August 31, 2012

And Not A Stone Tell Where I Lie (review of The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater)

The Raven Boys
Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic 2012

As never seen in any good fairy tale, Blue must not ever kiss her one true love.  To do so would be to kill him.  A non-psychic in a family of future-tellers, Blue has known this fact for as long as she can remember and has spent her life avoiding almost everyone because of it.  On St. Mark’s Eve, she finds herself with her aunt, recording the names of the spirits her aunt sees, each of which denotes a life cut short over the course of the coming twelve months.  Suddenly, Blue hears a voice and sees the ghostly figure of a young man.  A Raven boy – student of Aglionby, a nearby private school.  Later, Gansey sits in his car desperate to find proof that the ley lines he searches for exist, yet all he hears on the recording he’s made over the evening is the voice of a girl asking his name.  Slowly, Blue and Gansey and his friends Adam, Ronan and Noah find themselves inextricably bound in the search for a source of great power, great promise and great danger.

Blue, surrounded by strong, eccentric, psychic women is certainly strong and working on being eccentric yet the only psychic ability she has is that of heightening whatever energy might be in the air, rather like a TV aerial. Her interactions with the Raven boys move from an initial distrust of their monied confidence to a slow-growing fondness. As she becomes involved in their quest, she realises that she may have finally found a place in which her own peculiar power is of use. Her fear of kissing disallows any real romance and the friendships she develops with the boys are a joy to read, as is her strong-will, her refusal to feel kowtowed by their wealth and her ability to both stand up to the strong women around her while also respecting them.

The Raven boys themselves are something else.  Gansey is one part old money to ten parts ancient wonder with a splash of existential angst thrown in for good measure.  He is at once entirely modern and entirely worthy of any aged myth - a man searching for something that will give his life meaning. For all his charm, he often wounds with his words and in a character who thinks so much about those around him it is a fascinating flaw.  While Gansey is the planet about which stars and moons whirl, each is as vital to the story as he is. Adam, bound inextricably to Gansey, comes from a poorer background and brings to the group a willingness to prove himself by whatever means possible.  He’s an intense and heartbreaking character whose tentative steps towards Blue seem doomed to failure.  Of them all, it is Adam who changes the most during the story yet ironically finds himself truly becoming what he has always been. 

Ronan is all sharp edges and wicked barbs, a boy bitter with grief yet unquestionably loyal to Gansey.  He is rarely pleasant and seems to actively dislike pretty much everyone yet Stiefvater cunningly gives him Chainsaw (a small, ignobly named yet, one suspects, awfully important character) making him a broken bird with a broken bird – a combination that will make your heart bleed for them both.  The final Raven boy, Noah, is an enigma. Hovering in the background, almost out of focus he seems oddly vital to Gansey. He appears only sporadically throughout the story but when he does, he draws the attention of all instantly.  Noah is a triumph in quiet storytelling and is entirely compelling.

The Raven Boys is a story set in the heart of Virginia yet steeped in Welsh myth. Gansey seeks a sleeping king, who will grant those who wake him one great favour and it is this goal that leads the characters to a magical yet terrifying place. Stiefvater weaves other figures into her tale with great skill. Blue’s extraordinary conglomerate of psychic women (who instantly brought to mind Stiefvater’s real life Sisters of Fate) hover, always a bit too aware of what lies ahead; a Latin teacher follows the search with a little too much interest and trees wait and watch and listen.  Stiefvater’s writing is astonishingly beautiful – the kind of writing that you slow down to read, savouring each and every word.  Her creation of Cabeswater is nothing short of stunning, immersing the reader in ancient magic and imbuing in them the same wonder her characters experience. 

The Raven Boys is a slow-burner, with Stiefvater using her own peculiarly unique writing style to create an inimitable atmosphere around her characters. She slowly trickles her story through cleverly created veils of words into a world that entirely absorbs the reader. Not since The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo (an incredible middle grade tale of ancient magicians, mad Welsh grandmothers, love, solace and loss) have I read a story that is so frighteningly magical.  With each book Maggie Stiefvater improves and The Raven Boys she has created a sprawlingly awesome start to what is surely an epic story.  Highly, highly recommended for all who love stories, words, myth and magic.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. The Raven Boys is published on 18th September, 2012. Many thanks to the phenomenal Donna from Books With Bite for queueing at BEA to get me a signed copy (not to mention posting in across the pond). Donna - you rock.

August 29, 2012

Time After Some Time (Review of Liminal States by Zack Parsons)

Liminal States
Zack Parsons
Citadel 2012

I am sewn gristlething full of hate. I invade the gory trench and crush and stalk through waves of poison gas. I am pierced by metal. My limbs are burst by heat. I howl my fading fury to the sky.”

