July 21, 2011

Miles To Go Before I Sleep (Review, Forever by Maggie Stiefvater)

Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic 2011

Forever is the final book of The Wolves of Mercy Falls and this review contains spoilers for the previous two novels. You have been warned.

When last seen, Grace was disappearing into Boundary Woods as a wolf, accompanied by a messed up rock star, leaving an empty room, shocked parents and a blood spattered, beaten Sam. As readers return to Mercy Falls in the climax of Maggie Stiefvater's series Sam is waiting, constantly waiting for Grace, Cole continues to dice with dusky death, although now in the name in science and hope and a cure and Isabel watches from the sidelines as her father strives to eliminate the wolves of Mercy Falls once and for all. Meanwhile, out in the woods Grace runs with her pack at once invigorated by her new life and confused by odd images of a boy with yellow eyes. And a lone white wolf watches, and waits.

In this final installment of The Wolves of Mercy Falls, Maggie Stiefvater returns to the quadruple narrative of the previous novel, Linger with the story alternately narrated by Sam, Grace, Cole and Isabel. There was some mild criticism levied at Linger suggesting that at times the individuals were hard to distinguish from each other, while this may have been slightly true in Forever each voice is clear, defined and different from Sam and his introspection, to Grace and her determination, Cole and his darkness and Isabel in her strangely strong fragility.

Of all the characters, Sam is probably the least changed at the start of the book. Still struggling to come to terms with his human future, he now has to deal with a cure that might not be a cure, a lost father figure whose stories keep unraveling, a rather destructive housemate and a girlfriend who's, well, less girlish and more, er, lupine. Typically, Sam thinks about this all a lot, running through his life up until now repeatedly looking for clues, errors and even escape. His tendency to mope (albeit charmingly) is unchanged but over the course of the novel he tentatively reaches not only inside himself, challenging his deepest fear but also outwards to those who not only care for him but who desperately need his leadership. He is, as ever, a beautifully drawn character.

Of course, there would be no Sam without Grace and she remains the logic to his indecision. The majority of Grace's character development has happened, out of necessity, in earlier story lines and she now emerges as strong and capable. She remains devoted to Sam but never starry-eyed and her decisions regarding their relationship and future are made with a typically level head. The two of them complement each other so perfectly and also so realistically that at times they almost seem one character, something that is especially clear through the eyes of the other characters.

Isabel is, in a way, similar to Grace – she's already changed so dramatically that she now watches events around her through new eyes. More attached to Sam and Grace than she thought possible, she's also drawn to Cole in a way that both irritates and thrills her. Of all the characters Isabel is perhaps the saddest. Her home life is clearly difficult, although the few short scenes between her and her mother are touching as is some of her inner dialogue regarding her parents – cleverly, readers are shown the shadows of what was once a happy family and it is clear that a large part of Isabel wants her parents back very dearly. However, the standout character of Forever has to be Cole. And not because he's hot. Really. He, quite simply, is the most intriguing. Boy genius turned suicidal rocker turned wolf turned scientist shouldn't really work but it absolutely does. His dedication to the wolves and later to Sam, Grace and Isabel is fantastic to read, as is his personal journey. There is something absolutely compelling about a person who has to take themselves to the edge again and again only to realise that they might not really want to fall.

Forever is certainly the darkest book of this trilogy both in plot and imagery. Stiefvater delves deeper in what it actually is to shift from wolf to human and back again and it's not pretty, although cleverly done. There are some very dark moments and one scene involving a dying bird is particularly difficult to read. While the plot has essentially two main strands, increasingly it focuses on the imminent threat to the wolves and builds to a climax that roils with stunning imagery and staggering tension. However, the opposing story strand is left largely unconcluded with Stiefvater settling for much hope but few answers. While some readers may find this frustrating, in actuality it is a fitting ending to a story that is nothing if not character driven, with each character reaching a personal resolution completely in keeping with who they have grown to become.

Finally, what lifts Forever above it's contemporaries (as with Shiver and Linger) is the quality of Maggie Stiefvater's writing – beautiful, dreamlike, haunting, lyrical... these are all words I've used before regarding this author's work and I am sure I will use them again. Forever and it's predecessors are books to get lost in – go and lose yourself right now, you won't regret it.

