January 31, 2013

Nothing More Terrible, Nothing More True (Review: Undone by Cat Clarke)

Cat Clarke
Quercus 2013

Jem and Kai have been friends forever.  She adores him, loves him, would do anything for him and he for her.  Well, anything except live.  Kai is easygoing, kind, gorgeous and gay.  When he is brutally out-ed online, he cannot see past the hell of homophobic abuse torrenting towards him and kills himself.  Jem is left with nothing but tainted memories, existing in a grief-stricken stupor, fuelled only by plans for her own suicide – plans that she never quite has the energy to put into action.  At her lowest ebb, she discovers that Kai has left her a series of and slowly, she starts to come back to life, taking Kai’s suggestions on board, feeling her way back into the real world.  Yet what really fuels her revival is not the letters from Kai – they merely keep her going from month to month – but a deep-seated need for revenge, a desperation to find out who did this to Kai so that she can punish them. And when that’s done… well, for Jem, there’s not way through – only out.

Throughout her story, Jem’s voice remains remarkably clear, her personality crystallising even as she changes almost beyond recognition.  Cleverly, while we are introduced to Jem during the darkest period of her life, we  get to know her through her memories of Kai and also through his perception of her (as seen through the letters that pepper the book).  She’s very sharp, pretty cynical and very funny.  Her keen observations of those around her, particularly the popular kids at school who she rather viciously (yet awfully cleverly) categorises as members of the animal kingdom, are fascinating.  She’s also not terribly nice, with a tendency to see others only in black and white with a subtle sense that she and Kai were superior to everyone else.  In short, she’s an incredibly believable teenager – likeable and unlikable, smart yet short-sighted, loving yet desperately selfish and awfully fatalistic when it suits her.  She’s a tour de force of insightful writing and grievously insurmountable grief.

Kai himself comes into focus slowly, with Jem a devoted yet slightly unreliable narrator of his life.  It is in the slow drip of his missives to Jem that he finally emerges. While his tone is light, seemingly inappropriate at times, he comes to light as a good person, backed into a hellish corner from which he truly sees no way out.  He is heartbreaking to say the least.  As with Cat Clarke’s previous work, the larger cast of characters are written with great skill.  The concern of Jem’s parents is palpable; Louise, Kai’s sister, hisses with bitterness; the popular kids become both more and less than they first appear.  Of that group, Sacha, Lucas and Stu are particularly fascinating, all having paradoxical affects on protagonist, Jem. It’s very clever, very subtle and very real.

The storyline itself could at first seem a little trite, with Kai’s monthly letters seemingly the beginning of a story last seen in the ghastly P.S. I Love You.  Don’t be fooled.  Clarke takes a recognisable trope and turns it on its head.  Even as Jem appears to take on board the message that Kai so needs her to understand, she twists his advice to her own bitter means.  Perception of others, and of events, is a running theme in Clarke’s work and Undone riffs on ideas that she has touched on with great success before but to even greater effect.  Jem’s inability to see the woods for the trees leads to a reveal that is subtly signposted from page one, allowing readers to understand what she herself refuses to acknowledge, preferring instead to doggedly pursue an avenue informed by her own prior opinion.  Clarke has constructed a story line that moves insidiously to an increasingly inevitable outcome and one that will have readers desperate for Jem to just stop, to just see.

While Undone is undoubtedly an accomplished story, what sets it apart from contemporary contempories is the level of writing.  Cat Clarke has a preternatural ability to create authentic teenage voices to the point that one might suspect some sort of voodoo channeling shenanigans at her writing desk.  Jem’s raw, ravenous grief pours of the page, the black selfishness of all consuming loss palpable and, at times, incredibly difficult to read.  The many scenes set at school will speak loudly to anyone who is or ever was a teen and it is this realness that makes the novel’s denouement so outstanding.  The greatest triumph here, though, is that towards the end, when Jem’s seems to have lost sight of anything that matters, Clarke reels it all in. She takes the reader back to the core of her story by stating the simplest of facts succinctly, sadly and with unarguable logic.  It is this, as well as the phenomenal writing and compelling story, that should place this books in classrooms and libraries around the country where it can lead those who read it to a place where it need never ring true.  Read this book, it’s powerful, it’s important, and then pass it on so others can read it too.  Highly, highly recommended.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird who is blaming all errors on ALL THE TEARS. Undone is published today - go and buy it. You could do it here, or here. Or support your local bookseller buy it there. Thank you to Quercus for sending us this title to review.

Singing in the Dead of Night (Review: Blackbirds; Chuck Wendig)

Blackbirds by Chuck WendigBlackbirds
Chuck Wendig
Angry Robot 2012

Imagine you could see the future. Every event about to unfold around you in a crystal-clear vision. You know every single disaster which is going to affect humanity. Every war, every famine, every plane crash. You try to tell people, to save them, but no-one listens. No-one believes you. For all your visions you can't change a single thing. The world marches inexorably onwards - pain, suffering and all - and you're doomed to forever be a spectator. Such was the fate of Cassandra in Greek mythology and Chuck Wendig's Blackbirds gives us a modernised, black-clad retelling of the classic tale.

