13 Reasons Why opens with main character Clay receiving a box of cassette tapes. It seems innocuous enough, although it does bring to mind scenes from...more13 Reasons Why opens with main character Clay receiving a box of cassette tapes. It seems innocuous enough, although it does bring to mind scenes from German novel The Reader by XX, as well as the connotations associated with chain letters. However, Clay soon finds out that what is on the tapes is far from innocent.
The tapes have been sent through an as-yet anonymous chain of Clay’s classmates, having originated with Hannah Baker, a young girl and, as we find out, an almost-girlfriend of Clay’s, who has recently committed suicide. The tapes detail, over 13 sides, the people, and their actions, who have contributed to Hannah’s death.
It’s a chilling premise, and one that author Jay Asher says was inspired by a visit to a museum, where he was given an audio device that would tell the story of each of the exhibits. The result was, of course, a fragmented series of notes and stories that were nevertheless interrelated, and it is this mood that characterises 13 Reasons Why. In the book, Hannah has recorded a tape for each of the individuals she sees as culpable, but because they are narrated as though for that person’s ears only, the story is painfully fragmented and inchoate to begin with.
We watch as Clay feverishly plays through the tapes, desperately trying to figure out the role he has played in Hannah’s death. It’s almost frustrating to find out that Hannah holds him up in high regard, and as largely blame free. Similarly, Clay spends relatively little time reflecting on whether this is truly the case, and as he considers the instances where he could have stepped in, he puts any blame back on Hannah, thinking that he would have helped if he had known—an approach that is itself problematic.
13 Reasons Why is a challenging examination of agency and avoidance. Hannah picks out situations where others intervened or acted in ways that fundamentally affected her. Some feel far more significant than others, but the effect is one of a snowball, with the cumulative effect of these actions resulting in Hannah’s final cry for help, which goes unheeded. What is most challenging, though, as well as ultimately supremely frustrating, is that Hannah appears to be looking for a way out from the outset. She assigns the others agency, but at the same time sees herself as having no agency of her own, describing her death as the result of their actions, and therefore unavoidable. She puts herself in the hands of others, relying on them to see the signs that she is struggling, and then terrorising them with blame for her death when they do not. While I don’t want to imply that those Hannah accuses of atrocious behaviour are innocent, for in many cases they’re far from it, there are instances where she seems to be deliberately misreading a situation to enhance her own suffering, and these sections are difficult to read.
While undeniably a challenging and painful read, the book teeters on the precipice of melodrama, and unfortunately often stumbles, resulting in scenes that don’t quite ring true, particularly given that they’re meant to be the spoken diaries of a teenage girl. The book does, however, offer a thoughtful examination of the snowball effect of others’ behaviour, and how even the smallest action—or inaction—can have a profound effect on someone’s life, particularly when they have opened themselves to being influenced in such a way. It addresses issues of agency and vulnerability, of cruelly plotted revenge, and of risk avoidance achieved through passing on blame and fault to unwitting participants. It’s a gruelling read, and one that leaves a sour taste in your mouth, but certainly one that you’ll find yourself wanting to discuss and reflect upon once you’re done.(less)
”I just didn’t think it would be this cold,” says Arden, Lily’s dreamily named and dreamily natured mother. “You never think it will be this cold,” responds Lily. Or this bad or this hard or this long.
Lily and her mother have moved a dozen or so times in the past decade, shuffling along somewhere new each time one of serial monogamist Arden’s relationships don’t work out. Arden, all but lost to her family, desperately seeks to have meaning to someone; every time she meets a man she convinces herself that he’s the man, and together they would “plan and plan and plan until the plans were so elaborate that the man would get all tangled up in them, forget his part.”
The most recent break-up has led to the financially desperate Lily and Arden seeking refuge in the old family mansion. Arden has designs to set up yet another business, while Lily is to be home-schooled. In an extremely hands-off, self-study fashion. But from the moment the two arrive in the mansion, things seem slightly off. That strange painting of the ghastly Uncle Max, for example. Or the fact that Lily’s shoes end up inexplicably filled with jam. Or the man with the burning hands.
But as airy-fairy and wishy-washy as Arden might be, Lily’s the opposite. She’d rather spend time with her microscope than on flights of fancy. Science books hold much more interest for her than fiction. “All that made up stuff? Who cared about made up people?” Or perhaps this quote:
“How else do you explain it?” “What do you mean, how else can I explain it? I can explain it in a thousand ways! There was somebody else in the house! There was somebody in the window! There was somebody in the kitchen or the hallway!”
Still, even rational, logical Lily can only deny for so long that something slightly odd is going on. And when she makes friends with local boy Vaz, who habitually catches up with the ghost of his dead father, and who delights in fiction (“Books are life with all the boring bits cut out”), Lily’s eyes are slowly opened to the fact that perhaps there’s more to the world than she might have imagined.
And indeed there is–and not just in the speculative realm. Not only does poor Lily find herself bothered from all angles by ghostly presences and their varying retributive forces, but she quickly finds out that the living aren’t to be trifled with, either. So when Lily and Vaz learn that there’s more to the history of the family estate than they first thought, the race is on to dig through microfiche archives, scout about for mysterious coins, hunt through the family tree, oh, and befriend a couple of spooks along the way.
Though this is her debut novel, Lily’s Ghosts fits with what I know of Ruby from her more recent work, such as the wonderful The Wall and the Wing, which was my introduction to her writing. Her writing is sharp and snappy, and the book’s darkness–and there’s quite a bit of darkness here–is balanced with plenty of witty levity. The book’s an annotator’s dream, and parallels can be drawn all over the place. Take that between Lily’s mother and her almost mindless repeating of her past mistakes, which is contrasted with that of ghost Lola, who spends her (after)life hunting down “Steffie”, a girl who wronged her when she was alive. For Lola, every girl is Steffie, and no matter what she does, she’s cursed to seek out Steffie after Steffie, much as Lily’s mother seeks out partner after partner.
Unfortunately, what gives so much richness to Lily’s Ghosts is also in a way its downfall. While the Lola element adds some levity, there are times when it also interrupts the plot–especially when it gets swept up in the whirlwind of other minor characters and ghostly presences. Though the many spectral points-of-view add a good splash of humour, and they do come into their own towards the end of the book, they do affect the book’s focus, particularly since there are already so many balls in the air.
And yet, for all that (and for all the typos in my Kindle edition) it’s a clever, delicious read, with a fun, twisty ending and character growth all around. I particularly enjoyed watching Lily and Arden negotiate their relationship as the dynamics between the two of them changed alongside the plot–Arden’s sudden protectiveness when Lily shows interest in a boy, for example, and what this means for both Lily and Arden.
Lily’s Ghosts is a perfect example of Ruby’s brand of thoughtful whimsy, and though it perhaps gets a little bit kitchen sink on the reader, it’s a solid debut.(less)
“I am the boy running around trying to tell the world that the sky is falling. And you know what? It’s not an acorn this time. The sky really is falling in.” Peter Vincent’s father is a world-renowned scientist, the man responsible for engineering a species of mechanical bees to replace the dwindling originals. It’s an act that’s a triumph of technology over nature, and a similar attitude is pervasive throughout Peter’s world, a world where technology is the new evolution. Survival of the fittest is the old way of thinking. These days, organisms aren’t given the opportunity to evolve and adapt. Technology has seen to that. That’s why, rather than looking for ways to encourage the organic honeybee to thrive, the bee slate was simply wiped clean.
The same is true for humans. In the first in this series, 0.4 (see my review), teenager Kyle Straker watched from afar as humanity underwent an upgrade, becoming the hive-minded, linked-up beings that populate this book, which is set a millennium later. Those who skipped out on the update effectively became invisible to these new beings–incompatible file versions, perhaps. And yet, there persists a movement of people inspired by Straker’s anti-upgrade outlook who continue to attempt to live in the “old” ways. Needless to say, they’re not looked upon fondly by someone of Peter’s father’s ilk.
When Strakerite Alpha contacts Peter to warn him of a series of disappearances, Peter finds himself drawn into a new way of thinking. Quite literally, for critical thinking and analysis isn’t of particular importance in a world where information is simply fed into one’s brain through the Link. Peter, who is already beginning to question the status quo, becomes increasingly critical of the world he lives in when he learns that humanity is facing another major upgrade.
Though 1.4 is set a thousand or so years from now, its themes are today’s. Much is made of media monopoly, of the fact that the masses not only receive their information from a strictly limited number of sources, but also that they only receive that information those media providers wish to relay. ”I’ve started to doubt the wisdom of drawing one’s opinions from the same data well every day,” says Peter at one point. At another, he reflects that it’s not just the informational content that’s a problem. It’s that people trust it, and are unable to think critically about it.
“The process of reading a book takes a while to get used to,” he muses. “It’s so slow and laborious. But once you get into it, once you forget the way you’re reading and concentrate on what you’re reading, it becomes a really unique experience. You have to work to draw meaning from it rather than having a meaning given to you, which is the only way we receive information these days.”
The reliance on these sources as a form of memory is also a compelling issue, and one that those who’ve stopped bothering to memorise telephone numbers or addresses or dates will find familiar. “We have stopped remembering things. We trust the Link to remember them for us.” It’s the present-day version of the problem raised in Wyndam’s The Day of the Triffids, where specialisation has meant that people need others in order to be able to survive. There’s a huge degree of trust involved, and even more so when it’s memory that we’re talking about; there are certainly Orwellian overtones here.
There’s also the idea of depersonalisation and alienation, which is widely present in dystopian fiction–of which this is a beautiful example–and which is so very relevant to us today. It’s the making of artificial, largely meaningless social connections via electronic media and the pretence that they’re a suitable substitute for actual, real-world relationships. It’s the idea of being so overrun and over-scheduled that taking a backseat to one’s life is the easiest way to cope.
“We need to feel like we belong. The Link provides us with all the connections we need. So much so that we pretty much let it run our lives for us. It’s how we make sense of the world. So we look for patterns and linkages, because without them the world is a senseless blur.” I did find that the epistolary format created a certain distance between the narrator and reader, and one that’s largely “telling”. There is a certain recursion of plot (although this is more than likely intended), and some elements, such as Alpha’s instant affinity for Peter, felt a little hasty. But overall, 1.4 is a compelling and thought-provoking addition to the dystopian genre.(less)
Scarlett Stirling is a month away from graduating from the National Academy of Performing Arts, and she’s on track to pass her final examinations with flying colours and catch the eye of some of the top dance academies while she’s at it. But Scarlett’s all too aware how fleeting a dance career can be, and how important it is to pack as much as possible into that time. She’s talented, precocious and ambitious, but she’s also impatient and obsessive–two traits that so often either result in astonishing achievement, or a terrible fall from grace. In Scarlett’s case it’s the latter.
Throughout the hours of training and rehearsals that Scarlett puts in, she’s haunted by the spectre of her father, whose own career was tragically, and fatally, cut short. Though Scarlett’s mother warns her of the danger of “chasing a ghost”, Scarlett is adamant that her actions and passions are her own. When she is told by others to keep things in perspective, she’s unable to fathom what they mean. “Everything is in perspective,” she thinks. “Dancing’s not just something I do. It’s who I am.” Failure is not an option: though everyone from her mother to talented professionals exhort her to consider a back-up plan, Scarlett is convinced that doing so would be admitting defeat.
One of the challenges facing creative professionals is that professional and personal identities are inextricably linked: it can become impossible to step away from one’s job because that job is also one’s identity. And for Scarlett this is certainly the case. Failing in her dance career would not merely be a professional failure, but a personal one as well, and Scarlett constantly links dance achievement with personal achievement, revelling in the personal high that results from her career achievement.
It’s a high that’s tremendously addictive and tremendously dangerous, and which consumes Scarlett’s life until she has scarcely the space to eat, sleep, or live any sort of life outside her training. This sort of obsessiveness, however, is seen by Scarlett not as dangerous, but as a triumph: by giving her entire life and body over to her dancing, she’s reifying her identity and her passion. ”It makes me wonder how much harder I could push in terms of food and muscle tiredness,” she thinks giddily after a day of near starvation and non-stop training.
By narrowing her identity to such a degree, Scarlett is able to shut out any conflicting voices or struggles–if they don’t line up with her dancing identity, then they’re trifles she needn’t bother with. When her mother pleads with her not to follow in the footsteps of her father, saying “He was my husband, not just a dancer”, Scarlett’s response is: Not just a dancer? Scarlett uses this clash of identities to shut out her mother, her friends, and even the dance academy, believing that the latter is too interested in hand-holding and “well-roundedness”.
So when Scarlett finds a way to fast-track her career, she’s right on it, pushing herself to absolute extremes and letting anything that’s not dance related fall by the wayside. It’s a harsh, destructive spiral, but it comes with the reinforcement and advocacy that Scarlett so desperately needs. Musician Moss, with whom Scarlett begins an exhausting and lurid affair, tells her, “your dad knew how to live. You know what they say. It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” At another point he says, “People like us…we need our freedom” to which Scarlett responds with “[Moss] focuses on his music, while I focus on my dancing career.”
But Scarlett begins to see that Moss’s way of “burning bright” may not be for her. Though perturbed by his speed binges, which he uses to help see himself through marathon song-writing sessions, she realises that there’s a parallel between his manic, harmful obsession and her own. Upon collapsing in class one day, she realises that she’s not so far from Moss’s behaviour as she thinks. ”If Miss Penelope cares so much about me hurting myself, why don’t I?” she says. “What am I doing? Pushing to my limit, or just running away?” After all, there are others, such as the acclaimed dancer her father performed with, who have managed long-term, stellar careers–and without any of the self-destructive behaviour in which Scarlett is becoming so deeply embroiled.
“I could see you putting too much in,” says her mother as she watches her daughter struggle to accept the consequences of her actions. “You realise the risk you take when you do that? If you put in all that you have, you risk losing that much, too.”
Thematically, Silhouette is very strong, but I do feel that the potential for depth of theme and characterisation here is undermined by a few elements. The timeframe of the novel feels like too brief a window for Scarlett’s fall from grace, and I can’t help but think that the novel might have had more of an impact if it were drawn out over a longer period of time. The way in which the plot plays out is unsurprising as well, and I felt that the book might have been stronger were the story narrowed to a few key characters rather than spilling between those at Scarlett’s school and Moss’s friends. The writing, too, is a let-down: the book (NB, my copy is an uncorrected proof) is full of choppy sentences and fragments that lend a slick and superficial tone that is at odds with the content of the book. I also struggled with the setting (ostensibly in Sydney?), which, like so many Australian books, fails to feel grounded, looking to a sort of “everywhere-but-nowhere” setting to, one supposes, appeal to an international audience. The title is off-putting, evoking suggestions of anorexia, rather than the Scarlett-as-silhouette motif that recurs throughout the book, and which becomes particularly salient at the end.
