September 21, 2012

Darkness There, and Nothing More (review: House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski
Doubleday 2000

Have you ever become lost in a book? I don't mean that metaphorical lost, your consciousness dipping into imagined worlds and swimming around for a while, leaving your physical body drooling in a corner of a coffee shop. No, I mean actually, physically lost in the book. It happened to me recently, and it happened just so...

“Oh, have you ever read House of Leaves?”, she said. “It's ever-so-scary and you have to order the physical book, it just couldn't possibly work as an eBook”, she said. Thanks Miss Splendibird, thanks a whole bunch. Thus began my descent into the twisted work of Mark Danielewski's insanely ambitious, post-modern ghost/love story, House of Leaves. Since leaving Scotland for Asia I have been devouring eBooks by the virtual ton so the sheer size of House of Leaves came as something of a surprise. The hefty slab of paper was unwieldy, not to mention an eventual strain to hold up during late-night reading sessions, but it was the typesetting which first caught my eye. From the outset there was an array of differing fonts, the odd word appearing in colour, pages with only one or two words, others crammed with text scrawled haphazardly in every direction. What was this book I was holding?

House of Leaves begins conventionally enough with the tale of Johnny Truant, essentially our narrator (or one of many) for proceedings. Truant is a trainee tattooist, drifting from party to party, illicit substance to illicit substance, until his friend takes him to the apartment of his recently-deceased neighbour, Zampano. There they discover, hidden amongst an unsettling scene, an unfinished manuscript. It transpires that Zampano, a blind recluse, had been working on a critical analysis of a documentary known as The Navidson Record prior to his death and it is this fictional book and film which form the core of House of Leaves.

The Navidson Record itself follows photojournalist Will Navidson's account of the bizarre series of events which allegedly occurred at a building known only as the Navidson House, a country retreat in which Navidson and his wife and children had sought to repair their failing relationship. The house initially seems an idyllic haven until one day a door appears in a wall where previously there had been nothing. Behind the door lies a short space and a further door leading into their children’s room – so far, so strange. However Navidson notices something further amiss when he decides to measure the space and is led to the inescapable conclusion that the house is now larger inside than outside. Before long a further space appears, this time in the wall of the living room, leading directly into what should be their garden yet apparently just stretches endlessly into empty space.

Navidson, despite his wife's warnings, takes it upon himself to explore this hallway and begins to uncover the vast secrets which the house holds: impossible hallways; massive caverns; bottomless staircases and a threatening growl which frequently follows would-be explorers. It is the conflict between Navidson's quest for answers and his wife's fear of what the house contains which forms the backbone of the Navidson Record. Meanwhile, in the book, Zampano is describing and analysing events, referring endlessly to primary sources in the book's copious footnotes, most of which are entirely fictitious. Wrapped around this is Johnny's own narrative, describing how his sanity slowly deserts him as he becomes drawn into Zampano's work, much as happens to Navidson in the house. To say any more about the film, book or narration here would spoil things significantly but suffice to say that it starts strange and only keeps going further down the rabbit-hole.

The unique selling point of House of Leaves isn't the remarkably imaginative, twisted tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale though. It's the way Danielewski tells it. As mentioned before the book is something of a typesetter's nightmare. Initially it seems that differing fonts are chosen for unique purposes – Johnny's narration, Zampano's manuscript and editor’s amendments are all clearly delineated. But then you notice that every mention of the word “house”, regardless of context, appears in blue. Moreover any discussion of minotaurs – labyrinths being central to all aspects of the book – are set in striking red. The effect soon becomes a tad unsettling, especially when Johnny's tale begins to go off the rails and the shabby-looking Courier (see what he did there?) font becomes all-too apt. (nowt wrong with a bit of the old Courier... ed.)

This is just the tip of the iceberg though. The sharp-eyed reader will notice a number of mis-spellings which are so frequently repeated that they can't be coincidence. Why does “pieces” so often appear as “pisces”? Why “heals” instead of “heels”? Then there are the footnotes, most often indicated by traditional numbering yet occasionally replaced with strange symbols whose meaning I didn't discover till the very end.