Miriam Black is a young woman with a problem. For years now she's been averse to physical contact with other people, specifically skin-on-skin contact. People mistake her reticence for aloofness, a certain arrogance, but she's avoiding a much greater problem. When Miriam touches another's skin she is granted access to the closing minutes of their lives. Played out before her like a movie are their dying moments. Locations, last words, specific times and specific causes - all are there and forever imprinted in her mind. Unfortunately, as she soon finds out through a heartbreaking episode with a young boy and his red balloon, there is nothing she can do. Her power is limited to knowledge and action is beyond her.

The opening chapters of Blackbirds see Miriam drifting through life as a loner. Denied any possibility of intimate relationships without paying the price of this mortal knowledge has driven her to take advantage of her gifts. Rather than becoming attached she searches for men who are not long for this earth. A brush against them in a restaurant is enough to know their fates, and once she has someone in her sights she follows until the final moments. Car crash, heart attack, overdose, it's all the same to her. As soon as the inevitable has occurred she swoops in, relieves them of any excess currency, and makes her way to the next encounter. She has convinced herself that it's the ultimate in victimless crime - there's nothing she can do so what's the problem?

Despite her hard exterior it's obvious that Miriam has an enormous hole in her life. This hole seems like it may be filled as a knight in shining armour (well, a truck) saves her from the unwelcome advances of a couple of jocks while hitchhiking. Before long though, she has brushed his skin and there it is - his violent death played out in all its gory, torture-filled detail, with her as a spectator. Seeing Louis die before her eyes, both in vision and future reality, jolts Miriam out of her torpor but before long she's in another kind of trouble altogether. A rather sinister element has discovered her powers and is intent on using them for their own purposes.

Blackbirds is essentially a very dark tale. There is initially very little redeeming about Miriam's character, cynicism dripping off her every jaded remark. The book itself is liberally soaked in death and misery and what humour it raises is dark in the extreme. However it is also a tale of redemption, of Miriam wrestling with her seemingly implacable destiny and choosing whether to see her ability as curse or blessing.

While it seems difficult to feel sympathy for such a caustic character
her cause in vying for the reader's affections is aided by Chuck Wendig's burdening her with villains even more dislikeable. She has an abusive partner-in-crime foisted upon her and is soon trailed by a devilish trio. A master criminal and his two accomplices (who strangely reminded me of Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo in A Life Less Ordinary) add some true evil to proceedings, their pursuit of Miriam culminating in a violent climax in a remote lighthouse.

One of the criticisms commonly leveled at Blackbirds is that it's just too dark and leaves too many threads unresolved. However, the progressively more hope-filled atmosphere of the book indicates that the following books in the series (Mockingbirds, out now, and Cormorant, out this year) will round out Miriam's story. Who am I kidding though? I liked her from the outset and will be cheering my new favourite anti-heroine through the rest of her misanthropic misadventures.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Blackbirds and Mockingbirds are available now so get your Greek myth and misery on and give them a read.

January 28, 2013

Form and Feature, Face and Limb (Review: Black Heart Blue by Louisa Reid)

Black Heart BlueBlack Heart Blue
Louisa Reid
Razorbill 2011

Hephzibah and Rebecca are twin sisters living under the watchful eyes of their neglectful, abusive and uber-religious parents in the vicarage of an idyllic country village.  As with many teenagers, they have just started college and are trying desperately to fit in – a feat somewhat hampered by social skills decayed by years of home schooling.  This desperate bid for acceptance is made even more difficult for Rebecca as a sufferer of Treacher Collins Syndrome, a genetic disorder resulting in facial disfigurement. 
Rebecca always relies on Hephzi.  With her outgoing personality and good looks, she casts the perfect shadow for Rebecca to hide within and can always fend off the sneers and smart comments along with The Fathers punches and kicks.  But then Hephzi dies and Rebecca feels that she has abandoned her.  All of a sudden, Rebecca is left alone and struggling to deal with the isolation and bullying that her condition causes, from both outside her home and within.  Rebecca has to learn to defend herself and flee her abusive life but as the secrets off the vicarage begin to rise to the surface, no one knows what will come to light and whether Rebecca will be able to vanish before she meets the same fate as her sister. 
Unusually, we are treated to alternating chapters from each sister’s point of view, with Rebecca’s chapters either “Before” or “After” her sister’s death.  The chapters are not laid out chronologically and so the book ends up with a real thriller undertone which adds to the wonderful sense of pace and leaves the reader guessing over many aspects of the story.  Both Rebecca and Hephzi are entirely believable characters and I found myself invested in their fate from very early on, making the dark parts of the story even more harrowing.  Hephzi’s voice is very much that of a an average teenager – desperately seeking approval from her peers at any cost, eager to leave her parents as quickly as possible (I suppose she has more of a point than most) and, often, fairly self-obsessed and generally not very nice.  Rebecca, however, is more complex.  Whilst she realises that her parents behaviour and, subsequently, the life that she is forced to live is not normal or right, she seems frightened to lose the little family support that she has.  Although openly disapproving of some of Hephzi’s behaviour, this disapproval seems to spawn from her parents’ influence which she knows is toxic - she is still jealous of Hephzi’s exploits and longs to be included and to be accepted by her peers. 
Louisa Reid paints a dramatic and highly believable picture of life within an abusive and neglectful family.  The sisters referring to their parents as “The Mother” and “The Father” instantly fills the reader with the fear, hatred and detachment that they feel towards them and drives the reader’s hope for the sisters to flee and thrive.  I think it’s fair to say, however, that Mary Poppins this is not.  This book goes to some seriously dark places, often with little respite, and treads some fairly new ground for the Young Adult genre.  Nevertheless, for me, this is a welcome change.  It’s refreshing to see a Young Adult author tackling subjects which are more adult than young and Louisa, if you please, long may it continue.  A dark and tragic book that demands to be read by anyone looking for something a little different from the genre.  Maybe just not on a rainy day... 