Still, in all, this is a solid, powerful read, and one that I expect will resonate with those who identity with Scarlett, or those who have watched the world’s many Scarletts from afar.(less)
“I’ve never lived in a place where you couldn’t easily throw a stone at your next-door neighbour’s window,” marvels Carlos Fuentes as he pulls into the Westford family’s driveway. Carlos has returned to America after fleeing to Mexico to escape the fall-out caused by his older brother Alex’s decision to leave the Latino Bloods. But like Alex, the tough-talking Carlos has a tendency to attract trouble, and after being threatened with expulsion from school mere days after his enrolment, he’s moved out of his brother’s student flat and into the Westford family home.
But Carlos is wary of his new guardians: having been the head of his household back in Mexico, he’s not one for guidelines and limitations. Nor is he one for affection, lashing out cruelly at anyone who tries to work their way through his tough-as-nails emotional armour. By accepting the help of the Westfords, who are white and firmly middle class, Carlos feels as though he’s capitulating in terms of his social and cultural identity, and in doing so betraying his mother, who’s worked so hard to raise her sons after her husband was killed in a gang fight years ago.
“I don’t feel the need to dis my heritage and change my name to Carl to fit in,” he says, after disdaining his friend Ramiro for going by the name of “Ram”. “One look at me and you know I’m Latino, so why pretend to be somethin’ else.”
But in Carlos’s mind, the Latino identity is one that’s inextricably intertwined with deficit thinking: it’s about being tough and scraping by. He associates pathways such as the one that his university student brother Alex is on as being “white” and therefore a disavowal of Latino culture. “I’ve always accused Alex of wanting to be white because he refuses to be called by his given name, Alejandro,” he says at one point. And Alex has dropped even further in Carlos’s estimation by virtue of the fact that he’s dating a white girl from a privileged background and by distancing himself from the “tough guy” behaviours that Carlos sees as crucial to his masculine identity as well as his Latino one.
But under the Westfields’ roof, Carlos is able to drop his posturing identity and spend more time on being a person rather than a persona. No matter how abominably Carlos behaves (and let’s just say that an afternoon or two in the “time out” corner wouldn’t go astray), they’re determined to see the best in him. And of course there’s Kiara, too–shy, smart Kiara who’s into hiking and fixing cars, and who’s definitely not Carlos’s type.
“I like my women sexy and stupid,” he says, right off the bat. To which Kiara responds, “You’re not my type either. I like my guys smart and funny.”
But given that this book’s called Rules of Attraction, you’d be correct in thinking that we have a case of “opposites attract” on our hands. Living under the same roof certainly helps things along, and so too does Kiara’s apparent saviour ideology (“He needs to know I’m not going to suddenly give up on him or give up on us,” she says at one point), and Carlos’s stubborn possessiveness, which sees him fighting for anything that might potentially be taken from him. Though Carlos says that his “goal most times is to be numb”, it’s Kiara who sees right through this, noting: ”When Carlos started here a week ago, he didn’t care whether he attended classes or got kicked out. now that getting expelled is a real possibility, he’s fighting to stay here.” Rules of Attraction follows a similar plot arc to its predecessor Perfect Chemistry, which traces the budding relationship between Carlos’s brother Alex and Alex’s love interest Brittany. Though both books contain a sort of “saviour” narrative in which the Latino bad boy is rescued by the love of a good middle class white girl, the theme’s not as glaring in this book, which to be honest is somewhat of a relief. Carlos’s growth occurs not simply because of Kiara, but rather because he is given the space and security in which to explore his own identity and aspirations.
However, where Perfect Chemistry contains, well, chemistry between the two main characters, Rules of Attraction seems lacking in this regard. The fact that Carlos and Kiara are living together makes the relationship feel more like one of convenient proximity than actual passion, and I never quite believed the romance between the two. Perhaps it’s because of the many awkward subplots designed to get them together–the pretending to be boyfriend and girlfriend to annoy the school beauty, and Kiara’s forcing Carlos to attend the school dance, for example. These elements seemed extraneous given that Kiara and Carlos are already living together, a situation that surely provides plenty of tension in and of itself. There are other odd plot threads that don’t quite seem to work, such as the planting of drugs in Carlos’s locker, and Carlos’s being recruited as part of a turf war–these just seem like complications for complications’ sake. The novel also suffers from the same rushed ending as its predecessor, but in this instance feels less convincing given that the events leading to the climax seem to come out of nowhere.
Perhaps the most problematic element of the book, however, is the epilogue, which is essentially a repeat of that in Perfect Chemistry, only with the characters’ names changed. Given that this is a teen romance, I doubt I’m spoiling much by saying that things end with a happily ever after, but it’s the ever after that bothers me here. Is it really realistic that both Fuentes brothers end up marrying their high school sweethearts? I’m a romantic sap at heart (believe it or not), but honestly, the idea of teenage love inevitably ending in marriage and kids frustrates me, and by normalising this sort of stuff, we’re creating some highly problematic expectations for today’s teens.(less)
Jess Hill and Peyton Brentwood are at war. Although they were once the very best of friends, things have changed, and now the two spend their days fig...moreJess Hill and Peyton Brentwood are at war. Although they were once the very best of friends, things have changed, and now the two spend their days figuring out how to make the other the laughing stock of the school with prank after prank. But a good prank begets an even better prank, and over the years, things have begun to escalate, with the whole school waiting to see what the duo will come up with next. However, Jess and Peyton are now in their final year of school, which means that the consequences of getting caught are high stakes–Peyton’s dreams of Harvard could easily end up circling the drain, and Jess could well end up flunking out and expelled.
Told in a dual perspective format, Getting Caught offers both sides of the Jess/Peyton situation and gradually reveals how the two ceased being best buddies and turned into foes instead. At its heart, the novel is about miscommunication and the risk of making assumptions about another person’s position and motivations, and the authors aren’t shy in making sure this point gets across. Jess is the emo bad girl type, while Peyton has straight As and a membership in every club at school. It’s easy to make assumptions about their backgrounds even from this, and the authors note this by reversing the presumed backgrounds of each of the girls–it’s Jess’s family who’s better off than Peyton’s, for example.
Presley Ashbury needs two thousand dollars for an event that her best friend Justine would describe as a “cattle market” or a “misogynist tool of patriarchy”. Presley prefers to use the more mainstream description for it, however: beauty pageant. Or rather, “scholarship pageant”, which is apparently the PC term for a thoroughly un-PC event.
Anyway, Presley’s not your typical wealthy, privileged beauty queen. Her reason for competing is less to do with her desire to mince around in a bikini and tease her hair up higher than your average serving of fairyfloss than it is to do with the fact that beauty pageants can be lucrative, and Presley needs the money for uni. (Ah, America, you have a very, very flawed academic system if the most viable way to get a scholarship is to strut your stuff on a catwalk.)
Unfortunately for Presley, though her pageant talent might be tap dancing, in the real world her most salient talent is her unsurpassed ability to get into harm’s way at every opportunity. Presley’s what you might call a bit of a ditz (and that’s a euphemism), you see. And her astonishing gaucheness is milked for all its worth by the author, who’s clearly having a good deal of fun with this book and with poor “like, really?” Presley. A quick glance into the deep thoughts of our protagonist: “Is everybody in the whole world smarter than me? And isn’t Oedipus Rex a dinosaur?”
Although Presley might be doing her very best to keep on top of things, she’s sadly not all that good at it (too much hairspray inhalation over her short lifetime, perhaps). The dramas quickly add up until she’s facing an evil beauty queen, a cheating boyfriend, an underage drinking scandal, meanness from cheerleaders, and a rich boy who may be (but hopefully isn’t) using her just to get back at his Senator dad. And, worst of all: cellulite.
It’s probably not spoiling the plot for you to say that the book, well, pretty much plays out as you expect a YA chick-lit style novel containing a love triangle and beauty pageant might. The plot is probably the weakest element of the book, really. Not just because it’s predictable, but because it uses that very predictability to move forward. The various complicating events don’t really seem to hang together or arise out of much else other than chance–they just do what they need to do to set the characters on their way to the finish podium (never fear: I won’t tell you where Presley places). The romance between Presley and the rich boy, for example, seems to just burst into being (rather like Athena from the head of Zeus, although poor Presley probably thinks that Zeus is the plural of zoo. But I digress.)
The book, too, occasionally gets bogged down in its efforts to show the dark side of beauty pageants (or darker side, if you’re like me and think that beauty pageants don’t really have a light sight to begin with). There’s a scene towards the end of the book, for example, that tries to highlight the tragedy of a competitor who’s become scarily thin, yet is still pushed to compete by her mother. Unfortunately, when seen through Presley’s eyes it just doesn’t quite have the impact that it should.
Rather, the strongest bits of the book are where Presley is well and truly getting her airhead on (this happens quite a lot). Although there are a few instances where the humour falls flat or is pushed to a fanciful extent, it’s the ongoing poking of fun at Presley and the pageant world that’s actually the book’s strength. Presley’s narrative voice does have a tendency to ramble and get lost in asides (see all these epenthetic comments? I’m being clever over here), but it’s what largely keeps things trotting along.(less)
I felt a little misinformed when I began to read Gemma Malley‘s The Declaration. The jacket copy for this book is very coy, and I don’t feel does the...moreI felt a little misinformed when I began to read Gemma Malley‘s The Declaration. The jacket copy for this book is very coy, and I don’t feel does the book justice at all. While we’re given a hint at the theme with terms such as ‘being born’ being seen as illicit, and references to ‘the outside world’, the blurb tries to pique interest through being vague, which is not always the best way to get a reader to pick up one book over the hundreds of others clamouring for attention. Fortunately, The Declaration looked pretty, was on sale, and came armed with a series of cover quotes from sources I trust.
Reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!, The Declaration is a near-future young adult novel set in a world where people no longer die of old age. Of course, the consequences of this is the huge strain on the world’s resources, as well as massive overcrowding. However, rather than turning to eating people as in Soylent Green (the famous film based loosely on the Harry Harrison novel mentioned above), Malley has made it a crime for anyone to have a child unless they have ‘opted out’ of the longevity treatments. All children who are born to parents who have not ‘opted out’ are considered surplus, and essentially considered non-humans.
The story revolves around young Anna, who is a prefect in the Grange Hall surplus training facility. Anna, who has been indoctrinated into the surplus as rightless ideology, has no desire to achieve anything other than a high degree of utility for her future masters. However, all of this changes when Peter is captured by surplus hunters and is taken in by the facility. Peter is convinced that Anna has a life outside the facility, and is determined to make her see the short-sightedness and cruelty of the longevity laws.
The Declaration is an eerie book of a future that might very well be our own. Malley’s depiction of the near-future scenario is harsh and unabating, and there are several scenes that are quite frankly awful in their harshness and violence. Where you would expect the author to quietly close the door on a distressing incident and let the reader imagine the rest, she instead writes it bluntly and explicitly. This unflinching frankness is key to the book’s success, I think. The Declaration suffers from a slow start and a bit of eye-rolling coincidence in terms of how certain people are linked together throughout the narrative, but it is rescued by Malley’s bleak matter-of-factness, which never dips into anything maudlin or twee. While there are certainly some plot points that seem a little too neat, and the Constant Capitalisation of Almost Every Noun is torture on the eyes, The Declaration is an intriguing dystopic novel that refuses to give in to an uplifting Spielbergian conclusion but instead runs its course bluntly and honestly.(less)
Robert Cormier is no stranger to challenging themes. His books are typically works of creeping menace, with something truly awful and desultory always waiting to make an appearance, with characters whose very humanity predisposes them to choices and decisions that on a moral level feelsso dramatically wrong to the reader, but yet so utterly realistic at the same time. In previous work such as The Chocolate War, Cormier explores the deplorable way in which people behave when in a group context, the way in which terrible actions can be tacitly, and sometimes explicitly, condoned by the group and, perhaps worse, those in a position of power. Cormier often takes pains to highlight the beast-like nature lurking just below the surface of all of us, and how quickly it can be brought to the fore. Curiously, though, he also often positions himself to examine agency in these instances: to what degree are particular actions made consciously, and to what degree are they the result of particular extenuating circumstances? These notions are similarly explored in Cormier’s fairly recent novel We All Fall Down.
On April Fools Day, Harry Flowers and his school-aged gang of would-be rebels and petty criminals trash the home of the Jerome family in an act of animal malice that’s reminiscent of the most excessive exigencies of Burgess’s classic A Clockwork Orange. Karen Jerome, however, returns home early, and witnesses the criminal act in question. The boys, their sense of humanity utterly suppressed by their vicious intent, brutally assault her, and Karen is left comatose. The novel then divides into three separate but intertwined narrative threads: that of Jane Jerome, Karen Jerome’s older sister, whose isolation and violation as a result of the trashing becomes increasingly crippling; Buddy Walker, a shy young boy who increasingly uses alcohol as a crutch to deal with the aftermath of his parents’ divorce, and who happens to be one of the trashers; and the mysterious Avenger, a vigilante who has witnessed the event and who takes it upon himself to mete out punishment. So when Jane Jerome and Buddy Walker meet by (carefully engineered, as it turns out) happenstance, and begin dating, all under the watchful eye of the Avenger, who is biding his time before making his move, it’s inevitable that the tension of this already confused, twisted situation will step up a notch or two.
Although not on par with Cormier’s best-known novels The Chocolate War and I am the Cheese (see our review), We All Fall Down deals with similar themes, and its frank, suspenseful, and paranoid air will be instantly familiar to readers of Cormier’s work. Other than the initial opening scene of the trashing, the suspense is wrought in a purely psychological manner, playing out rather like a literary game of chess as characters make sudden reveals and the three narrative threads asymptotically approach each other. Because the plot itself is weighted so very heavily towards the psychological and the intellectual, there’s a weight and a complexity of depth to it that encourages the reader to consider and reconsider the various characters’ actions and motivations, all of which are found wanting in some way: it is this, no doubt, that lends the book its title.
