Sunday, 20 September 2015

Running Girl, by Simon Mason

Generally speaking, I don’t normally pick up crime/detective books, but right from the get-go Running Girl seemed like it would be something a little different: its unusual puzzle of a cover, its unusual main character, and its shortlisting for the Costa Children’s Book Award were all big ticks, in addition to which, everything I’ve read from David Fickling Books recently has been really excellent. So I thought, why not?

The ‘running girl’ of the title is Chloe Dow, athletic and beautiful, the girl everyone at school watches. And now: dead. Who killed her, and why? What exactly was she involved in, and what was she doing in the hours that led up to her death?

Garvie Smith, one of Chloe’s ex-boyfriends, doesn’t exactly want to get involved, but he can’t help but try and make sense of things, to add the pieces of the puzzle together, and when he can’t make them fit, he can’t help but try and figure out why. He’s smart but lazy, failing school despite having the highest IQ of anyone there, consistently unmotivated and seemingly unmotivatable, except when it comes to this case, and even as he gets pulled further and further into a world he doesn’t really want to be a part of, and even as both his mother and DI Singh, the inspector in charge of Chloe’s case, get increasingly frustrated with him, he’s unable to leave it alone.

Several reviews of Running Girl that I’ve read have said how unlikeable they found Garvie, but I didn’t have that experience. Frustrating at times, yes; a very different sort of person to me, yes; but at heart he’s a good kid, just bored by pretty much everything except this case. The story is told partly from a mix of Garvie’s perspective, police interviews, and DI Singh’s perspective, which I think gives the book more layers and depth than you’d perhaps get if it was all Garvie’s story (although I will say I think it went on just a little too long for me, Simon Mason adding in an extra level of plot twist that I’m not sure was really needed).

Running Girl also feels very different to a lot of YA that’s currently being produced and definitely stands out from the crowd, not only thanks to the excellent cover, intriguing premise, and characterful protagonist, but because it has a very grown up feel and could sit on an adult fiction shelf just as comfortably as on a YA one. Plus it’s refreshing to have both a lead and a supporting character who don’t fall into the stereotypical white, Christian, middle class (Garvie is black; DI Singh is Sikh) – and, perhaps even more importantly, without the story being anything at all to do with these parts of the characters, these aspects being just one part of who they are, but not determining the plotline nor their personal fates.

Are Garvie and Singh destined to clash or will they find an uneasy compromise? Can Garvie persuade Singh to listen to him, and can Singh find a way to bring his team – and his boss – onto his side? And of all the different things that Chloe was dealing with, which one was responsible for her death?

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Demon Road, by Derek Landy

Derek Landy is the ENORMOUSLY popular author of the ENORMOUSLY successful Skulduggery Pleasant series. Demon Road is his first outing into a new fictional world, and it's pretty much guaranteed to be a big hit.

Amber’s life has always been fairly normal. Sure, her parents are pretty odd and wield a surprising amount of power in the community, and sure, they might not show her much love, but she’s always had everything she else she’s ever needed. So it comes as a bit of a shock when she discovers that they’re murderous demons and that – bigger shock – she too has a demon self. But – even bigger shock! – there’s also the part where they want to eat her as part of some power-absorbing ritual. Needless to say, she goes on the run. And boy is it going to be “one hell of a road trip”...

Reviewer describes Demon Road’s layout/plotting as being episodic in nature – like a T.V. programme – which is so true. It works nicely, adding to the road trip aspect of the book and makes it feel a little like a season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, albeit with more horns. I loved the Charger (a car with a difference) and Milo (Amber’s protector on the Demon Road) and Milo’s development through the story. And hitchhiker Glen was pretty awesome too. I’m usually pretty rubbish at imagining the accents of characters in books and just give them straightforward English voices when I’m reading, but with Glen his Irish accent really jumped off the page and into my head.

Demon Road absolutely does what it says on the tin and I’m certain that Derek Landy’s die-hard fans will be very happy with the new story and the new story world. There’s a lot going on: Will Amber manage to evade her parents AND the Shining Demon, with whom they made a deal so many years ago? How will she adapt to her demon side? Can we figure out Milo’s big secret? And what about Glen and his own mortal countdown?

Overall, I enjoyed Demon Road and I certainly wanted to find out how things were going to work out, but I think I expected there to be more to it somehow. It doesn’t really do anything more than what it says on the tin and I didn’t find much much subtlety in the writing or the storyline, particularly the language, which in some places – to be brutal – didn’t so much border on the cliché as step right into it, making it a bit hammy horror. I have two thoughts about this, though: (1) Does it really matter? (for most people: no); and (2) Is this the point? Is it deliberate, to make sure the book falls solidly within the conventions of the genre, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way? (maybe, maybe not)

A couple of the ‘episodes’ dragged for me, and I’m not entirely sure what their purpose was within the greater story other than to add a bit more supernatural stuff. There are parts to them which are relevant to the main storyline, but these particular parts of the story felt slightly unwieldy, or over-egged. I’m sure Landy is more than capable of having done better with this part of the story; instead it feels like he got a bit lazy with it, which I found disappointing – I felt that the ‘furthering’ that was done in here could have been done better and more in line with Amber and Milo’s main mission.

Lastly, there is Amber. For much of the story she felt very two-dimensional to me. Her character does develop some – e.g. from someone whose instinct is to run and hide to someone willing to stand up for a stranger on the street – but I didn’t feel like her development was completely rounded. I spent some time trying to understand what it is about her that quite didn’t hit home for me and I think it’s because we aren’t really introduced to who she is before everything changes for her. We know she was in trouble with her headmistress, we know she had a job in a diner, and we know she had a few online friends, but that’s about it and it’s never fleshed out at all – for me, all of this made her difficult to understand exactly what changes for her as she experiences her new reality.