This review was brought to you by PolkaDot Steph.  Black Heart Blue is available now.  Thank you to the publisher for providing us with this book to review.     

January 24, 2013

Here Comes a Candle to Light You To Bed and Here Comes a Chopper to Chop of Your Head (Review: Ten; Gretchen McNeil)

Ten Ten
Gretchen McNeil
Balzar and Bray 2012

Meg and Minnie are off to a secluded island on a creepy boat for a weekend of boys and booze. They haven’t told their parents where they are going, were surprised to receive an invitation to join the in-crowd and have no mobile phone signal what with the approaching storm and all. As they step off the boat, Meg worrying about Minnie’s anti-anxiety medication and experiencing a strange sense of foreboding, one of the sailors pretty much suggests they turn around and go home.  As Meg and Minnie have clearly never seen any horror film, ever, they ignore him and head for a weekend that starts badly and goes downhill from there as it becomes clear that someone on the island is bearing a grudge and has decided to work out their frustrations through the medium of murder. Wooooooo!

The characters in this book are nicely chosen and easily recognisable – although painted in slightly richer colours than usually seen in your average Scream flick. Meg is a nice girl, dealing with a difficult friend and trying to pretend she’s not hopelessly in love with TJ, resident jock-with-a-heart. TJ himself is pretty lovely, but not quite lovely enough to put Meg’s mind at ease when the killing gets underway.  Minnie is a tour-de-force of unmedicated bi-polarism and anxiety, causing her to be extremely difficult and occasionally near- psychotic. Her illness isn’t handled particularly seriously, but McNeil does illustrate (if lightly) how difficult someone with a mental illness can be to live with and also how friendships can become scarily co-dependent. Elsewhere we have Gunner, pleasant but dopey friend of TJ; handsome, if vaguely immoral, Ben; bossy Vivian; edgy Kumiko; quiet Lori; creepy Nathan and nice-but-possibly-dim Kenny.  Between them, they are the perfect cast for the story that MacNeil sets up and the interaction between them is great to read.

Plot-wise, Ten is very much an homage. Stories like this one have been doing the rounds for years and years and when handled well can be massively enjoyable. The premise is simple but the story-telling has to be, due in large part to the sheer volume of similar stories, complex yet paradoxically formulaic. Gretchen McNeil does a great job in setting the scene. While Rock House is, brilliantly, in a part of the island only accessible by a dodgy rope bridge over which waves continually break. The phone lines are, obviously, down and there is no cell signal. What there is, however, is a hugely creepy DVD which essentially spells out how each character is going to die.  And die they do, in familiar yet gruesome ways, all followed by a slash on the wall in bloodlike paint, suggesting that the murder is SOMEONE IN THE HOUSE. Familiar?  Oh, yes.  Brilliant?  Also, yes. McNeil has taken a classic premise and executed it really rather well.

Ten harks back to the old Point Horror books of my teenage years and is written with such an obvious love for the old teen-slasher concept that I suspect McNeil squealed with glee when uberlord Christopher Pike blurbed the book. What adds additional pleasure is the idea of a group of teens so readily setting themselves up as the premise for a horror. Have they never seen Scream?  Or watched the rather brilliant Harper’s Island? Or read Pike’s Final Friends or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None?  Clearly not… and that’s what makes it all so damn enjoyable. While one might expect Ten to be a little bit predictable, it’s really not – because afficianados of such tales will know that ANYONE could be the bad guy or gal. Why, I once read a book where the killer was the actual PROTATONIST. I know! McNeil and her murderer stay one step ahead throughout the story and will have readers second-guessing themselves as they try to figure out the do-er, only to shake a wry head when all is revealed.

Add to all of the above that Ten is sleep-with-the-light-on creepy and you have a bit of a winner. This isn’t literary fiction, it’s not going to be winning any awards but it is bloody good fun, will keep readers up late getting to the last page and certainly have you hoping that Gretchen McNeil continues to write classic teen horror with the great affection for the genre that she shows here. Great stuff!

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Ten is available now. Splendibird would highly recommending following Ten with The Weekend by Christopher Pike and And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie while concurrently watching Harper's Island. Really.

January 21, 2013

Maybe Not Today, Maybe Not Tomorrow, But Soon and for the Rest of Your...Oh. (review: The Last Policeman, Ben H Winter)

The Last Policeman
Ben H Winter
Quirk Books 2012

You’re a cop in small-town USA, the country has been gripped by a spate of suicides - mostly hangings in your, erm, neck of the woods. You’re called to yet another body in the toilet of a local MacDonald’s, now run as a pirate franchise in the absence of any kind of head office. The Attorney General’s office wants it swept away as one more suicide but something doesn’t play right with you. You’re thinking murder. Gut instinct. You’re going to pursue this one to the end, despite the fact that most of the rest of the police force has disappeared to pursue their life’s dreams or is getting high on the job on recently-legalised marijuana.

Oh yeah, and an asteroid is going to smash into the earth in six months’ time, rendering all of your efforts utterly pointless.