As the book unfolds and certain key plot points are revealed, Cormier forces the reader to consider, as mentioned earlier, notions of agency and predestination, and therefore of responsibility. The trashing, it turns out, was not a break-in as such, as Harry Flowers was in possession of a key to the Jeromes’ home. The trashing, then, was not something premeditated or targeted, but almost, in a sense, the inevitable outcome of opportunity. To what degree, then, Cormier asks (as does Jane, whose fault it is that Flowers manages to get hold of the key), is the trashing the fault and responsibility of Flowers and his gang? It is a chilling concept, and one that is further explored throughout the book as Jane and Buddy begin a romantic relationship. This relationship, too, however, is borne out of chance, occurring because Buddy, his conscience troubling him, seeks out Jane. The two meet when Buddy falls at the mall (in, of course, a literal manifestation of his moral digression), and Jane assists him in what Buddy tries to see as an act of forgiveness. None of this, of course, could have happened were it not for Jane’s oversight with the key, and for the trashing itself. One can’t help but wonder throughout their relationship to what degree Jane is aware of Buddy’s true nature, of the character that lurks beneath his platitudinous exterior: Jane is crippled by guilt over the trashing and her sister’s subsequent condition, and punishes herself by isolating herself from her friends and by becoming increasingly withdrawn, and it’s fair to assume that her often problematic relationship with Buddy is another form of self-imposed punishment. There’s a sense of universal, inescapable guilt, and no matter the direction a character takes, they’re doomed, to fall in some way.
Using only the most spare approach to language, Cormier carefully paints his characters and situations in shades of grey, and even the most apparently awful of the characters, such as Harry Flowers (whose name is reminiscent, for me at least, of Harry Lime, villain in The Third Man), are allowed to step back from their villainous ways and take some sort of redemptive action. Cormier works to ensure that his characters’ motivations are complex enough that it can be difficult to cast them as inarguably right or wrong, and there’s a sense of ambiguity and ambivalence in every scenario that adds tremendous dramatic weight to the book. This sense is further heightened by the presence of the Avenger, a character who, emotionally and morally infantile, passes judgement on the various characters and their actions to chilling result. Curiously, this juxtaposition serves, rather than to deride the other characters for their behaviour, to actually bestow upon them a sense of maturity: while they may be acting in ways that are morally ambiguous and ethically grey, they at least have the emotional awareness to be able to reflect upon and fight with these issues, unlike the Avenger, whose responses are simplistic, uncomplicated, and final. I have to say, however, that while I understand the purpose of the Avenger, I felt that his presence was largely unnecessary, and at times rather implausible, and worked to slow down an otherwise quick-moving and suspenseful plot; the twist relating to this character is also tough to swallow, particularly coming where it does in the novel.
My experiences as a reader of Cormier have thus far been positive, and without exception I’ve emerged from his novels changed in some way. While We All Fall Down fall slightly short of the utterly superlative I Am The Cheese and The Chocolate War, it’s a welcome addition to Cormier’s famously challenging oeuvre. Young and older readers alike will take a lot from this slim little volume.(less)
A close relative of mine lives a life that, while rich and expansive in some areas, is small and constrained in others. Her fear of germs, infection, and illness sees her frequently clad in rubber clubs scrubbing away layers of invisible taint from pristine surfaces, sees her washing and re-washing fruit and vegetables until their glossy fibres strain and fray, sees her bringing her own cutlery to restaurants, refusing to drink out of handle-less cups, and refusing to eat in establishments where the kitchen isn’t visible from the dining area. These tendencies, however, extend beyond food and hygiene into other areas: an absolute fear of the sun and its potential effect on the skin, for example, and other small but but important proclivities that result in habituated behaviour that, while not necessarily bad or detrimental, do affect the way she lives her life. While such tendencies are often passed off as quirks, habits, eccentricities, or preferences, they’re also often ascribed a more formal name: obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD. OCD has been examined widely in literature and film, with characters such as George Sorensen from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or the eponymous character from Monk immediately coming to mind, but depictions of teens with OCD seem to be relatively rare. In her YA novel Zelah Green: Who Says I’m a Freak? Vanessa Curtis, however, takes up this topic in a refreshingly light-hearted but sympathetic manner.
Hand washing. Door locking. Wardrobe spacing. Stair jumping. Zelah Green fits her schedule around a compulsive need to attend to these, and other, “rituals”. Failure to complete these rituals in the manner prescribed sees Zelah desperately repeating them in order to stave off some unknown, but much-feared outcome. For Zelah, who is in a sort of pained limbo after her mother’s prolonged illness and sudden death, and her father’s crumbling self-concept, these rituals offer a degree of self-protection, and allow her to exert some sort of perceived control over a life that otherwise feels as though it’s spinning out of control. But while Zelah takes comfort in her rituals, those around her are struggling to cope with them, and Zelah is soon sent to a rehabilitation retreat for teens suffering from a range of personal issues. While there, she begins to uncover the source of her OCD, and finds herself reflecting not only her own life, but on her relationships with others, developing a more sophisticated understanding over those things that can be changed through individual agency, and those things that cannot, and learning to look beyond the superficial in the individuals she meets along the way.
It’s an unfortunately reality that traditionally “issues” books aimed at teens have had a tendency to veer towards the didactic and condemnatory, making them excellent examples of finger-wagging, fear-mongering, and Dire Consequences but, often, little else. In recent years, however, this trend has begun to abate, being replaced instead by books that deal humanely, thoughtfully, and warmly with issues that effect teens. In addition, good examples within this genre allow teens to be more than the sum of their actions, and more than the issue that consumes them. Written with an undeniable warmth, liveliness, and sense of understanding, Zelah Green is one such book. Zelah, though consumed by her rituals, exists beyond them rather than being simply defined by them, and her character is richly drawn, with a strong sense of personal history and back-story. Curtis allows us to get inside Zelah’s head in a way that never patronises or condemns, and in a way that is consistent with Zelah’s own sense of internal logic–which is, of course, one that contrasts noticeably with that held by most readers. The matter-of-fact way in which Zelah describes and performs her rituals is at once fresh and entertaining and rather moving: to Zelah, her coping mechanisms are a simple fact of life, and must be adhered to unerringly until the end of time, while to the reader they’re patently self-destructive and must be overcome in order for Zelah to live a life that is rich and well-rounded. Zelah’s treatment, though perhaps resulting in successes that seem a little too quick to be be completely believable, is well-handled, and Curtis neatly examines the issues behind Zelah’s OCD in a way that is thoughtful yet succinct.
However, while Zelah’s character is beautifully set up, the book struggles with structural issues that result in other key characters being drawn only sketchily, and a plot that resolves rather too quickly and neatly. Zelah Green is loosely based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and as such suffers somewhat from some of the requisite tropes of fairytale fiction. Zelah’s stepmother, for example, is depicted as wicked and selfish to a degree that it’s rather difficult to suspend disbelief, and given her significant role in Zelah’s life and several of the key plot points, such as the when and why behind Zelah’s being sent away for treatment, the flatness of her character weakens the book as a whole. Moreover, while Curtis introduces us to a host of potentially fascinating characters at Zelah’s treatment facility, many of these remain little more than suggestions. This is perhaps the fault of the tight first-person point of view, which precludes us from getting inside these characters’ heads: Zelah’s position as an outsider means that she has little more than a cursory understanding of any of these characters, and as such they are not much more than quick, bright flares that spark here and there along the narrative. There’s great potential here, but unfortunately it’s not picked up to the degree it could be.
The conclusion, too, involving Zelah’s knight in shining armour, in this case the not-so-shining character of Zelah’s father, feels a little rushed, and indeed almost even forced. Zelah’s father’s explanation for his unannounced and rather prolonged absence (a sudden stint in a treatment centre for alcoholism) feels a little weak, and raises a number of questions in terms of believability and motivation: it’s difficult to believe that he would leave his daughter without first talking to her, and that Zelah’s stepmother, even being the Cruella De Ville-esque woman that she is, would stoop to cutting so thoroughly communication between the two. This sort of thing may well be appropriate for cautionary tales written in medieval times, but in a modern novel it falls rather flat. I do appreciate, however, the fact that Curtis emphasises the ongoing nature of Zelah’s treatment, highlighting that her efforts to recover will take time and will be incremental in their success. The final chapter in the book, despite the dramatic overthrowing-of-the-evil-stepmum stuff, is hopeful and positive without being twee, and while the inevitable sequel lurks in the wings, everything is wrapped up cleanly enough to avoid the terrible cliffhanger syndrome so common in YA series of late. And, let’s face it, another book involving the fun and witty Zelah is certainly not an awful thought.
Zelah Green‘s strengths largely come from Zelah herself: she’s a protagonist whom it’s impossible to dislike, and who invites support and empathy from the reader every step along the way. Her struggles with OCD are documented in a light-hearted way that never feels teasing or dismissive, and her sense of determination and resilience is admirable. This book, while suffering more generally from narrative and characterisation issues, is worth reading for Zelah alone, and I’d happily pick up the next in the series.(less)
Perdido Beach, three months after the FAYZ. There are no adults. There is no food. There is no order. Tormented by the hunger that gnaws at their bodies and increasingly fearful of the creeping monstrosities lurking in both the dark of night and in the light of day, those who remain find themselves growing paranoid, resentful, desperate. Battle lines are being drawn, not only between Sam Temple's clan and the eerie lot of the Coates Academy, but within each group. More and more of the survivors are beginning to demonstrate supernatural powers, resulting in growing disenfranchisement among their "normal" peers, who fear being treated as second-class citizens as a result of their weaker physical status, and the fact that their leader himself is one of the "freaks", as they're known. There is apathy from some, dissension from others, and sheer unadulterated cruelty from others again, and it's not long before the already fragile society of Perdido Beach is once more under tremendous threat, both within, and without. Not only must the two discrete groups deal with the tumultuous situation of their internal ranks, but they must deal with a much darker, much hungrier, and much more unrelenting force known as the darkness. My thoughts While I enjoyed Gone (see my review), the predecessor of Hunger, I did express some reservations about the incessant upping of the stakes, which occurred in such a dramatic manner that each chapter felt as though it were competing with the last for a medal in the area of Superlative Awesomeness. I also struggled somewhat with the rather minimalist and binaristic approach to characterisation, and the handwavium employed to overcome some of the more confounding plot and milieu elements. Still, I had rather high hopes for this, the next in the sequel, and I'm rather pleased to note that not only were they met, but they were rather significantly surpassed. At its heart, Hunger remains a whiz-bang action adventure story chock-full of monsters and mutants, super powers, battles to the death, and explications of the very human desire to survive against vanishingly slim odds--and presents all of these with admirable attention to plot, pacing, and mood. However, while Gone merely hints at deeper themes, Hunger leaps on them with feverish abandon, forcing a closer and more thoughtful reading, and one that is far more rewarding. It's not a flawless work by any means--the major characters Sam and Astrid, as well as key antagonist Caine (who, as his name suggests is indeed not the type of fraternal figure in whose presence one delights) largely spend their days faffing about, moaning about the burden placed upon them, and being generally needy and narratively non-essential; the whole uranium-eating monster in the depths thing is a little eye-rollingly melodramatic; and the book's beginning is more than a little lurching, trying to pander to both new readers and those familiar with Gone, an issue that does crop up a few times throughout the novel--but it's strong enough thematically that its shortcomings can be quite readily overlooked. In Gone Grant tentatively addressed issues of bigotry, but typically in the sense of racism, a bigotry that stems from visible physical differences. In Hunger, however, this issue is explored further in terms of not only racial bigotry and homophobia, but also in terms of the irrational fear and hatred targeted towards the "mutants", whose varied supernatural powers immediately render them atypical. While this bigotry parallels in some ways racism and homophobia, it is substantially different in others. First, the powers exhibited by each of the mutants are different from each other, meaning that detractors can't trot out the old "lover the sinner, hate the sin": in each case, the identified power has to be weighed against normalised ways of being and acting, and discounted accordingly. Second, whether one is or is not a mutant is not readily identifiable using external measures such as skin colour or so forth, leading to the need to either assume all are innocent until proven guilty, or all are guilty until proven innocent (in a largely lawless society bent on immediate survival, one can rather easily guess which mindset prevails). Given the newness of the mutated form, there are no standard ways of being or performing mutant, as one might perform one's gender or sexuality, and the flux-like state of this subset of people creates a fascinating set of oppositions to the standard binaries. Perhaps most interesting of the characters in this sense is Dekka, an African-American lesbian who also happens to be a mutant. Of course, what makes all of this so chilling is not only the way in which mutants are immediately declared to be deviations, without consideration of the fact of why this should be so, or the arbitrariness of the line differentiating mutant from normal (and the fact that mutants may well be normal, and the normals the mutants: see my review of John Wyndham's excellent The Chrysalids for some parallel commentary), but of course the way in which the mutants are so readily, so violently discounted. Unlike other minority groups, whose status in no way affects their ability to participate in society, those demonstrating mutant powers offer an important means of survival: the ability to hunt, to gather, to protect, and so forth. Most of the mutants, indeed, demonstrate powers that are benign within society, but offer essential benefits in terms of the immediate survival requirements of the fractured Perdido Beach society. For this reason, the irrational, primal response of the "normals" towards the mutants is additionally chilling: not only do the normals pass judgement upon the mutants in a way that is cruel, unusual, and arbitrary, but in doing so they limit their own capacity to survive in what is an increasingly challenging situation. This appalling short-sightedness (and not to mention the notional, changing value placed on human life) is prevalent throughout Hunger, and becomes all the more awful with each turn of the page. In addition to the omnipresent theme of bigotry, Grant also looks at economic and political participation, and cultural regression. Sam and Astrid's welfare state approach is problematised by Albert, who argues that incentives, such as the application of meaningful value to one's work and actions, are needed in order to encourage participation in the workforce. Albert's carrot approach to economics is contrasted with Caine's rather more ends-justifies-the-means stick approach, which employs Pavlovian methods to not so much encourage participation as to discourage lack of participation. The notion of universal suffrage, equal representation, and representative government is also addressed, with the increasingly fractious societies in the book rather reminiscent of certain political goings on in the US (and no doubt elsewhere); again, we are given a counterpoint with the Coates Academy, which employs dictatorial, totalitarian approaches. Finally, Grant gives nods to Brave New World (see my review) and Fahrenheit 451 (see my review) with his depiction of the mass consumption of popular culture as a coping mechanism. Rather than growing older, the young characters of Hunger seem to regress as time passes, becoming increasingly infantalised and unable to deal with the demands of daily life. Sam, for example, spends his days mediating ridiculous points of contention about ownership of pets, name-calling, and so forth, all of which could be easily dealt with by someone assuredly comfortable in their own sense of agency. However, the Perdido Street crew has given over their agency in place of a life of passivity, seeking to avoid engagement and thus the consequences and responsibilities of the real world. While books aren't being burned, they have certainly been subordinated to the Wii or to the Playstation. Conclusions Gone, the first in this series, seemed a little to me like a warm-up novel, and I suspected that this, the subsequent volume would address the lingering concerns and dissatisfaction I felt upon finishing its predecessor. I'm glad to find that I was right in my suspicions, as Hunger surpasses Gone by rather a long shot. There are some plot points that do become repetitive, and some of the major characters do feel as though they've gone into narrative hibernation, but the novel gallops along at a tremendous pace, and doesn't shy away from complex, challenging themes. If you're after an excellent YA that segues neatly into some of the more traditional dystopian oeuvre, then you could certainly do a lot worse than to pick up Grant's work. (less)
Steampunk and its various derivatives are all the rage right now, it seems, with one scarcely unable to turn a corner without seeing a young lady hidden beneath the shadow of a parasol, or a young man showily pompous beneath the decorative pomp of his cravat. While the plasticky textures and excesses of cyberpunk were perfect for the flashy 80s, steampunk seems to indicate some underlying social desire for velvet, puns, and poorly conceived technology. Steampunk is less an ideology and more a fashion, which is perhaps why it’s been taken up so heartily by young readers: velvet? Lace? Witty repartee? Cucumber sandwiches? Pimms? Mechanical whatsits? Authors such as Gail Carriger, Cherie Priest, Jay Lake, Philip Reeve, and China Mieville (despite his assertion that he writes New Weird, not steampunk), have gone nuts on the stuff, and their readers have taken it up with zeal. If you’ve been following the surprisingly promptly moving steampunk bandwagon, you might well have heard of a YA author known as Cassandra Clare, known for her best-selling Mortal Instruments trilogy, which has, with Clockwork Angel, moved into prequel-dom. I have to admit that until this novel I was, although aware of, unfamiliar with Clare’s work, and it was with some glee with which I settled in to read this rather beautiful tome. Cucumber sandwiches and tennis set cup and saucer at hand, of course.
