December 24, 2011

The Peal of a Bell and that Christmas Tree Smell and their Eyes Full of Tinsel and Fire....

Merry Christmas from The Mountains of Instead

Those Blue Remembered Hills...

I initially planned to end Winter Week with a post about ghost stories, Christmas and why they go together so beautifully - and they do (for the record I would have recommended The Woman in Black, The Dead of Winter and A Christmas Carol).  Yet, as I sat down to write, I realised that the books that I return to each year aren't scary stories, they're tales for children.  I've picked the three that I love the most to share with you today but there are many, many more out there (The Box of Delights to name but one) - make your own Christmas and sit down with one, you won't regret it.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis was one of the first books that I read by myself. I suspect that it may have been read to me prior to that, but it's reading it alone that I remember. A sense of utter magic seeps from the pages, building at every step. From the Pevensie's timid arrival at a strange old house to the discovery of an old wardrobe to the softness of fir coat and prickle of pine every move seems imbued with mysterious wonder, long before they all tumble into Narnia. And what a place Narnia is. Covered in snow and burdened by an oppressive Winter in more ways that one, yet still a place of warmth and humour. Yet The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is also deeply sinister. The White Witch terrified my younger self and some of the final scenes involving Aslan, bound and dying are upsetting even now. C.S. Lewis understood, however, children's capacity for darkness and their ability to determine sometimes complex moral issues.

Saying that, on re-reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as an adult I found myself too aware of the religious undertones. They are hardly subtle and my adult self felt preached at, insulted and slightly betrayed yet on putting all this aside I still managed to become swept away by Lewis's world and his often gorgeous writing. The scene in which Edmund is offered Turkish delight and hot chocolate still makes my mouth water and the final moments of four now adult monarchs riding towards their childhoods once more grabs the adult me by the heart and fills me with both sadness and envy. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is certainly a book that I will be reading to my small daughter sooner rather than later and remains one of my favourite winter reads.

Another lovely, lovely book is The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston. It's opening scenes see a small boy being rowed across flood water by lantern light to his new home - the mysterious house, Green Noah. On arriving he is greeted by a Great-Grandmother who seems to be waiting for something to happen and a portrait of three children. As the story progresses it fills with wonder, magic and touches of darkness. The writing is outstandingly good and extremely atmospheric. I know that there are more books set around Green Knowe but I have never read them choosing, instead, to reserve such a wonderful setting for a story that I absolutely adore. I'm loathe to write more about it for fear of ruining even the slightest aspect and instead urge you to read this small but perfectly formed tale yourselves.

While The Children of Green Knowe holds a special place in my heart, it not my absolute favourite. That title belongs not to a book per se, but to a story: The Snow Queen. Of all the fairy tales in all their many lands, this is my absolute favourite. For those who are not familiar it follows the plight of Kay and Gerda. Kay, a small boy with a bitter heart is spirited away by temptation and a strange, cold woman. Gerda, true of heart and strong of will sets of on a strange and epic journey to find her friend and restore him to himself. Thus begins a tale of bravery, determination and true friendship. The original tale is by Hans Christian Andersen but it has been told many times (my favourite version being that illustrated by Errol le Cain and his image of Gerda on her reindeer was used as the Winter Week banner above).

The story certainly has some strange aspects and again some religious symbolism (although far less overt than that seen in Narnia). On her journey Gerda contends with ravens, sleeping princes, witches and robbers and finally a reindeer guide. Throughout, characters are moved by her desire to find her friend and find him she does, frozen and trying to spell out the word Eternity in shards of ice. It has some fantastic imagery, evoking both physical and mental chill. The message that the story carries is one of love and strength, suggesting that true goodness and depth of feeling will always triumph over cool cruelty. It's a truly beautiful story.

What all of these stories have in common is that they were written for children but don't let that put you off. They are beautifully crafted and hauntingly written in a way that we perhaps don't see that often any more - each is very much of it's time and all are imbued with history in their own way. While short, they are charming in thier brevity, each a gorgeous jewel box of a story and I strongly suggest that you find yourselves copies of each, a cosy armchair and a warm fire - I can think of no better way to spend a Winter's evening.

The beautiful photographs in this post were all rather serendipitous.  And old friend, Dorian, was wondering through a Swiss village taking winter pics and captured both the lamp post and the rose while Lee, over at Trackworks, snapped the fragile bird prints. It takes my breath away how much these images represent the stories I've used them to illustrate and I thank both Lee and Dorian for letting me piggyback on their talent.

December 23, 2011

Not Just For Jesus...

Another guest post (I feel so, er, visited).  This time Carly from Writing from The Tub shares her thoughts on Christmas birthdays. As January baby with a January baby (New Years's day to be precise) I was interested to read her thoughts...

Whenever people find out my birthday is so close to Christmas their reaction is always one of sympathy.

