March 27, 2013

I Am Not Yet Born; Forgive Me (review: Quintana of Charyn by Melina Marchetta)

Quintana of Charyn (Lumatere Chronicles, #3)Quintana of Charyn
Melina Marchetta
Viking Australia 2012

Quintana of Charyn is the third and final book of the Lumatere Chronicles and this review contains spoilers for both Finnikin of the Rock and Froi of the Exiles. You have been warned.

Shot through with arrows, Froi of the Exiles awakes to find that he has lost that which he loves most. Frightened and alone, Quintana of Charyn clings desperately to the hope she carries within her and journeys towards people she has never met, believing that she may find kindness within them. Isaboe of Lumatere fights the bitterness in her own heart and faces decisions that she feels ill equipped to make. Elsewhere, Lucian of the Monts grieves in his valley while Finnikin of the Rock battles with hubris and confusion. Finally, in a dark cave, sits Thaedra of Alonso fighting not only for her own survival but for that of Charyn. The ultimate fate of Lumatere lies now in the hands of them all, but most particularly in the hands of Froi who tries again and again to do what needs to be done, fighting through a sea of old lies and fresh rivalries to bring together two lands and more importantly, two women who have yet to realise that they need each other to truly survive the horror of their respective pasts.

Of all the characters who appear in the Lumatere Chronicles, the most compelling has always been Froi. From the repugnant thief first encountered in Finnikin of the Rock, to the confused, often immature young man in Froi of theExiles it is his story that has been most arresting, his passages that have seemed most truthful. The Froi of Quintana of Charyn is still growing, still learning and sometimes still confused but what matters to him has crystallised, hardened to create an immovable moral core. He's extremely principled, unerringly loyal (even when, as is seen repeatedly in this final book, his loyalties are split) and entirely focused. He's also heartbreaking. His slow realisation that he will have no part of his son's life and his acceptance that this falls under the banner of Things That Need to Be Done is extremely moving. Of all the characters in the book, he is the one most inclined to optimism – something that is quite extraordinary and which characterises him best.

Considering that Quintana of Charyn contains sections from the point of view of almost all the main characters, each individual in beautifully realised. Isaboe gets a little more page time here and it becomes clear that Evanjalin of the Monts is never far away – something that seemed to get a little lost in the second book. She's another strong character (all of them are, but particularly the women) but is continuing to battle the loss of her family and the anger and grief this engenders. She is rather beautifully contrasted with the erratic and terrified Quintana, who remains as feral as ever yet emerges as a force to be reckoned with. Quintana loves as fiercely as she hates and, at her core, is extremely vulnerable yet never shies away from a good fight. A character who was hard to get a bead on in Froi of the Exiles, she emerges as one who is strange but incredibly admirable. She also has a stunning narrative voice, written almost in iambic pentameter. She sings out to Froi, and if the song be painful, it is nothing if not beautiful, imbuing Quintana with a softness that tempers her more jagged edges.

Finnikin continues to struggle with his role in life, something that Marchetta refuses to drop and rightly so. His pride continues to get in the way of his personal life and his inner struggle and stubborn nature lend believability to his character. Lucian is another who has matured over the course of the story of Lumatere and his arrogance continues to ebb as he becomes a worth leader of his beloved Monts. Thaedra of Alonso remains one of the more striking characters, a quiet woman with incredible strength and a true understanding of sacrifice. Elsewhere, the story of Perry and Tessadora is finally told, old hurts sting less and lies crumble in the face of truth. And each and every character gets a satisfying and believable conclusion to their story.

As one has come to expect, Melina Marchetta's writing is arresting and holds a quiet truth. This can be seen in all of her work, but the scale of the Lumatere Chronicles highlights her skill in a way not seen previously. The story contained within Quintana of Charyn is one of hope, of the belief that life can be better – that it should be better. The horrors of Lumatere and Charyn's pasts have left scars that will never fully heal, but Marchetta has created a group of characters, in all their flawed glory, who attempt to see past their personal pain to a future that leans, as she so beautifully puts it, on the side of wonder. The story of Lumatere is written in blood, tears, fear and loss yet it carries a message of rebirth that is fantastically moving and if the ending thrills with high sentiment it is more than welcome in the conclusion of a story that has so often screeched of the evil that men do.

Each year, for three years now, a Marchetta book has made the top ten here at The Mountains of Instead. 2013 will be no different. Pick up any of this author's books but make sure that you get around to Finnikin of the Rock before too long – it's the start of an utterly mesmerising, startlingly relevant and awesomely beautiful story that ends entirely perfectly in this, the final chapter.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird who would like to point out that while Quintana of Charyn is available via Fishpond now, it's has yet to be picked up by a UK publisher - as has the majority of Melina Marchetta's work. UK PUBLISHING INDUSTRY - GET TO IT.