July 18, 2011

All The World's A Stage (Review: The Rogue's Princess; E. Edwards)

The Rogue's Princess (The Other Countess)The Rogue's Princess
Eve Edwards
Puffin 2011

Mercy Hart is as good as they come... or at least she's trying very hard to be. Brought up in a strict, if not unkind, family she has been imbued with her father's Puritanical values since birth and strives to uphold his beliefs both privately and in the public arena. The thing is, Mercy often feels that she's failing rather dreadfully – be it the unruly hair escaping from her coif or her guilty yen for pretty clothes, she can't quite seem to resign herself to a holy yet drab future. However, she's doing pretty well until she attends an evening at a friends hours and encounters the enigmatic Christopher Turner. Kit is a man of the theatre – walking the boards and streets with equal drama he is slowly making a name for himself, and not just as the illegitimate brother of the Earl of Dorset. While most definitely a ladies man, he is surprised when a quiet puritan's daughter quite suddenly takes his breath away. Mercy and Kit are therefore set on a path that neither ever expected to be upon but both are determined to pursue despite family disapproval, murky political intrigue and a complete unawareness of how the other half lives...

Both Mercy and Kit have equal time spent upon them during The Rogue's Princess and this provides readers plenty of time to enjoy their often hilariously differences. Mercy is the epitome of goodness, dutifully spending her days praying and studying the scripture. W hen she's not doing these things she's generally thinking that she should be. She's a very sweet character, although sometimes rather annoyingly na├»ve. Her character development is believable, from her initial swooning over Kit to her slow realisation that she needn't compromise her faith nor her ability to be true to herself just because she has fallen in love. Like all the female characters in Eve Edwards series of Elizabethan books she displays true backbone – and because she starts of so quietly it's extremely satisfying to see her come into her own.

Kit is a joy to read. First introduced in The Queen's Lady as a larger than life, somewhat angry young man, he has mellowed slightly in the intervening months. While certainly still ebullient he is clearly on easier terms with his personal history and certainly with his half brothers, the Laceys. However, rather than rely on his wealthy relatives he has continued to make his name upon the stage, regularly performing at The Globe under his mentor, Burbage. Kit is often very funny, his every action dramatic, his every garment garish but he is also a touching character to read. His sweet determination to woo Mercy regardless of convention is charmingly innocent for a man so aware of the very distinct societal fault-lines of Elizabethan England. Equally charming is the relationship he has with his half brothers, particularly young Tobias – their interactions are funny, believable and rather lovely.

As with her earlier Elizabethan stories (The Last Countess and The Queen's Lady), Eve Edwards has kept her story deceptively simple and, at heart, rather predictable. Kit and Mercy are clearly destined to be together and there are no real surprises in store on that count – however, it is the subtly clever roads that Edwards leads her characters down that make her stories so completely readable. While it could be argued that the romance in The Rogue's Princess is rather rushed, it's speedy commencement merely leaves room to add in more interesting aspects. Elizabeth I still looms large over London and has become increasingly paranoid in recent times. While her Scottish cousin, Mary, languishes under lock and key the Queen is determined to hunt down any who oppose her and it is into these choppy and dangerous political times that Kit and Mercy, as well as the Lacey's find themselves wading.

As previously, Eve Edwards has the ability to weave fascinating history into the lightest of stories and yet never veer towards incongruity. In addition to the political scene of the day, she has added the usual wealth of historical detail – her descriptions of fashions, living conditions and societal expectations continue to be a delight to read. Equally, her characters are beautifully drawn from the central twosome and familiar Lacey's to master Player Burbage and a dubiously hopeful young playwright going by the name of Will Shakespeare. As with The Other Countess and The Queen's Lady, I sat down to read The Rogue's Princess with some doubt in my mind – as I keep insisting, historical fiction just isn't my bag, baby - yet it is impossible to not be drawn into these charming stories that are on one hand gloriously fluffy and on the other intriguingly interesting, I will certainly be reading whatever comes next.

The Rogue's Princess is available now, thank you to Puffin for sending me a copy to review. Additionally, if you're a UK book blogger then keep an eye on the new look UKBT for a tour of this title.