When Tessa Gray travels to gloomy, scourge-ridden London in search of her brother Nate, she expects terrible weather, terrible food and similarly terrible dentistry. Things that she is not expecting, however, include: two nasty witchy-poo lassies with kidnapping tendencies; a suddenly revealed ability to shape-shift; a quick-to-violence vigilante group full of spunky men and plucky women; and a few mixed up baddies intent on Taking Over the World. Also a potential love triangle, because no good over-seas journey is complete without such a complicating factor. Yet, while a typical English lass would be aware the best approach to ensuring one’s longevity in these Victorian times is probably to sit back, nibble on a scone and, er, think of England, Tessa’s inherent American verve sees her turn to buffy-esque butt-kicking ways instead, and she soon finds herself fighting the good fight against all manner of vamps, scoundrels, and wind-up armies exhibiting the chilling determination of biblical golems. But the battle between good and evil is not such an easy thing to fight, particularly when the two sides are so difficult to tease apart, and as things unfold in rather unexpected ways, Tessa finds herself struggling to make the right choices.
With its grim, Dickensian setting, convoluted plot machinations, and larger than life characters, Clockwork Angel is a heady introduction to the work of Cassandra Clare, and one can immediately see how her work has such wide appeal. There’s a confidence to Clare’s writing that seems to emanate from the pages: her prose, plotting, and characterisation are polished and assured, and an ability to allow her narrative to fall neatly within the confines of her page extent, rather than falling prey to hazy allusions and suggestions, or to slip into info-dump format. While obviously my lack of familiarity with the Mortal Instrument series means that I can’t adequately judge how this novel ties in with the others, I can say that it easily stands alone, requiring no great familiarity with Clare’s earlier work.
While I did enjoy Clockwork Angel, I did find that a good deal of it felt familiar to me. This is perhaps because I’ve read fairly widely in this genre, or perhaps because Clockwork Angel draws on a number of standard tropes in its construction. While the nineteenth century London setting helps to inject a good deal of bleakness and despair into the novel, one wonders whether choosing this setting isn’t merely a shortcut that allows the author to avoid creating a more bespoke sense of the same, and there are times when the setting is veritably shoehorned into the plot as a way of upping the atmosphere. A similar issue occurs with the characters who, although fun to read, are never really given any real depth, relying largely on endless witticisms and ambiguous dark pasts to give some facsimile of complexity. When it comes to character in Clockwork Angel, cliche abounds, with every character easily distilled down to a few key traits on a character chart. Clare’s evident love for her characters shines through a little too strongly, too, with the rambling, digressive discourse between Will, Jem, and Tessa stretching to incomprehensible lengths in just about every scene, and Will and Tessa participating in unfathomably ridiculous literary quotation competitions. Time and time again Will’s raffish charm (and almost unbearable obnoxiousness) is underscored, Jem’s quiet sweetness and tormented history are trotted out, and Tessa’s romantic ambivalence is raised (good god, girl, stop drawing parallels with Pride and Prejudice and admit that Will’s a prat), and while the banter accompanying all of this is occasionally tight and well-written, it becomes dreadfully tiresome after some five hundred or so pages.
The plot, too, although tightly plotted and with its share of twisty goodness, is also familiar, offering up themes of selflessness and redemption against what is by now fairly well-promenaded steampunk ground. There’s no denying that it’s fun, because Clare never ceases to up the ante as far as tension goes (which is a good thing, given the book’s slow beginning), but it’s hard to deny that niggling voice at the back of one’s mind that snidely asks, “so?” In a sense, there’s a lack of gravity to the plot: while things happen–dastardly things, oh yes–I’m not so sure that they’re important enough that they need an entire book devoted to their cause, and while as a whole the book is technically sound and neatly composed, I can’t help but wonder whether some of Clare’s longer-term readers will come away with the feeling that they’ve just read a piece of very professional fan fiction. The plot coheres, but everything feels almost formalised, and perhaps too finely wrought, leaving the book without the delightful messiness that’s so essential to this genre. Perhaps the worst example of this is the painful Scooby Doo-esque reveal at the end of the book, a plot point that while no doubt seeming to work well during initial planning stages, doesn’t really work with the dark atmosphere and sophisticated narrative that Clare has expended so much effort trying to build.
Clockwork Angel is a deftly written romp offering some beautiful writing and no small amount of Plain Good Fun, and Clare works hard to capture the feel and nuance of Victorian London, something helped along by selecting an “outsider” as her main character. However, irreverence, humour, and foppishness are injected in overdose-worthy volumes, leaving the reader a little overwhelmed at times, particularly when this tone is in contrast with the reasonably dark narrative. In all, while I enjoyed this, the caricatured characters, overemphasis on dialogue, too-neat plot, and reliance on setting to create mood stopped me from engaging with it as much as I would have liked.(less)
“Sixteen years on the streets and you can learn a lot. But all the wrong things, not the things you want to learn. Sixteen years on the streets and you see a lot. But all the wrong sights, not the sights you want to see.”
One of the things I feel that I don’t see enough of in today’s YA is unpolished rawness. Instead there’s this strange facsimile of “voice”, which all too often comes across as a transcribed telephone conversation: colloquial and snarky, but airy and empty. I expect that this demographic homogeneity is in part why we’ve seen a huge shift towards the paranormal and the dystopian genres: authors seem to think that there’s not enough to the average teenager’s existence to get a book out of it. Today’s YA is suffering for its over-reliance on plot; its vapid, patronising attempts to render the teenage voice; its suggestion that everyday life isn’t worth writing about.
It’s kind of odd, isn’t it, given that SE Hinton’s The Outsiders is held up as a novel that changed the face of young adult literature, as a book that made YA what it is today. But this isn’t, as you might expect given this, a book with a twisty plot, scope-creeping ambitions, or zingy humour. It’s a book that feels as though it’s written to teens rather than for teens. It’s messy and rough and all over the place, but that’s the point: it feels real. The writing in this is by no means beautiful, but it’s so achingly honest, a parabolic mix of yearning and fear and frustration and hope.
Ponyboy Curtis might only be fourteen, but he has an impressively incisive–and heartbreakingly matter-of-fact–awareness of the stratification of our world. A “Greaser” from the tough side of town, he runs with small crew of self-described delinquents who are constantly facing off against the “Socs”, the rich kids. But through Ponyboy’s narrative we see that despite the divisiveness of their appearances, the two groups aren’t so different. The Socs might be well-dressed and well-spoken, but they’re no strangers to the possibility of brutality; the Greasers, on the other hand, encourage deficit thinking, but amongst them are kids who have serious potential. In both cases environmental and social forces have guided them to become who they are. But curiously, a large part of the groups’ unhappiness comes not from the fact that they are who they are, but rather the antagonism from the other group.
Through his friendship with the Soc Cherry, Ponyboy begins to find common ground between the two groups, and we see the beginnings of a white flag being stitched together before a horrific turn of events divides the groups entirely. It’s tragic to see how these entrenched norms and values can so vehemently come between groups of people whose members might be tentatively seeking a way beyond what’s really a pretty arbitrary opposition. But even so, there’s a thread of hope: Ponyboy’s belief in the beauty of the world and in small kindnesses–he picks up a handful of broken glass to prevent someone from ruining a tyre on it, for example–is both enduring and catching, and these resonate throughout the narrative even as everything else goes to hell.
There’s something so true to life and familiar about The Outsiders: it grabs you and doesn’t let go. Perhaps it’s because it’s thick with the energy of a young writer whose roughshod approach hasn’t been scrubbed away by the tempering file of adulthood–or by the same-iness that comes from trying to appeal to a mass market. You feel as though you’re there, breathless, beside the characters, and perhaps, too, right there with the author.(less)
Readers of this site will probably have twigged right away that television tie-ins about wholesome all-American teens aren’t at the top of my reading list. However, some of you might have figured out by now that I have an embarrassing fascination with weird American cultural or social institutions. The fact that cheerleaders actually exist beyond prime-time television, for example, seems highly bizarre to me, and the fact that sororities and fraternities are really part of American college life is utterly baffling. Baffling, but curiosity-inducing. And so, with Levi-Straussian* interest I found myself agreeing to review a copy of Marsha Warner’s Double Date, the first in a projected series of novels written to complement the US television show Greek.
Admittedly, the weird combination of Hellenic and Roman alphabets on the front cover (and the unfortunate Bieber-esque helmet hair of the male leads) did cause me to set my sights rather low (similarly, I wince whenever I happen upon English novels about Russia arbitrarily and gleefully reversing Rs, but that’s another story), and my hopes were further dashed by an opening scene involving a gang of young females shrieking about a mouse but things did pick up from there, and I was rather surprised to find myself in the hands of quite a competent author. Warner writes with confidence, and there are a number of moments in this book where she’s very good indeed, working to add surprising depth to some of the minor characters, and to breathe life into what is a terribly flimsy plot (presumably this weak plotting is deliberate, as having a story that could have an impact on the television show would no doubt result in all sorts of complexities that would be difficult to navigate).
The plot goes somewhat thusly: sorority girl and goody-two-shoes Casey Cartwright agrees to attend a science awards dinner as the date of her brother’s nerdy room-mate, but finds herself in a pickle when an event scheduled for the next night is moved forwards so that the two clash. Casey finds herself torn (momentarily) between honouring her promise to her brother and heading out on a date with a spunky young lad who has just come on the scene. After a few scenes of angsting, Casey decides to do the right thing, and all is well. Cue credits…er, end pages.
Given that this is what Warner has to work with, she performs admirably, and after a slow start gets things moving along at a reasonable pace, while injecting tension galore between Casey and her myriad would-be (and has-been) suitors, and drumming up a mysterious past for Casey’s date. However, the novel as a whole struggles under the rigid framework necessitated by the Greek franchise, and abounds with character info-dumps and recaps of previous seasons and episodes. Unsurprisingly, the characters and situations found in the book also seem more suited to television than a novel, and there are lines of dialogue and awkward cutaway scenes that I can see working well on the small screen (particularly when enhanced with a laugh-track), but that feel contrived on paper. The over-the-top religious ardour of Casey’s date, and the puppy-dog like behaviour of Casey’s ex, for example, would be great for laughs on television but feel painfully flat and cliched on the page.
There are a few other moments in this that I felt were a little eyebrow-raising, too: the incessant description of essentially all boys’ behaviour as “stalkerish”, the tokenistic minority characters (no doubt part of the legacy of the fact that this is derived from a television show), the normalisation of alcoholism, and the constant references to strippers and the way in which some girls’ “dark pasts” are such due to their sexual history. However, there are some inclusions that help mitigate these issues somewhat: Warner’s depiction of the struggle involved in being an outed homosexual in a fraternity, Casey’s struggles with her identity, and the quite realistic and pragmatic discussion of the students’ futures upon leaving college, for example.
In all, Double Date is a quick read that doesn’t offer much in the way of plot, but that does quite well given that it’s hamstrung from the beginning by the requirements that it fit so carefully between the episodes of its on-screen sibling.
*a cultural anthropologist famed for his theory but rather abysmal at all things fieldwork-related(less)
More than half a year has passed since the adults of Perdido Beach suddenly vanished, leaving a motley horde of juveniles to fend for themselves. In that time these kids have faced devastating hunger, worsening living conditions, internal fractiousness, and eerie preternatural events. But while things have reached an uncomfortable stasis, with a truce of sorts called in the horrendous aftermath of the events of Hunger (see our review), cracks, as always, are beginning to appear. The democratically elected Council has been thwarted by internal ambivalence, and is teetering under the weight of its own importance, something that the canny clusters of anarchic dissidents throughout the town have noted well. And when certain presumed-dead characters make a terrifying appearance in Perdido Beach, their effect is precipitative, offering the incendiary spark needed for these dissidents to wage war on those against whom they’re ideologically and, well, xenophobically, opposed. Meanwhile, a messiah-like figure of sorts makes an appearance, tempting the youngsters away from the safety of their flock and into the unknown. The members of the Council, increasingly hamstrung by the challenges of maintaining order and cohesion, resort to coercion and lies, and things rapidly degenerate…
In Hunger, the predecessor to Lies, author Michael Grant offered up all manner of intelligent thematic material, into which he dove with impressive vigour. Hunger brought us musings on racism and fear of the Other more generally, and touched on issues of egalitarianism and democracy, as well as on issues of incentivisation and motivation, and economics and sustainability. These same themes recur in Lies, but with greater emphasis on the ambiguity of morality, Robespierreian ends-justifies-the-means politics, and the notion of the sacrifice of rights and freedoms in the name of the “greater good”. These are challenging themes for a YA novel such as this one, particularly as it has to juggle all of this realistically and sensitively while maintaining a cracking pace from start to finish, but as always Grant does an excellent job of touching on these issues without resorting to naval-gazing or As-You-Know-Bobbing. Character-wise, it’s fascinating to watch stoic Sam slowly rescind his duties as a leader as it becomes ever more challenging to take the moral high ground as the choices available become increasingly desultory, and to see “genius” Astrid struggle so painfully with issues of truth, disclosure, and the rights of the individual. Far from maintaining her typically lofty ideals and spiritually informed intransigence, Astrid finds herself struggling with the appropriateness of spreading misinformation and resorting to punitive measures in “unusual” circumstances. This struggle eventually results in the Council finally creating a set of ostensibly liberterian rules for the Perdido Beach enclave, but with the chilling caveat that “special measures” may be implemented should the Council deem this to be necessary. There’s potential for a tremendous slippery-slope slide towards totalitarianism and the establishment of a police-state here, and one can’t help but make comparisons between the events in the book and recent events…
Lies, too, addresses the notion of the power of the individual in a curious way, and it’s interesting to see how Grant examines this. Many of the physically weak characters (and those, incidentally, without super-powers) are increasingly seen as powerful, and there’s an emphasis on the need for personal resilience and internal strength, rather than on physical strength or that gained through powers. Uber-strong Computer Jack, for example, sits out most of this book with an illness, which lightning-fast Brianna also succumbs to. Sam’s nasty brother Caine, similarly, grows increasingly weak, with each passing day highlighting the need to rely on his wiles over his physical abilities. Interesting, Little Pete, Astrid’s severely autistic brother, is shown to be ever more powerful, a fact that surprises the residents of Perdido Beach due to fact that he is generally so unresponsive and inward-looking.