March 15, 2013

Super Short Hiatus

Due to a very poorly child and a house which sounds like a veritable consumption ward, I'm taking a short break.  I'll be back in about a week, once I've managed to rid the place of snotty tissues and written up some of the many books I'm getting through.

Au revoir.

March 11, 2013

A Great Perhaps (Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green)

Looking for Alaska
Looking for Alaska
John Green
Dutton 2005

Warning: here be spoilers...

Miles Halter is sixteen years old and going nowhere. His grades at school are good enough, he perfectly fits the parental mould of ‘good soon' but something is lacking. As a shy, awkward teen he has some problems making friends. Cue his unlikely decision to transfer to Culver Creek Boarding School in search of a ‘great perhaps’, a motivator which will kickstart his uneventful life. You should be careful what you wish for, as he soon discovers to tragic effect.

Arriving at Culver Creek, he is brusquely greeted by his new roommate Chip who promptly christens him ‘Pudge’ on account of his wiry frame. Chip is the lynchpin of the underground social scene at school; facilitating friendships, organising pranks and generally minding the social welfare of the bunch of misfits he has adopted. He outright refuses to take Miles under his wing but nevertheless shows him the ropes - how to avoid the unwanted attentions of the Dean (aka ‘the Eagle’), distinguishing between the scholarship kids (Chip, et al) and the ‘Weekday Warriors (local rich kids), procuring illicit substances and other skills essential to surviving life at Culver Creek.

Then he meets Alaska. Like a bolt from the blue he is struck dumb by her carefree attitude, her vitriolic wit and her dazzling good looks. Alaska already has a boyfriend but this does not deter Pudge, he is deeply smitten from the moment they meet and refuses to let go of his aching crush. That Alaska oozes sexuality and flirts the way most people breathe only serves to draw him in deeper, despite being set up with her Romanian friend Lara.

Time wears on and Chip settles in well, never seeming entirely comfortable in his own skin but becoming an integral part of his little group. Pranks are played, mayhem is caused and the usual bouts of teen angst arise and are dispelled with aplomb. At times it’s like the school you always wish you could have attended, with the friends you wish wish you’d had (or been). You get comfortable. And this is when your brain really starts to notice the chapter titles...

The first chapter is headed ‘one hundred thirty six days before’, each slowly counting down to some inevitable event which, you soon realise, is going to occur halfway through the book. Sure enough Alaska’s instability begins to manifest itself more often, her flirtatious and self-destructive sides clashing with each other regularly. Suddenly one night she bursts into Chip and Miles’s room in floods of tears, extremely drunk and needing to escape from the school. In the blink of an eye she’s gone, for good.

The ‘after’ chapters form the meat of Looking For Alaska as Chip and Miles struggle to come to terms with their loss and lose themselves in a futile quest to find out what really happened to her. Lara and their confidante Takumi try their best to offer sympathy and shoulders to cry on but Miles is too busy looking for Alaska, trying to tie up the loose ends her death left behind. Did she love him? Why was she leaving? Was her death truly an accident?

Knowing that her death is written in stone before even picking up the book doesn’t serve to diminish its impact in the slightest. John Green manages to squeeze every drop of empathy he can for his troubled teens. Even in their darkest and most idiotic moments he forges a bond between them and the reader, making it impossible not to be shaken by the tragedy.  It says a lot that I, a hardened aficionado of horror and sci-fi, would be choking back sniffles while reading this on a long train journey.

Looking For Alaska raised some predictably idiotic controversy for its depiction of teen smoking, drinking and sexual activity, completely missing the point of the story. Lurking in the background, in their religion classes, conversations and idle thoughts, there is always the question, “What is it all about?” Everything Miles and his friends do is in some way linked to the eternal problem of suffering and its potential alleviation. Indeed, Alaska’s challenge to Miles was to answer the sadly prophetic question, “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?”, and the last act of the book is a painful yet beautiful exploration of different answers. His eventual reply, delivered in his final religion paper which teacher Dr Hyde dedicates to the memory of Alaska, is a deeply moving reflection on growing, living and dealing with life.

Reading Looking For Alaska removed me well and truly from my comfort zone of future worlds and alternate pasts. It took my emotions and smacked them up and down the street for a while before comforting them with soothing words. Despite the darkness looming over the ‘after’ section I was still silently praying for it not to end. That this was John Green’s first novel only fills me with excitement to discover how he’s further honed his craft.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Looking for Alaska is available now. And it's bloody brilliant.  That is all.