‘Oh, isn’t that annoying?’
‘You must hate it.’
‘That’s bad planning by your mother!’
‘It must be easy to buy you presents; people can get you a joint birthday and Christmas gift.’

I’m always shocked that people react that way because, personally, I adore having my birthday at this time of year. I mean, what’s not to love? My birthday is on December 17th so just over a week before Christmas and there are so many reasons why this is a very good thing.

Everybody around me is excited about the impending holiday so it’s not just me who’s in a good mood on my birthday, which is something I really like. My whole family are just as jolly as I am and it helps to make the day even more fun that I think it would be if my birthday was at a different point in the year. It’s always nice to be surrounded by shiny, happy people on my birthday and I’m always lucky enough to have a little bit of Christmas cheer seep into my celebrations.

Also, I love Christmas. I’m not one of those people who gets excited about it in September but I definitely do get excited enough in December to probably grate on a lot of people. I love Christmas movies, Christmas food, rubbish Christmas specials on TV and, most of all, Christmas music. Sorry but who doesn’t love a bit of Chris Rea when it’s cold and dark and bleak outside? For me, having my birthday around Christmas just makes the whole event doubly exciting. Not only do I have the joy of Christmas day to look forward to but I also have my birthday, which has become a sort of Christmas warm up act for me over the years.

Because my birthday is (and always been, funny that) so late in the year I’ve always associated birthdays and presents and celebration with cold weather. For me, it just wouldn’t feel right to celebrate my birthday with a barbecue and trip to the beach in the sunshine. No, if I’m going to unwrap presents then it has to be dreary outside. No gale force winds, no presents. Of course, the exception to this is when I sometimes spend my birthday on holiday in Florida, in which case I’m prepared to bend the rules.

There are a couple of drawbacks to having my birthday at Christmas time, though the pros do outweigh the cons. There is always that one person who thinks it’s okay to give me a joint Christmas and birthday present. Just to clarify, it is definitely not okay. Unless the present is a pony. Of course, Christmas and birthdays are not all about presents and materialism, I know that. But I’m not going to lie, I do love receiving presents so the other drawback to having a birthday at the end of the year is that you get a whole bunch of presents in an eight day period (super exciting) but then have a present drought from December 26th to December 16th the next year (certainly not as exciting).

So, there you have it. I wouldn’t want to have my birthday on any other date; I can’t think of a single time of year more magical than Christmas so it’s the perfect time for me to celebrate my birthday. Next time you meet somebody with their birthday around Christmas don’t feel sorry for them, just think about the pure win it must be to get to celebrate turning another year older amid the unadulterated joy of Christmas!

Thank you, Carly, for such a fun post.  And a belated Happy Birthday!

The Weather Outside is Frightful (Guest review: Let It Snow by John Green, Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle)

Today, a guest review from one of my favourite people, the lovely Andy.  Andy is reviewing Let It Snow, a great Christmas read by three great authors.  Enjoy!

Before I start this review, I want to quickly thank two people. First, to Sya, for allowing me to review this book on her site. And to my American pal Sasha (or FzngWizbee as I always call her) for sending me the book from the USA! Thank you both! *hugs*
Let It Snow

Let It Snow is a collection of three short stories, written by Maureen Johnson, John Green and Lauren Myracle, where tells the stories of three holiday romance that intertwined as characters and locations overlap as this takes place in the same town, Gracetown.

Maureen Johnson starts us off with The Jubilee Express. Jubilee is told that her parents were arrested after a fight took place for the latest Flobie Santa Village piece and she is sent to her grandparents in Florida. Expect, the train never gets to Florida. The train she’s on gets stuck in a snow drift and here, she meets Jeb, a group of cheersleaders and, when she leaves the train to get food and warmth at the nearest Waffle House, Stuart...

Then, in John Green’s A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle, we meet Tobin with his friends JP and the Duke who get a phone call from Keun, worker at the Waffle House, ordering them to come over as there are cheerleaders (yep, the same ones from Maureen’s story). And they want twister. Fancy a road trip in snow and ice...?

The third and final story, The Patron Saint of Pigs by Lauren Myracle, tells the story of Addie who is recovering from her break-up from Jeb (yep, from Maureen’s and John’s stories) while trying to get her friend’s new pet, a teacup pig called Gabriel.

Three very different stories from three very different writers. So, I would like to know how they did it. How did they were these stories and manage to make them interlink with each other’s stories? I sense a lot of minutes on Skype and emailing...

Anyway, I’m not sure how to review this, as these are three separate stories. My fave out of the three is Maureen Johnson’s The Jubilee Express (though John Green’s A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle comes a close second). It was just Christmasy! While I’m not sure about The Patron Saint of Pigs (this is the first story I ever read Lauren Myracle), these three stories can be easily split in Christmas Eve (The Jubilee Express), Christmas Day (A Cheertasic Christmas Miracle) and Boxing Day (The Patron Saint of Pigs). And while each of them were intertwined , each of them stand-up for themselves.