The big surprise is the physical layout of the text. During the course of Zampano's manuscript it transforms from regular typesetting to a bizarre and exceedingly discomfiting ride through the architecture of the house's labyrinthine passages. Words run up and down pages mirroring the steps, through tunnels to take the reader through the claustrophobic passages and even around the borders of the pages on the spiral staircase, requiring the book to be rotated while read. By this point my brain was fried and I forgot which way up the book was and which direction the pages turned. Lost in a book.

The effect is even more chaotic in the section entitled The Whalestoe Letters, a series of missives to Johnny from his mother who is languishing in a mental institution. Her descent into the depths of madness is apparent from the layout as well as the content, at one point hiding a message within a message within a message, mirroring the layout of the book as a whole. Such shenanigans could be viewed as excessive or pointless by some but for myself it thoroughly trapped me in the text, wrapping the imagined world around me until there was no escape.

I won't dwell on Danielewski's influences here except to say that fans of Jorge Luis Borges will find a great deal for them to chew on.  In fact, at times it seems that House of Leaves is intent on eschewing the entire notion of influence, instead simply dissecting and discarding any outside voices as the house and therefore the book itself carves out its own space. This kind of post-modernism usually grates on me (I'll be honest here, the mere mention of post-modernism is usually enough to send me into a rage) but Danielewski manages to pull it off with such panache and hides it behind such horror that I have to let him off the hook.

In the end House of Leaves can be read on a number of levels. Some say it's a ghost story, some preferring to read between the lines and label it a love story. Some focus on the layout, others on the twists and turns in the multi-layered story itself. Some will endlessly dissect the factual and fictitious references while yet others take it purely at face value. I'll admit that I tend towards the latter, taking delighted in a well-crafted and original horror story coupled with a remarkable physical artefact which enhances the journey. The point is that there's something for readers of all stripes to get their teeth into as long as they are willing to make the effort.

Cannonball Jones reviewed this book largely because Splendibird was too scared to finish it and PolkaDot Steph was concerned that the story might crawl out of the book and up her nose while she was sleeping.  Which is not unreasonable. Available Now.

September 18, 2012

His Heart In Me Keeps Me and Him in One (review: Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan)

Sarah Rees Brennan
Simon and Schuster 2012

Sorry-In-The-Vale is full of secrets. The locals know it and Kami Glass is certain of it.  What’s more, she’s determined to root them out.  Set to study journalism, Kami’s getting a head start by investigating Aurimere, the mysterious house set on a mysterious hill above her mysterious little town.  Deserted until recently, Aurimere has been re-inhabited by the Lynburn family.  The Lynburns have a strange and, yes, mysterious past that links them irrevocably to Sorry-In-The-Vale.  Or at least Kami is pretty sure that they do, she just can’t get anyone to tell her exactly what it is so when the first of two Lynburn boys shows up at school, Kami is determined to find out his story.  Aided by her rather less enthusiastic team of, er, reporters Kami, Ash and Jared – her imaginary friend (yes, really) start their investigation.  All is disrupted, though, by the appearance of a second Lynburn boy.  A darker, more broken and scarily more familiar presence who is set to change Kami’s life for good.

Kami epitomises the term intrepid reporter.  Dogged, charming and a little bit ruthless, once she gets her teeth into a story there is no letting go.  It is entirely possible to imagine her in pencil skirt, patent heels and pillbox hat running around taking notes in some 1940’s movie.  It’s equally possible to imagine her as Nancy Drew.  Albeit a Nancy Drew who speaks to the voice in her head and deals with being recognisably different in a small and somewhat closeted town.  She’s lovable and funny, although her constant wise-cracking does mean that it takes a while to get to know her.  Where readers see past the jokes, however, is inside her head.  Her aforementioned imaginary friend has access to all her innermost thoughts and emotions and so, therefore, have we. When that imaginary friend turns out to be perhaps not so imaginary, Kami is laid completely bare and that is interesting to see.