Such is the set-up for Ben H Winters’ The Last Policeman, possibly the only example of pre apocalyptical police procedural literature in existence. Hank Palace is the titular officer, recently promoted to the rank of detective after a mere year and a half working the streets as a rookie.  His seemingly meteoric rise has an unfortunate explanation: some months ago, astronomers began tracking an object potentially on a collision course with earth. As time wore on the probability of an impact grew and grew until it became inevitable. Now, faced with an extinction-level event, society is coming apart at the seams. Those professionals who have not upped sticks to tick off their ‘bucket lists’ have either resorted to various forms of chemical sedation, opted to take their own lives or, like Hank, have gritted their teeth and resolved to keep things ticking over until the inevitable end.

Despite the unusual window dressing, The Last Policeman plays much more like a straight detective story than science-fiction. All of the elements are there - the one good cop in a barrel of bad apples, the off-kilter crime scene, the tangled web of motives, even the sultry dame who knows more than she’s letting on. These all take centre stage and the elephant in the room is relegated to the background, serving more as a means to alter the usual trajectories on which peoples’ characters are placed than as a major plot device in itself. What would people do in a world where there was literally no hope? How would they behave? What would they seek? These are the questions explored by Detective Palace while trying to unravel what he’s increasingly sure is going to be one of the last traditional crimes he’ll ever work on.
Told from a traditional noir thriller’s first-person perspective, The Last Policeman really lets us behind Palace’s eyes and lets us feel the frustration of his existence. The orphaned child of murdered (well, maybe) parents, his life’s ambition was to join the force and help save others from a similar fate. Utterly dedicated and a total nerd for law enforcement texts, laws and statutes he finally reaches that goal, only to have its meaning stripped away by the ever-growing shadow of asteroid 2011GV1. The police force is now packed with utter rookies to make up numbers. Draconian laws are being introduced every day to counter the latest riots. People seek refuge in drugs, mayhem or simply the grave. Yet Hank Palace will not let this case rest, despite protestations from his peers and superiors.
As the story plays out you do realise that there’s going to be no happy ending. This is noir fiction retold in a modern age and there’s no deus ex machina to snatch the players from their fates. How could there be when the end is around the corner? This is the strongest point of the novel, drawing you into the twists and turns of the narrative while knowing that the ultimate outcome is inevitable. Or is it? The Last Policeman is the first installment of a trilogy set in the closing days of this world.
I’m hoping there’ll be no salvation,that the asteroid will keep on tumbling until the bitter end. Finding out will give me something to look forward to for the next couple of years.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. The Last Policeman is available now.

January 18, 2013

Black Rook in Rainy Weather (Review: The Rook, Daniel O'Malley)

The Rook
Daniel O'Malley
Hachette 2012

“Dear You, the body you are wearing used to be mine.”

Not exactly what you want to read when you find yourself in the pouring rain, surrounded by prone, gloved bodies and without the vaguest clue about who you are or how you got there. Such is the beginning of Myfanwy (rhymes with ‘Tiffany’) Thomas’s adventure in Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook. Seemingly thrust into the middle of an unknown life, Thomas struggles to find out what has happened to her and why her apparent assailants all seem to be wearing latex gloves The truth is revealed in a letter found stuffed in her pocket.

Myfanwy is no ordinary woman, as you may have guessed. Far from it, she is a Rook, a high-level operative in the Chequy, the ultimate NGO. Where MI6 deals with spies and suchlike, existing deep within the folds of government, the Chequy is something of a rogue player themselves. Their self-appointed mission carried out through the centuries of their cloaked existence, is to use the special abilities of their personnel to deal with supernatural threats to the realm. In Myfanwy’s case, anyone touching her may find themselves in a spot of bother as she can manipulate nervous systems and navigate neural pathways on a whim. Her fellow agents possess all manner of similar bizarre powers, from exuding poisonous gases through their cores to visiting others in their dreams.

This bombshell and much more besides is revealed to Myfanwy through a series of letters from, well, herself. She has been the victim of a vicious assault, leaving her without a single memory of who she is or what she is capable of. Her former self, having pre-empted the attack, cunningly crafted a series of missives detailing everything she could possibly need in order to regain something of her identity and resolve the crisis which is apparently in full swing.

After a somewhat shaky start, including a second attempt on her life, Myfanwy’s indignation and will overcomes her fears and frustration. She dives headlong into her former life, determined to discover who ordered the operation which left her half a person. All signs point to someone within the organisation, leading to a near impossible balancing act; ferreting out the (exceptionally powerful and well-connected) traitor, relearning in days how to perform in a position which required years of experience to attain, and dealing with a series of crises which are affecting the nation with timing which seems anything but coincidental.

From the outset The Rook is all about fun. The atmosphere and setting bear an understandable resemblance to Charles Stross’s Laundry series, tongue in cheek humour mixing with the perfect amount of action and intrigue. However, instead of a bumbling James Bond character, Daniel O’Malley presents us with a strong female lead. In the opening pages of the book I was worried that Myfanwy’s initial confused state - moaning, self-obsessed and whiny - would drag the book down. My fears were soon allayed and by the final chapter she had developed perfectly into a heroine par excellence; confident, in full control of her powers and unflinching in her desire to root out those who crossed her.