This is a Christmassy read where you can curl up in a comfy chair with a cup of hot chocolate. It’s a sugary read and will get you in the Christmas mood.  

Many thanks to Andy for reviewing one of my favourite Christmas reads - I can only agree with every point he's made and suggest that as well as reading it for yourself you also read more of his bookish thoughts at The Pewterwolf.

December 22, 2011

Guest post: The rising of The Dark

Another fabulous guest post today from one of my fellow book bloggers/YAckers, Melissa, who's here to tell us why The Dark is Rising is the perfect Winter read.

I never thought much about books being seasonal until a blogging friend of mine, Julie (whose blog is now defunct), mentioned that she reads Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising (the book, not the whole series) every December 21st. The first year she mentioned that, I actually took her suggestion and picked it up. And you know what? It's the perfect book for midwinter.

Lest you have lived in a hole your whole life and not know the children's classic I'm talking about, here's a brief summary:

Will Stanton wakes up on the morning of his 11th birthday, he discovers that he is the last of the Old Ones -- the first one being Merlin --  magical men and women over the ages through Britain sworn to protect the world from the Dark. Over the course of the next couple weeks -- from midwinter to Epiphany -- Will is sent on a quest through time to find the six magical Signs and join them to aid the powers of the Light and turn back the Dark. He will face many challenges, have to search through time and space, putting together clues as he races the rising of the Dark. If he doesn't get the Signs in time, the world will be doomed.
It all sounds pretty simplistic, and in many ways it isThe characters are archetypes, the story slow. But in this case, the writing is so good, so atmospheric, that it makes the book an amazing winter read:
"The snow lay thin and apologetic over the world. That wide grey sweep was the lawn, with the straggling trees of the orchard still dark beyond; the white squares were the roofs of the garage, the old barn, the rabbit hutches, the chicken coops. Further back there were only the flat fields of Dawson's farm, dimly white-striped. All the broad sky was grey, full of more snow that refused to fall. There was no colour anywhere."
The mood that Cooper evokes in the book, the use of the midwinter holidays and the way she incorporates the Arthurian myth are all things that make this book a classic. There are parts that are dark and cold and haunting, enough so that you can feel the chill of the winter night. Then she contrasts it with the warmth and loudness of the Stanton family; one of the more wonderful elements in the book is the sheer familiar presence of the Stanton family, with their craziness -- it's a large family -- and loudness and love. Cooper also uses elements of light: one of is on Christmas Day when the Dark attacks the church. Will and other old ones defend it using Light to turn them back,but there's another element of love as Cooper shows Will's tender concern when his older brother gets caught in the fray.

But the best thing in my book is Cooper's use of Merlin and the Arthurian legends. There's something very ancient about this book (especially, though the others in the series also have this same ancient feel), something timeless. Which makes it a perfect book to read on a cold, snowy winter day.

Wow - Melissa has certainly sold me on this one.  While I have the whole Dark is Rising sequence on my shelf, I've yet to actually read them. After reading Melissa's post I'll be moving them up my TBR pile forthwith. If you want to read more of Melissa's beautifully put book musings then please check our her blog, The Book Nut.

December 21, 2011


As part of Winter Week here on The Mountains of Instead, I'm delighted to welcome back Justin from Swish. Justin's been here before, educating us on zombie science but this time turns his mind to Christmas entertainment and what works for him.

I'm not one for sentimentality and saccharine-laced happiness, so as a film fan the festive period is horrible for me, surely? We will be, as always, bombarded by loads of cutesy family films with a positive message and vomitous tone; it's simple to say “humbug” and dismiss them all. Well, I've had a thought about it and (spolier alert) like Scrooge I saw some light at the end of the tunnel.

I started off thinking about Christmas fare and began dismissing it for the expected reasons. Sentimentality is rife, in films such as Miracle On 34th Street, Polar Express, The Snowman, and even A Christmas Carol. Some can come across as preachy, like Love Actually, and the American favourite A Charlie Brown Christmas even has a Biblical text delivered straight to us by Linus. And, worst of all, there are an abundance of awful, awful comedies: the list is endless but includes the horrific Santa Clause franchise, Jingle All The Way, Jack Frost, and Deck The Halls. If I wasn't playing up my Scroogeality (Scrooginess? Scroogic Nature?), surely I could just say that, of all times of year, surely at Christmas there is a place for family movies, Christian values, and broad comedy to entertain the kids? I'm being cynical, however, so they're all out. There is a major hole in my logic, though: I love It's A Wonderful Life.

Many would consider it the most Christmassy of all the Christmas films; why would I love a film that features angels and family redemption? At it's heart, It's A Wonderful Life is a Christmas film, but for much of the running time it is unremittingly bleak (central to the plot are bank fraud, drunken rants, and suicide) and not particularly Christmas-like. I think that's the key: my favourites are the films that subvert the standard Christmas fare and take it somewhere else. I would therefore like to present a list of my essential themes for a good Christmas movie.