Kami’s best friend Angela is a harder nut to crack.  In fact, she’s initially pretty unlikable.  Known for her outstanding beauty, Angela rejects pretty much anyone other than her brother, Rusty, and Kami out of hand.  And she’s not very nice about it.  However, her character development is interesting and as the story progresses her fierce loyalty to Kami shines through her rather abrasive personality. Also, who doesn’t love a person who loves to nap. The Lynburn boys themselves (not to mention the rest of the rather terrifying Lynburn family) are a bit of a mix.  Mild mannered, polite Ash at first seems your standard cut-out-and-keep male character, charmingly attracted to Kami while clearly filled with dark secrets and strange longing.  So far, so YA and to be honest, that’s pretty much where he remains.  Luckily, his rather bland characterisation is balanced by the fascinating Jared.  In fact, Jared is the triumph of the book.  He is an entirely contradictory character to the point where he is never less than completely unsettling.  Honestly, it’s hard to describe his mercurial nature and Rees Brennan doesn’t, at any point, resolve this issue – a rather bold and ultimately very successful move.

While Unspoken is an enjoyable read it is not without flaws.  The first half of the book is rather slow moving, which shouldn’t be a problem in a mystery novel (particularly not one based so strongly on the Gothic tradition) yet in this case it leaves fifty percent of the book largely without substance.  While the plot moves along, it gets rather lost in snarky dialogue and quirky sentence structure, both detracting from what should be a creeping unease regarding Aurimere and its inhabitants. A large part of the problem is the initial lack of differentiation in the character’s respective voices.  Linguistically, they all sound an awful lot like Sarah Rees Brennan.  She’s a funny lady and a skilled writer but there are sections at the beginning of the book where you could give any line to any character and struggle to tell the difference between the lot of them.  Luckily, she moves away from this style in the latter half of Unspoken and the book really takes off from that point.

Despite this, there is much to praise and Rees Brennan is particularly successful in her riffs on the themes of loneliness, privacy and trust. The relationship between Kami and Jared is entirely unique and completely compelling.  Again and again we are asked to consider if, perhaps (and unlike so many YA premises out there) it would really be so fantastic to have an attractive companion who could read your mind.  At no point do the interactions between Kami and Jared become predictable and the ending – the ENDING! – is harsh, surprising and desperately hard to read.  It is this relationship, this story that lifts Unspoken, despite its flaws, from a fun read to one that inspires a little introspection on the part of the reader.  Certainly, it should lead readers to pick up book two which, hopefully, will imbue its characters with individual voices and investigate further the secrets of the Lynburns and the terrifying Jared.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Splendibird has used the American cover of the book to illustrate this post. This is because a) it's very pretty and b) the UK cover not only makes her want to vomit but is also entirely misleading GRRRRR. Unspoken is available now.

September 16, 2012

A Grey Dawn Breaking (Review: Raw Blue by Kirsty Eagar)

Raw Blue
Kirsty Eagar
Catnip Publishing 2012

Carly is lost and doesn’t know if she ever wants to be found. Living for the sea and the surf, she sleepwalks through the rest of her life, mundane job and limited human interactions. Reeling from a traumatic event in her not so distant life she is slowly distancing herself from anything that might take her back to the night that changed her forever. But by doing so, she is gradually shutting down – and she really doesn’t care, as long as she can get to waves and blue water. Yet the world is a hard place to ignore. Torn between the few characters who seem determined to find a way into her prison and her fear of hearing voices on the street that are horribly familiar, Carly finds herself at breaking point, with no board beneath her to ease her fall.

Carly is a character who is once entirely immediate to the reader and also entirely remote, as she is immediate and remote to all of those she interacts with in Raw Blue. She walks through life as an observer, and her observations of those she works with and those she surfs with are keen and not without care. However, her almost reluctant worry over probably anorexic Kylie, possibly drug riddled Marty and almost definitely alcoholic Roger are again remote as she tries to see in them the strangely sterile torment of her own heart and mind. She is both numb and angry and this is the brilliance of her character – even as she moves on with life, tentatively connecting to a select few, readers realise that Carly is a pot about to boil over.  There is also a pleasing irony in a character who is able to so easily conquer breakers floundering in her own inner sea, unable to escape the waves of memory that crash down again and again and again.