One of the highlights of The Rook for me was the ingenious device employed in lieu of standard exposition. Many lesser authors, faced with explaining the superpowers, the history of the Chequy and the ongoing conspiracy within would have resorted to clumsy, stilted conversations or dreary monologues. By deciding to wipe his protagonists memory from the outset O’Malley introduced a much more enjoyable and readable alternative - the letters from Myfanwy to herself. In this way the lengthy exposition required becomes a natural part of the novel, slotting in seamlessly and with perfect timing. On any occasion when Myfanwy finds herself lacking knowledge on a particular subject she simply delves into her briefcase of correspondence.

It should also be noted that - as with so many books I find myself reading of late - The Rook is but the first part of a planned trilogy. The intrigue, betrayals and discoveries which line the pages of this novel are but a taste, setting the scene for grander events to come. This thought fills me with relish. On reading The Rook I was struck by the way in which so many of the events felt like the opening scenes of a movie. For a good three-quarters of the story I still felt as though we were merely being introduced to the characters and their situations rather than reaching a finale, and I mean this in the best way possible. The story got its hooks in me and they stayed there, to the point that genuine dismay started to set in when I realised my page count was almost up.

So, if you fancy a combination of secret agent shenanigans, psychic battles and inventive storytelling then The Rook should be right up your alley. Assuming you can handle the wait for the next two books...

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. The Rook is available now.

January 15, 2013

Can't Escape, Yet Can't Accept (Review: Lovely, Dark and Deep by Amy McNamara)

Lovely, Dark and Deep
Amy McNamara
Simon and Schuster 2012

Once, there was a girl called Mamie who was carefree, hopeful, fun and full of joie de vive, ready to deal with whatever life threw her way.  Then came the accident, bringing death, guilt and overwhelming grief in its wake; sweeping Mamie away and leaving in her place Wren – a mute shadow, running from her past, running from her future.  After almost a year, Wren finds herself in deepest Maine, pounding through icy woods, sleep-walking through the other aspects of her life and unable (unwilling) to unlock the lost Mamie.  Happy to remain in her self-inflicted limbo until a chance encounter leaves her reluctantly unable to hide any longer.

If dying is the opposite of living, then Wren is dying. Traumatised, deeply depressed and often literally unable to articulate the turmoil she is experiencing she chooses to sleep and when she’s not sleeping, she chooses to run… and run, and run.  Running is the only way she can stop her mind from returning to the fateful accident at the heart of her story.  Everything about Wren is laid bare, as clear to the reader as it is to those around her – largely because she doesn’t have the energy to pretend anymore. She can’t try to be happy, she can’t try to move on, she can barely manage to be civil and, one suspects, only does so because the energy of participating in any arguments would be too much. Often, characters suffering from depression can be irritating, with the innate selfishness that comes with the condition leaving the character unsympathetic.  However, Wren’s grief is so well articulated by McNamara that you cannot be angry with her – she’s in agony and has lived so long apart from the world that her attempts to reconnect are awkward, painful and sad.

Cal is a somewhat dichotomous character.  On one hand, he seems about to give up on life himself but on the other he seems to have a desperate desire to re-ignite Wren’s.  As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the one is related to the other and Cal’s patience as well as his frustration only highlights the depth of their friendship. He’s a very believable character and while the relationship between him and Wren seems to move quickly, on closer inspection (and reflection), it’s a tentative thing, nursed carefully by his inner motivation. Wren’s parents are lightly but carefully sketched. Both clearly feel the frustration of learning to deal with a child who is no longer a child but whom they see floundering and desperately want to help.  The tentative nature with which they approach Wren (even her hectoring mother) speaks of a deep fear for their wounded child.  Other characters slip in and out, from the staid and solid presence of Lucy, the librarian to bright bird, Mary who flits around Wren, piercing her muted existence with astonishing splashes of colour as she reaches into her gloomy Neverland and pulls her out, even if only for a little while.

Lovely, Dark and Deep is not a story that ties everything up in a neat bow but one that asks quiet questions about the nature of grief.  Particularly subtle are the questions raised over Wren’s friendship with Cal, none of which are truly answered, leaving the reader to decide for themselves whether it is healthy. What this aspect of the book manages to convey perfectly is that the road to recovery is hard and you find what gets you through one day, and then the next and then the next.  Do Wren and Cal use each other as a means to get through their respective days? Perhaps, but there can be no denying the strength and necessity of the bond they have formed.

Amy McNamara’s writing is accomplished with Wren’s numb, clipped tone balanced with beautifully visual descriptions of the ice and snow that personify her frozen existence.  Throughout the book, McNamara references the poetry of Philip Larkin (not, as might have been expected, that of Robert Frost, although he is there every time Wren runs through those deep, dark woods) and cunningly works his final refrain from The Trees into the closing section of her book to great effect.  Lovely, Dark and Deep works as Young Adult, but is most at home in the emerging New Adult genre. Wren is young, but entirely independent – as is Cal – and the story follows them both as they deal with the realisation that, at the end of the day, they are responsible for the choices that they make.  Unlike the majority of New Adult titles available, McNamara has not felt the need to shoehorn in bad sex scenes in order to bolster dubious characters and a poor plot, rather she has written a story grounded entirely in reality and one that should be lauded as fulfilling the potential of what could be an exciting new genre.  Highly recommended.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Lovely, Dark and Deep is available now. Splendibird would highly recommending reading the Philip Larkin collection, High Windows as an accompanying text - you won't regret it. 