July 13, 2011

Author Interview - Ransom Riggs

I recently had the pleasure of reading and reviewing the fantastic Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children - a book that single handedly ended a scarily extended reading slump with its originality and eerie storytelling. I am sure that many who have read it have wondered at its genesis and, even more intriguingly, the history of the fascinating photographs that pepper the pages and I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to ask author Ransom Riggs a few questions:

Miss Peregrine’s is one of the most original titles I’ve read in a long time, not to mention the most beautiful. Can you tell us more about where your original idea came from?

Thank you very much! As a general rule, I have no idea where my ideas come from – but this is a notable exception. It came from my bizarre collection of antique snapshots, many of which are of peculiar-looking children. The photos came from swap meets and antique shops, so I had no idea who the people in them were – which meant I could make up their stories, and their names, myself!

Florida and a small island of the coast of Wales seem like an odd juxtaposition for a novel – what inspired you to place most of your action on a windswept rock in the middle of the sea?

I’ve always been fascinated with remote islands – they seem like a kind of laboratory environment for drama. You can create your own world, your own cast of characters, beset them with problems and challenges, and watch what happens. The further away from civilization and cell phone service it is, the more creative the characters have to be to solve their problems! (By the way, I think cell phone have kind of ruined movies. There’s nothing more boring than watching someone talk on the phone! And anytime anything dangerous happens, the first thing a real person would do is use their phone to call for help. Which is why you see so many scenes in movies where people’s cell phones run out of batteries!)

The photographs used throughout the book are fascinating. Can you tell us where you came across them and what you know about their history?

I think I accidentally answered this one a few questions ago! I don’t know anything about where they came from, really. Many of the best ones were lent to me by other photo collectors who hsve become friends of mine – but they don’t know where who the people in them are, either! But I kind of like it that way; if I knew, then they wouldn’t be mysteries, and then I wouldn’t have been inspired to make up stories about them.

The images and story run so beautifully together that it’s hard to extricate them from each other. What came first, the story or the pictures – or was it a combination of both?

It was a combination of both. There were a handful of pictures I had at the very beginning of the writing process that I knew I wanted to work in, but I was finding new photos while I was writing, too. Sometimes I’d find an amazing photo and change the story a bit to work it in, and sometimes I’d know I wanted the story to go in a particular direction and would go looking for a picture to fit a story point or a character. It was a weird, organic process.

The fantastical elements of the story mirror actual historical events fairly closely – what inspired you to set Miss Peregrine’s against the background of the war, and even more so, the holocaust?

My wife’s grandparents were holocaust survivors – her grandfather was named Abraham – and their incredible story was part of my inspiration. Also, I was always fascinated by the way these intense, often horrifying holocaust stories filter down through the generations; how do you tell a five-year-old about the horrors that their grandparents experienced? Or even a ten-year-old? So I tried to explore that a little bit, too.

Finally, the story sees our heroes seemingly at the start of an even greater adventure – will there be a sequel or are their futures to be left up to readers’ imaginations? To my mind, either would work well but I am sure that there are inquiring minds who wish to know.

I can’t really talk about it yet, but suffice to say I’m working on … something. In any case, I’m thrilled that so many readers are clamouring for more!

Many thanks to Ransom for answering my questions so brilliantly.  For those of you yet to read the book, have a look at the great trailer below.  Tempted? You should be... If you're a UK blogger then don't miss out on the opportunity to catch this title on it's UK Book Tour - sign up in the next week and it could be winging it's way to you, something you should most definitely look forward to.

Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children is available now.  Many thanks to the publisher for sending me this title to review and for facilitating this interview.

July 08, 2011

Announcing... the new incarnation of UK Book Tours

As some of you will be aware, UK Book Tours, as was, is no longer. The fabulous Lynsey worked tirelessly to create a UK focused book tour site and while, sadly, she is unable to continue to run what is an extremely admin. heavy project, a few of us have happily taken over.

Yep, myself Carly (of Writing From The Tub) and Emma (from Bookangel Utopia) are the proud custodians of an all new UKBT.  We have a new blog address, have given it a smart lick of paint and are due to launch on Monday 11th July. In fact, next week there will be three tours announced to set the UKBT ship a-sailing (sorry, but I've got to justify the ship logo somehow and if that means using pirate-isms at all points then yo bloody ho). So, shiver your timbers and pop over there, make sure you're following us, check out the information section and be ready to sign up when our first tour is announced on Monday!