While Raw Blue is populated with an effortless cast of very real characters, those who rise to the fore are Ryan, Hannah and Danny. Hannah is a delight to read, an eccentric whirlwind of a character who invades Carly’s life with tea and salsa dancing while keeping close watch on a girl who she clearly suspects is on the verge of imploding. Danny, while much younger than the others, is again a keen observer of all that is Carly, seeing her (and the rest of the world) in a myriad of colours and happily shining brighter than them all. Ryan as a character is a triumph.  Truly flawed he is the guy who would be traditionally cast as a bad, with the requisite dark past and dodgy friends. Yet Eagar paints him as a normal bloke – a man who has made a few mistakes and will probably make a few more but who is, at heart, pretty decent. He and Carly dance around each other like strange fish, awkward and scared and brimming with need.

The writing in Raw Blue is gorgeous. Some readers may be discouraged by the surf that is as much a character of the story as Carly is, but Eagar writes with such passion about the ocean that it is impossible not to relate to Carly’s love for it. Yet, for a book that contains such beautiful aquatic imagery it also fully inhabits its own murky backwater. Eagar writes about Carly’s trauma in utterly unflinching terms, bringing to life the shocking reality of what she has been subjected to as well as the reality of how it has affected her most intimate moments since.  The author’s approach to such a thorny subject is flawless. Also lurking in the undertow are images of a domineering father, an obligated mother and friends long since lost. It’s a compelling mix. However, it is not all shadows and sharks as Eagar maintains throughout the ability to shoot Carly’s self-imposed exile through with blinding flashes of hope even as we see her sinking ever deeper. One passage in particular touches on the gloriously childlike feeling of unadulterated happiness for no reason at all – it’s relatable, moving and entirely stunning.

Catnip Publishing have staged a real coup in snaffling up this title for publication in the UK (well after its respective Australian and American release dates) and should be congratulated for introducing yet another hugely talented Australian author to the UK.  Raw Blue not only marks Eagar as an author to watch but confirms what many have long suspected – that much of the best YA on recent shelves is from the land down under. Long may this trend continue.  Raw Blue comes highly recommended from The Mountains of Instead.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Raw Blue is available in all good bookstores now.

September 13, 2012

One of Laura's Favourite Things

I know, I KNOW, that this feature only shows up sporadically and it's not through lack of contributors.  It's through lack of, er, any sort of organisational skills on my part.  Yet, here we are again - this time joined by the lovely Laura who, as Autumn slides it's chilly fingers into our pockets, brings us a favourite thing that is entirely warm and snuggly.

OK, so it’s not a secret that I have a wee touch of the crazy cat lady in me. I’m not a candidate for hoarders but I’m not a one pet woman either. I can't help but feed strays, I brake for anything fuzzy (and turtles…people who deliberately run over them are GOING to burn in hell) and I can’t walk into an animal shelter without feeling like the world’s biggest schmuck for being unable to give them all a full bowl, a nice warm bed and an empty cardboard box to play in. (It is a truth universally acknowledge that a cardboard box in possession of emptiness must be in want of a cat to sit in it. Try it, put an empty box on the floor and see if it doesn't instantly acquire a cat. I think this might still hold true even if you don't, in fact, have a cat.) So, yeah, I like cats.

I have a particular weakness for orange cats, or sunshine minis as they are referred to in this house. Now cats are typically standoffish creatures, inconsistent in their affection and like to maintain an air of aloofness and disinterest that can rival even the biggest society snob but my cats are complete opposites. I have the clingiest, neediest most codependent cats that will even turn to complete strangers for affection. They want constant LOVE and attention and will go to great lengths to attain it.

BUT THAT IS NOT WHAT I WANTED TO TALK ABOUT. I get so distracted. I wanted to talk about one of my favorite things- not that cats aren't but this is meant to be more specific. One of my most favorite things is the The Cat Pile. I have two cats who are always together and another two that join in from time to time but it's extremely rare to find them all together at the same time. So when I happen to stumble upon the elusive Cat Pile, I'm filled with no end of ridiculous, unconstrained glee. It just so happened that the other day, I captured one:

And there was much rejoicing.

That's it. That's one of my favorite things. I can talk about more if you like. We can talk about the absurd feeling of joy that Pitbull brings me- in a completely nonsexual way....because unless videos make him look much shorter than he really is then he represents the lollipop guild. But I love him so.