From the outset Zack Parsons' debut novel Liminal States envelopes the reader in a fog of desolation and creeping dread. The eerie and evocative prologue traps us in the mind of some otherworldy, insectoid creature, its singularity of purpose and isolation feeding an overwhelming claustrophobia. And the story hasn't even begun yet.

Liminal States is one of those immensely pleasing books which appear from out of nowhere. Prior to this work, Zack Parsons was better known to the denizens of the internet as an editor at Known more for crude (although hilarious) photoshop competitions than highbrow literary criticism I was unsure what to expect at first. Admittedly on reading the prologue I was unconvinced and ready for a slog through a deliberately unwieldy slice of experimental prose. How wrong I was.

Liminal States is three books in one, an epic tale of rivalry spanning two centuries and covering the western, hard-boiled detective and dystopian sci-fi genres with plenty of diversions to an almost Lovecraftian mythos underlying the book's central plot device, the pool.

The first tale, The Builder, takes place in 1874 in and around the tiny troubled town of Spark, New Mexico. The relative peace of Spark is upheld by Sheriff Warren Groves, an ostensibly good man with a dark and hidden past. Groves and his wife Annie are trying their best to settle and make a live for themselves, despite the secrets both of them bear. Life in Spark is soon to be changed forever by the actions of Gideon Long, a wretched coward of a man living under the shadow of a successful and abusive father. Long, in an attempt to raise the money needed to transform the fortunes of his ailing father's factories, has decided to rob a train, setting in motion events that will see his and Warren's destinies entwined forever.

Following a shoot-out at the site of the planned heist and a near-fatal injury at the hand of Groves, Gideon barely escapes, following a ghostly wolf across the parched desert. With death snapping at his heels he drags himself into a hidden pueblo and discovers a strange pool full hidden underground. Resigned to his fate, Gideon slips into its scalding waters, only to reappear at its edge, wrapped in some kind of cocoon. Emerging unharmed, full of vigour and without a scratch on his body he realises that he has found a source of immense power. Consumed with desire for revenge against Warren, his would-be killer (and, it transpires, rival for Annie's affections), he sets out not only to kill him but to revive him with the powers of the pool, dooming him to eternal life. In the meantime Annie has passed away during labour, providing a catalyst which will see Warren's hatred of Gideon grow to unimaginable levels. The devils of his past are now unleashed and he will stop at nothing to see his vision of justice served.

Parsons takes this concept of two immortal rivals duelling through the ages and adds a wonderful twist in one of the side-effects of the pool, which I'll not spoil here and let would-be readers discover for themselves. The action then skips to the 1950s and seamlessly becomes a Chandler-esque detective romp before finally catching up with us in the present day, albeit a very different one from that to which we are accustomed.

One of the strongest points in Liminal States is the way Zack Parsons manages to effortlessly skip from one literary style to another. The Builder planted my mind so firmly on the frontiers of the old west that I could almost taste the dust in my mouth. It brought to mind the bleak savagery of Nick Cave's And The Ass Saw The Angel and at times the heat from desert became almost oppressive. The transition to the following section is abrupt and you can be forgiven for forgetting you're still reading the same novel. All of a sudden the desert is a distant memory and we're following Detective Groves on the trail of a murderer whose victim could not possibly have existed. The trail takes us through corridors of conspiracy, intrigue and danger before depositing us in the present day. This is no brave new world, more of a nightmare filled with poisonous spores, clones and the signs of am impending apocalypse emanating from the pool, now a fearsome industrial complex.

It's a well-worn cliche to say that a particular work will haunt your dreams but I can truly say that this happened on no fewer than three occasions while reading Liminal States. Zack Parsons is so adept at completely immersing his audience in his terrifying and bewildering alternate realities that you can't help but feel them infesting every corner of your psyche. As such my sleeping brain found itself wondering through the canyons of New Mexico and the already dreamlike alien world briefly visited in the book's intermissions.

As you may have guessed, Liminal States is something of a dark work. Every one of the main characters has major flaws, to the point where you can struggle to find a single redeeming value among them. Revenge, anger, betrayal and hatred are the order of the day. The inexorable crawl towards catastrophe is bleak and wearing but it nonetheless grips you and drags you along with it, perhaps out of a sick curiosity to see just how much worse things can get. For an author to maintain this level of hopelessness and still keep readers hanging on every word is an amazing feat and it's to Zack Parsons credit that he achieved it with his first novel.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones.  Liminal States is available in now. Clearly, it is not only available but bloody awesome. Just saying.