January 08, 2013

Go Do That Voodoo, That You Do Do Well (review of Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake)

Anna Dressed in Blood (Anna, #1)Anna Dressed in Blood
Kendare Blake
Orchard Books 2012

Cas has, for as long as he can remember, lived a life less ordinary. Descendent of a long line of men with the ability to slay the already dead he has picked up the sword (well, knife) of his dead father and spends his time travelling America, ridding towns and cities of the kinds of spectres all too recognisable to those familiar with urban folklore. You know the type, the ones whispered of around camp fires, at sleepovers and by high school lockers – the ones that give listeners both a thrill and a shiver down their spine, enjoyed in the happy assumption that they are merely scary stories. Except Cas knows that this is not the case, that these tales hold real terror and that their protagonists must be put to rest once and for all. Generally, he’s pretty good at his job, slicing and dicing the ghosts and their familiar monickers: The Hitchhiker, The Cop. Then he gets wind of a phantom terrorising an old house on the shores of Lake Superior, a ghost that is viciously violent and carefully ignored by the community: Anna Dressed in Blood. Suddenly, Cas is confronted with a spectre he cannot slay but oddly one, for all her fury, that cannot seem to kill him, either.

Cas is a little reminiscent of the old gumshoe detectives, taking on each new case with world-weary resignation for sure, but not without admission of the buzz that a new challenge gives him.  While young, he is old beyond his years as one might expect for one who dispatches the dead and has moved continuously around the country, not to mention doing so while dealing with the violent death of his father. Even his interactions with his mother have a curiously adult bent to them and his inner monologue regarding his peers is remote and strikingly observant. And well it might be as he uses other teens only as a means to an end. As he arrives in Thunder Bay, though, Cas finds himself becoming involved with a few locals – something he at first sees as an irritation, then as a burden while finally coming to realise that having a little help isn’t always a bad thing. His interactions with the titular character of Anna are violent, strange, touching and compelling and his desire to avenge his father both believable and heart-breakingly un-thought out.

Anna herself is terrifying. When in all her furious glory she is a creature entirely of darkness but when in her, er, civvies she is one of utter torment. She’s difficult to describe because she remains enigmatic throughout, attaching herself to Cas yet maintaining a distance that never allows him, or the reader, to forget that she is dead. And not only is she dead, she’s a world of trouble.  o the last page her actions are unpredictable and while her friendship with Cas is fascinating, it’s hard to ever entirely trust her. She seems torn between pride and self-loathing, but if you have to be dead, and have to be particularly wicked then you could have worse titles than Anna Dressed in Blood, right? Other characters are fantastically well written, both complying to and yet shirking stereotype.  School queen, Carmel is particularly interesting; Thomas pathetic yet powerful and Will perfectly written as the sharp jock with no heart – paradoxical to almost every trait regularly applied to those in the letter jackets. Cas’s mum is striking as a women almost, yet not quite, resigned to sacrificing her son to the fate of his father while mentor Gideon is surprisingly present for a character who is never seen in person.

Yet, while the characterisation is very good, the book is not without flaws although they are a little are hard to quantify. Sometimes the pacing seems a bit off, sometimes the relationship between Cas and the mercurial Anna is hard to either believe or get behind (although this could be intentional on the part of the author) and occasionally, for all the extremely readable writing and visceral horror (of which there is much)the book lacks a certain depth that could have taken it to the next level.  However, the overall storyline is excellent and the ending entirely satisfying with enough loose ends left hanging that readers will be keen to read the follow-up, Girl of Nightmares

Talking of readers, after the recent hoo ha about a lack of books for boys, it should be noted that this is a book that teenage boys would undoubtedly enjoy but that has been packaged poorly - the cover is attractive but verges on a girly while the "spell-binding and romantic" quote from Cassandra Clare is poorly chosen and says nothing of the heart of what is essentially a dark adventure.  It's not the first title to miss a trick when advertising concurrently to boys and girls and sadly it almost definitely won't be the last. Regardless of marketing and it's hits and misses, though, Kendare Blake should be congratulated on taking a good look at the power of urban legends and writing them easily into a gripping and altogether frightening tale for the YA (and not so YA) audience.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird.  Anna Dressed in Blood and Girl of Nightmares are both available now.  This book is also soon to be YAcked, so keep a weather eye out for our discussion.

January 06, 2013

That Was The Year That Was - Splendibird's Pick of 2012

Over the past couple of days, you've had 2012 Top Fives from Cannonball Jones and PolkaDot Steph and today is the last of the bunch with Splendibird sharing her favourite books of the last year. As you have probably realised, the three of us have tastes that run along the lines of Same Same but Different, so each list has offered up completely different books (bar the Raven Boys, which was so good we listed it twice). Now that we've shared our thoughts on the year's best with you, we'd like to know what YOUR top five books have been this year so please linger longer and leave your thoughts in the comments.

Without further ado, here are my favourite books of 2012. Read them ALL. DO IT. DO IT NOW.

The Diviners (The Diviners #1)The Diviners by Libba Bray
This one surprised me. I'd attempted to read Libba's book A Great and Terrible Beauty a few years ago and absolutely hated it. I didn't like the characters, the story irritated me and I found it hard to invest anything at all in the text.  However, I love reading about the 1920's and I love a scary story so decided to throw my lot in with The Diviners. What I discovered was a beautifully written, historically lush setting against which Bray sets a truly frightening tale. It's a long book, yet never drags and each character is skillfully imagined. It's not flawless, there are aspects of the story which jar slightly but as the start of a series, Libba Bray has left herself with time to embellish and elaborate on a story that is quite, quite something.