Not usually one for cute pictures of cats, this lovely picture along with Laura's typicallly clever and hilarious commentary just brought out all the warm fuzzies.  If you'd like more of what Laura has to offer (in an entirely CLEAN way, people) then check out her excellent blog here. Or take a look at her contribution as a Lady YAcker here.

September 11, 2012

Great Power comes with Great Responsibility - especially during the Zombie Apocalpyse (review of Ex-Heroes by Richard Clines)

Peter Clines
Permuted Press 2010 

Sometimes you read for inspiration, sometimes for education. Sometimes you read for the sheer joy of reading and sometimes – not often, but sometimes – you read because zombies and superheroes are awesome. Peter Clines's Ex-Heroes picks up two of the predominant memes in recent pop culture and mashes them together into a fast-paced pulp page-turner which reads remarkably like a movie and is over almost as quickly. It's unashamedly brain candy but it's executed so well that there's none of the guilty 'watcher's remorse' which follows an ill-advised snap decision to watch a Michael Bay movie which just happened to be on TV.

Ex-Heroes, being a zombie yarn, takes place in a ruined facsimile of the world we know. Mankind has been brought to its knees by the hungry hordes of the undead, the infrastructure on which we've become utterly dependent is destroyed and the future looks bleak. Our immediate locale is Paramount Studios (seriously), now reinforced and refashioned as 'The Mount', a last-stand holdout playing host to a handful of LA's survivors. Protected by a few military personnel and a ragtag militia, the denizens of The Mount live day to day through their own resources and cunning and aided by regular scavenger trips outside the confines of their camp.

They do have some help though. Superheroes. That's right, this is no ordinary post-apocalypse. Through regular flashbacks in the text we learn of the rise of a new breed of hero, vigilante warriors such as Gorgon, The Mighty Dragon, Regenerator and Zzzap who find themselves blessed with extraordinary powers and, as tradition dictates, proceed to become a thorn in the side of criminals everywhere. At least till the zombies come at any rate. Unfortunately superpowers are no guarantee of safety when it comes to the walking dead and soon several of humanity's protectors find themselves shambling shadows of their former selves (and deservedly so in one amusing case).

As if it wasn't bad enough having to deal with a plague of brain-eaters, some with godlike abilities, and the terrors of living in a planet-wide disaster zone there are other troubles on the horizon for our band of survivors. They're not the only ones who made it and it seems that fortune favours the wicked as well as the good. Nearby the remnant of a former LA gang have been recruiting and casting their jealous eye on the security and comforts of The Mount. Not only do the criminal element bear a hearty grudge against one of The Mount's guardians but they have a sinister secret up their sleeves, one which may soon spell the end for the studio-bound community.

Ex-Heroes is split into alternating sections, helpfully labelled 'Now' and 'Then'. The meat of the story unfolds now and is narrated in third person, giving us a god's-eye perspective on all the events as they unfold. Between chapters we ski back to 'Then' for a series of novel and enjoyable origin stories tracing the genesis both of the superheroes and the disaster itself. These sections are necessarily brief but each manages to develop the characters remarkably quickly, explaining the tensions which give rise to later conflicts in the 'Now' sections.

Peter Clines manages to achieve something in Ex-Heroes which is rather rare in zombie novels and movies – an explanation of the outbreak which is both original and doesn't have you laughing out of sheer disbelief. By melding the superhero aspect with old-fashioned zombie lore he achieves a synthesis of the two which will keep fans of both genres happy without straining credulity (or without straining it too much, it is superhero zombies after all). The heroes themselves all retain strong personalities and their own all-too-human issues which allows for interesting plot development and keeps the book from wandering into a rut. By mixing all these ingredients and adding the twin foes of the zombies and the threatening gang there is no opportunity for the storytelling to drag at all.

Unfortunately juggling all of this content does mean that something must be sacrificed. At times Ex-Heroes can seem a little superficial and rushed, neglecting any real depth in favour of keeping up the adrenaline levels. The sharp reader will pick up on a few plot holes lurking in the background and the motives of the characters leading to some of the major events in the book can seem questionable and a little contradictory.

