Green, Patrick Ness, Michael Grant, Suzanne Collins, Stephen King. Mostly, though, I just want to tell you it’s so completely brilliant you have to read it for yourself.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender tells the story of three women: Ava herself, a young girl who was born with a pair of softly feathered wings; her mother Viviane, heartbroken and shy of the world; her grandmother Emilienne, haunted by the sorrows of her lost brother and sisters. When Ava was born they called her The Living Angel, but where did this magic come from? As Ava traces her family’s history, the lives of her mother and grandmother, their choices and their fates, she spies a thread of magic that runs through them all – but what love, magic and tragedy awaits Ava herself?

I love the cover on this book, the beautifully engraved feather design. And the title is apt too: the story is one of strange and beautiful sorrows. But, while quiet tragedy does run through the pages, it is not all sorrowful. And it is not just Ava’s story either. Much of the first half of the book is taken up with Emilienne’s story, and then Viviane’s, and I have mixed feeling about this. Their histories are relevant and they have a part to play in the events that follow, but it meant the story took a long time to really get going, especially for a title that’s billed as Ava’s story. Although, of course, their story is a part of Ava’s story – but Ava is a much more engaging character than either her mother or grandmother, each of whom feels the toll of lost love heavily and whose choices I found slightly irritating and naïve in places. But perhaps Ava can break the cycle?

Once Ava herself came to the foreground of the story I was much more interested – a young girl like any other, she just wants to be accepted for who she is inside. But when she ventures beyond her garden gate will people see her for who she is or will they see only her wings? Will they be afraid? Or awed? As she gradually begins to expand her world it’s inevitable that someone out there will react badly. Will it destroy her? Or give her new beginning?

Leslye Walton writes with a style that reminded me strongly of Alice Hoffman, one of my favourite authors, whom I read a lot of in my early twenties, as she weaves in natural magics and gives her characters a quiet sort of sensitivity to the world. Just here and there, though, she lets it get a little out of control – one and half pages on the smell of rain, for instance, felt a little overcooked.

This is a book being marketed for teens/young adults, yet it doesn’t feel like a young adult book. Maybe this is a good thing: teens, after all, are more than capable of reading and engaging with ‘adult’ books, and why should teen books have a certain ‘feel’ about them anyway? The genre should definitely not be restricted in this way. However, I would only recommend it to older readers because of the sweeping sexual references and because, honestly, a younger reader is likely to get bored pretty quickly by the heavy beginning – this is not an action adventure book, it is not a romance or a dystopian thriller. I do love the magical realism aspect, though, and perhaps it’s time the young adult section had something a little different added to its shelves.

While I wasn’t completely overwhelmed, I did enjoy reading The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender; it was satisfyingly predictable in places and nicely unpredictable in others, and as the story built towards it’s conclusion I was most certainly gripped. And it has a slightly ambiguous ending, with a little surprise tucked inside it, as well as giving the feeling that all is right with the world as each of the three women overcome their sorrows and look to the future.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The Coincidence Authority, by J. W. Ironmonger

The Coincidence Authority is, as you might expect, a book full of coincidences. Or is it? Because, as the protagonist Thomas Post believes, there is no such thing as a coincidence. He is the ‘Coincidence Authority’, researching and studying and boiling coincidences down into mathematical formulae, demonstrating that so-called chance encounters usually have a higher chance of occurring than you might think. Until Azalea Banks walks into his office, that is. Her life is full of strange occurrences, coincidences that she feels are not coincidences so much as a demonstration of fate, of some pre-determined path along which her life is destined follow, and in which she has little or no choice of alluding. Can Thomas convince Azalea that she can live outside of her coincidences, or will he succumb to her line of thinking?

Obviously this is a book that gets you thinking about coincidences and the logic behind them, but it is thought-provoking in other ways too, for it is not just a book about coincidences; it is not just a love story or a story about one woman’s extraordinary and unusual life. As the different parts of Azalea’s life gradually come to light, J. W. Ironmonger takes us from London to the Isle of Man, to rural Britain, and across the continents to Africa, and here he introduces the horrors of Joseph Kony and the LRA (‘Lord’s Resistance Army’), real people whose real and despicable actions I had not heard of before, and Ironmonger’s words and descriptions of them strike steel into the heart.

