November 29, 2012

Specimens of Song (review of Reached by Ally Condie)

Reached (Matched, #3)Reached
Ally Condie
Penguin 2012

Reached is the final book in the trilogy that started with Matched and progressed with Crossed. If you haven't read the first two books, then this review will contain spoilers of the story up to this point.

Cassia, Ky and Xander have returned to the Society. Cassia to sorting, Xander as a medical Official and Ky as a pilot. All working for the Rising, the rebellion waits for the right moment to make its move. That moment turns out to be the onset of a deadly plague, one which leaves sufferers motionless and irresponsive as their bodies slowly shut down. As the Rising appears with the cure, the Society seems to fall without sound yet the war is far from over with the illness mutating and the lines between Society and Rising becoming vaguer than ever. While Ky and Cassia fight to find each other, Xander tries to heal the sick. Finally, the Pilot appears pushing all three together, leaving two to fight for the life of one – and of many.  

In this, the resolution of her inaugural trilogy, Ally Condie has given each of her characters a voice.  Just as Crossed expanded from Cassia to Cassia and Ky, Reached expands the narrative to include Xander. While working for the Rising, Cassia finds herself doing the job that she would have done in the Society, in much the same place, living much the same life. It’s a clever place to put her, as Cassia’s story, more than any other, allows Condie to blur the line between the Society and the. As the story progresses, though, Cassia finds herself able – for the first time – to be openly creative and the side story of her Gallery is beautiful. Her focus on the future she desires can leave her seeming almost emotionless at times (when, in fact, the opposite is true) but the story of her respect, friendship and love for Ky and Xander is always believable and her honesty admirably consistent.

Xander himself is extremely well. He’s incredibly principled and extremely loyal, not to mention moral. Condie’s placement of him in the role of what is essentially a doctor works extremely well and of the three characters he is the one who seems the most…real. It is through Xander that we see how both the Society and the Rising function and through Xander that the core storyline is really progressed. Towards the end of the book he emerges a as a character who has been truly changed by what he has experienced, being older, wiser and sadder without every really losing hope. His inner conflict regarding Cassia and Ky is never anything less than believable as are all the (often difficult) decisions that he makes.

Ky is as fascinating in Reached as he was in the previous two books. Trying to make peace with a difficult past while dealing with an uncertain future, he thinks about things deeply. His friendship with the mercurial Indie is extremely well realised (as is Indie as a character in her own right) and his devotion to Cassia never becomes over-sentimentalised. His interactions with Xander are also fascinating to read as the fact that they have a shared history and genuine friendship comes into focus as it hasn’t previously. While Cassia and Xander look to the Rising for reassurance of a better future, Ky never really trusts the Pilot, choosing instead to focus on Cassia as the only path he can be truly sure of.

The story that Ally Condie started in Matched is pleasingly resolved in Reached. Sort of. Many questions remain, I suspect intentionally, unanswered. Who are the Society?  Who are the Rising? Why did the Plague spread and mutate so quickly? Theories are muted by all the characters on these issues and Condie excels in the sinister undertones that suggest no-one can really be trusted. While we finally meet the elusive Pilot he remains an almost faceless figurehead leaving the Rising as mysterious as the Society ever was. Many other questions, however, are beautifully resolved – not least the mystery of how Cassia came to be Matched with both Xander and Ky, the answer to which is clever, satisfying and moving.

As with the previous titles in the series, Condie’s writing is extremely good. She imbues language with great lyricism and her prose stands up proudly to the beautiful poetry that she weaves into the heart of her story. If there is one flaw, it is that her triple narrative doesn’t always work, with the voices Cassia and Xander sometimes being indistinguishable from one another. It is testament to her skill in storytelling that this issue doesn’t counteract either the flow of the plot nor the character development of the three protagonists.  

As one of the front runners in the YA dystopian cannon, Condie has created an unusual and unique world and her story, now complete, feels both original and reminiscent of classic dystopia. It has, ultimately, emerged triumphant and anyone who loves language should be keen to read whatever Condie writes (assuredly beautifully) next.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird.  Reached is published in the UK tomorrow (30th November 2012). Thank you to the publisher for providing us with this title to review.