However, this book makes no claim to literary sophistication and instead sticks to its job – sheer entertainment. On those grounds it is highly successful and it's diffficult to pick fault with a tale told with such relish. Peter Clines has crafted a tale which can be enjoyed by genre fans of all ages as well as casual readers out for a spot of quick-fire action and some laughs along the way. His snarky style, pop culture references and the glee with which he desecrates the remains of Hollywood and the celebrity world will find a lot of fans and I can only hope the two sequels can keep the pace up.

And for the record, I so want to be Cerberus...

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Ex-Heroes is available now. And seriously, can you think of a reason NOT to read it?

September 05, 2012

Life Again Though Cold In Death (review: The Last Echo by Kimberly Derting)

The Last Echo
Kimberly Derting
Headline 2012 

Violet finds bodies and always has but the events of the last year have turned her morbid ability into something that increasingly tops her list of priorities. While her family and boyfriend Jay watch anxiously, Violet allies herself with the not-quite-FBI agent Sara Priest, the mysterious Rafe and their team of psychically strange waifs and strays.  Suddenly she finds herself neck-deep in the hunt to find a serial killer known only as The Collector. As she immerses herself in the case she faces the very real danger of an active murder investigation but also risks her gift isolating her from her friends, her family and even Jay. 

Violet really is one of the best written characters in YA fiction in large part because her every action screams teenager. She’s smart, gifted and sweet but her gift adds a darker edge to her character and she has a stubborn quality that highlights a slight immaturity on her part – particularly noticeable when she wanders off to investigate various dark doings herself.  She’s not only extremely believable as a 16-year-old but also as a young woman trying to deal with a difficult ability. The Last Echo is very much about Violet coming to terms with her gift and her deliberations on how to use it.  The introduction of other characters who feel as different as she does (with due cause) is interesting, as is her relationships with Sara and Rafe – both of whom are extremely well drawn.

Rafe takes time to develop but as his story unfolds it is clear that he and Violet share a bond that has, as of yet, not really been explored.  He’s an interesting character, brooding and not always likable but certainly compelling.  Sara also comes into clearer focus than in her first appearance in Desires of the Dead and is all the better for it.  In general, Kimberly Derting writes her adult characters extremely well and Violet’s family are an ever watchful and often vocal presence in the story – refreshing when so many YA parents are only notable for their absence.  Jay remains a strong influence on Violet and is possibly the character that develops most, being notably more mature in The Last Echo than in previous outings.  He’s as loveable as ever and the relationship between him and Violet is admirable in that it requires work and patience on both parts to make it work – and is all the more believable for it.  Violet’s female friends also continue to be very well written and, in The Last Echo, illustrate beautifully (yet with little drama or cruelty) how easily Violet could become isolated by her ability.

As in both The Body Finder and Desires of the Dead, Derting writes several sections from the point of view of her main antagonist – in this case the insidiously creepy Collector – and as before it is these sections that lend a real chill her latest title.  The Collector is an horrendously disturbed individual made worse by the fact that he truly doesn’t believe that he is doing anything wrong.  These sections of the book could come straight out of any good adult crime/horror/thriller and will have readers in two minds about whether to sleep with the light on.  Cleverly, by looking through the eyes of The Collector, readers are able to see his crosshairs narrowing on Sara Priest and her team lending a tension to the book that builds to a truly hair-raising climax.

In a climate where dozens of YA books are being optioned for film, it is astonishing that The Body Finder series hasn’t yet been optioned for TV (or perhaps it has?) as both the characters and the ongoing storyline are both compelling and clever. By the end of The Last Echo, Violet has made some difficult decisions only to be confronted with a completely different problem. It would appear that she, her team, her friends and her family are in for a bumpy ride as shadowy men and creepy conglomerates seem sure to surface in book four. In The Last Echo, Kimberly Derting has confirmed her place as YA’s leading writer in both the crime and thriller genre and The Last Echo, not to mention The Body Finder and Desires of the Dead are highly recommended by The Mountains of Instead.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. The Last Echo is available in all good bookstores now.