August 27, 2012

I Wonder About the Trees (review of Breathe by Sarah Crossan)

Sarah Crossan
Bloomsbury 2012

It’s been a long time since anyone could breathe easily.  Humankind has destroyed the earth’s forests, polluted its oceans and left the world with an oxygen level of only 6%.  Unable to breathe in the outside world, what is left of the population has taken up residence in large pods, where super-conglomerate and government, Breathe, provide them with clean air. The world being what it is, some have better air than others with society split into Premiums (nicer houses, unlimited air supply, better jobs) and Auxiliaries, or subs (limited air, menial positions and cramped living conditions).  This is the world as inhabited by Bea, Quinn and Alina. Bea is an auxiliary who, while aware of the system’s inherent unfairness believes that she can better herself and her family’s position while Quinn is a Premium who is becoming increasingly aware of the advantages his life gives him over best friend Bea. Alina is another sub, but unlike Bea, one who is fighting for a fairer world. Through a series of coincidences, these three unlikely allies find themselves in the world outside the pod and quickly discover that all is not what it seems, a discovery that puts them all in mortal danger – and not just from lack of air.

Breathe uses a multi-narrative structure with our three protagonists given alternating chapters in which to tell their stories.  Of the three, Alina is probably the most instantly arresting with her tale of terrorism gone wrong leading to a frantic escape from authorities.  Having crossed paths briefly with Premium Quinn she has no problem in exploiting his obvious crush on her in order to aide her disappearance and once outside the pod does her best to ditch both him and Bea. While her motivations are understandable, Alina doesn’t come over particularly well. She at times seems arrogant, makes rash decisions and shows nearly no empathy for the first half of the book. Later, however, it becomes clear that Alina is scared – scared of the knowledge she holds, scared of Breathe and also scared of the rebels and their domineering leader, Petra.  Her fear makes her not only more likable but also more believable and allows her character to become courageous rather than just impetuous. 

Bea is pretty much Alina’s polar opposite. Thoughtful, kind and stoical she thinks with her heart rather than her head, but never to anyone’s detriment (more, in fact, to their advantage). As her eyes are opened to the reality of life outside the pod, her backbone steels noticeably and her determination to do the right thing is heartening, even when her worry is tangible.  From the start, her crush on Quinn (not to mention her inability to act on it) screams of teenage angst in a way that anyone who has ever suffered from unrequited love at 16 can relate to – it’s charmingly and heartbreakingly written.  In fact, the friendship between Quinn and Bea is one of the high points of the entire book. 

Quinn himself is the most believable character of the lot. Son of a demanding father, Quinn seems unsure of what he wants from life.  He suffers from a lingering awareness that he is a living example of all that is unfair within the pod and his desire, once given the opportunity; to change things is heartening to read.  His crush on Alina is authentically focussed on her, er, comely figure and pretty face while his relationship evolves beautifully over the course of the story.  Other characters populating the world are rather underwritten, but Quinn’s father is continually interesting and the rebels are, if familiar to anyone who has read anything involving rebellion, satisfyingly committed to the cause.  The darker roles are fulfilled by Cain (head honcho and all round power in the pod) and Petra (leader of the rebellion).  Both are frightening in that they seem rather unhinged, yet they too often descend into caricature.  They are clearly meant to illustrate two extremes of belief, but this has been done far better elsewhere (most successfully in Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series) and undermines the worlds they are meant to represent.

Sadly, this rather poor characterisation of villains is not the only weak point in Breathe. Stepping onto a stage that already contains more than its fill of dystopian tales, Breathe fails to offer anything particularly startling or new.  The premise of a world running low on air is an interesting one, but is poorly explained and requires an unusually large suspension of belief.  Equally, while the protagonists are interesting enough, none of them (with the exception, towards the end, of Quinn) are particularly compelling and certainly don’t stand out amid the increasingly long list of dystopian rebels. Sarah Crossan’s writing, while enjoyable, again fails to make a lasting impression and though the end of Breathe leaves readers with several interesting possibilities only time will tell if the story itself has engendered in them a real need to find out what happens next.  While there is nothing wrong with Breathe, neither is there anything massively right with it.  However, for readers who have yet to sample dystopian fiction (there must be a few of you left, right?) this may well be the book for you.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Breathe is published on 11th October in the UK. Many thanks to the publisher for sending us this title to review.