November 26, 2012

To Boldly Go (review: Redshirts by John Scalzi)

RedshirtsRedshirts: A Novel with 3 Codas
John Scalzi
Gollancz 2012

The Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union, seems like the dream assignment for any aspiring Starfleet rookie. The chance to work alongside the best of the best; the most up-to-date technology; the most exciting missions. This is what Ensign Andrew Dahl has in mind when he joins the crew but all is not as it seems. No sooner has he taken his position in the science department than he begins to receive the same warning from everyone – keep a low profile, avoid the high-ranking officers and whatever you do, don't go on away missions. The second a redshirt steps off the ship it seems a grisly demise isn't far behind.

In Redshirts sci-fi veteran John Scalzi takes us on a tongue-in-cheek exploration of one of Star Trek's greatest mysteries – why would anyone on that show ever willingly done the red shirt of a junior crew member, knowing that it inevitably meant death? Dahl and his fellow new recruits initially take the rumours with a pinch of salt, putting everything down to eccentricity, jealousy and coincidence. However, the death toll mounts and it seems that the key crew members (Captain, science officer, medic, navigator and engineer) are impervious to all harm but seem to impose a death sentence on all those unlucky enough to be around when disaster strikes.

Finally agreeing that something is amiss they begin a serious investigation. It seems the Captain and his cohorts are entirely unaware of the carnage around them. Indeed the Universal Union itself sees nothing unusual about the high death rate, attributing it to the Intrepid undertaking riskier missions that the rest of the fleet. Regardless, the bizarreness quotient continues to rise. Dahl and his colleagues, upon finding themselves in peril, are suddenly aware of facts they had no way of knowing previously. They make wildly inappropriate decisions, seemingly unable to alter their reckless actions. And in a hilarious stab at TV sci-fi 'science', Dahl's department has a mysterious box into which any problem can be placed. Hit a green button and it will proceed to solve the problem with the following proviso – it will be solved with moments to spare, accompanied by unintelligible codes and glyphs and be lacking a vital piece of information which a senior officer will miraculously provide.

The titular Redshirts uncover clue after clue and finally stumble upon Jenkins, a hermit hidden in the service ducts of the Intrepid who is dedicated to unravelling the deadly mystery of what he terms 'The Narrative'. (‘80s nerd aside: when reading about Jenkins my mind continually strayed to the character Lazlo Hollyfeld in the underrated Val Kilmer nerd comedy Real Genius) At this point in the story the book is truly transformed. What was previously a warmly written paean to classic television becomes something altogether weirder, a tale so Meta that it is in danger of eating its own tail. Suddenly we are reading a tale within a tale, where writers affect the story and the story bits back. We're jumping across universes, travelling back in time and all the rules (of physics, logic and plain decency to each other) take a holiday.

Redshirts gives John Scalzi an excuse to have real fun with a tired old trope and he certainly doesn't hold back. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Star Trek (and I myself am not a fan of the classic TV show) will take great delight in his gentle evisceration of its quirks and plot holes. Every little detail is feasted upon: why can starships do U-turns at light speed without anyone flinching, yet the slightest damage from weapons fire causes the bridge to rumble as in an earthquake? Why are the same decks always damaged in a fire fight? Why does a console always blow up on the bridge no matter where the damage was actually sustained?

Scalzi freely admits that his idea isn't entirely original. Indeed the book itself directly references other works which have used the same device of narrative intruding on reality and even in one of the three codas, has a fictional author contacting one of those real authors to compare notes. However the uniqueness of Redshirts comes from its awareness of what it's doing, from the obvious familiarity and love that Scalzi has with his genre (he is a consultant for the Stargate Universe TV show) and from the skilful way in which he develops well-rounded characters within a thoroughly bizarre universe.

Obviously the book isn't for everyone. If you like your plots to behave themselves and are prone to see insane literary devices as cop-outs then you might be disappointed. And obviously if you're no fan of sci-fi then it may lack appeal, the very notion of sci-fi screen-writing being central to the plot itself. However, if you have any love at all for Star Trek, nerd humour, bizarro fiction or novels which take delight in ripping apart narrative conventions then John Scalzi has given you a perfect gift in Redshirts.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Redshirts is available now. You can read it and then watch a Star Trek film. That one with Chris Pine.  Mmmmm.  (This suggestions may not, actually, be from Cannonball himself).