Child abandonment: the Home Alone movies are classic Christmas films but when boiled down a family repeatedly loses a young child during the festive period, often travelling large distances away, leading to repeated flurries of graphic violence as a gang of crooks attempt to murder said child.

Violence and terrorism: this is a rich vein. The classics here include Die Hard (man in tank top kills a load of terrorists who dare to interrupt a Christmas party), Die Hard 2 (man in tank top kills a load of terrorists who dare to interrupt people's Christmas journeys by hijacking an airport), and Lethal Weapon (suicidal policeman and his partner, whose daughter gets kidnapped, bust a drugs ring run by mercenaries. At Christmas). Even Brazil is set at Christmas, and that is about a man being tortured to insanity in a beurocratic nightmare vision of the future.

Gothic/horror: is another fertile area. The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, Gremlins, and Batman Returns (a Danny DeVito Christmas film that is actually good!) all fit in here. Again, they all come at it from an angle that plays up their “differentness” with Christmas as a backdrop. Gremlins even features a character recounting how she found out Santa Claus doesn't exist when they discovered her father's body (dressed as Santa) in the chimney, days after Christmas.

Parody: If you must do sentimentality or Christmassy, do it knowingly. Films in this category include Scrooged, Elf, Bad Santa, About A Boy, Trading Places, and The Muppet Christmas Carol. The two Dickens adaptations are great examples here, making it funny (Muppets) or with a twist (Scrooged); the more “straight” adaptations of A Christmas Carol can come off as mawkish.

So there you have it: it is possible to watch any number of excellent Christmas films at this time of year, and all you have to do is keep an eye out for violence, drunkenness, brutality, and sarcasm. Most important of all, and if you only take one thing away from this, when you see the words “starring Tim Allen” on a Christmas film: turn it off or turn to brandy.

Many festive thanks to Justin for casting his eye upon the subject of Christmas movies. Please share your own thoughts on the genre, love or hate it... To get you going, here's a clip from my own favourite Christmas movie:

December 20, 2011

Ring a Ring o' Roses (review Children of Winter by Berlie Doherty)

Children of WinterBerlie Doherty
Children of Winter 
Catnip Press 2007

Three children battle through raging wind and rain to find shelter in an old barn. As they step through the doors into the murky gloom within, Catherine feels the past surround them tangibly. Before they know it they are caught up in a game so real that it could almost be true... Imagination ignited by the idea of possible ancestors, they slowly uncover the story of three other children, left to fend for themselves for one long Winter as the Black Death swept through the rest of the country.

Children of Winter was inspired by the English village of Eyam who famously isolated themselves when the first plague case became apparent in their community in order to prevent the infection spreading further. Doherty's story doesn't mention Eyam by name but rather focuses on Catherine, Tessa and Dan, three young children sent from the village by their parents. The children proceed to live for the Winter in an old shepherd's barn high above the community. Catherine, as the eldest at thirteen carries the brunt of responsibility in terms of their survival. She's a believable enough character who worries quietly over the plight of her younger siblings. Tessa is an altogether more light-hearted girl and Dan seems to have only the vaguest grasp of the peril they are in but they pull together admirably and are impressive in their ingenuity.

The setting itself is beautifully described. Doherty perfectly captures the children's isolation and writes with detail about the realities of living with little support for such a long time. The children sleep on straw, eat endless amounts of cured beef and plain potatoes and are driven to wearing stinking sheep's fleece when the snow arrives. There is a constant fear of rats (who were known to carry the plague) and in once memorably chilling scene, threat from the village itself. As the ground freezes and the weather confines them to they're tiny shelter, it's hard not to feel the chill that seeps into their bones and the underlying terror that Catherine feels for their safety. The only aspect of the story that doesn't work entirely successfully is the book-ending of the historic with the modern, but this is a minor gripe in such a beautifully rendered tale.

I visited Eyam years ago and was completely obsessed with it's history. Full of that morbid fascination so peculiar to children of a certain age I read everything I could get my hands on about Eyam, it's people and the Black Death. I thought them all terribly brave and couldn't believe that one village had taken such a brave stance against a seemingly unbeatable enemy. Had Berlie Doherty's book been about at the time I would have gobbled it up and looked for more. Her writing is pitch perfect for younger readers (and this book is very much aimed at the nine-twelve bracket – I think most teen readers would find it rather young for their increasingly sophisticated tastes) and Children of Winter will give those who pick it up not only a thrilling tale of survival and adventure but also an interesting snapshot of English history that will hopefully have them looking for more. If you have a ten year old in your family who's a keen reader, then Children of Winter would make an excellent Wintery gift this Christmas. Saying that if you're off a certain age, as I am, this will take you back to the kind of books that used to be on the shelves when you were younger and makes for an enjoyably reminiscent read.

Children of Winter is available in all good online and offline bookstores.  Thank you to Catnip Press for sending me this title to review.