March 07, 2013

Of Gods and Monsters (Review: The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks)

The Bunker Diary
The Bunker Diary
Kevin Brooks
Penguin 2013

Linus has been snatched from the street by a man he believed to be blind.  Clearly, he was tricked by the man’s helpless act, because he wakes to find himself in a sparsely furnished room – just a bed, a bedside cabinet, a blank notebook, a pen and a bible.  On exploration, he finds a five identical rooms, a basic kitchen and bathroom and a short corridor leading to an elevator.  The elevator goes up, it goes down, the lights go on and off.  Nothing else.  Until, a few days later, the elevator opens to reveal Jenny, a young girl.  Later still, it drops off a variety of drugged or drunk adults – hard man, Fred; fat Bird; snobby Anja and fragile, intelligent Russell.
Linus’s story is brought to us via the notebook he finds in his room.  He writes directly to the reader, whom he suspects might be his captor but who he is aware could be anyone from a prospective rescuer to no-one at all.  As he writes, his situation becomes increasingly hopeless and his tone changes from defiant to resigned to scared.  He’s clearly a principled young man but one who hasn't always made the best decisions. When we first meet him, he is living on the street but it soon becomes clear that he has run from a life of privilege, past grief and an erratic father who seems (at least in Linus’s unreliable narrative) to have completely lost the ability to connect with his son.  However, despite his status us teen runaway there is no drama about Linus.  He’s steady, solid and (for the most part) thinks things through carefully.  His interactions with the adults in the group show a real maturity – often far more than they themselves demonstrate – and his street smarts go a long way towards protecting himself and pre-teen Jenny.
The other characters are all extremely well realised.  Bird is corpulently selfish, drunken, arrogant, lecherous.  Anja, for her part, is easily recognisable as a self-obsessed woman, whose navel gazing translates into real unpleasantness during her time in the bunker.  There’s an interesting and unsettling undertone to her knowing semi-seduction of Bird. She’s arrogant enough to realise that even the merest suggestion of a liaison might provide her with a useful ally but equally disgusted when he appears to wish to act on her hints.  The two of them are real in the worse possible way.  Fred is perhaps even more interesting.  He’s certainly frightening, especially when it transpires that he is a junkie without a fix, but he shows oddly gentle moments and appears to be able to reign in what is surely a violent temper.  Yet, just when he seems OK, he’ll weave insidious threats into an innocuous conversation, never allowing Linus (or the reader) to relax in his presence. Finally, Russell for all his fragility, provides a voice of reason and knowledge. But even he is entirely fallible and never truly becomes the figure of authority that Linus is seeking in this nightmare.
The plot itself is eerily simple.  The six of them are watched by cameras, listened to by microphones and almost entirely left to their own devices. If they need food, they put a list in the elevator and it generally appears. However, try to escape or be in any way subversive and they are severely punished. The captivity and helplessness of their situation affects them all in different ways. While they at first attempt to work together, their somewhat disparate personalities (not to mention the odd helping hand by their mysterious kidnapper) eventually leads things to deteriorate to hellish levels. It’s not pretty but in the wee small hours (in which this story will haunt you) it doesn't seem all that unlikely.
As one might expect from Brooks, the writing here is harshly effective. The kidnapper is never seen but is, to his detainees, all seeing and all powerful.  They refer to him as Him, He, The Man Upstairs and the pattern of penance and punishment, along with the presence of a Bible in each room more than suggests an extended metaphor for a vengeful God. In fact, when their captor does contact them he prefixes his statements with “My Word:” which again has biblical resonance.  I’m not sure exactly what Brooks is trying to say here, but it’s not a positive comment on an omnipotent yet ineffable God, that’s for sure.  Not far into the book, Jenny realises that in order to get what they want they should say sorry, essentially ask for forgiveness, for anything they've done wrong and this seems to propagate the personification of the kidnapper as a God-like figure.  And this idea leads, to an extent, to inertia – they stop trying to escape because he has, in their minds, become all powerful. They are ants under the microscope of L'Enfant Terrible and the ideas this provokes are disturbing and frightening to the last page.
This isn't an easy read. In fact, it’s an incredibly bleak and a brutal examination of human nature - looking at the group in both active and reactive states. Yet, while it's all very grim, Kevin Brooks has a way of writing darkness simply, compellingly and with such honesty that it’s impossible to put his work down once you pick it up. The Bunker Diary is Brooks at his best and brutal worst and should be on the shelves of both avid readers and classrooms up and down the country.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. The Bunker Diary is published in the UK today. Thanks to the publisher for providing us with this title to review.