Secondly, much is made of the fact that Amber’s demon form is considerably more beautiful than her human one. I have mixed thoughts about this. It’s really, really good that Landy has chosen to make our heroine not the standard blonde bombshell but dark haired and a bit on the pudgy side. But why would this aspect of her change when she becomes a demon? The demon part is the stronger, more confident part of her personality and I’m not sure if it’s Landy falling back on some sort of stereotype – that heroines are always beautiful to behold – or if its all a metaphor for the beauty under the skin. I’m just not sure on what his line of thought here is which, in a book of this ilk, suggests that some little thing is missing. In many aspects he makes Amber a brilliant feminist, the sort of person who will stand up for a girl being hassled by a jerk on the street, but it doesn’t always follow through in every part of the story.

All of this said, plaudits must go to Landy for the things he has achieved in the story: It’s fun, has a good bit of gore, plenty of supernatural shenanigans and nicely avoids the YA romance cliché whilst twisting the traditions of both the coming-of-age and road-trip stories. Demon Road is ultimately a cool new YA title that I’ve no doubt will have mass appeal. I’ve also no doubt that a lot of people will disagree with my thoughts here and simply read the book for what it is, without needing anything more. And that’s great. My little quibbles are simply because I think that Landy is capable of more. But: go read it yourself and make your own mind up!

Thursday, 3 September 2015

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

This is a book that gets under your skin in a million little ways; a book that demands to be read; a book which you simply have to keep reading, and even when you stop to do something else, is there in your mind, the story and characters ticking away, urging you to go back to them.

A Little Life is, at the beginning, about four college friends, but really it is all about just one of them: Jude. Once I reached the end of this immense, heart-wrenching story, though, I began to reassess: rather than being about Jude, it’s ultimately, perhaps, about the relationship between Jude and Willem. Because, if anything endures from our lives, if anything lives on beyond us, then surely it is the relationships we form around us, and the impact we have upon other people’s lives.

I’d heard that this book was breathtaking and should be read, but that it was depressing. It is breathtaking and it should be read, but it’s not depressing: if anything, it is incredibly sad, but even this is certainly not all that it is. It is everything; it is life encompassed. Hanya Yanagihara has an amazing power of observation, especially of people, and the book is full of little things that strike home and made me think, yes, that is so right; and it has made me re-evaluate how I think about my own friends and the relationships we share, how not everyone thinks or is able to respond to things the same way that I do.

In the first section of the book we hear only from Malcolm and Willem and JB: what we know about Jude, we only know from them, and I was expecting this style of storytelling to continue, so was pleasantly surprised when Jude’s voice is introduced in part two, followed swiftly by another change to a mix of first and second perspective storytelling, care of a fifth key character. It was interesting to me that as Jude’s ‘little life’ progresses, Malcolm and JB begin to take a back seat, and we only rarely hear from them again other than through Willem and Jude.

Jude is a conundrum: on the surface, in his professional life, he is so assured and confident and capable, but underneath he suffers such turmoil. He is impossibly, unimaginably damaged, and as his secrets are gradually, devastatingly revealed, Yanagihara paints what feels to be an unutterably true portrait of how it must be to be stuck inside the head of a person who feels about himself and believes about himself the things that Jude believes, in spite of all that the people who love him try to tell him otherwise. He is not haunted by ghosts so much as by hyenas. When he is young he seems mostly to be able to lock them away, but as he gets older they begin to truly start clattering about, demanding to be felt, and only one person has the power to help him tame them – or partially tame them, at any rate. I found myself thinking, if only he would speak about it, but the worse it gets, the harder it seems to become for him to articulate the things that haunt him.

The lives of Jude and Willem and Malcolm and JB are strangely, seemingly timeless. As I began reading, the story felt contemporary, that it begins perhaps now, or perhaps, at a stretch, in the nineties, but surely no further ago than that (though maybe it is simply my own vantage point that controls this; someone else might imagine a different decade). Yet, as I read, and the characters grew older and I knew that time was passing, it stills feels like it is the same; no future world is imagined here, it is all the present. And even the characters – even though I knew they were now forty, forty-five, fifty – seemed in my mind to be the same in age and looks and appearance as when they were twenty. Perhaps this is the conundrum of being an adult, though, for even as I know I am getting older, that my appearance must surely be changing, I find it hard to believe. I still feel the same; I still feel like me, not some older version of me.

As well as the concept of experience and how this shapes our lives, I also found interesting the question of healing and the human fixation on fixing things, whether physical things or mind things. That, after all, is why we have shrinks: to fix ourselves, to fix others; the idea that we all need to be perfect and whole. But what if something cannot be fixed, what if it is so deeply imbedded within the soul that it simply is; perhaps then the only way to fix it is to acknowledge and accept it and find a way to live with it, to work with it, to reduce it’s ripple effect rather than fruitlessly attempting to eradicate it. Acceptance, sometimes, is everything. This is an idea that has been touched upon in several books I’ve come across recently in terms of physical health, and it’s an idea that I try and try again to apply to myself. And so to see it here, so beautifully considered, is wonderful too.

As Jude ages, the things that matter changes: from being safe, to being loved, to the question of legacy. This is what A Little Life does: it incorporates a lifetime; even as things stay still, so do they change; the progression of thought and understanding and also, not-understanding. Our lives may be little, but they are also big.

This book absolutely deserves all the praise it is receiving. The words will become blurry with tears as you read and yet it is somehow wonderful, full of real things and real feelings that burst upon you with every page and every turn of events. It is beautiful and sad and truly extraordinary.