December 19, 2011

'Tis The Season - Announcing a Week of Winter

I love Winter – it is absolutely my favourite season and the rest of them, in my humble opinion, are vastly overrated. If pushed, I suppose I may admit that Spring is OK…ish, Autumn is vaguely pretty and Summer occasionally, er, sunshiny but that's no fun if, like me, you burn in the shade. No, Winter’s the thing.

I live in a small cottage that's reminiscent of a hobbit house (seriously, if you’re over five foot two you have to duck to get in the door). It’s pretty old with exposed beams and tiny windows. In the summer time, not much light gets in – the rooms can feel dreary and dark and the heat fail to penetrate the thick stone walls. In the winter, though, my tiny house comes into it’s own. The wood-burning stove burns fiercely in the corner, scaring off the murk outside the window, in December the Christmas tree cheerily takes up a larger than is really acceptable percentage of the front room and myself and my daughter snuggle on the couch, reading and watching old movies. Now you can’t do THAT in summer. Noooo. In summer you have to be out doing things all the time. It’s so monotonously energetic that I feel tired just thinking about it.

As I type, wind is howling outside my window, lashing sleet and hail around the skies and generally being fairly unruly and wild. I love it. Seeing the weather deteriorate earlier, I brought in coal for my fire, hung up drapes to hold out drafts and drew the curtains, ensuring a safe, warm and cosy retreat from winter’s wrath. I love this feeling of battening down the hatches. At no other time of year am I so aware of the power of nature. Winter sweeps in bringing snow, rain, gales and cold and we actively fight against it, hunkering down indoors or bundling up to trudge through the elements.

At the very heart of Winter, for me, there is Christmas. I’m a Christmas person – being as it is, in Winter. I particularly enjoy a good Christmas film – I tell you, what would life be with out It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet Me In St. Louis, Elf, Love, Actually or (most vitally) Scrooged?? Dull and miserable, that's what. Also, what other season can offer such gems? None-one, as my daughter would say, is the answer.

Then there is the fact that winter really is the most excellent time for reading. I mean, when the weather outside is frightful (yes, there's a musical post on it's way) and inside it’s so delightful…. then sit down with a book and get on with it. Really. And what a wealth of literature there is that suits a cold winter’s night. Poems such as Stopping by Woods On A Snowy Evening by Robert Frost (who, as a Brucie bonus, also has a suitably wintery moniker), Blake’s terrifyingly grand To Winter and Coleridge’s Frost At Midnight are gorgeously evocative of the season while any book with a decent Christmas scene is bound to warm the cockles of the heart (Harry Potter, Little Women and Little House on The Prairie are some of my personal favourites). Winter is also an excellent time to scare yourself silly and later in the week I’ll be talking about some of my favourite winter ghost stories.

So welcome to Winter week at The Mountains of Instead, I hope you’ll read the guest posts coming up and hope, even more, that you’ll weigh in with your own memories of the season be they good, middling or bah humbug. And, just because it's Christmas, any comments you make on any of the Winter-themed posts will enter you into a draw to win the Winter tale of your choice. Enjoy!

December 15, 2011

Hey Mother Earth Won't You Bring Me Back Down Safely To The Sea (Review: Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan)

Heroes of Olympus: The Son of Neptune
Rick Riordan
Penguin/Hyperion 2011

Welcome to Camp Jupiter, home to Roman legions, Machiavellian seers and talking God-statues (really). While seemingly situated somewhere near San Francisco, it’s actually in Rome – because that is where all roads lead to, obvs. Now meet Frank and Hazel, both outsiders and both carrying their own secrets giving new meaning to the phrases burning at the stake and walking through the valley of the shadow of death, respectively. Then there’s Percy. You probably know more about him than he does. Woken from enforced slumber and recovering from Extreme Wolf Boot Camp, Percy has no idea who he is or why Camp Jupiter and its Gods seem so familiar yet oh, so different…. And a quest?  Really?  Hasn’t he done stuff like this before? One can only hope he figures it out before it’s too late.

Having lost his mother and been dismissed to Camp Jupiter by a grandmother who is no fan of the straight answer, Frank isn’t doing so well. He doesn’t fit in with his colleagues and has a sense of identity that’s pretty rocky and a secret that’s burning him up inside. However, over the course of the book he starts to change, literally and figuratively, emerging as a keen strategist and excellent friend.  His interactions with Hazel are particularly lovely and often very funny and his growing hero-worship when it comes to Percy is oddly touching.

Hazel has to be one of Riordan’s more complex characters with her need to atone for perceived past mistakes being desperately believable. In her own way, she is dealing with a world entirely new to her and her determination is impressive. However, her unwillingness to trust her friends with her guilty secret is a little too reminiscent of Piper in The Lost Hero. She is, luckily, different enough that this is only a minor glitch and one particularly well written aspect of the book is her relationship with Nico  which is both incredibly sad and oddly lonely.

