May 31, 2013

Anarchy in the UK (review: Nowhere by Jon Robinson)

Jon Robinson
Penguin 2013

Alyn, Jes, Ryan and Elsa are nowhere.  Confined to a concrete block that serves as a prison to them and ninety-four others they have no idea where they actually are.  They and their fellow inmates are watched around the clock, kept in cells and subjected to endless lectures and treated as criminals.  The thing is, none of them remember committing the crimes they have supposedly been convicted off.   In fact, they don’t even remember being convicted.  What they do remember is being knocked out, kidnapped and waking in a cell, in a concrete block, in the middle of heavy woodland.  Alyn, being there longest, has tried to escape one time too many and is rapidly losing the will to keep fighting; Jes is full of conspiracy theories, desperate to leave but unsure where to start; Elsa is only thirteen, scared yet determined to return to her family while Ryan has only just arrived and is absolutely determined that he won’t be there for long.  In the background lurks Julian, who plays all ends towards the middle and Harlan who has, unknown to the rest, a keener sense of why they might be there than anyone else.

The characters in Nowhere are a mixed bunch. Alyn probably gets the lion’s share of narrative viewpoint and is likable enough.  His slowly ebbing fight is tangible, even as he tries to hide it from Jes and his back story (seen, like the others, in short flashbacks) is pretty interesting.  His story line proves that he has a huge determination to be free but never lets readers forget that he isn't a superhero, just a teenage boy at the mercy of his captors. Jes is interesting in that she is one of the only characters who realises that finding out why they’re imprisoned might be as important as escape but while she has a lot of ideas she doesn't really know where to find the answers. Ryan is full of righteous anger at his imprisonment and refuses to be beaten down, working constantly on a variety of escape plans.  He’s not particularly easy to like but he is easy to root for, especially in his interactions with the younger Elsa who seems to be the only one of the four main characters who not only has done nothing to merit her current imprisonment but also who genuinely doesn't have a background of petty crime and mild delinquency.  The problem with the four leads is that they are only vaguely distinguishable from each other. Ryan comes across as a less beaten down version of Alyn and their rivalry never rings true, while the loquacious Elsa seems like a younger version of conspiracy fueled Jes. None are exactly unlikable but neither are any particularly fully formed.

In fact, it is the lesser characters in Nowhere that create the interest necessary for continued reading.  Head and shoulders about the rest stands Julian.  He’s instantly unlikable but utterly understandable. A clever boy who has the ability to see, understand and manipulate his current situation.  Relying on no-one else, he inveigles his way onto the guard’s good sides, listens carefully to the inmates whispers and works constantly and quietly towards his own ends. While the rest are full of stuff and bluster, Julian exhibits an intelligence and slyness that is oddly admirable and certainly more interesting than the thought processes of any of the other characters. Harlan, also, seems more fully formed than the main four. Again, he’s a quiet thinker but he’s also of interest in that he really has tried to figure out why they are all imprisoned and clearly holds the key to the whole thing, not that he’s entirely sure what it is. It is in these two lesser characters that the author shows a real flair for characterisation and development, something sadly lacking from the core group.

The premise of Nowhere is intriguing – there’s nothing quite like a good mystery. While most of the action takes place within the prison, readers are also treated to some fascinating glimpses into the authorities that are behind it. At the heart of it all is The Pledge, a shady conglomerate of the super rich who appear to have approached the higher echelons of government at a time when the nation is is crisis. Set against an all too familiar back drop of massive unemployment, huge national debt and deep unrest it seems that The Pledge have come up with an idea that will nip an even greater anarchy in the bud before it can take hold. It’s an interesting idea and one that is particularly chilling when you look at the world today. However, we don’t find out much about what the idea actually entails. There are clearly brain-washing shenanigans afoot and a hint that the imprisoned delinquents might have specific potential for influencing others but that’s about it. And this idea, while being Nowhere’s great strength is also its weakness as the whole thing seems a bit underdeveloped. This, combined with the rather weak main characters, leads to the book being a compelling but slightly underwhelming debut. However, the ending is pleasingly ambiguous and the book is clearly intended to be the first in a series.  The ideas floated about in Nowhere are interesting enough that should the second book explore them fully the series as a whole could be pretty good. Certainly, it’s not quite like anything else on the YA shelves and I would certainly recommend this to younger teens but for those used to stories with a bit more meat on their bones I suspect that Nowhere will be a slight and somewhat frustrating disappointment.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Nowhere is published in the UK on July 4th this year. Thank you to the publisher for sending us this title to review.