The power of the individual also butts up against the idea of trust, and it’s this that Lies so fascinatingly and unflinchingly explores. Astrid and her Council have for so long positioned themselves as the “good” guys, relying on the bonhomie created by Sam’s heroic actions to see them through, but the trust that they have spent months garnering amongst their followers is noticeably fragile in the wake of recent events. Indeed, so many of Astrid, Sam, and the Council’s actions have been a compromise between what they believe is the appropriate response, and what they can manage at a given point in time, and needless to say the responses to their efforts have been lukewarm at best. Astrid, without Sam, struggles with engendering trust between the other children because she has performed none of the heroic acts of Sam: her own efforts have been more off-stage, and it seems that without these sort of demonstrable actions, others are wary of her all talk, no action policies. The reverse is seen with the character of Mother Mary, who has for seven months now played the role of full-time carer for the younger kids, despite battling a serious illness of her own. The other children will blindly follow Mary due to her previously altruistic actions: there’s little need for second-guessing or analysing her motivations. Similarly, the reappearance of dream-reader Orsay and the subsequent impact on the settlement is fascinating: Orsay’s ability to step into others’ dreams is well-known, but some such as sceptical Astrid are unsure as to whether the scope of this power is as broad as claimed. But while Astrid attempts to pit the others against Orsay for fear of civil disharmony, the others are looking towards a strong leader with a clear direction, and are willing to place their trust in such an individual. Needless to say, the events that play out are quite fascinating. An intriguing addition, too, is the fact that we at last see what is beyond the dome in which the children are trapped: needless to say this raises all manner of moral/ethical issues.
Despite these strong themes, however, Lies isn’t quite as strong as Hunger, in part because the majority of the major characters are sidelined throughout the book, while some seemingly minor characters are given quite a good deal of page space. Similarly, while the introduction of a group of new characters will no doubt raise the tension in the forthcoming books, their actions in this book weren’t especially notable given the page-time they were allotted. Grant has mentioned wanting to avoid the George RR Martin trap (where a zillion characters are followed relentlessly over a series of incredibly fat novels), and this late introduction is no doubt a result of that. Still, by the end of the book, the characters are positioned in what is sure to be a fascinating showdown in the next of the series–unfortunately I have to wait until April to see what the author has in store.(less)
I first happened across M.T. Anderson‘s work after hearing rave reviews of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, which is a quite frankly marvello...moreI first happened across M.T. Anderson‘s work after hearing rave reviews of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, which is a quite frankly marvellous young adult historical novel set in Colonial Boston during the time of the American Revolution. Listening to a podcast of Anderson’s erudite presentation at the State Library in Victoria, Australia further endeared his work to me, and I have since been on the lookout for the rest of his oeuvre. One book of which, I’m pleased to note, popped into my possession for the sum of a dollar. One can hardly complain. (Okay, the deal was 10 books for $10, so I have quite a bit of reading to report on in the coming weeks)
The book in question was Thirsty, Anderson’s debut novel, which appeared in 1997, almost a decade before the publication of the first of the two volumes of Octavian Nothing.
Thirsty is a teenage coming of age vampire novel, and superseded much of the urban fantasy and vampire stuff that’s filling the shelves today. This is a good thing, as even against the current context of all things fangy and sparkly, Thirsty still feels quite fresh in terms of its narrative and its approach to vampirism. The book itself has a bit of a dated feel, of course, and Anderson’s prose is nowhere near the level of his current work, but in general Thirsty is an interesting take on the vampire mythology.
The book is set in an alternate America where vampirism is commonplace, and accusations of vampirism and subsequent lynchings are eerily normal. Anderson opens Thirsty against the backdrop of one such show trial, and it’s quite creepy to watch the apparently morally upright crowd watch with bloodlust as a vampire is put to death. In fact, main character Chris munches on a takeaway snack from McDonald’s as the event goes down, and the contrast between his indifference and the violence of the scene is quite striking.
Anderson deliberately sets this up, of course, as it is here that we realise that something is not quite right with Chris, who has been plagued by an unusual hunger and physical discomfort over recent weeks. We find out soon enough that Chris is himself succumbing to vampirism, and it’s fascinating to watch Anderson’s treatment of his predicament. The focus here is not so much as Chris-as-vampire, but rather Chris-as-outsider, and the larger part of the novel, references to vampire overlords and shadowy henchmen aside, examines the way Chris deals with this new persona that has been thrust upon him by puberty. Chris struggles to maintain his relationships with his friends, given that his thoughts and interests lie elsewhere now, and as the narrative progresses, his alienation from them, and from his family, grows to a painful degree.
While there are some disappointing elements to this book–largely the vampire overlord subplot–the real beauty of Thirsty is in Anderson’s intriguing treatment of the standard coming of age drama through a lens of vampirism. The book is not entirely successful in what it sets out to achieve, but it’s a thoughtful and curious examination of alienation and loss.(less)
oung Billy Colman’s knowledge of the world is limited to the Ozarks, where his family make their home, subsisting on the land as best as they can. It is a challenging existence, although a rewarding one in many ways, and Billy sees himself as wanting for nothing–save for a pair of raccoon hunting dogs, which will allow him to make a more meaningful contribution to his family, and in so doing allow him to position himself as a masculine figure within his female-dominated family. But a pair of quality raccoon hunting dogs is costly, and is far more than Billy’s family can afford. After wheedling and pleading with all his might, Billy takes a different approach, and decides to earn the money for his dogs himself. It’s here that we see Billy begin his transformation into an adult, and here that we first see a glimpse of his stoic, selfless character. For two years Billy toils endlessly in the name of his dogs, hunting, trapping, and gathering produce to sell at his grandfather’s store. When at last he has enough to vindicate his efforts, he seeks out his grandfather’s help in contacting the owner.
From this point, Billy’s life changes dramatically, and what follows is a moving series of events. His grandfather supports him wholeheartedly in his efforts–one has to wonder whether the alleged price drop on his dogs is actually the case, or whether his grandfather may have had something to do with this–and encourages Billy to do whatever is needed to make the most of his dream. Billy ventures, for the first time, into town, engaging with the locals and their unfamiliar norms and expectations, and while he is treated pleasantly enough by some, he is tormented and mercilessly mocked by others for his “hillbilly” ways. His march through the town with his prize, an event he expected to be triumphant and brazen, is destroyed by the teasing and bullying of the townie youngsters, and we see a strange and tragic inversion of the cultured and the uncultured. Billy, despite being “uncouth”, is the morally superior, judging not and avoiding acting out against the other. However, his return to the familiar countryside of his home is less of a relief than might have been expected, as during the night he and his young pups are accosted by the terrifying spectre of a mountain lion. It’s a motif that will occur again later on in the book, and one that I suspect marks Billy’s stepping into adulthood and the challenge that this will bring.
For with his dogs does come Billy’s adolescence: he develops in a number of ways, growing sensitive, introspective, and independent, and that wheedling nature that we saw earlier on in the book vanishes altogether. Billy’s dogs become an extraordinarily important part of his identity to the extent that the three are almost parts of a whole: together they are more than the sum of their parts. Billy’s determination and drive see him excel as a hunter, and the love he feels for his dogs is palpable. But there is almost a dark drive here–Billy is determined to achieve far beyond what might be expected of him and his small dogs, and amidst the triumph of the underdog narrative, one wonders whether there’s a slightly self-destructive bent bubbling just below the surface. We see this when Billy’s desire to remain at the homestead until the end of his days conflicts with his parents’ desire to move into town to further their children’s education: there’s a sense that Billy, afraid of the wider world, is deliberately maintaining a sense of distance and isolation. Perhaps this is part of the reason that he begins to develop such a closeness with his grandfather and father–a closeness that has not heretofore manifested.
But there comes a point when his canine companions can no longer be his guiding light, as indeed they have been throughout the narrative. I won’t lie–the ending of this book is desperately cruel and heart-wrenching, but there’s a sense of necessity to it, a precipitative force that catapults Billy from adolescence into adulthood, and the accompanying responsibilities.
Where the Red Fern Grows is a simply but beautifully written novel, with a depth that is far greater than might be gleaned upon a superficial read. It’s a coming of age story, of course, but one that deals thoughtfully with notions of alienation, morality, otherness, responsibility, and fate, and I’m not surprised that it has become such a treasured modern American classic.(less)
Most teenagers see each birthday as a rite of passage placing them further ahead on the track to adulthood. For Violet Eden, however, birthdays are a time of regret and mourning: Violet remains haunted by the loss of her mother, who died during childbirth. But seventeen years have passed since that day, and this birthday is destined to bring more than the requisite remorse and loneliness. Having turned seventeen, Violet is now a member of the Grigori, a part-human, part-angel consort whose job it is to keep the peace between these two races. Because angels aren’t quite the harps-and-halos lovelies they’re generally made out to be. And Violet is suddenly faced with a decision that will change her life forever…
Angels are the new succubi are the new vamps, it seems. Fortunately I’ve managed to steer clear of the vast majority of the mediocre paramundane stuff being pedalled by publishers far and wide, so while I did greet this one with a touch of scepticism, I didn’t bring years of angelphobic baggage with me when I sat down to read it. I’m not sure whether this had any bearing on this review, but I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by this debut. Yes, it ticks all of the YA paranormal boxes: drawn-out love triangle, brooding bad boy versus clean cut good boy, criminally negligent parent, chosen one in denial, ditzy-genius best friend, war between our world and another, and a good heaping of angst and (literally) self-sacrifice. Yes, it’s Twilight meets Buffy meets The Night Watch. But despite this, and despite the irritations upon which I’ll extrapolate in a moment, it’s a highly enjoyable read.
Embrace is Jessica Shirvington’s debut, and it’s a commendable one. Shirvington’s writing is clean and assured, and occasionally beautifully vivid. Often first person books suffer from treating the reader in an overfamiliar manner, but Embrace doesn’t suffer from this tendency in the slightest. In fact, while the teen voice comes through in the dialogue between characters such as Violet and her best friend Steph, it’s blessedly restrained, and generally utterly believable. Shirvington does take a slow-burn approach, though, and the result is a lot of beauty and not much plot. In fact, it takes a good quarter of the book for Violet to realise her status as a Grigori (derived from the Greek for “Watcher”, but very hard not to read as a Russian variant of Gregory, which makes for a giggle very now and then), and when all the prettiness is peeled back to expose the bones of the plot, well, needless to say that there’s not that much on display. Still, other than the first quarter, the book doesn’t feel slow, even though the journey being taken is largely an internal one (with the occasional angel slaughtering taking up a few pages here and there). One area where the prose-level sheen does feel ersatz, though, is in the setting: Shirvington’s characters live in some unnamed city in an unnamed (presumably western) country. This is a frustratingly common problem in paranormal YA, and Australian paranormal YA in particular. I know that publishers are worried about the perceived parochialism of heavily Australian works and how this will affect territorial sales, but it’s unsatisfying and awkward for the reader to have no grounding in terms of setting (for a YA paranormal that draws admirably on an Australian setting, see Van Badham’s Burnt Snow).
The novel does involve some significant suspension of disbelief, and given that I’m not a civil engineer, suspension isn’t really my thing. There are a number of elements that I struggled with and couldn’t quite reconcile, and while they didn’t prevent me from enjoying what is, on the whole, a zippy and inconsequential read, they did cause me some hesitation. These elements ranged from plot points to whole characters, and were varyingly problematic. Perhaps the most hilarious of these is the fact that Violet tells her friend Steph about being a half-angel in a food court. Steph’s response? Unquestioning belief. (Another gripe: the fact that someone born after 1990 is named Steph. All Stephs are 80s children) In terms of characters, Violet’s father was perhaps the weakest element, being little more than a walk-on character who parroted a few lines here and there. While we’re told that he’s given himself over to his work in part to the grief he feels over his wife’s death, his reported absence throughout Violet’s life is somewhat alarming. Then there’s the strangely contradictory way in which he conducts himself when he is around: glaring at Violet’s male guest, who is innocently sipping coffee in the kitchen, but then happily leaving her in a drunken and rather wretched state with a stranger on a night club dance floor. The dazed way in which he schedules a solitary dinner with his daughter for the following week just feels awkward, as though his character is being stretched to fit the needs of the book. I can’t help but wonder whether this situation might have worked better if Violet were a couple of years older and living on her own rather than being a teen shackled by the constraints of adolescence.
The male leads are problematic, too, and not least because they diametrically opposed. Good guy Lincoln is bland and uninspiring, and Violet’s adoration of him is difficult to comprehend. Bad boy Phoenix, on the other hand, is frankly a terrifyingly manipulative stalker who is not above a bit of sexual assault and emotional rape (literally). As a reader I find it hugely frustrating to keep coming across these sorts of characters, and to find that the female lead so inevitably falls for them. While Phoenix is revealed as a “baddie” in the end, his behaviour throughout the book is scarcely questioned, and I find this deeply concerning. And let’s not even get started on the whole sacrificing oneself for a guy thing…
The last area in which the book flails a little is in the heavy-handed use of symbolism (no doubt the name Violet Eden has tipped you off already). Violet, of course, has a sort of spectral persuasion, being able to engage all of her senses in a particular, unusual manner, and of course her surname has a biblical meaning. Phoenix is all about rebirth and renaissance, and (rather wincingly for the reader) apparently has the same beguiling taste of the forbidden apple. Biblical references abound, and the myriad epigraphs regularly skate over this territory (or I assume that they do, because I have a naughty tendency to skip them).