November 24, 2012

Shouting Lager lager lager lager Shouting (Review: Grow Up by Ben Brooks)

Grow UpGrow Up
Ben Brooks
Canongate Books 2011

Jasper Wolf is an average white, middle-class, suburban teenager on exam leave from school but. As with most average teens, studying for his A Levels is pretty low on his list of priorities – actually, it is at the bottom of his list after partying, seducing his dream girl, drugs, more drugs and outing his stepfather as a murderer. This unconventional slice-of-life drama follows Jasper as he staggers from party to gig to therapist while dealing with a few unexpected catastrophes along the way. A heady brew of alcohol, drugs, teen pregnancy and suicide ensues all written so perfectly and wittily that at no point does the subject matter have the depressing effect that you would expect, rather creating a world in which the reader feels instantly interested and invested .  
Having read some other reviews of Grow Up I seem to be in the minority but I found Jasper to be a very likeable character. Yes he is self-involved, has a fair few misogynistic tendencies, thinks with the contents of his pants and openly takes advantage of those around him but with all of this Brooks hits the nail right on the head – Jasper is a daft teenage boy and that’s exactly what daft teenage boys are like. At no point is Jasper written to be exceptionally wise or intelligent to the point of being aggravating (as has put me off this type of work in the past) and as cool as he pertains to be, there are some serious Adrian Mole likenesses floating around which always helps on the likeability scale!
I will openly admit that I had serious reservations about this book. I am not normally a fan of “the plight of the average middle-class teen” but by around 50 pages in, Brooks’ humorous and extremely clever narrative had promptly put me in my place. What sets Grow Up apart from so many of its predecessors (and sadly, there are many) is simply that it is properly funny. Jasper’s fixation with his step-father’s supposed sordid past particularly had me laughing aloud and brought comic relief to a piece that could otherwise have easily ended up extremely dark and depressing.
I understand that some readers, noticeably those with teenage children, may have taken umbrage at some of the references made by the author to the protagonists escapades, however, it must be remembered that Grow Up is a work of fiction and is marketed as such.  I don’t believe that the author is in any way suggesting that Jasper is the poster-boy for the underground, drug-fuelled cult of British youth today.  Jasper is a hugely extrapolated version of all elements of today’s youth – good, bad and ugly.
Grow Up is not for the easily shocked or offended and I would suggest definitely sticking to the upper end of the teen market if promoting to a non-adult audience.  It is however, an endearing, unconventional coming-of-age tale containing themes that will resonate with all readers, regardless of their age.  Brooks writing is intelligent, humorous, moving and gritty without ever being self-righteous and it had me hooked to the end.  A fantastic standalone novel in a world besieged by series’, Grow Up is proof, if ever we needed it, that youth really isn’t wasted on the young.    

This review was brought to you by PolkaDot Steph.  Grow Up is available now.

November 22, 2012

Them Young Girls They do Get Wearied (Review: How to Save a Life; Sara Zarr)

How to Save a Life
How to Save a Life
Sara Zarr
Little, Brown 2012

Jill is angry. Her father, the one person who she felt understood her, is dead and her mother, Robin, queen of the impulsive decision, has decided to adopt a baby.  Having isolated herself from her friends former life, Jill finds herself floundering in her fury and confusion, feeling too much and yet too little.  Heading towards Jill and Robin is Mandy. Seventeen and heavily pregnant, Mandy has made some difficult decisions with eerie focus and travels in the hope that Robin will provide the kind of home for Mandy's child that Mandy has never known. As these lives collide in a kaleidescope of change all three must learn how to make decisions that look to the future and get past their almost insurmountable differences in order to triumph over the loss of the past.