This is Not a TestThis is Not a Test by Courtney Summers
This is the first time I'd read anything by Courtney Summers (I know, I know!) and I was blown away by the starkness of her storytelling and the originality she uses in throwing away old tropes and taking a fresh look at the classic zombie story. A tale of teenagers barricaded in a school while the undead roam outside, This is Not a Test internalises the action, looking at individual reactions to the external horror. It is completely compelling and the ending is oddly beautiful.  Certainly one of the best contemporary YA books I've ever read. And it is contemporary, despite it's apocalyptic spin - these are real teenagers, dealing with real emotions and real danger. Fascinating stuff.

The Raven Boys (Raven Cycle, #1)The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
I've always liked Maggie Stiefvater's writing but last year's The Scorpio Races elevated her from enjoyably readable to something quite special. Set in Virginia, yet inspired by Welsh mythology, Stiefvater's writing is song-like, haunting and quite, quite beautiful. The story itself is steeped in magic, family, pain, loss and longing.  The characters remain with you long after you close the last page and the story waits in the back of your mind, leaving you yearning for its next chapter. Brilliant stuff.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green 
The Fault in Our StarsI suspect that this is a book which will feature on many, many best of lists. Written by King of the Internets, John Green, The Fault in Our Stars is by far the most accomplished of his already accomplished library. A cancer book that is not a cancer book, the story of Hazel, Augustus and The Dutch Tulip man is as much existential philosophising as it is a beautifully written and stunningly truthful story. In this book, John Green has created massively memorable characters and placed them in a setting that will remain with readers for a long time.

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
Finnikin of the RockFinnikin of the Rock was the first book that I read this year and, in all honesty, nothing has come close over the last twelve months. The story of a people exiled irrevocably from a cursed land, Marchetta's first stab at fantasy is grounded firmly in reality, asking questions of identity, responsibility and faith in an uncertain future. Anyone who has seen Syrian refugee camps in recent news footage will be struck by how relevant this beautifully fantastical yet frighteningly real tale is. Followed by the equally excellent Froi of the Exiles, Marchetta's trilogy ends this year with Quintana of Charyn, a title that I am sure will not disappoint.

That's your lot as far as top fives go at The Mountains of Instead but we're excited about the many titles coming up in 2013 and those from 2012 that we've yet to read and review - so many lovely, lovely books! Look out for our upcoming reviews of Undone by Cat Clarke, Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake and Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow and please feel free to share your thoughts and recommendations below. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

January 05, 2013

That Was The Year That Was - Polka Dot Steph's Pick of 2012

Looking back over the past 12 months in books today is the rather superb PolkaDot Steph.  She's gone for an eclectically excellent list that will surely have you all reaching for the e-readers we suspect most of you got for Christmas. We'd love to hear if you agree or disagree with her choices so please leave your thoughts in the comments!

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

Toby's Room

Pat Barker again shows her literary magnificence as she revisits the First World War, this time moving from the terror of the muddy trenches to the equally devastating home front.  Exploring the need for war and pacifism, the lasting psychological effect war has on those directly involved and the place society sees for returning servicemen, Barker captures the horror and desperation of the time with an almost poetic talent.  Fans of Barker’s previous work will certainly not be disappointed. 

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child

The debut novel from Eowyn Ivey follows an aging couple desperately seeking a fresh start on a homestead in the wilds of Alaska to escape the memories of the child they lost years previously.  But after the couple build a snow child in a storm, a mysterious little girl appears at their homestead – where did she come from and is there more to this child than there seems?  Written with all the magic and wonder of a fairytale and with a phenomenal sense of place, The Snow Child is an enchanted fable for adults everywhere.   

A Curious Invitation by Suzette Field

A Curious Invitation: The Forty Greatest Parties in Literature

The 40 greatest parties in literature – from Alice’s tea party through the Looking Glass to Gatsby’s legendary soirees, Field recalls what they ate, what they wore, who entertained them and, most importantly, what they talked about.  A truly interesting and unique book – a must for book worms everywhere!  

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven Boys (Raven Cycle, #1)

For as long as she can remember, Blue Sargent has been warned by her psychic mother that she will cause her true love to die.  And when she sees his spirit on St Mark’s eve, she knows he will die within the next year.  All becomes yet more curious when her true love arrives at her home for a tarot reading, hoping to shed some light on an ancient quest.  Stiefvater’s prose is engaging and pacey and the characters are easy to connect with from the outset.  An extremely strong start to what promise to be an exciting and successful series.    

Grimm Tales:  For Young and Old by Philip Pullman

Grimm Tales for Young and Old

There is absolutely no doubt that Philip Pullman is a genius, having penned one of the most successful and acclaimed fantasy series of recent times.  And after much anticipation, he has compiled a re-telling of some of the brothers Grimm’s most well-loved, and some not so well-known, tales.  With buckets of added blooded and gore, Pullman has brought the classic fairy tales straight up to date and gave them added adult appeal.  I don’t believe that anyone could manage to read Grimm Tales without a smile on their face.  

Thank you, Steph, for such a great selection.  Surely A Curious Invitation is a must for, well, everyone?  For our final 2012 retrospective, pop by tomorrow to find out what Splendibird's has chosen as her top five.