Personal gripes and narrative issues aside, Embrace is a surprisingly strong and eminently enjoyable read, and I whizzed through it despite my reservations. The fact that all of the above didn’t destroy my enjoyment of the book says something about Shirvington’s ability to craft a neatly written and interesting tale, and I’m curious to see where she takes the trilogy (hopefully I’ll find out soon, as the lovely Hachette marketing department has informed me that the sequel has just been released). While it’s not a perfect read by any means, it’s good enough to stand apart from the greasy buffet of the paranormal dog’s breakfast, and there’s a freshness and liveliness to it that makes it stick with the reader.(less)
Young Cat has always played second fiddle to his powerful witch-in-training sister, Gwendolen (partly, of course, because Gwendolen turned his first fiddle into a cat, but that’s another story altogether). But while Cat is happy to lead a quiet, unremarkable life, Gwendolen has far grander aspirations, among them such things as becoming the ruler of the world. So when the great magician Chrestomanci takes them under his formidable wing, Gwendolen finds initially herself quite in her element–at least until Chrestomanci fails to heap upon her the overweening adulation and adoration she expects. Gwendolen, never one to go down without a fight, is determined to make herself noticed, and cooks up all manner of mischief in her efforts to have Chrestomanci recognise her talents. But Gwendolen’s stunts quickly turn from the quirky but benign into the cruel and callous, and Cat quickly learns that his sister is far more formidable–and awful–that he might ever have expected.
Although having partaken in the filmic delights of Howl’s Moving Castle, my first introduction to Diana Wynne Jones’s work was last year, with another of her Chrestomanci books (see my review). Needless to say, I was quickly converted, and can be counted amongst those who will happily spend time at the shrine of her oeuvre. Comparisons with the work of JK Rowling are common, and not without good reason, as both employ a similarly plummy sense of humour, burst with joyful creativity, and aren’t afraid to get their writing hands dirty with some complex and challenging themes. But Wynne Jones has been in the authorial ring for far longer, and it shows in the supreme confidence of her writing. Everything, from her style, to her characterisation, to her plotting (with one key exception in this book, admittedly) just works so very well.
The Chrestomanci novels are set in an alternate England that has some glorious steampunk undertones, but without the empty obsession with lace and ridiculous mechanical gadgets. Take the key junctions in history throughout the ages, invert the results, and you’ll have Jones’s foppish, arcane, and slightly brutal world. Key to her success, I think, is her ability to draw her worlds so beautifully and believably without doing so in an overt manner: the reader is swept along by a world that simply is, and her friendly, matter-of-fact tone makes it hard not to believe her journeys into all things whimsical and odd. Her characterisation is superb, too: while in the hands of a lesser author, Cat’s dogged loyalty towards his truly horrid sister might have been a weak point, Jones makes it utterly believable. We see Cat as someone who is utterly lacking in confidence, and who relies on his sister’s steamroller-like personality to help him navigate the waters of life. An orphan and someone with no apparent stand-out abilities, Cat has little recourse but to walk firmly in his sister’s shadow. But what’s fascinating is when certain plot events later reverse this relationship, and we see that it’s actually Cat holding the reins, although unwittingly so. In fact, the story truly is about Cat, rather than Gwendolen, no matter how much it may initially seem that the reverse is true.
There are other myriad instances of fabulous characterisation throughout the book, and those who typically find themselves digging about for character-related gems will come away with a rich seam of gold. The stoic and disinterested Chrestomanci is beautifully rendered, and looms large despite the relatively small amount of page space he is given. What is perhaps the most interesting is how the other characters react to him, and indeed to each other, rather than to simple external factors, and it is very much this element that makes the novel as a whole feel so organic. In fact, there’s really only one plot element that doesn’t work for me, and that’s Gwendolen’s sudden vanishing off into another dimension. While her doing so sets the events for the second half of the novel (think doppelgangers, dragon’s blood, and evil creepies) rolling, it feels a little bit too abrupt and convenient, and I would have liked to see this teased out a little more for the sake of clarity and believability.
This second act brings with it quite a bit of darkness, and while Jones doesn’t shirk from these concepts, she does give them a touch of levity to make them more palatable to her middle grade audience. Gwendolen’s treatment of Cat finally comes to the fore, and we see how truly grim and foul she is as an individual. These scenes deal with mortality and the value placed upon life–both one’s own life and those of others–and when we learn the truth about Gwendolen’s behaviour and her justification for it, it’s hard not to be horrified. Karma and the repercussions of one’s actions are examined, although in a fascinating way that crosses dimensions, and which raises issues all of its own–does it matter what we do if our results don’t affect our immediate existence? There’s certainly a lot that could be discussed here about responsibility, morality, and interrelation, but Jones avoids proselytising.
On a prose level, Jones’s work is simply sublime. She’s not the invisible prose “plate glass” writer that so many seem to aspire to be–rather, her style is rich, vivid, and has that striking old-fashioned tone reminiscent of bed-time stories. Her hilariously jaded narrator wedges his- or herself firmly between the reader and the story, and in doing so adds an extra layer of depth and story that might not otherwise be there. Careful wordplay and historical allusions abound, and there are instances of such wit that it’s hard not to crack a smile or two even when reading in public.
Diana Wynne Jones is beloved amongst her readers, and truly it’s no surprise that this is the case. Her work is fresh, creative, and infinitely appealing, and there’s a complexity and thoughtfulness to it that will engage those who typically pooh-pooh fantasy. Her world-building is skilled and thorough, and there’s a welcome sense of place to her work that’s often absent in similar books; similarly, her characterisation is clean and unaffected, and feels both organic and genuine. Whether you’re a new or a veteran Jones reader, I’d hasten to pick up this book.(less)
Jessica Verday’s recently published The Hollow, an update on the popular legend of Sleepy Hollow, drew a bit of a buzz around the bookosphere, but saw mixed reviews, with most reviewers finding it an ambitious effort that didn’t quite stay with them in the way that a good spooky story should. When I requested a review copy of The Haunted, I admit to doing so under the mistaken belief that it was the first in Verday’s trilogy, and so upon realising that I was already a book behind, put off getting to this one for some time. However, having zipped through it on an appropriately dark and stormy night (summertime Melbourne does dark and stormy very well, unfortunately), I’m happy to note that Verday’s sophomore effort stands quite apart from the first in the trilogy, if a little less so from the third–more on that later.
Still recovering from the sudden death of her friend Kristen, Abbey had spent the past few months holed up with her great-aunt. The combination of the familiar, out-of-the-way place, the counselling that she’s receiving, and the time that has passed are all helping Abbey come to terms with her loss, but the reader quickly finds that Kristen’s death isn’t the only loss haunting Abbey. Abbey, it turns out, is also reeling from the realisation that the boy she has fallen completely and madly for (after all, is there any other way to fall in love as a teen?) is…well, a little more ghostly than she’d imagined. Soon enough, though, it comes time for Abbey to return home, and despite her efforts to maintain her composure, her fragile state threatens to overwhelm her at every turn. Of course, we’re not talking simple things such as failing chemistry, dealing with a summer job, fending off the advances of a male friend, and suffering through an awful birthday dinner here, although these things admittedly factor in, too–rather, Abbey finds herself attempting to identify Kristen’s maybe-killer, stalked by eerie shade-like beings, and outrunning a fellow who’s about as far from Mr Nice Guy as you can fathom. And there’s also that small matter of what to do about her ghostly boyfriend….
Those who haven’t read The Hollow will be relieved to find that for the most part The Haunted stands well enough alone, with the back story explicated in such a way that it’s hard not to grasp what’s going on. There were only one or two things that I found weren’t immediately clear (and still aren’t): Abbey’s ghostly boyfriend’s habit of calling her Astrid (calling your lover by another girl’s name is a major no-no in my book), and the relationship between said boyfriend (Caspian the friendly ghost) and Abbey. Otherwise, The Hollow‘s main plot elements seem to have been integrated well enough–perhaps well enough that other readers’ comments about the book being so light on plot as to be able to be done away with altogether might well be correct. However, while my nitpicks do seem rather pedantic, similar issues crop up throughout the book, and I found myself frowning at the lack of cohesion of particular plot elements within The Haunted. Verday has a tendency of throwing in snippets that while heavily sign-posted and apparently meaningful, don’t seem to be picked up later on in the book. There’s the appearance of the shade-like couple, who make a few dramatic entrances, and then are left well enough alone until the very end of the book; Abbey’s mother’s drunken birthday escapades, which while seeming to hint at alcoholism, are not further addressed; the weird maybe-romantic-maybe-platonic relationship between Ben and Abbey, which isn’t really dealt with in enough depth; and Abbey’s hobby of perfume-making, which despite apparently being a huge part of her life, is scarcely touched on. This lack of follow-up affects other areas of the narrative, too, with characters left in living rooms or generally waiting around whilst Abbey rushes off without warning. It’s as though none of the characters actually exist when Abbey isn’t there–none of them seem to be well-rounded enough as to have a daily life to go about when she leaves them hanging.
One of the first things one notices about The Hollow is its length: the book clocks in at close to 500 pages, which is on the lengthier side for a YA, even if we are dealing with generous margins and double spacing. But its heft isn’t due to the complex and challenging plot that one might expect to find within its pages. Rather, The Haunted spends rather a good deal of time on the narrative set-up, and equally as much working through scenes that border on the mundane. I have to admit that by the end of the novel I’d become rather an expert on Abbey’s breakfast habits and ablutions preferences, and can’t help but feel that a little editorial whipper-snippering might have helped things move along a little. This isn’t to say that Verday’s writing is dull, however. Rather, her writing flows quickly and neatly despite the torrent of the mundane, and I think that in a novel or two she’ll really hit her stride when it comes to pacing. Still, it’s in part because of this uneven use of page extent and narrative pacing that the ending feels like such a cheat. It’s in the last twenty or so pages that things really pick up, and Abbey begins to uncover all sorts of fascinating and potentially dangerous information. Secret identities are unmasked, new and truly creepy actors suddenly come on stage, and the ins and outs of the whole star-crossed lovers situation are explained. But then the book ends. It’s not a cliff-hanger as such (although my goodness, do I loathe a cliff-hanger in fiction–stop that right now, YA authors!), but rather just a lack of extra pages in the book. I found myself checking to see whether my copy was in fact a proof copy that might well have been missing a chapter or two, but apparently not. If the earlier parts of the novel had been whiz-bang and action-packed, I might have felt more forgiving, but it’s a touch frustrating to have read some five hundred pages of discussion about irrelevant stuff such as Funyuns and Cheez Doodles (whatever on earth they are), only to have the meaty bit of the novel sawn in twain, with all the good stuff saved for later.
Still, Verday’s voice manages to buoy the book, and even though there are slow points and bits that don’t quite make narrative sense, there’s an essence of genuine readability here, and you’ll find yourself reading along in spite of any misgivings you have. While there’s no great depth to many of the characters, they’re all sympathetic enough that you care about what happens to them. The strength of Abbey’s relationship with Kristen is certainly key to Abbey’s identity, and Verday does a good job of rendering her grief in a realistic way–one can feel a palpable undercurrent of remorse and emotional turmoil throughout, and while it’s occasionally heavy-handed, it feels appropriate. Similarly, while I typically find the romantic relationships in YA paranormals highly problematic, Verday creates in Caspian a character who is quite intriguing–and, joy of joys, who isn’t even an alpha male! Their relationship is certainly a challenging one, however, and while I don’t necessarily approve of beyond-the-grave love affairs, Verday addresses the challenges the pair will undoubtedly face down the track in an interesting and thoughtful manner. She problematises their relationship by contrasting it with the sort of relationship she could have were she to begin an affair with Ben, and does so in quite an interesting fashion. Moreover, while there’s often a sense of conservatism to these relationships in YA fiction (with messages about self-sacrifice, saving oneself, and subjugating oneself), Verday manages to step back from all of this by having Abbey and Caspian explore the boundaries of their relationship. Okay, so ghost kisses make for some occasionally cringe-worthy reading, but it’s an interesting concept. Moreover, the role Abbey plays in Caspian’s life (death?) is, while not necessarily entirely healthy, quite interesting in and of itself: we see the way in which Abbey both anchors him to our world and is a precipitative force that challenges him to action.
The Haunted certainly has its fair share of flaws, and I can see exactly why readers of The Hollow might have had issues with Verday’s work. However, there’s something in Verday’s style that keeps you reading despite these problems, and those who do will find that The Haunted offers up some interesting food for thought. Plot-wise, it’s slight, and the pacing is certainly an issue, but Verday provides us with likeable everyman characters, an intriguing setting, and some interesting themes addressed with a slightly different perspective from the big-hitters in this genre. It’s not a stand-out novel, but I think that with a few more novels under her belt, Verday will certainly be hitting above her weight.(less)
Ricky Darlin is relieved when he wakes from a nightmare in which he's trapped on an island. Only, upon waking he's confronted with something worse: a version of Peter Pan who speaks in a horribly rendered Australian accent that makes him sound as though he's been taking voice coaching lessons from Crocodile Dundee and a Cockney cab driver.
"Neva mind," says Peter. "Listen, mate...ya say ya stressed out, right'? Well, I just happen to know the perfect way to relieve stress...I can show ya the Island. I can take you there. Ya were just thinkin' 'bout runnin' away, weren't ya?"
Ricky nods, and I don't blame him: I'd be quite desperate to get away from this dialectic travesty as well. But anyway, after a bunch of rude jokes, Peter and Ricky are on their way off to this sanctified island Peter speaks so highly of. But it's not long before Ricky's wishing he could pinch himself to wake up, or perhaps tap his Dorothy slippers together and return back home to Kansas, because this island is not exactly a refuge.
In this angsty, teenage twist on Peter Pan, Peter's a kidnapping sadist with a penchant for four-letter words, the Lost Boys and Girls are shuffling zombies, Wendy's not a type of mother figure but rather a sharp-tongued sword-fighter called Oscar, and Hook's a crocodile-scarred youth with a bit of an Oedipus complex. Once transported to the Island, Ricky's desperate to get away, and together with Oscar, Hooke, and a couple of other youths, he begins to put together a plan to bring Peter down.
The concept's a solid one, but the execution is weak, with a narrative that limps along largely on the back of a bunch of "your mum" jokes, homoerotic/homophobic quips, and misogynistic "don't be a pussy" references. When Ricky find himself on the island, his first thought is "You want a sword shoved inside you? Your mum wants a sword shoved inside her...If I was still chipper enough to make a 'your mum' joke, I knew I could do it." Though I do find this material utterly offensive, I can better handle it if it's relevant to the plot or to the characters, or is integrated in some way.