How To Save a Life is told in dual narrative through the eyes of Mandy and Jill, two girls of the same age but with no common experience nor shared understanding to draw them together. Jill, understandably, resents Mandy from the start.  Actually, Jill resents pretty much everyone. A knowingly flawed individual, Jill has always had a tendency to lash out at others - something that was shared with yet tempered by her late father. In her grief, this aspect of her personality has come to the fore along with an inate cynicism and ongoing irritation at her loving but erratic mother. Jill's temper tantrums, self-imposed isolation and push-you-pull-you relationship with boyfriend Dylan all ring the bells of truth yet, while not always likable, Jill inspires great sympathy - she is just so completely and utterly lost. Zarr also tempers the harsher side of Jill's personality with a sharp wit and underlying tenderness seen mainly when she encounters co-worker Ravi, someone who seems determined to see past the sadness to the heart underneath.

Mandy herself is a character who initially makes those around her, not to mention the reader, extremely uncomfortable. She has some seriously skewed ideas about how to interact with others, particularly men. However, as the story goes on Mandy's curious mix of strength and fragility, along with her desperately sad idealism and naivity becomes heartbreaking. She's childlike even as she bears her own child. Her observations of Jill are fascinating in that Mandy feels only a strangely vague sympathy and eagerness to please when faced with Jill's barrage of sarcasm, anger and resentment. Equally, the relationship she has built with Robin both prior to their physical meeting and in its ongoing reality is one of constantly shifting sands and often hard to read.

How to Save a Life is populated with a small cast of additional characters who are well developed throughout. Boyfriend Dylan is fantastically written as a teenage boy who is very much in love with Jill. He desperately wants to help her through her loss, but keeps hitting a brick wall. His ability to throw some objectivity on the situation with Mandy is a bone of contention between him and Jill and his actions later in the book, while impulsive and pretty stupid, are inspired by his very real conviction that Mandy should be allowed to make her own decisions for the first time in her difficult life. Jill's friend Ravi is another multi-faceted character who despite clearly having his own (alluded to) problems, offers true friendship to both Jill and Mandy.  Finally, Robin is a triumph. As a mother in YA, she's a standout in that she is entirely three-dimensional. She's impulsive, yes, but it all comes from a good place.  Her stubborn attitude with Jill is infuriating yet not uncaring and her relationship with lost-sheep Mandy is both confusing and compelling.

In How to Save a Life, Sara Zarr has brought her imperfect characters together in tour de force of excellent story-telling and brilliant characterisation. The story has layers and levels that continue to reveal themselves to the last page and nothing quite turns out as one might expect, or even as one might hope.  As a writer, Zarr is queen of imbuing her protagonists with believablity, from her main cast to those who just appear for a few pages (in this case, mad props must go to the creation of Jill's employer and their later interactions which are tangible enough to taste). More than anything, How to Save a Life is extremely moving. Certainly, the final few chapters of Mandy's story in particular had this reader in floods of tears - and I can count on one hand the books in my life that have had such an effect. This is a book that should be recommended not only to teenagers but to mothers and daughters of any age, because it does, above all, touch on the curious and often challenging experience of navigating that relationship of all relationships.  If you pick up one contemporary book this year, make it this one - it really is quite something.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird who would also like to recommend the fantastic audio book and suggest strongly that you invest in some tissues and chocolate before you start to read.

November 15, 2012

Virtual Insanity (Review: Metawars by Jeff Norton)

MetaWars: Fight for the FutureMetawars
Jeff Norton
Orchard 2012

Norton’s near-future dystopian world sees society in ruins, with the majority of citizens choosing to spend their time logged in to an alternative virtual world known as the Metasphere - Jonah being one of them.  Jonah lives with his mother on the top floor of a retired London bus and, it’s fair to say, he’s not having a great time of it.  Continually troubled by the death of his father when he was young, Jonah struggles at his online school, struggles to make friends in the “real” world and, more worryingly, he and his mother struggle to sustain themselves in a world where the majority have nothing.