August 24, 2012

I Dream of You and All The Things You Say (review: Slide by Jill Hathaway)

Jill Hathaway
Harper Collins 2012

Vee Bell hates having narcolepsy. What she hates more is sliding into the bodies of strangers when her narcolepsy takes hold – seeing things that are never meant to be seen. Including murder. When cheerleaders begin turning up dead left right and centre, Vee is convinced that their deaths are, in fact, intricately staged by their killer to look like suicide so she decides to use her unusual gift to uncover the truth and protect her family. But when the new guy at school starts to show more than a fleeting interest in Vee, things begin to get even more complicated.    

I must admit, the sliding idea threw me to begin with and on first receiving the book I thought that the concept as a whole seemed fairly weak. Thankfully, the skill of Hathaway’s story telling put me firmly back in my place.  Any item containing a strong emotional trace that is in Vee’s possession at the time of a narcoleptic attack can cause her to “slide” into the owner of that object – not allowing her to control that person’s actions but simply to be a passenger in their body for a short length of time.  Extraordinary to say the least.  However, as the story progresses, this becomes simply a facet of Vee’s being and not the sole focus of the book. Hathaway uses the “sliding” sequences sparingly and appropriately and also explores Vee’s father’s denial of her condition, allowing us to view the entire situation as more normal and accessible than the reader would first imagine. 

I found Vee to be an extremely strong narrative voice and, once we had pushed through the stereotypical high school scenes including LOTS of product placement (all the cool kids these days listen to The Smashing Pumpkins don’t ya know) I genuinely cared what happened to her. Witnessing Vee struggle with the death of her mother and the role she then adopts to shelter her younger sister truly pulls at the heart strings - Vee is an accomplishment in characterisation for a debut author.

In all honesty, Slide’s failings are few.  My biggest issue was the use of product referencing – of which there are more instances than any self-respecting soft drinks executive would stand for. Whilst Hathaway uses brand referencing to attempt to engage further with her key demographic, as is often common in young adult fiction, I feel that it comes across as cheap, amateur and completely unnecessary. But as this is my biggest gripe, I think Slide is doing pretty well.

Whilst Slide is an engaging and intriguing murder mystery, it is also an honest exploration of loss and belonging as seen through the unbiased eyes of a teenager. For a debut novel, the characters throughout are strong and believable, whist the plot is compelling to the close. Slide is far more interesting and complex than its marketing suggests and it is definitely worth picking up a copy. I shall definitely be keeping a weather eye for more of Jill Hathaway’s work on the horizon.  

This review has been brought to you by Polka Dot Steph. Slide is available in bookstores now. Thank you to Harper Collins for providing us with copy of this title to review.

August 21, 2012

There Will Be Time No (review: Good Omens; T. Pratchett and N. Gaiman)

Good Omens
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Corgi 1991

It's just another day in the sleepy English town of Lower Tadfield; children are playing, dogs are barking, lawns are being mowed and the Apocalypse is going to happen next Saturday. Not just any apocalypse - The Apocalypse - the fire-and-brimstone, Revelations one. The Antichrist walks among the townsfolk and the End Of Days draws near, but there's a small problem – neither he nor anyone else has any idea who he is.

An ineptly bungled switcheroo in a maternity ward some years ago, courtesy of some hapless Satanic nuns who may or may not be rejected extras from Rosemary's Baby, sets in motion the events of Good Omens, a wonderful collaboration by fantasy legends Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. A highly original retelling of the ancient battle between good and evil, it focuses on Adam Young, the clueless and innocent child of Satan, and the efforts of the Powers That Be to use him to instigate Armageddon and finally settle their scores.

From the outset it is clear that Adam is no typical hellspawn. Raised by completely normal, non-Satanic parents in middle England he is more inclined to climbing trees and building ganghuts than smiting the just and pursuing Hell on Earth. However, the forces of Heave and Hell have noticed that the child they assumed to be the catalyst for the final battle is nothing but an ordinary human child and the hunt for their missing pawn has begun. With mere days remaining, they issue orders to their troops.

Unfortunately for them, their emissaries on Earth are far from detective calibre. Aziraphale, the angelic erstwhile guardian of Eden's gates, is more concerned with his used bookstore these days and Crowley (formerly Crawly, the serpent of Eden) spends most of his time driving around and unwillingly listening to Queen's Greatest Hits on his car stereo. Over the centuries these two foes have found rather a lot of common ground and forged an amicable alliance – each ignoring the other's actions in order to avoid bother from up on high (or down below).

Joining the hunt are an array of supporting characters. Anathema Device is a witch, descendant of the prophetess Agnes Nutter and keeper of her secrets, and possibly the only (human) person in the world who is truly aware of what is happening. As fate – and the writings of her ancestor – would have it, her path crosses with that of Newton Pulsifer, modern-day witchfinder and definitely not computer genius. Their unlikely romantic pairing sends them off in pursuit of Adam with Newt's insane boss Shadwell not far behind. And of course we shouldn't forget the Four Horsemen (or bikers) Of The Apocalypse, with Pestilence ousted by modern medicine but topically replaced by Pollution. Pratchett's much-loved Death character also makes a welcome appearance bringing his trademark dry, block-capital wit to proceedings.