And then there’s Percy. He’s a little discombobulated by events but it’s fascinating to see him through new eyes. This isn’t the Percy readers met in Riordan’s first series – he’s now all growed-up. And a bit scary. Yes, that’s right – Percy Jackson has turned into a young man with a thousand yard stare, wicked fighting skills and absolutely no memory of his past apart from vague images of Annabeth. It’s interesting to see a character previously defined by his loyalty to friends and family have these things taken from him and it makes Percy a far edgier than before.However, his core personality traits – and fatal flaw – are never far away and his friendship and leadership skills are ever-present.

The world that these three find themselves is also darker than that portrayed in previous Riordan titles. Camp Jupiter itself is a far harsher place than Camp Half-Blood and is very much ruled from the top down. Not for them a disgraced, drunken Dionysus but rather the authoritative Reyna and incredibly nasty Octavian (whose penchant for stuffed-animal mutilation is both hilarious and disturbing). Still, they're all being plagued by the same monsters, now unkillable, while Gaia continues to scheme from the depths. Gaia is darkly sinister and her interaction with the three protagonists is filled with gloomy portents of doom. Percy, in particular, seems destined to be her pawn… yet he's also Juno's and therein lies the crux of the story. There are some thrilling set pieces and Riordan's trademark humour is put to excellent use, vital in a novel that peeks into some pretty dark corners.

For years, critics and readers alike have been wittering on about finding the "new Harry Potter" and I really don't understand it as, to my mind, he's been rampaging about for a while now in the form of Percy Jackson - and make no mistake, this is a Percy Jackson novel, "spin off" or not. Percy and Harry have much in common in their characters, not least their central belief that friends and family are of the greatest value. Like the Harry Potter titles, the books in the Heroes of Olympus series (and Percy's titular series prior to that) carry messages regarding the importance of love, courage and loyalty in the face of great hardship, have real pathos and are written with real skill. At the end of The Son of Neptune, readers see worlds start to collide and there are more than a few hints that the next book may not carry happy endings for all involved. Whatever happens, though, we can be assured of a thrilling ride with characters that long ago captured this reader’s heart and imagination.

Heroes of Olympus: The Son of Neptune is available now. Go and buy it for someone for Christmas. Go on.  DO IT.

November 30, 2011

When I'm Human (Review: The Iron Knight by Julie Kagawa

The Iron Knight
Julie Kagawa
Harlequin 2011

The Iron Knight is the fourth book in Julie Kagawa's Iron Fey series. This review contains spoilers for the previous books.

Prince of Winter, Ash, finds himself cast adrift in Faerie. Disowned by his family. separated from his true love and unable to ignore his previously iced over emotions he has only one course of action should he wish to rejoin Meghan in her metal realm.  He must become human, a mortal living in the land of the Fae.  It is not an easy goal to achieve and has consequences impossible for him to understand yet he cannot live without Meghan so sets of o with a motley crew of companions, not least Robin Goodfellow and one, rather irascible, cat.

Ash, prior to The Iron Queen, had been one of my favourite characters. Arrogant to the point of rudeness, conflicted in ways that often made him terribly cross, yet slowly thawing his icy heart to allow Meghan in. Latterly, however, he became rather dull, worrying about his worthiness in terms of Meghan and, glumly, the state of his eternal soul. It all reminded me far too much of a certain sparkly blood-sucker. The Iron Knight seemed the perfect opportunity to see more of Ash, whom I hoped had gotten over his angst. Well, he really hasn't although he’s pretty focused on his quest which helps one forget about his general glumness. As the protagonist of his own story, readers really do get inside his head but a miserable place it is.  Mourning over lost love is understandable but Ash takes it to extremes, especially considering the fact that he’s on a quest to ensure his place by his new love’s side. Admittedly, the memory of Arianna plays an important role in The Iron Knight, but it's not like she was ever far from the forefront of his mind. Also, his ongoing feud with Puck is just so last century. However, despite is ardent cries of "woe is me" (not literally, but I wouldn't have been surprised) he is honourable, committed to Meghan and packs a hefty swoon factor so I still rather like him. Just.

In one respect it is easy to relate to Ash's air of long suffering once you consider his that he travels with the most irritating of characters.  Puck is much the same as he was when last seen in The Iron Queen. His reasons for accompanying Ash o are vague at best and one suspects that it might be as much to annoy his arch-frenemie as anything else. He's certainly not the ideal questing companion - more a Pippin or Merry than a handy Legolas. He flitters about the place, getting everyone into trouble and making uniformly unfunny jokes and asides.  While he clearly cares for Ash and Meghan, Puck as a character is at his best when glimpses of his ancient and more dangerous nature shine through. He is not a particularly likable character but I suspect this is at least semi-intentional on the part of the author.  Enough, though, about two-legs - it is the animal companions that rather steal The Iron Knight.  The return of Grimalkin is extremely welcome. A truly fabulous creation who comes close to knocking my favourite cat (the magnificent Mogget) from the top of the fish pile. Here is is joined by a lupine companion in the form of the Big Bad Wolf and yes, I do mean that one - the embodiment of nightmarish fairy tales the world over and proud of it (actually, I might get that on a t-shirt). The two of them riff hilariously but are at their most impressive as two ancient creatures joining Ash's curious hike in order to preserve their immortality (in the case of the Wolf) and ensure an ongoing stream of favours (in Grimalkin's).