Upon finding his father’s avatar in the Metasphere however, Jonah’s world changes instantly, althoughnot quite as he had hoped (Avatars are linked from the Metasphere to the body of the user by a docking station in the spine, physically connecting the real world with the virtual).  Although not proving that Jonah’s father was alive, as he had hoped, it turns out that his father left a copy of his avatar in the Metasphere with an explanation of his death, and life, for Jonah to find.  Recounting a tale of opposing extremist groups fighting for control of the Metasphere, Jonah is spurred/somewhat forced into action.  He absorbs his father’s avatar and, in turn, his father’s memories.  Whilst this creates a much longed for connection between Jonah and his father, this also makes Jonah a target for some questionable individuals who are a little too excited about seeing his father’s avatar resurface.  
Aided by his father’s best friend, who is less than thrilled by the whole thing, Jonah joins the fight of the Guardians – a worldwide movement who believe that the Metasphere should not be controlled by a corporation, as is currently the case, and should belong solely to its users.  Their sworn enemy are the Millenials – employees and supports of Metasphere creator Matthew Grainger who hold the belief that the Metasphere should be controlled and monitored.  An epic, global, race against time ensues as the Guardians attempt to penetrate the Millenial compounds and take control of the Metasphere before their adversaries can strengthen their defences.

Whilst MetaWars is well written, well paced and the characters generally, interesting and engaging, the story as a whole felt slightly flat.  I believe that the author’s primary objective was to make the “race against time” section of the story epic and on a grand scale, however, for me, there wasn’t quite enough description or imagery to make these sections pop.  I also feel that MetaWars was at a slight disadvantage being released after the resounding success of Ready Player One which tackled very similar themes in an altogether more rounded work.  Conversely, it is difficult to believe that readers wouldn’t find the book enjoyable – there are car chases, airships, secret identities and suspicious men that wear sunglasses at night.  Whilst Metawars may not be topping any awards lists, it is a solid read with an interesting concept at its centre.  As it is the first book in a planned series, it will be interesting to see how Norton’s world grows and develops and, hopefully, the minor concerns that I had will prove to be nothing more than teething problems.    

This review was brought to you by PolkaDot Steph.  MetaWars is available now. Thank you to the publisher for providing us with this copy to review.

November 13, 2012

At last, the time has come, and we have REACHED the final curtain (yes, I went there).

Trilogies must be tough for authors - regardless of how good the first two books are, it all ends up hanging on that final volume.  A trilogy that's coming to an end near you is that by Ally Condie.  Following the spectacularly good Matched and the divisive Crossed comes Reached.

Need a reminder of the story so far?  Well, we don't often feature book trailers here in The Mountains of Instead, bad reception and all (no, I will NEVER stop with the mountainous metaphors - I don't CARE what you think) but we've had a lull as far as reviews are concerned this week (due to essay writing hell on the part of the editor-in-chief) so here, have this... and enjoy!

November 11, 2012

Strong In The Broken Places

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

Rudyard Kipling, 1915,

November 01, 2012

Guest Post: Ilsa J. Bick on the vision behind Ashes and Shadows!

As promised, we're happy to welcome Ilsa J Bick to The Mountains of Instead.  Ilsa is here to tell us about the creative vision behind the dark apocalyptic world of her books Ashes and Shadows.  It makes for fascinating reading and we'd like to thank Ilsa for taking the time to share her thoughts with us.  Additionally, the winner of our Ilsa giveaway is LOUISE!  Well done, Louise - an email is winging it's way to you today.

I’d read a couple of YA dystopian novels before I ever thought of writing ASHES, and while I enjoyed them, I always felt there was a little something missing.  Two things with which I always had trouble: the science (or lack thereof) and the process (that is, you never get to see how things go bad; they just are).  In some of these books, people were ridiculously well behaved and altruistic, which—if you’ve paid any attention to history—is the anomaly not the norm.  Now, I’m not knocking those books; there are some fine ones.  Just saying. 

So I guess that the first thing I didn’t want was to write another dystopian. The ASHES trilogy is apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction because I wanted to change things up, do something different: create a scenario in which a) civilization crashes in a big hurry and not because of a virus or some deadly plague; b) I could actually create a setting where you could see/watch the disaster unfolding afterward; and c) the events were credible enough to allow me to play around a bit with just how nasty people, in the aftermath of a disaster, can really be.