While the forces of good and evil pursue their goals, Adam and his gang (known simply as Them after many a name change) go about their business, blissfully unaware of proceedings. Adam's ignorance of his origins has not gone unnoticed by the universe however and soon things take a turn for the strange. Youthful and ill-informed conversations about the dangers of nuclear power result in an entire reactor core disappearing from the face of the earth – with no drop in power output. Speculation on the existence of Tibetan tunnel networks traversing the globe are soon followed by Tibetan monks become a new form of garden pest. The young Antichrist's powers are coming to maturity yet he remains unclaimed and untutored by either side. Even the Hellhound sent to guard him has morphed physically and mentally into a playful toy pup, contemplating how best to annoy the neighbour's cat rather than ripping the throats out of would-be assailants.

Through all this, time marches inexorably on and the Day Of Reckoning draws near. In Good Omens, Pratchett and Gaiman ask the simple question – why? What on Earth (or Heaven or Hell) is to be gained by this devastating battle? Why here, why not on some other remote planet? Does it even make sense any more? And really – isn't Heaven guaranteed to win anyway? Through well-crafted satire and some typically English humour they break down the distinction between the religious concepts of Good and Evil, calling the morality of both sides into question. In viewing the conflict through the eyes of a child its overwhelming absurdity is clear as day and it becomes clear that the morally ambiguous (and supposedly 'fallen') characters of Aziraphale and Crowley actually possess more decency and sense than their respective masters.

Good Omens is a book which welcomes and rewards repeated reading. On taking it up again for this review, perhaps the first time in ten years, it gave a warm sense of familiarity but also offered forgotten surprises and new angles on an old story. Pratchett's mischievous humour mixes perfectly with Gaiman's dark side and somewhat laconic wit, neither of them crowding the other out although with both allowed extended solos at times. The result is an absolutely effortless read, one in which the book does all the work and allows you to sit back an an observer. You won't even notice the many points where you drift off into your thoughts, contemplating the consequences of the agents' actions, returning to the tale unaware that you ever left.

For those unfamiliar with Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman, this would be a perfect place to start. Although I must admit it doesn't quite reach the peaks of Gaiman's individual work it remains a fantastic work in its own right and stands proudly alongside Pratchett's back catalogue. And to those who are already fans of the authors yet have never picked up this book – what on Earth are you waiting for?

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones.  Good Omens is available in good bookstores and Splendibird would like to urge that you pick up a copy.  And no, we don't care if you've read it before...

August 14, 2012

Daddy, Daddy, You Bastard, I'm Through (Review: This Is Not a Test, Courtney Summers)

This is not a Test
Courtney Summers
St. Martin’s Griffin 2012

Sloane Price was living in hell long before the rest of the world joined her there.  Daughter of a domineering and abusive father and sister of a girl who abandoned her to his mercy, she’s been ready to die for a long time.  When those around her fall foul of an infection that leaves them mindless and cannibalistic, she is so deeply depressed that her only thought is mild irritation that her suicide attempt has been interrupted.  Forced onto the street in order to avoid being trapped with the father she fears she finds herself part of a small group of teenagers who find refuge in their now empty high school.  As tensions ebb and flow, she remains in a daze, unable to embrace the need to survive that fuels her companions.  As the days pass and their situation becomes more dire, Sloane waits and watches and wonders exactly when death will finally find them all.

Sloane, for all her detachment, is one of the most compelling protagonists of recent times.  Everything is observed through her haze of depression and shellshock and this disconnect allows other characters to crystalise around her in a way that allows the reader to meet them almost through almost entirely objective eyes.  Sloane finds herself to be at odds with the rest of the group as her own desire to die directly contradicts their desperate attempts to survive, yet she keeps this desire to herself, hoping to slip away from them at some point.  While it is clear that she has been swept along by her companions by accident, it is never entirely explained why she has stayed with them for so long nor why she followed them to the school.  Surely she could have disappeared at any point and they, with their own survival in mind, would have been unlikely to follow her.  This, along with other equally contradictory actions on her part, riffs on the nature of the survival instinct and what it is to fight it.  While Sloane is a constantly evolving character, particularly in regards to her relationships with others in her group, she at no point experiences a road-to-Damascus moment that engenders her with a great will to live and therein lies the ugly beauty of her broken character.