The storyline of The Iron Knight is fairly straightforward - and who doesn't like a good old quest, right?  However, it's a little slow to get going and lacks the wonderfully original Iron Fey, the constructs that lifted Kagawa's previous books above the usual Fae fare. While the group trek through hitherto unseen aspects of Faerie they are joined by a new character and one whom is most unwelcome in that they merely serve to increase Ash's melodrama and moan a lot. Sadly, this plot strand rather drags the story down. There are, though, some beautiful set pieces as the group edge closer to their destination and often the situations they find themselves in are eerily sinister. In particularl, Ash's starkly honest glimpse of what it means to be human is extremely well executed and promised an interest denouement to his tale. Sadly, Julie Kagawa seems to have lacked the courage of her convictions in this regard though and backs away from an ending that would give The Iron Knight some much needed weight.

For fans of the Iron Fey trilogy, The Iron Knight is an interesting read. One might think that it would be particularly exciting for Teams Ash and Puck but sadly, with out Meghan's rose tinted lenses they are, respectively, a little to melodramatic and downright annoying. While The Iron Knight doesn't reach the levels of originality or writing previously seen in Kagawa's cleverly imagined Faerie nor does it entirely disappoint. As a companion book it is a pleasant enough read but, while I wait with interest and excitement for Julie's next venture, I hope that the Iron Fey, the Iron Knight and even the gorgeous Grimalkin have been firmly left to their happy endings.

The Iron Knight is available now.  Thank you to NetGalley and Harlequin for providing this title for review.

November 24, 2011

Like Dust, I Rise (Review: Crossed by Ally Condie)

Ally Condie
Puffin 2011

Crossed is the second book in the trilogy that started with Matched. If you have not read Matched then this review will contain spoilers for the first title. You have been warned. 

Three months on from the events of Matched, Cassia has endured the manual labour of several work camps.  Her Match, Xander, remains a constant presence in her life, hovering constantly on the edges of her vision, a supportive and sometimes tempting alternative to the elusive Ky.  However, when an opportunity presents itself to search for Ky, Cassia grasps it leaving behind the safety of Society in favour of the mysterious Outer Provinces.  Ky himself has spent months living a life fraught with danger, burying the dead and chanting a continual mantra over their bodies.  He is lost without Cassia and, like her, takes the first opportunity to search for her, yearning for their shared language and lost future.

Cassia is fierce in her determination to find Ky, yet every step she takes is underwritten by a quiet shock as she processes what she now knows about Society.  At first she seems torn -while she understands that Society is highly manipulative she is also aware that it has, to an extent, protected her throughout her life.  However, as the novel progresses the balance tips as she encounters evidence of real cruelty. Her angry reaction to this speaks perfectly of her feelings of betrayal and her character development is always believable.

Ky, though, is of far greater interest.  While in Matched he was an alluring yet ultimately mysterious enigma, here he becomes fully three-dimensional.  His is a story steeped in loss, propaganda, guilt and blood and as a result his views of Society and any rebellion against it are painted in shades of grey.  For Ky, the most important aspect of life has become Cassia who grants him his only real solace. As he watches her slow metamorphosis from Society member to potential rebel he finds himself in conflict, torn between his love for her and his desire to remove them both from any faction that might wish to control them.  He is, from start to finish, a joy to read.

Other characters in Crossed add texture to Condie’s story, subtly adding both variety also contributing to her vision of the world.  Vick, Indie and Eli stand almost as alternative versions of Xander, Cassia and Bram – illustrations of how the other half have lived.  Indie is a particularly clever character, her motivations constantly unclear, adding an edge to every scene she appears in.  Hunter represents a faction in the world of Matched and Crossed that has not been explored previously and which adds depth and sadness.  Xander, while appearing only briefly in Crossed is ever present, not only for Ky and Cassia but also for others in their group and slowly emerges as one of the most interesting aspects of the story.

Crossed, in comparison to Matched, is a rather quiet read. The characters all find themselves in a state of flux, moving from one mindset to another and this is mirrored by a literal journey.  Finding themselves in the Outer Provinces, they begin a journey through the Carving, a vast labyrinth of canyons on which one side lies Society and on the other a mythical rebellion, known only as The Rising.  There isn’t a moment where they deviate from their quest but, for all that, very little happens with the focus being the relationship between Ky and Cassia and their joint relationship with the obstacles they continue to face.  It’s a rather bold to move the overall story along so slowly, yet Crossed ends beautifully with Condie neatly arriving at what is clearly beginning of the end, promising intriguing things in next year’s final instalment. However, Crossed doesn’t always read quite as smoothly as its triumphant predecessor.  The duel narrative structure, while successful in allowing reader’s insight to Ky, is often confusing with their individual voices lacking strong enough differentiation. Another sticking point is the poetry used to such great effect in Matched which now occasionally seems forced.  Condie has a tendency to rather hammer a point home and the use of Tennyson’s beautiful poetry and its link to the Rising is referenced to the point of inanity.