Basically, believability and verisimilitude were big for me.  I probably gravitate to this naturally because, you know, I’m a doctor.  I studied science.  I know a fair bit of physics and astronomy because I am an ├╝ber-geek and the fun of being a writer is learning new stuff.  Since I’m also a shrink . . . the brain is my thing, and so is human behavior. 

I think family history came into play, too.  See, my dad’s a Holocaust survivor.  Long story really short: he was a kid when the Nazis came to the door; spent a couple years in various French internment camps; and had the . . . well, good fortune of getting ill.  At that time, the French and the Nazis were really interested in keeping the Jews relatively healthy so they could be used as slave labor.  So my dad got shipped out of the camp—and he never saw his folks again.  He was still just a kid . . . what, nine years old?  Maybe younger.  (He doesn’t talk much about this.  Says he doesn’t remember, but I don’t believe him.  I think this is a part of his life he just doesn’t want to revisit that often—and I don’t blame him.)

Anyway, he eventually made his way to the U.S. (another long story).  But, a couple weeks after my dad left, the entire camp was dismantled and everyone was put on a train for Auschwitz.  His whole family got wiped out, except for his grandmother who somehow survived and made her way back to the town where his family came from originally.  Neither she nor my dad knew the other had survived, though, and the only reason he knows any of this now is because the town had some sort of memorial celebration a while back.  My dad was in his seventies before he knew anything about what happened to his grandmother.

Which gives you pause.

Now, I’ve said I feel no need or push to “witness” for the Holocaust.  It’s really not my story, but it is background music.  Knowing what I do about history and from my work as a shrink (including working in a women’s prison), I think I have a pretty good idea of how abominable people can be.  Throw in war or a catastrophic situation, like the end of civilization as we know it, and people will be a bazillion times worse. 

So you could say that both the psychology behind the trilogy and the science . . . I just know it because I know it.  There wasn’t a ton of research involved, unless you count, you know, my life and knowledge of history and about thirteen years of school (four years of college, four years of medical school, and then five years of a residency). It’s all that background that allowed me to think of the idea in the first place, and then know where to look to see if it was even feasible.

For example, sure, a massive sunspot cycle could decimate all the Earth’s electronics, and I knew that the EMPs from a-bombs are a big problem. Whether you could actually build and then deploy dedicated e-bombs was the research, and it didn’t take me all that long, although I am certain that I’m on Homeland Security’s radar.  Having been in the military, I know that people there and in government are worried about this kind of attack.  (Congress even held hearings.)  The huge irony is that the military has tried to harden its equipment, but if the scenario I paint is possible . . . no one’s going to be pumping and refining oil to turn into fuel.  So you can kiss manufacturing good-bye, and all those military toys aren’t really going anywhere fast.

As for what might happen to people in the event of a massive wave of EMPs—well, that’s the fiction.  You really can’t do these kinds of experiments (although having been in the military myself and, again, knowing history, I wouldn’t put it past the military to have studied this.  If you’re going to develop the weapons capabilities—and the military’s been experimenting with microwave e-bombs for some time—you can beat they’ll study the whole exposure angle.)  But I do know the brain pretty well, including what happens to the traumatized brain, what age groups are most at risk, and all that.  I know that the teenage brain is just this seething stew of chemicals and functions that are being reset, re-equilibrated, just as I know that the aging brain is much more like a wizened little raisin: not set in stone but in need of a good juice now and again.  So morphing my adolescents—whom most adults view as aliens anyway—wasn’t that big a stretch, nor was figuring out what might protect some of my teenage characters.  The task then was to make all the science and psychology work for the story instead of becoming the story.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure I had a real “vision” going into the ASHES trilogy, although I do know that I’m intensely interested in what people do when their choices are limited to choosing that lesser evil.  I mean, you talk to people, and they’re always so certain that they will never do x or y . . . but that’s baloney.  You never know what you’ll do in a disaster or emergency until you’re actually in it—and the same holds true for my characters.  Everyone’s struggling to survive in this trilogy, and everyone changes, too: most in ways they’d never dreamed. 

You can find out more about Ilsa and her books here and we'd like to thank both Ilsa and Quercus for facilitating such an interesting guest post!