Instead, these jokes just sit heavily on the top of the narrative like oil on the surface of a body of water. It becomes difficult to differentiate between the male characters because they're so very similar in terms of voice and they're not developed much beyond this endlessly jeering repartee, and even at the end of the book I had to keep checking back to check that I had the characters straight in my head. Even Ricky's much the same as the other male characters, and the invariably sarcastic tone of Ricky's first person narration makes him difficult to connect with.
Admittedly, the author does strive to add a little depth to Ricky's character by interspersing into the narrative a handful of scenes in which he is sent to see a counsellor, but these too devolve into rude, zingy rejoinders, and once we've got to the bottom of Ricky's angst--"they didn't have to get a divorce!" he shrieks, sounding a good deal younger than the sixteen-year-old he's meant to be--these scenes dry up, and we're back to the island full-time. As a result, the structure of the book feels unbalanced, with these scenes feeling as though they were added as an afterthought to give us an insight into Ricky that is not otherwise afforded by the narrative.
The two female characters on the island (the only other female characters in the book are Ricky's teacher and counsellor) sort of fade in and out of the narrative. Wendy/Oscar is given the most page time but, frustratingly, is given an attempted-rape-as-impetus-for-revenge background that is sadly all too common in fantasy literature; TigerLily, on the other hand, offers a kind of inoffensive nothingness.
I'm afraid that this one didn't work for me at all, and though I liked the concept, I really struggled to connect in any meaningful way with the characters or the narrative. I found the prose dull, the dialectal dialogue off the mark, the plot--in particular the ending--hastily executed and simplistic, and the characters tedious, and the constant sexual innuendos tiresome.(less)
Like most small communities, the village of Daggorhorn is not without its secrets. An impoverished community in the heart of the woods, it is one that has seen more than its fair share of loss, and an undercurrent of fear pervades its every aspect–particularly when the sun sets and the full moon rises. Daggorhorn is at the mercy of the Wolf, a fearsome half-human, half-wolf beast kept at bay only by the village’s long-time habit of providing sacrifices and staying as far as possible out of its way.
But this full moon, things are different. A blood moon hangs above the forest, and the villagers know that despite their best efforts, the outcome will be nothing less than horrific. As the small, close-knit community becomes victim to the brutality of the wolf, tensions rise, and so do suspicions–and finger-pointing and condemnation abound. Valerie, whose sister is one of the victims, finds herself at the centre of the villagers’ accusations about the true identity of the wolf. But Valerie has her own suspicions about the wolf’s identity…
A hotly anticipated 2011 release, Red Riding Hood has been written to tie in with the film of the same name, and unfortunately it shows. Adapted from the film’s script, it’s the barest bones of a story–and by bare, I mean thoroughly picked clean of any last morsel of meat. It runs at just over three hundred pages, but the length is misleading, given that over sixty of these are taken up by chapter headings, and that the final chapter will be belatedly released online to coincide with the film’s release. Yes, you did read that correctly–the final chapter (admittedly touted as a “bonus” chapter, but really rather essential to the reading experience given the extreme ambiguity of the novel thus far) has been embargoed until mid March, a fact that has raised the ire of readers who have shelled out the big bucks for what is effectively an extended theatrical trailer. And rightfully so, because it is a marketing gimmick that does leave rather a bad taste in one’s mouth.
The utter lack of an ending, however, is only one of Red Riding Hood’s myriad problems. The book is plagued by all manner of narrative and stylistic issues to the point that it would give me RSI were I to painstakingly sit down and document them all. It’s a shame, because fractured fairytales and retellings of famous cautionary works can make for rather interesting authorial fodder, and from afar this one seems to tick all of the requisite boxes. But after even a few pages one can see that the book is listless, slapdash, and uneven. The village setting should intrigue, but is so reminiscent of M Night Shyamalan’s The Village that it feels derivative–and painfully so. But where The Village manages to inure its creepy little setting with moral ambiguity and paranoia, Red Riding Hood suffers from a distinct lack of atmosphere. There’s a sense of poverty, isolation, and alienation, but it’s never explored: rather, we’re given a few jolting anecdotes and a mass of blow-by-blow character descriptions that never slip deeper than the superficial, and the setting as a result feels like a Potemkin village rather than anything that might truly exist.
The plot, too, is slim, and its various turning points difficult to fathom. We’re led to believe that the villagers live in fear of an awesomely powerful and horrifically slavering wolf, but yet there has been no effort made to prepare a vaguely functional contingency plan in case things go wrong. The fact, too, that the village seems to run by the lunar calendar, and harvests accordingly, yet is utterly unaware of the possibility of a harvest moon seems, well, slightly problematic. Furthermore, the fact that it takes perhaps half of the book to lead up to this point is problematic, particularly given the leisurely pace of the book beforehand, and the subsequent hasty scramble of the narrative afterwards. The villagers run amok, accusing various individuals of lycanthropy in a manner that feels unmotivated and unplotted, and the way the narrative reaches its climax feels truly messy. Our protagonist is accused by one of her friends of being a werewolf, but mere moments later is exonerated by the same girl in a sudden change of heart that follows no rhyme or reason. Similarly, the author alludes to several characters as possibly being the werewolf, but does so by throwing in so many red herrings that the book as a result smells revoltingly fishy. If this were a better novel, I’d say that this is ostensibly to highlight the sort of inherent paranoia that comes of inward-looking societies subjected to an external threat. But given the overall quality of this book, I’m rather more inclined to say that there’s a distinct unfamiliarity with both the mystery and horror genres going on here.
I wish I could say that the prose and characterisation were the standouts here, as I’m notoriously lenient on plot provided that these two things are done well. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. The prose is bizarrely uneven, aiming for a lyrical quality in some parts to the degree that one could play a game of bingo with all of the similes and metaphors on offer, but then falling back. on. staccato. sentences. in others. The use of an omniscient point of view makes for problematic reading, as well–omniscient is a notoriously challenging viewpoint to write well, and I think that the choice to use it here is largely due to the fact that this book is truly at its heart a script rather than a novel. It’s fine to flash between characters in a movie, but in a novel it can be a cheap device if done poorly–particularly if it’s used to obscure information from the reader. Worse, the prose is peppered with painful explication, with the scenes with the bad guy priest perhaps the most evident exemplars of these. Readers are perfectly able to make their own judgements about characters’ motivations and to read at a level beyond the literal without being told what’s going on, and to explain to reader such things as the fact that the villagers have become animals themselves in their determination to cast blame, or that they have allowed both a literal and spiritual evil into their home is just a touch patronising.
Perhaps the weakest element of this book, and thus the major cause of its downfall, is its characterisation. While we’re given more than enough in terms of physical descriptions, we’re never truly let inside the various characters’ heads, and in those few cases that we are, the characters suddenly insist on acting entirely out of character, thus invalidating our readings anyway. Why does independent, tomboyish Valerie suddenly fall for cruel and bitter Peter at first sight (and after a grand total of one line of dialogue, or monologue to be exact])? How are we supposed to believe that Lucie is in love with Henry when he scarcely even appears at all? Why does Valerie’s friend suddenly do an about face after accusing her friend (with reasonably good reason) of being in cahoots with the wolf? And must the literary folk of the world endure yet another evil priest character? Truly, the only character with whom I felt some sort of vague empathy was Valerie’s mother, but her role is unfortunately vanishingly small.
While Red Riding Hood has been much hyped in both the blogosphere and in the cinemas, it’s unfortunately not a book that I can recommend. While it draws on the strong foundations of the classic fairytale, the elements where it succeeds in doing so are few indeed. In addition to the weak plot, the book suffers from poor characterisation and awkward writing, and the cheap gimmick regarding the final chapter will no doubt raise some eyebrows–if you must, buy the updated edition further down the trac(less)
On a superficial level, Robert Cormier's excellent I Am the Cheese (see my review) involves protagonist Adam's efforts to take a parcel to his father. But to summarise the book thus is deceptively simple: the narrative is complex and multi-layered, involving not just a physical journey, but a journey into the past, and one into Adam's significantly disturbed mind. It's a challenging novel, and one that epitomises the sort of terrifying paranoia so rife in Cormier's work. It's not a dystopian novel as such, but there is certainly a sense of it, with issues of power and trust at the forefront of the narrative, and the incessant questioning of the true motives of those in prominent, governing positions.
If I Could Fly, the latest offering from British author Jill Hucklesby is almost an answer to the call Cormier places with I Am the Cheese, and mirrors this modern classic in myriad ways. Like Adam, Calypso Summers is undertaking a journey of her own, but in reverse: in her case the physical journey involves running from something, while her mental journey entails the opposite. A similarly terrifying setting is evoked, too, but where Cormier does so thematically, Hucklesby does so more literally, setting her novel in a dystopian context where a swine flu-like virus is sweeping through the United Kingdom and Europe, inducing the same sort of societal paranoia evident in Cormier's Cold War setting. Just like Adam, Calypso is always under threat, with similar fears of being turned in by others.
The narrative approach is similar, too, with Calypso's story being one that hinges largely on her internal growth and discovery, or re-discovery, as the case may be: like Adam, she too is missing an essential component of her past, without which the meaning and purpose of her journey is severely diminished. But curiously, where Cormier's novel becomes darker with every page, Hucklesby's remains upbeat. Where Adam feels in some ways broken, with his disenchantment becoming increasingly palpable as the story progresses, Calypso is the eternal optimist. Both carry with them a stuffed toy, but their purposes are the opposite: Adam's is a reminder of his lost childhood, while Calypso's is a cheerful suggestion of what might still be despite her immensely challenging situation.
And indeed where Adam's interactions are characterised by a fear precipitated by his rather Pavlovian past experiences, Calypso's are infinitely hopeful despite having been through her own personal traumas. There is a dreamlike, ethereal sense to these encounters that is the opposite of those found in Cormier's book, which feel similarly ungrounded, but have a nightmarish quality instead. Where Adam becomes increasingly alienated, and cuts himself off from those who potentially pose a threat, withdrawing into himself (and how thoroughly is the case we realise only at the book's end), Calypso takes these threats and turns them into rich and psychically satisfying relationships. The lost and mad Dair becomes simultaneously a father figure and a dependant, becoming both protector and protected, while Andy, the "face at the window" (a notion that reminded me very much of Jean Ure's excellent novel of the same name), rather than being a spectre that haunts, becomes someone who supports and fulfils Calypso instead.
Both books, of course, involve a final twist, neither of which I wish to give away, but I must say that I feel that Cormier's works more successfully than Hucklesby's, which feels almost platitudinous. Cormier's is perhaps one of the most terrifying, perfect endings I've ever read, while for me, Hucklesby's, although in retrospect reasonably well telegraphed, weakens what was for me an otherwise pitch-perfect read (although it might be interesting to read this in tandem with Connie Willis's Passage). Both are heart-rending, but where Cormier's is somehow inexorable, Hucklesby's feels a touch forced (although one does see the parallels with the famous Greek myth).
There's so much more I could say about If I Could Fly, but given the above you've no doubt realised that this book has made rather an impression on me. Indeed, until the last two or so chapters, this was the most exquisitely written, stunningly executed book I've come across in many months, and I'm in awe of Hucklesby's skill as a writer. Her allusive approach towards setting and milieu, her wonderfully whimsical characterisation, her extraordinary way with words, and her wilful approach to narrative risk-taking--I could rave for hours. Not since Cassandra Golds's wonderful The Three Lives of Persimmon (see my review) have I wanted to buy a half dozen copies of a book and thrust it in the hands of anyone passing by. So, oh, how disappointed I was to read this ending, which turned something so heart-wrenchingly poignant and utterly enthralling into something slightly trite and saccharine. I think, given Hucklesby's willingness to tackle such complex issues with a sophisticated combination of levity and pragmatism, that I was expecting something just that little more challenging, and I'm afraid this just doesn't quite deliver in those last few pages. But, still, this is one that will remain with you, and I recommend that you devote a few hours of your life to it.(less)
It’s a simple fact of young adult literature that if you want to get things moving right off of the bat, you need a prophecy. Better yet, an ambiguous prophecy. Better still? An ambiguous prophecy that applies to twins. Series such as Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and myriad others have rested firmly on the narrative possibilities opened by a prophecy, and Michael Scott’s The Alchemyst happily walks these well-trodden pathways with portents, sybils, and oracles galore. One of the great things, after all, about a prophecy is that it has the fabulous ability to suddenly turn a nondescript everyman character into a kung-fu-fighting, sabre-wielding, me-against-the-world hero. Prophecies force the character in question to suddenly make a 180 degree turn, and ensure that they can’t simply opt out of the narrative. After all, if Harry had said something along the lines of ”Voldemort? Can’t the police deal with him instead?” the famous series might not have been quite so thrilling.
Sophie and Josh Newman are your everyday fifteen-year-olds. They’re welded to their iPods, suffer through tiresome part time jobs in order to save up for clothes, cars, and other goodies and, well, actually, that’s pretty much it. But all of that’s about to change. When a creepy, bearded (no, not Rasputin) decides to visit the bookshop in which Josh works, Josh finds that he’s in for something a little more challenging than trying to find a book based only on a description of its cover. The man, John Dee–yes, that much-maligned John Dee–it turns out, is indeed after a book, but one that’s not your usual trashy thriller. Rather, he’s after The Codex (note capitalisation), an ancient volume full of all sorts of magical boons, including a spell for immortality. Problem is, Josh’s boss (who turns out to be that reasonably well-known alchemist chap Nicholas Flamel) doesn’t particularly want to give up this book. Magical shenanigans and plenty of butt-kicking ensues, and Josh and his sister Sophie, along with Nick and a martial artist vampire named Scathach or, affectionately, Scatty, are on the run. Eventually finding asylum in Yggdrasil, the famed World Tree of Norse mythology (as you do), the bewildered teens are told of the role that they are to play in saving the world. Or perhaps destroying it.
Superficially The Alchemyst reminds me of the fabulous Percy Jackson series (see our reviews), perhaps because its narrative draws very similarly on the approach of “Main character walks into a room. AND THEN THERE WERE MONSTERS!” But while the action in Riordan’s work is famously non-stop, The Alchemyst seems to suffer from pacing exhaustion mid-way through, resulting in a few chapters that seem to consist of little more than narrative panting. Moreover, it lacks the neat self-contained arc of each of the Percy books, ending as it does with not so much a cliffhanger as just a general sense of incompleteness. It may start out Meatloaf-like (ie, like a bat out of Hell), but then sits back on its haunches for a bit while it gets into the nitty gritty of each adult character’s history. And given that we’re dealing with immortals here, this takes a bit of time, resulting in plenty of the book taking place in the form of flashbacks or of soliloquy. The result is a read that can feel somewhat unfocused, particularly given that a YA should ostensibly focus on the teen characters rather than the adult ones.