Following our initial launch there will be a book tour each week as well as other interesting bits and bobs going on - keep your eyes especially well peeled for our quarterly prize draws, you never know what might be on offer.

So until Monday, clamber up the UKBT rigging and keep yer main sails braced - books are just waiting to sail their way to you.

July 05, 2011

The Earth Is Blue. There Is No God (review of Life: An Unexploded Diagram by Mal Peet)

Life: An Exploded DiagramLife: An Unexploded Diagram
Mal Peet
Walker 2011

Clem Ackroyd is the only child of a small family living in the Norfolk of the 1960's. Born into post war Britain neither he has little interest in the world at large apart from the vague whim that he wishes to escape into it and away from the suffocating environs of his relatives and home. While a scholarship to the local grammar school offers hope for the future, he remains solidly working class – not an issue until he meets Frankie, daughter of the local landowner and thief of his youthful heart. Around Clem exist Ruth, his solid, wistful mother, Win, grandmother and religious tyrant and George, an ex soldier who finds his return home to be a paradoxically challenging anti-climax. Nothing seems able to penetrate the bubble of mundanity surrounding Clem and his family until news breaks regarding the far of island of Cuba, some pesky Russians and the very real possibility of nuclear war.

Readers are introduced to Clem in two separate ways. In the first person, Clem narrates the story from the hindsight-blessed heights of middle age, while in the third person he is the central peg in the story of his family and the world in which they live. While essentially the same person, the elder Clem has the advantage of increased objectivity while Clem The Younger lives through each event with a naivety, angst and gripping immediacy. He's a lovely character, struggling against a family whom does not entirely understand. The elder Clem makes for an enthralling story teller, adding depth and context to his younger self and the interesting times through which he has lived with great charm, pathos and wit.

Clem, while the lynch pin of Life: An Unexploded Diagram is far from the only character. In his own age group there are few other players but Frankie provides ample contrast and context being particularly well drawn in both her desire to escape her own circumstances and seeming lack of interest when it comes to Clem's own background. It is largely, though, the adult characters in the story that are most fascinating. Sections are told from the viewpoints of Ruth, George and Win – each exploring their own personal history and the events that have shaped them. The adult Clem is also more compelling that the junior version and where Mal Peet excels is his ability to breath life into the historical figures of JFK, Khrushchev and Castro.

Mal Peet's storytelling works on many different levels. On one hand it is a simple coming of age story, focusing on one boy and a short chapter during his life. Take a step back and it becomes the story of how a singular period during his life affected the man that this boy would become. Look again and it is the history of one family and their interwoven lives and personalities. Walk away at the end and you realise that running under, over and through the story of the Ackroyd's is a fascinating look at world history over the last century.

Life: An Unexploded Diagram covers an astonishing period of time without the reader being entirely aware that it is doing so. Moving from 1898 onwards, Peet guides the reader through the landscape of pre and post-war Britain, the move from the fields towards industrialisation and the emergence of the middle classes. This would be impressive enough but he then, using his adult narrator exceptionally skillfully, opens the story to encompass global events. Peet brazenly brings to life the political landscape surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis, inhabiting politicians, highlighting their machinations and carefully explaining the sinister shadows that brought the world to the brink of global nuclear conflict. From Castro's manic patriotism to Kennedy's fear and Khrushchev's manipulations each major player becomes truly alive. Peet also explores lesser characters from Yuri Gagarin and his denial of a God to the lonely flight of the a U2 pilot, layer upon layer is added to a story that does so much more than what it says on the tin.

Life: An Unexploded Diagram is a book that is not necessarily easy to get in to. The beginning is gripping, the writing flawlessly beautiful and the story fascinating yet it takes time for the book to unfold as a complete work. The narrative structure can seem clunky at times and the plot takes a while to come together. However, Mal Peet has created one of those rare stories where, while enjoyable throughout, it is impossible to see the true genius of the work until you turn the last page – at which point I defy anyone not to be completely overwhelmed by its brilliance. Falling into neither YA nor adult genres, this is a book that should be read and absorbed by all because, as Peet so cleverly leads us to see, we do not live merely off the world but also in it. As we live our individual lives, the world at large whirls around us in a maelstrom of conflict, dynamism and never ending change and regardless of our awareness, it changes us with it. Do not make the mistake of picking up Life: An Unexploded Diagram and putting it down again – pick it up, stick with it and be blown away, it really is extraordinary.