And so this is not a book about any one thing. It is a about a man who studies statistics, but who discovers that life defies numbers. It is about a woman who believes in fate only to discover that the interpretation of fate is a blurred and fuzzy thing. Ironmonger balances theories and thought games with real life occurrences, with deftly created fictional characters and fictional lives, focusing in on coincidences and then spanning out to a wide-shot view of a person or a family or a country, mixing chance with belief with misunderstanding in a complex web that bursts open as the book nears it’s conclusion. It is interesting and unusual, sweeping and vivid.

Do you believe in coincidences? Does J. W. Ironmonger believe in coincidences? Perhaps in the end you just have to except that things are the way the they are and just go with it.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Half Bad, by Sally Green

This book, Half Bad by Sally Green, is absolutely brilliant.

Nathan is a witch. A Half Code, to be exact. His father was a Black witch, his mother a White witch. In a country ruled by Whites, where Blacks are not just outsiders, but hunted down and exterminated, to be a Half Code is to be under constant suspicion. Nathan has lived with it all his life: the notifications from the Council of White Witches that arrive throughout his adolescence, progressively restricting his freedoms; the annual assessments to determine the extent of his "Blackness"; the contempt of his oldest half sister.

And now his seventeenth birthday is nearing. It’s imperative that he track down the Black witch Mercury and persuade her to give him three gifts in order that he can receive his Gift. Because without his Gift not only will he never be a fully fledged witch, but in all probability he will die. The problem? The Council have him under lock and key, he doesn’t know where Mercury is, and if he does escape and if he does find her, she may not even help him. The rumour is she eats boys.

Sally Green’s prose is straightforward and gripping, and she adeptly gives us Nathan’s backstory, filling in any questions, building this world and Nathan’s plight, then launching us forward and into his journey. As Nathan learns witch history, we see how the lines between black and white are always blurred; the ones who have the power are the ones who write history, and of course they’ll write it biased towards themselves. ‘White’ persecutes ‘Black’, and they’re persecuting Nathan for being half Black because they fear who he may become – ‘different’ is always feared and the Whites clearly don’t seem to understand the Blacks’ affinity for and connection to nature. Supposedly, the Black are evil, but White seem pretty cruel to me, especially as they gleefully go about committing genocide against the Blacks. Sound familiar?

Half Bad ticks all the boxes whilst being something different. Firstly, it’s a book about witches that, whilst being set in present day England, somehow manages to wrap inside it a bunch of what are traditionally more dystopian themes. And secondly, it’s British – a British author and a British setting – but with the slick feel of an American approach. I don’t mean to disparage British authors, but sometimes British YA books just feel terribly English somehow – I can’t quite put my finger on what the difference is, but here Sally Green makes the best of both worlds by writing a story that doesn’t have that edge of uptightness about it.

I like all the characters, Nathan is really easy to engage with and to get behind and the various relationships Green portrays throughout the book – with his family, his ‘teacher’, the people who help him along the path to finding Mercury, the girl he’s in love with – all felt true. While there is a touch of romance by no means does it dominate the storyline, which is refreshing in this supernatural-type post-Twilight genre. I also particularly liked the importance of blood that Green works into the text. Blood determines whether you are Black or White, blood is a key part of the coming of age ‘Gift’ ritual; blood is power. This is neatly reflected in the clever cover design: swirls of red that resemble blood that take the form of a boy's profile. Nice; this is a book that should appeal equally to boys and girls and the last thing that should happen is for it to be given a girly cover that immediately turns the boys away.

I basically have nothing bad to say about this book. Nathan works out his history, squeezes along the lines of prejudice, tries to find a way to defy the Council. Of one thing he is sure: he will not kill his Black father, and he will not let the Council manipulate him into doing so. But can he stick to this plan when it comes down to it?

Half Bad is going to get a lot of press in the coming months and all of it well deserved: Sally Green is the one to watch in 2014.