In fact, while we get to hear all about the histories of each of the major adult characters, all of whom are famous beings from various world mythologies–Hecate, The Morrigan, the Bastet cat, and plenty of others make an appearance–we learn very little about our supposed protagonists, Josh and Sophie. One has the sneaking suspicion, in fact, that there’s very little about them to learn. Indeed, Josh’s main concern when being hunted down by various supernatural forces is for his iPod, while Sophie seems to rejoice in taking every available opportunity for witty banter. (Words may be cutting, but they’re not exactly the best weapon against the forces of darkness.) Scott attempts to work in their ambivalence about whole prophecy thing, but rather than adding a sense of believability or depth of characterisation to the novel, this simply serves to slow things down, and we’re treated to several slow chapters wherein the twins try to work out where Nick’s loyalties lie or go about looking for hidden cameras just in case they’re unwitting guest stars on Punk’d. Things further slow down when we switch over to the viewpoints of Nick’s wife, Perry, who spends most of the book chained up in a cell–yep, fascinating reading, that–or those of John Dee, who prefers to spend his days indulging in flights of fancy.
Another issue that I struggled with is the writing level in this one. Our characters are almost sixteen, but the novel itself feels written for the MG crowd rather than the YA one, and I found myself constantly thinking of Josh and Sophie as much younger than they actually are. (Indeed, every time Josh started up his car, I wondered whether he’d need a booster seat in order to see over the dashboard.) A little bit of humour wouldn’t have gone astray, either.
On the plus side, The Alchemyst is wonderfully creative, pulling in all sorts of critters and creatures from mythology, and young readers will have a field day picking out the various allusions and references. Scott is a dab hand at world building, and he creates an interesting wider mythology upon which all of this rests that makes for some fascinating reading. Moreover, as a plus, the ecology of magic use is well thought-out and interesting. But there’s something about his world that, like the characterisation, just feels a little superficial. Throughout the book, various nasties blow stuff up, destroy stuff, and generally cause all manner of mischief, but no one in the real world ever seems to be affected by any of it. In addition, the fact that the twins’ family members (which I have to note include a pair of obligatorily absent archaeologist parents) are so remote that they might as well not exist at all, makes the twins’ efforts seem sort of futile. What are they fighting for, if neither the world, nor their loved ones at the very least, seem to be affected by any of this?
The Alchemyst is an intriguing start to a new series, and while it suffers a little from some pacing issues and a lack of focus, it has plenty of good things to its name: strong female characters, all sorts of mythical creatures and legendary tales, and monsters galore. I wouldn’t shout its name from the rooftops, but I’ll certainly be giving the next in the series a go.(less)
Michael Grant is an author who has no problem killing his darlings–and I’m not just talking pretty adjectives here, but whole characters, too. In fact, Grant seems to take rather a good deal of joy in torturing them, tormenting them, and eviscerating them in as gory a manner as possible. While Grant’s characters don’t exactly have a fun time of it, the reader certainly does. And with Plague the most visceral, cruel outing thus far in Grant’s consistently outstanding Gone series, it’s safe to say that the reader is in for quite the thrill-ride–albeit a stomach-churning one.
It’s been seven months now since the adult population of Perdido Beach vanished without a trace. Seven months in which the kids of Perdido Beach have faced everything from civil unrest to abject famine to murderous mutants. And despite the best efforts of everyman hero Sam Temple and his industrious mates, the fragile democracy the survivors have fought so hard for is teetering on the edge of a participative precipice. Because scarcity makes people do funny things. And so does power. And so does fear.
One thing that people struggle with is systems thinking, and it’s a problem that’s all too evident in this tentative little society. While some individuals take steps towards a longer-term vision–fiercely capitalist Albert being a salient case in point–it seems all but an impossibility to think beyond the current state of affairs, let alone try to take into account the flow-on effects of even the smallest action. But if even Buddhist monks struggle with karmic reckoning, then these kids are in for a tough time. Particularly when many of their woes are from external, unforeseen forces.
In Perdido Beach, water supplies are dwindling. Not only is water scarce to begin with, but the mechanisms for collecting and purifying water are quickly breaking down. But while thirst is a terrible thing, so is illness. And the incurable plague that is sweeping through the already weakened young populace of survivors is about as horrific as one can imagine. But these setbacks aren’t all that Sam and the others must face. A huge swam of parasitic mutants with a distinct inclination to kill is on its way, too.
As in the previous books, Grant keeps things moving with all manner of big-talking, butt-kicking action scenes, and there’s nary a scene where at least one character is in peril. But while the blood and gore and action is no doubt key to keeping his young readership engaged, it’s the social themes in this series that keep oldies like me reading along. Somewhere amidst all of this narrative mayhem, Grant manages to get his teeth into some solidly fascinating concepts that range from the political to the philosophical to the social to the economic. There’s a good deal of thematic continuity in these books, with certain themes gradually expanded upon as the books progress and as certain elements become more salient, but each book has its own distinct issues that help to set it apart from prior reads.
Plague‘s, in my mind, are those of power, sacrifice, and perhaps even contentment. One of the toughest struggles faced by the characters in the book is whether to grant the return of exiled megalomaniac Caine, and what exactly this will entail. Taking this step necessarily provides a commentary on the value of these leading characters’ earlier actions, and certainly gets one thinking about the prisoner/prison guard paradox dissected in so many social theory critiques. Caine’s being called upon immediately results in a shift in the balance of power, with Caine’s self-concept undergoing a dramatic (and terrifying) shift almost instantly. And of course the self-concepts of the other characters must similarly shift to accommodate this new dimension.
Grant gets into morality and ethics here, too, and the notion of the sacrifice of one for the greater good of many crops up in several different contexts–with Dekka, Little Pete, and to some extent Diana, just to name a few. We not only see characters acting in a way that they perceive may be for the greater good, but also to atone for past wrongs. This concept segues challengingly into the value of human life, which is considered widely throughout the novel: Quinn and his new identity; the inhuman Orc; tormented Albert; and Diana and her end-of-the-book surprise. (Incidentally, one thing that fascinates me in these books is that there’s such emphasis on convalescence. Despite the sheer terror of these kids’ lives, we have a full-time make-shift hospital on offer to help with sick and ailing kids. This is course, points to the value of all human life–including invalids and the disabled, which is an essential point raised when the future of autistic Little Pete is discussed and challenged.)
Contentment and happiness are curiously salient themes in Plague, too. Despite the frankly vile situation in which these kids have found themselves, Grant’s characters are damn’ robust, and many of them actually come into their own as a result of the challenges that they face. They slip into new identities, and take pleasure in their new skills and abilities. This is in a contrast from the earlier books, where happiness could be found at the bottom of a box of XBox games.
For the most part, Plague continues the superb legacy of Grant’s earlier books. Still, there are a few moments where things slow down a little, or where we seem to be spinning our wheels. Caine’s reappearance–and his subsequent claiming of a regal role (oh, the audacity)–is a touch on the nose, for example, and one does become bogged down occasionally amongst the various characters who make little more than a cameo appearance. A bit of editorial snipping might have made for a sleeker read, but despite its flaws Plague makes for a page-turner that’s surprisingly thoughtful, too (monsters and mutants aside).(less)
Given the spate of mediocre YA dystopian fiction hitting the shelves of late, it’s pleasing to read one that is as beautifully wrought as Caragh O’Brien’s debut Birthmarked. O’Brien’s novel, while admittedly flawed plot-wise, relying far too strongly on coincidence and circumstance, is thematically complex and challenging, and all of this is further complemented by largely spot-on characterisation and a world that is eminently believable.
Three hundred years from now, Lake Unsuperior is a world where the haves and the have-nots are explicitly divided by a Berlin-esque wall. Within the wall lives the Enclave, those genetically gifted individuals who live lives of relative leisure and abundance, while outside are those who eke out a simple, subsistence-level style of existence. But as with all such yin-and-yang societies, there is a sort of symbiosis going on here: those outside the wall pay to the Enclave a patently unusual tithe–their children. The tithe is essential to maintain appropriate levels of population within the wall, but is, of course, only extended to healthy children. Protagonist Gaia, a midwife by trade, is regularly privy to both the births of these children and to their subsequently being taken by the Enclave. It’s a fact of life that Gaia, who is socialised into believing that not only are such things normal, but they’re for the greater good, never questions the practice until her mother, herself a midwife, is kidnapped for her suspected crimes against the Enclave.
This becomes the catalyst for Gaia to begin questioning not only her role within society, but the ethical foundations of the Enclave as a whole, and the rest of the book follows Gaia’s efforts to enter the hallowed walls of the Enclave society, and her subsequent questioning of the way of live of these individuals–and of the Wharfton society in which she has grown up. And O’Brien does an admirable job of these. Awkwardly telegraphed plot coincidences and “just in time” rescues and escapes aside, just about every facet of this book is well done. O’Brien’s world distinctly recalls that of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women essentially become little more than wombs valued for their reproductive ability, and where the epitome of their existence is the birth of a healthy child.
O’Brien challenges the reader to assess the value the life of the individual over the value of a wider society, but doesn’t let things lie at this broader level of conception. We’re told of how the lack of genetic diversity within the Enclave is leading to a high prevalence of haemophilia within the Tvaltar, itself a commentary on both the eugenics-style approach of this society, and also on the way it has turned its back on science and technology, this latter perhaps in response to the human-induced global warming that has led to the current situation. The regression of this supposedly progressive society is chilling: despite creating an illusion of pomp and splendour, we’re shown a world that is not only technologically and scientifically backwards, but which is also hopelessly parochial in terms of both its politics and social norms. The “protectorate” ruler, for example, could be characterised as either a dictator or an absolute monarch, as his powers seem endless and unmitigated; similarly, the justice system has devolved into a “lynch ‘em all” style hysteria, with prisoners either hanged without trial, or imprisoned indefinitely in order to serve the needs of the state. And, of course, individuals are kept in order by the prevalence of security cameras–the fact that these are one of the few pieces of technology to have survived the past few hundred years is eerily indicative of the power of the state and its efforts to exert power and cow its citizens into submission.
Likewise, the lack of dissemination of knowledge is worrisome: the remaining scientific and medical knowledge of the world is kept amongst only a scant few, and this specialisation touches on those same issues raised by HG Wells’s The Time Machine, which I reviewed last week. Likewise, it’s hard not to consider Jules Vernes’ notion of the pursuit of science to the exclusion of all else, which is a key theme in Journey of the Centre of the Earth (see my review).
Perhaps the key underpinning idea of this book is whether the ends can ever justify the means, and given this emphasis, Birthmarked fits in well with books such as The Chrysalids (see my review), as O’Brien ponders relentless what it is that makes us human, and what it is that makes one human better (or more human) than another. As in The Chrysalids, Birthmarked‘s society is arbitrary in its decisions about what is genetically or evolutionarily “correct” (indeed our main character is horribly scarred–a fact that makes her “unfit”, despite it having nothing to do with her genetics) and the result is chilling, particularly when applied to our own historical context or those scientific dilemmas regarding genetic manipulation or genetic selection that have been on the horizon for a while now.
One facet of this novel that I have to applaud is O’Brien’s deft avoidance of the “noble savage” trope. While Gaia initially romanticises her world outside the wall as a sort of bucolic idyll filled with rosy-cheeked women and rustic delights, her conceptions become far more incisive as her worldview is necessarily expanded courtesy of her travels within Tvaltar. But similarly her perceptions of the world within the wall change, too: rather than seeing people as a sort of faceless collective–much as the Protectorate seems to–she begins to see people for the individuals that they are. Admittedly, it is unusual to read a dystopian novel narrated by someone who is so disturbingly uninformed, but given the stories we hear about those living within communities where propaganda and misinformation is the word of the day, well, it’s believable–albeit disturbing. Some readers may find this confusion and ambivalence frustrating, but this, combined with the contrasting narrative of semi love-interest Leon, makes for a thought-provoking read throughout.
Just as a final aside, I have to admit that I’m rather disappointed to hear that this book is the first part of a trilogy (or however many books). I thought that Birthmarked ended in a manner that was superb: in the manner of all of the golden-age classics I’ve referenced in this review it was open-ended enough to evoke myriad questions from the reader, and I’m a bit saddened to hear that those ambiguities will be resolved in future volumes. With luck, though, O’Brien will prove me wrong.(less)
I should admit that I was initially attracted to Century by its beautifully gloomy cover: all chiaroscuro shades with a stunning purple foil title. Ho...moreI should admit that I was initially attracted to Century by its beautifully gloomy cover: all chiaroscuro shades with a stunning purple foil title. However, in this instance I can happily say that I was right to judge a book by its cover.
While author Sarah Singleton is no newcomer to fiction—or non-fiction for that matter—Century is her first foray into young adult fiction. While some authors struggle to make the transition between adult and young adult fiction, coming off as overly earnest or painfully twee and pat, Singleton seems to have found a genre that works for her.
Century is an eerie, ghostly tale that has an old-worldly feel to it. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me that it had been dug out of Great-great-great Aunt Edith’s (bless her soul) old leather trunk, or that it had been unearthed from amidst the forgotten curiosities lurking in a shut up attic.
The book tells the tale of young sisters Mercy and Charity, who have lived all their lives in the mansion Century, staring out at a never-ending winter. The girls’ days are dark and bleak, and their routine consists of little more than stodgy breakfasts and ill-remembered lessons. However, on one of these seemingly endless days, Mercy not only finds a tear on her pillow, but comes across a ghost in the nearby lake, and these strange discoveries lead her to realise that not all is as it seems. Mercy’s days are suddenly filled with musing and curiosity: how old is she? When was the last time she saw her mother? How long have they been living in Century? and she embarks upon a ravenous study of her family’s history.
The girls’ father, Mercy finds out, unable to cope with the death of their mother, has placed the house and its inhabitants under a spell that sees them living out the same day over and over as time passes by around them. While this plot element should seem trite and clichéd, Singleton treats it masterfully, taking us back and forth in time to show us exactly how the family came to be in such a situation. Moreover, rather than simply treating it as an inexplicable curse that Mercy must simply learn to deal with, we watch as she struggles with the losses the curse represents, and her frustration and anger at being forced away from a typical life, even though she has known nothing different.
Singleton draws together a web of fascinating incidents involving Frankensteinian experimentation, pained and unrequited love, and a family secret capable of shattering lives, and the result is a chilling, masterful tale that is surprisingly beautiful. Don’t expect a dirge, though—the ending is quite uplifting, and I found myself drawing parallels (somewhat oddly) with both The City of Ember and Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy: after watching someone trapped in darkness for so long, it’s a beautiful sight to watch them come out, blinking, into something altogether new.(less)