Life: An Unexploded Diagram is available now. Thanks to Walker Books for sending me this title to review.

July 01, 2011

Afar In The Lost Lands (Review: Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children; R. Riggs)

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenMiss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children
Ransom Riggs
Quirk 2011

Jacob has grown up with his grandfather’s strange tales. Stories of a fantastical orphanage, filled with bizarre inhabitants and run by a mysterious Bird. While the orphanage is always portrayed as a place of sanctuary, Abe’s stories also have their darker side with monsters lurking against the backdrop of the second World War. As a child, Jacob is entranced by Abe, his supposed life history and the strange photographs that illustrate it, yet as he grows older his enchantment turns to feelings of disappointment and vague betrayal as he realises that his Grandfather’s monsters are really metaphors for the very real horrors of the holocaust. Or are they? After a truly traumatic event, Jacob finds himself driven to explore Abe’s past, his tall tales and above all Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children.

As a character, Jacob is pretty interesting. At sixteen he seems unduly cynical about his family, the world and his place in both. With Abe’s encouragement he spent a joyful, if somewhat removed, childhood dreaming of world exploration and intrepid exhibitions. While his parents were quick to squash what they saw as unrealistic aims, he remains entirely disenchanted with his life and certainly with his future. Abe, to him, has become a rambling old man worthy of care but certainly not of faith. However, over the course of the novel, Jacob’s life changes completely and so does his character. As possibilities open before him, he becomes less detached – ironically, in terms of the novel’s plot, he starts to live in the now as opposed to merely existing through tales of the past.

While Abe is not physically about for much of the story, his character is an overwhelmingly strong presence throughout. The story of his life is entirely gripping, in its wildly varying aspects and his relationship to both his families often heart-breaking. The rest of Jacob’s family are fairly lightly sketched. Jacob has little time for them and one often suspects that his narration lacks objectivity, particularly in terms of his mother. Later, though, his relationship with his father is explored in terms of his father’s relationship with Abe – this aspect of the novel is sketched with a skilled yet light hand and is both sad and touching. To talk of any other characters in this book would be to spoil the reading experience for those of you yet to partake, suffice to say that these are a group unlike any I have ever come across and are entirely delightful and unnerving to spend time with.

The plot of Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is as wonderfully bizarre as its title. Moving from the balmy heat of Florida to the somewhat foggy climes of a small Welsh island Ransom Riggs manages, amazingly, to avoid any incongruity with both place settings oddly complementing the other while also giving Jacob a vital sense of displacement (strangely, in both). As the story progresses it becomes increasingly surreal yet never loses pace, nor becomes confusing (despite some highly original and unfamiliar mythology). Both Jacob and the mysterious Miss Peregrine have such a terribly matter of fact turn of phrase that what should seem strange instead makes an odd sort of sense. The story is, like Abe’s, both charmingly magical and yet unrelentingly sinister and the juxtaposition of fantastical horrors with the very real monsters of history is both clever and chilling.

It is impossible to talk about this book without mentioning the way that it looks. Printed on gorgeous, thick stock it feels amazing - this is one of these beautiful books that really sticks two fingers up at the Kindle generation (while still be available in both formats). Scattered through the pages are the oddest selection of vintage photographs, each illustrating the story in their oddly beautiful way. What makes these images extraordinary is their very validity – these are not newly posed, nor photoshopped into oblivion but a real window into the past. It’s impossible to separate the story and the images – they have an entirely symbiotic relationship and by using both Ransom Riggs has created not just an exceptional debut novel but also a disconcerting work of art.

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is unlike any book I’ve ever read, yet embodies aspects of many that I admire. There are shades of A Series of Unfortunate Events and Alice Through The Looking Glass in the story telling and similarities to the recent A Monster Calls and The Sky Is Everywhere in the realisation of the book as an object but ultimately Ransom Riggs has written a story that is entirely its own – and absolutely one that you all should read. I will be interviewing Ransom later in the month and really cannot wait to find out more about this books genesis – I suspect its story is fascinating. Until then, get your hands on a copy – Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is a title that I highly recommend.

Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children is available now. Thank you to Quirk Books for sending me this title to review.