These are small gripes, however, when set against the ongoing trilogy as a whole.  As with Matched, Condie’s writing is gorgeous.  Sometimes stark, sometimes lyrical, frequently mesmerising she is infinitely readable.  She bravely explores, through Cassia and Ky, the nature of love and what it truly means to be together in the face of hardship giving her books a maturity not always seen in Young Adult fiction.  With Matched, Condie upped the stakes as far as dystopian fiction was concerned and she continues to do so in Matched – certainly her trilogy is sure to stand above many others when concluded in 2012 and I highly recommend that everyone continue to read through to a finale that is impossible to predict.

Crossed is available from 24th November.  Many thanks to the publisher for sending me this title to review.

November 15, 2011

The World Breaks Everyone (Review: Beautiful Chaos by K. Garcia and M. Stohl)

Beautiful Chaos           
Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
Razorbill 2011

Beautiful Chaos is the third book in The Caster Chronicles. If you have not read Beautiful Creatures or Beautiful Darkness then this review WILL contain spoilers. You have been warned.

The world is broken. By claiming herself at the end of Beautiful Darkness, Lena has split not only her light and dark aspects but also rendered the universe unable to function. Darkness seeps from every corner, choosing its epicentre as Gatlin. Life for Ethan and Lena is irrevocably changed.  Ethan, in particular, is struggling with events.  Nightmares plague his sleep and creep into his waking world, Amma mutters and lies, his father writes about an Eighteenth Moon and he is barely able to touch Lena any longer. Add to this apocalyptic weather, a much changed Link, an ex-siren struggling with her mortality as well as the crazed prophecies of Abraham and his leech, Hunting and the scene is set for the end of the world as we know it.

Ethan is a character much changed by events. While he continues to cling to the life he knew he is more than aware that Lena’s actions and his own destiny as a Wayward are leading him towards an uncertain and sinister future. He’s grown up a lot and is far surer of his actions than in the previous two books. While he spends much of this book keeping difficult secrets as the narrative progresses he moves towards his somewhat inevitable decision believably, bravely and with not a little difficulty.  He continues to be one of the stronger male protagonists in YA and his bleaker moments can be very moving.

Lena is a harder character to like. While her behaviour in Beautiful Darkness may have been explained away, her dismissive attitude towards it is more than a little irritating. In particular, her attitude towards Liv is infuriating, hypocritical and unfair. Throughout the series, Lena has had a tendency to navel-gaze and she doesn’t appear to be growing out of it any time soon, spending much of Beautiful Chaos bemoaning her actions in an awfully emo sort of way.  Her saving grace is that Ethan adores her and often she is a character made likable only by the believability of his love.

As with the previous books, other characters are beautifully written in Beautiful Chaos. Link, as Linkubus, is as charmingly puppy-like as ever (albeit in a slightly scarier way); Ridley is as frighteningly unhinged; Macon as charming and Abraham as terrifying. Beautiful Chaos also gives readers insight into Seraphine’s past, which is fairly interesting (if not a little predictable) and grants a closer look at the mysteriously wicked John Breed – with strange consequences. The Sisters shine once more, this time with added pathos and Amma continues to by the lynch pin of the series, to heartbreaking affect.

Beautiful Chaos as a whole is far darker than the previous titles in The Caster Chronicles. Having carefully woven together a complex mythology, Garcia and Stohl to some extent delight in destroying the world they have created. As the story progresses it becomes clear that previous portents of doom have not been exaggerated and it is hard to imagine things ending at all happily. As with previous instalments, Gatlin itself is central to the storyline and both it and its inhabitants are used to great dramatic effect. The writing is at times extremely lyrical while at others suitably sparse. There are scenes that are tremendously moving juxtaposed against those that are darkly frightening.Particularly successful are the set pieces involving an increasingly insane Ridley and those between Ethan and his Aunt Prue. Special mention must also go to the scene involving Ethan and the lens of a video camera – chilling in the extreme.

The Caster Chronicles are all long, detailed stories and readers may find it necessary to return to Beautiful Chaos (even, perhaps, Beautiful Creatures) to remind themselves of the world that swirls confusingly around Ethan and Lena – certainly, reading these titles again would be no hardship. However, regardless of any re-reading, Beautiful Chaos is a thrilling roller-coaster of a story, murky with the shadows of a difficult destiny and haunted by the superstitions of the Deep South leading, one assumes, to a stunning finale in 2012.