January 04, 2013

That Was The Year, That Was - Cannonball Jones and his Top Five of 2012

Ok, so we are well aware that we have now reached the dizzy heights of 4th January, but before we go rushing gleefully (er, well, kind of) into 2013, here at Mountains of Instead we wanted to share with you our top five books of 2012. As there are three regular contributors here (yes, we love Swish but only keep him down as a main contributor as we like his pretty wee face) you get three lists, posted over the weekend, starting with Cannonball Jones (linked titles lead to his full reviews). And yes, we fully admit that these all should have been posted last week but festive fun, flu, wine and more wine ganged all oor plans a'gley. Or something.

A truly stunning debut novel, Liminal States is a bleak ride through three eras in an alternate America: the Old West, 50's LA and a relatively near future US. Parsons' tale follows the fantastic story of two old rivals who stumble upon a fountain of eternal youth which has the unexpected consequence of cloning them at random intervals. The two protagonists battle through the ages, forming and breaking alliances and struggling to keep a handle on their ever-increasing numbers.

The entirely different moods and styles employed in the three sections – interspersed with trips to a bizarre Lovecraftian realm – helps to lend a cinematic feel to the book. The desert scenes are open, barren and brooding, the 50's infused with the essence of pulp detective novels and the future simply bleak and despairing. This was certainly one of the best surprises I've had in a long time.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
In a far lighter vein than Liminal States – in fact with a positively mischievous spirit – Robin Sloan's debut takes on an unlikely yet engrossing journey through the history of publishing, typesetting and technology. Unemployed tech wizard Clay Jannon finds himself working the graveyard shift at a mysterious San Francisco bookstore, little suspecting that he'll soon be neck-deep in a quest for the secrets of immortality. Bookended by the invention of movable print and the modern culmination of the publishing industry, Google Inc., Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is brimming with ideas yet remains light enough so as not to smother the reader. Fans of books, technology, problem solving and general nerd lore will find plenty to amuse themselves here.

Devil Said Bang – Richard Kadrey

Devil Said Bang (Sandman Slim, #4)
This is the fourth installment in the Sandman Slim series which I have been promising to review for these pages since Splendibird first invited me. A quick recap: James Stark was a promising young magician (real, not like Copperfield) who was betrayed by his magic circle and sent to Hell, where he scraped by fighting Hellions and damned souls alike in the arenas. Here he discovered a mysterious ability to heal his wounds and forever remain utterly invulnerable to similar injuries and eventually escaped back to earth to hunt down those who sent him there. Cue battles against powerful sorcerers, demented angels, legions of zombies, the terrifying Kissi (God's first mistake), discovering his rather unfortunate parentage and, of course, orchestrating a new battle between the legions of Heaven and Hell.

Devil Said Bang sees Stark/Slim stuck downstairs once again and left in charge of rebuilding a new Hell (did you know that Lucifer was a position, not a guy?) and the eternal committee meetings which accompany said task. Sadly, some of the netherworld's generals are less than happy with the arrangement. Time for another escape to LA and yet more supernatural carnage. The Sandman Slim books read like Dashiell Hammett after watching a horror marathon, dripping with sarcasm, self-deprecating humour and sizzling dialogue which would make Tarantino jealous. Fun :)

The Apocalypse Codex – Charles Stross

The Apocalypse CodexAnother 'number four in the series', The Apocalypse Codex marks Edinburgh-based Stross's return to his Laundry Files series of adventures. For the uninitiated, The Laundry is a super-secret division of the British Secret Service, dedicated to defending the realm from, erm, multi-tentacled Elder Gods from hideous unknown dimensions. Our hero, Bob Howard, was a computer nerd who came within a hair's breadth of levelling Wolverhampton through some coding which happened to be the occult equivalent of a nuclear bomb. The Laundry bailed him out and have now recruited him as a kind of hapless James Bond, battling Cthulhu instead of Blofeld.

In this latest instalment, our hero is paired with the wonderfully named Persephone Hazard (aka 'Duchess') to investigate an American religious leader who has taken an unhealthy interest in the PM. Of course things go far from smoothly and his very soul is soon in peril yet again. Stross seems more at ease with this series now and it is maturing from silly, tongue-in-cheek nonsense to solid stories which stand well on their own merit.

The Weird – Ann and Jeff Vandermeer

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories
Okay, this one is kind of a cheat. Yes it was published this year but it is a compendium of strange short fiction culled from the past couple of centuries. This collection is simply wonderful, containing offerings from Lovecraft, Ellison, Chabon, Mieville, Gaiman, Murakami and countless others – 110 tales in all, mostly unclassifiable. All share one thing in common, a creeping sense of unease which envelopes you like a cold, wet tentacle. Highlights? Lovecraft's classic The Dunwich Horror and Harlan Ellison's claustrophobic technological nightmare I Have No Mouth Yet I Must Scream.

And there you have it. Honourable mention goes to Daniel Wilson's Amped, soon to be reviewed here and to those I have not yet finished yet which would by all accounts have made this list, particularly Ken MacLeod's Intrusion, Peter Heller's The Dog Stars and Daniel O'Malley's The Rook.

There you have it, indeed. We have, several times, considered asking Cannonball to stop reviewing for The Mountains of Instead as it's costing us a fortune in books but everything he reads and reviews is just so damn good he is to stay. Stop by tomorrow for PolkaDot Steph's pick of 2012.