Other characters in This is Not a Test are beautifully imagined.  Cary, sometime leader and definitive voice of survival is a believably strong yet damaged character, trying desperately not to flounder in guilt over recent events.  Twins Trace and Grace (yes, really) are struggling with loss and dealing with it in entirely different ways.  Grace is almost beatific in her fair-mindedness while Trace rages against his situation at any opportunity. Trace in particular is a character that develops and changes over the course of the book in a way that is both unpredictable and also entirely plausible.  Youngest of the group, Harrison spends much of his time snivelling in a corner, causing the others to feel a mix of guilt, panic, irritation and pity – again an authentic response given the situation.  Then there is Rhys who is, well, a pretty nice guy.  Attractive, smart, empathetic and patient he would appear to be the perfect person to lift Sloane’s death wish – yet he spends the majority of the book righteously furious at her, a reaction that is entirely believable.

In fact, believable is the word that springs to mind again and again when reading This Is Not A Test.  For a zombie book (and this is a zombie book), it contains remarkably few zombie encounters, choosing instead to focus on the microcosm of fear, stress and depression that exists within the barricaded high school.  Too often in this genre, characters find an inner strength that they did not know they possessed, a skill with weapons previously undiscovered and an ability to put aside the horror of what they have experienced in order to fight their way through the ravenous hordes to freedom.  Stories that take that road are frequently fabulous, but none really examine how teenagers might really react should they find themselves abandoned to such a hellish reality.  Courtney Summers cleverly takes a huge situation and focuses on one trapped group.  Surely, in reality, there would be someone who couldn’t stop crying, someone angry, someone conflicted and yes, someone massively depressed.  By looking at this, Summers has created a story that contains zombies but is, in actuality, almost existential and that asks (albeit quietly) why anyone would want to live in a world so completely filled with horror.

This is the first Courtney Summers book that I have personally read but it won’t be the last.  The ending of This Is Not a Test is hauntingly ambiguous and disturbingly beautiful and it is the first book in a long time that I have finished and instantly wanted to start again.  For fans of the zombie genre, this is a new take on an old story, for fans of contemporary fiction this is a fascinating view of well worn contemporary tropes set in an entirely new setting and for fans of quietly compelling writing this is a one hundred percent must read.  Of all the books that I have read in 2012 thus far, this is the one that comes with the highest recommendation.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. This Is Not a Test is available in all good bookstores now. Splendibird cannot stress enough how much you should all READ IT.

August 11, 2012

Writing to Reach You (review: Post Apocalypse Dead Letter Office, Nathan Poell)

Post-Apocalypse Dead Letter Office
Nathan Poell
Oscura Press 2012

“Oh no”, you sigh, “not another post-apocalypse sci-fi muddle.” and toss the book on the ever-expanding 'to-read' pile. But wait, this one is different! Seriously, just give it a chance. Yes, it can seem that the shelves and screens of the world are awash with tale after tale of devastated humanity crawling from the ashes of its destruction, with zombie giants World War Z and The Walking Dead leading the charge, but thankfully there are authors like Nicholas Poell to keep breathing fresh life in what is at risk of becoming a stagnant genre.

Poell's Post-Apocalypse Dead Letter Office is a short, unique and refreshing tale of life in America following a mysterious disaster. Well, not a tale as such but a series of vignettes, snippets of life encapsulated in undelivered mail. Using this epistolary (bonus points for learning new words) format, first-time author Nicholas Poell manages to avoid the fate of many of his genre-mates, namely trapping us with the same motley crew of survivors and lending an often unintentionally claustrophobic air to proceedings. This is precisely what made Max Brooks' World War Z such a successful and gripping read. So why the letters? And what happened to the world?

The events of Post-Apocalypse Dead Letter Office unfold in the near future, at a date left cunningly unspecified although marked clearly enough by reference to past events remembered by survivors. The situation is bleak, yet hopeful. Some years ago a somewhat mysterious event occurred and left in its wake the most curious enigma. Overnight all generators of electricity ceased to do their job. All parts were in working order, the turbines of hydro plants whirred away as before, but those stubborn electrons refused to dance for us any more. Similarly all the gasoline in the ground, cars and even (somewhat disastrously) in aircraft instantaneously transmuted to sugar water.

Following this unforeseen calamity the world understandably fell to wreck and ruin. With no way to power any of the devices we have come to absolutely rely on – no motor transport, no internet, no lights, no refrigeration – society collapsed, panic and disorder grew, and soon the world was on its knees. Slowly the survivors organised themselves and one of the first problems to solve was communication. Without so much as a phone or telegram it fell to cyclists to fill the role of old-time mailmen, braving the dangers of cross country travel – bandits, wild animals, the environment itself – to carry pleas for help, vital information and plain old gossip from settlement to settlement. 