September 03, 2012

No Path Where the Path Should Be (Review: Unwind by Neal Schusterman)

Neal Schusterman
Simon and Schuster 2008 

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Well, good intentions and idiots anyway – that's my takeaway message from Unwind, Neil Shusterman's dystopian novel. Set in a near-future America, the story takes place after a second civil war known as the Heartland War. This time around the violence is sparked not by slavery or a yearning for independence but by the escalating tension between opponents in the abortion debate.

As the action unwinds (sorry) we learn that the conflict has abated and that the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life armies have reached a gruesome compromise which has now been accepted as simply another aspect of life in the Land Of The Free. Abortion is no longer a legal option but this has resulted in an increasing number of unwanted children being introduced to the world, highlighting the idiocy of the religious right's fascination with abstinence-only sex education classes. The solution to the problem is the procedure known as 'Unwinding'. Between birth and the age of 13 every child is safe, whether cared for by their families, adopted parents or state-run institutions (the latter no friendlier in the future than they are today). However, from the age of 13 until they reach legal adulthood a child's parents or guardians may elect to have them unwound. Medical science has progressed to the point where there is almost no part of a human body which cannot be successfully used in transplant surgery – 99.44% to be precise. In a linguist twist of which Orwell would be proud a child cannot be considered truly dead if unwound since almost every part of them continues to live, albeit in a spatially dislocated fashion. The unwinding order is irrevocable and entirely independent of the child themselves, resulting in camps being set up across the country to care for those en route to the new afterlife.

Unwind follows three children on their way to the camps: Connor, Risa and Lev. Connor is typical of an Unwind (as those carrying the pseudo-death sentence are known) – a problem child who will never live up to his parents' expectations. He knows the order is coming and sets his plan in motion immediately – escape to the wilds of America and lay low until his 18th birthday when he will be legally safe. Risa is in a similar situation, although in even less control of her fate. While Connor had many advantages in life and could have changed his ways, Risa is an orphan in a state facility. Although blessed with a talent for the piano she fails her audition and is destined for the unwinding farm. In a rather contrived twist of fate her path crosses with Connor's during his bid for freedom and she finds herself along for the ride.

Lev is a special case. Born into a highly religious family, he is known as a 'Tithe' and from the day he could comprehend the words he knew he was destined for unwinding. For as well as donating 10% of their income to the church, certain religious sects will also give every 10th child in their families to the unwinding farms for the glory of god. (The excessive family sizes are explained through the act of 'storking', leaving unwanted babies on the doorsteps of people who, on discovering them, become legal guardians.). Lev has been brainwashed from his earliest years to accept and rejoice in his fate. He is fulfilling his destiny and barely entertains a second thought until Connor comes crashing into his life.

Through the journey of these three fugitives Neil Shusterman prods us into carefully considering the issues raised by the novel's central conceit. One of the questions I found myself asking throughout Unwind was “How could they possibly allow this situation to arise?”, a sentiment echoed by several people to whom I've mentioned the story. However, late in the game we are given the tragic background to unwinding and everything becomes clear. The suspension of disbelief is no longer required to such a great extent and the whole scenario becomes grimly (although still distantly) plausible.

One of the most powerful moments in Unwind comes close to the conclusion where Shusterman takes us behind the curtains of an unwinding farm's operating room. The procedure itself remains a mystery until that point, a bogeyman lurking in the background. However it is made horrifically real when we are forced to view it through the eyes of a patient. In a masterful move Shusterman puts one of the more unpleasant characters under the knife, someone who we steadfastly root against until suddenly he is transformed into an object of pure pity and a focus for our disgust towards the unwinding and all those who support it. It is also to his credit that this whole sequence features no gore, no blood and entrails, yet remains capable of moving the reader at a visceral level.

For some people the whole idea of unwinding as a compromise between two sides in an unlikely war may be too much to swallow. It did admittedly take some effort on my own part to put my own concerns about its unreality to the back of my mind while slipping into the book itself but rest assured, it does all become clear. Despite the often simplistic nature of the storytelling Neil Shusterman is capable of raising serious issues without ever being at risk of treating them in too shallow a fashion. With a sequel, Unwholly, on the way it would be a good time to check out this little-known gem of a book.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Unwind is available now with sequel Unwholly arriving at the end of September.