Inevitably there were accidents. Riders never reached their destinations, dispatches were stolen or lost, lazy staff ditched items to lighten their load, and this is how we gain our vantage point into this world. Post-Apocalypse Dead Letter Office consists simply of a series of undelivered letters from family member to family member, friend to friend, employee to boss and so on. There is no central thread running through the stories, although the letters work backwards, starting some time into the aftermath and slowly retreating back to the event which sparked the catastrophe.

The cast of characters we are introduced to include drug runners (the absence of government meant an abrupt end to the war on drugs so marijuana farms are commonplace), farmers (organic farming figures largely in the book, everyone must fend for themselves), cyclists trying to reach family and friends (horses are preferable but too expensive) and plain old citizens trying to get on with their new lives. One thing is clear – humanity still consists of the very bad alongside the good. However there is a wonderful feeling of hope permeating the book, a sense of purpose infusing the majority of characters which leads them to strive for their goals in a way which seems sadly absent from our own world much of the time. Adversity seems to bring out the best in many.

Post-Apocalypse Dead Letter Office is a short read, weighing in at barely over 200 pages and this is a double-edged sword. The brevity makes it easy for the book to ensure that it doesn't outstay its welcome and become a chore. However the concept and the world Nicholas Poell creates is simply too interesting for such a brief treatment. By the time the ending/beginning came – an ending which unfortunately seemed like a major cop-out and left me feeling a little cheated – I was already wishing for the book to magically extend itself. I wanted to know more of the farm projects, to explore some of the more lawless regions of the world, even somehow get a glimpse into life outside the US.

Even with these shortcomings I still recommend Post-Apocalypse Dead Letter Office to anyone interested in this genre, or indeed anyone with a love of cycling, farming or sustainability, the recurring major themes. The original letters are provided for your viewing pleasure at, rounding out a refreshing literary experience which may, hopefully, be expanded to a well-deserved expanded
outing in the future.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones.  Post Apocalypse Dead Letter Office is now available in bookstores (and is particularly cheap for e-readers).

August 09, 2012

Come Back In Tears, O Memory (review: Pushing The Limits by Katie McGarry)

Pushing the Limits
Katie McGarry
Mira Ink 2012

Echo is lost in the wake of tragedy and violence, auto-piloting her way through life in a haze of intangible memories and all too tangible scars.  Fighting to get back to her old life she no longer knows who she is, or what happened to Echo as was.  As she struggles to remember, her family suffocates her and her counsellor insists that this is a journey that Echo must make on her own.  In order to avoid her increasingly domineering father, Echo finds herself stuck with tutoring slacker Noah – another of her counsellor’s charges and a boy who she would rather stay away from.  Noah, equally, has little time for Echo despite the fact that both their lives have been irrevocably changed by situations far from their control.  However, Noah is not a guy to miss an opportunity and after initially antagonising her, he quickly ropes Echo into a scheme that will alter both their view of the past and the path of their futures.

Echo is an exceptionally emotive character.  Her confusion, sense of betrayal and utter hopelessness are embedded in her every thought, action and word and the combination of this and the inability of her friends and family to cope with her situation is desperately sad.  Her narrative voice is strong and her actions are always believably impulsive, be they driven by rebellion against her father and stepmother or pain in regards to her mother and brother.  Her initial reaction towards Noah is interesting to read and her subsequent willingness to take part in his ill-conceived plan actually makes more sense on her part than it does on his. Their tentative friendship is an example of the solace that damaged souls can find in each other but also of the lack of objectivity that they provide each other with.

Noah is, in one way, as well written a character as Echo.  His story is both moving and believable with his slide from straight-A student to bad boy ringing as true as his determination to remedy a situation that he sees as desperately unfair.  His concern for his younger brothers is palpable on every page and his longing to care for them is again very moving.  However, Noah is smart – this becomes clear very quickly – and this means that is somewhat hair-brained plan loses believability far before it is actually resolved. Additionally, where Echo’s narrative voice is that of a believable teen, Noah can slip-slide into romantic cliché.  His continued reference to sylphs and sirens detracts from what is otherwise a great portrayal of a teenage boy in conflict.

The writing in Pushing the Limits is generally (previous points withstanding) very good and certainly a welcome addition to contemporary YA.  In addition to Noah and Echo, other characters give the story depth and pathos with Echo’s father and the lurking presence of her mother being particularly worthy of mention.  What McGarry achieves beautifully is an increasing tension that bubbles continually under Noah, Echo and their relationship. The idea of lost memory has been explored before but McGarry’s vision of a girl adrift in the haze of her past is arresting to say the least.  Additionally, her portrayal of high school teenagers being completely ill-equipped to deal with their damaged friend is both hard to read and utterly convincing. Certainly Katie McGarry is a welcome new voice in contemporary YA, with a hint of the mystery writer about her.  An utterly compelling story, Pushing the Limits is most definitely worth a read and introduces a writer who will no doubt bring us some interesting stories in the future.  Recommended.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Pushing the Limits is available in all good bookstores now. Thank you to the publisher for providing us with this title to review.

August 04, 2012

The Sins of The Father (Review: I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga)

I Hunt Killers
Barry Lyga
Bantam Press 2012

Some parents want their kids to be doctors and lawyers, some raise their offspring to be artists and musicians, some help their kids to make their own choices and some take it a step too far, hoisting their own careers and ambitions onto their children. Such is the case with Dear Old Dad (AKA Billy Dent, AKA The Artist) who redefines the term pushy parent. Except that Dear Old Dad isn’t a doctor, nor a lawyer, nor an artist (at least, not a conventional one) – he’s a serial killer.  Actually, he’s pretty much the Grand Poo-bah of serial killers and until the day he was finally caught he dedicated his down time to training his son Jasper in the fine art of murder. Four years after Billy’s imprisonment, Jazz is just about getting by – he has a roof over his head, a loyal best buddy and an understanding girlfriend – but he’s plagued by the knowledge that Billy instilled in him and terrified that he might end up being just like Dear Old Dad. When bodies start appearing that hold eerie similarities to those found in the not so distant past, Jazz frantically applies the knowledge he has to the information in front of him because the only way to prove he’s not taking up the family career is to hunt those already in it.

Jasper Dent is pretty screwed up. His ability to seem A-OK gets him through the day but haunts him at night as he wonders if this very ability to charm and manipulate situations points to him being a sociopath. In fact, Jazz spends much of his time suspecting that his behaviour is sociopathic and that the images put in his head by Dear Old Dad are leading him inevitably to a life of killing. He really does have a lot of information at his fingertips and as he starts to use this to help the police catch a new killer it becomes clear that Jazz might be conflicted, confused and yes, possibly slightly sociopathic, but he’s also super smart and desperate to prove that he is nothing like his father – even as he secretly suspects he’s no different at all.  What Jazz never really realises is that it’s unlikely that a sociopath would care that they were a sociopath.  The real risk for Jazz is that his obsession with the past and its impact on his future might tip him into the dark, be it as killer or as

Like all good investigators/potential serial killers, Jazz is accompanied by a loyal sidekick, Howie. Howie is a particularly lovely figure with his long limbs and potentially deathly nose-bleeds. His willingness to accompany Jazz on some pretty crazy expeditions is heartening, especially when much of what they get up to is dangerous, particularly to a character suffering from haemophilia. Jasper’s girlfriend Connie is also very well written. Clearly devoted to Jasper she doesn’t cut him any slack when he starts going off the deep end. In fact both Howie and Connie have a deep seated faith in Jazz that seems often to be all that keeps him from going mad – yet he cannot see that his strong friendships with them (particularly with slightly broken-bird Howie) say more about him than his relationship with his father. Equally, Jazz’s interactions with G. William, the Sheriff that finally caught his father, say much about both characters and bring warmth to what is essentially an extremely dark story.

The writing in I Hunt Killers is superb. Stark and uncompromising, Lyga has written a story unlike anything else available on the YA shelves right now. Chief of Lyga's achievements is Dear Old Dad himself who, despite being imprisoned, looms large over every page due not only to some exceptionally disturbing memories on Jasper’s part but also to the fact that he seems to be lurking in the crimes of the present as well as those of the past. It is testament to Lyga’s writing and plotting that Billy Dent comes across initially as a bit of a local yokel – a clever move, because as the true extent and detail of his crimes become apparent they imbue I Hunt Killers with a nastiness that is hard to shake off once the book is finished. Certainly there are images that will stay with readers and they’re not pretty ones. I Hunt Killers is a book that is unafraid to peer into the more horrifying corners of the human psyche and is not for the faint hearted. Barry Lyga has created a horror story worthy of the greats in the genre while also undertaking a fascinating and touching tale of a damaged boy’s coming of age. One of the most arresting and original books so far this year and, with a sequel currently in the works, clearly not the last we’ve seen from the new kid on the horror block.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. I Hunt Killers is available in all good bookstores now.  This book has also been YAcked and you can find out what the lady YAckers thought of it here.