May 28, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday - Great First Lines.

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. This week is a freebie week so I've gone with a top ten close to my heart. To my mind, you really cannot beat a good first line (except, possibly, with a good last line - a post on which is on its way). Those first few words can make the difference between a reader instantly discounting a book or being entirely entranced.  They can introduce characters, settings, location or place in time, drawing you into the story while you have still to truly begin.  There are many famous first lines – 1984, Moby Dick, Neuromancer (er, WOW)… but none of those ones are here.  Instead, I’ve collected a few of my own personal favourites:

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

This is my favourite of all first lines.  Instantly, you know the situation.  Bunny is dead.  But who is Bunny?  Who are “we”?  Thus begins a story that winds its way around a group of university students through the eyes of newcomer, Richard. Entranced by their exclusive world of money, beauty and ancient Greek he soon finds himself drowning in their strange little world.  The Secret History is a compelling mystery – never losing the promise of its first line and also a fascinating character study and tale of friendship and loyalty gone strangely wrong.

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say.

And Hello, Todd. This first line so completely introduces you to the narrative voice of the book’s protagonist that he instantly has your attention. The local yokel dialect, lack of punctuation and double negative signify instantly that this book isn't going to be quite the norm. And it’s not. That’s because it is better.  Protagonist Todd is memorable for his stream of consciousness type narration, something that draws you inexorably into Ness’s strange world. Not only is the style mesmerising, but also clever in that you feel that you are in Todd’s head – or that his thoughts are in yours, something that ties vitally to the core storyline. Brilliant writing, brilliant characterisation – brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Read it.

Marley was dead: to begin with.

Dickens’ quintessentially festive tale follows the repentance of neighbourhood miser Ebenezer Scrooge, fuelled by the appearance of numerous spirits during the course of a freezing Christmas Eve night.  And, to this day, I am yet to find a more apt first line in literature.  Any mention of death in a Christmas story, let alone in the opening line, is surely going against the very essence of the Christmas saga yet Dickens uses this inclusion to set the tone for what is a truly unorthodox festive tale and to give the reader an ominous insight into what further bleak accounts lie ahead.  Make yourself comfortable readers, this isn’t going to be an easy ride. If you are looking for carol singers and mulled wine this isn’t going to be the tale for you, however, Dickens’ exquisitely written, seminal work explores the capacity for good and evil in all of us and reiterates the true values we should hold dear during the festive period.  And for those who haven’t read the original work, you have my word that it does justice to both the exceptional version starring Bill Murray and the unforgettable account by Michael Caine and the Muppets (Thank you, PolkaDot Steph for this excellent contribution).

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

What?  You didn't think I was going to miss it out... Rebecca is one of my top five favourite books and the first line does what all good first lines should do, it invites the reader to wonder.  What is Manderley? Why isn't she there anymore?  Why does it haunt her dreams? By the way, if you haven't read it, the answers to all of the above are chillingly awesome.

All children grow up, except one

I recently read Peter Pan and Wendy to my five year old daughter. She listened with eyes like saucers, entranced by the magic while I read, entranced by her, reminded constantly that there is only one child who will never grow old. It always surprises me how few people have read the original Peter Pan. Full of beauty, sly humour and an oddly adult sensibility it’s extremely beautiful to read. Yet despite the many gorgeous passages throughout the book this first line encompasses its contradictory nature better than any of the rest.  It is a line that is both sad and magical, poignant and filled with joy, haunting and curious – much like Peter himself.

It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.

Honestly, who wouldn’t want to know the story behind this first line (ok, first two lines...)?  The Crow Road is a story of intrigue and murder wrapped up in a sprawling family saga.  Set exclusively in Scotland it is an enthralling tale, clever, moving and humorous   Iain Banks is a hugely prolific author, writing across genres from sci-fi to horror (his warped The Wasp Factory is a tour de force, if not one for the faint hearted) and The Crow Road showcases his style perfectly.  And, almost unbelievably  the whole thing really is as good as those opening lines.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife

I am pretty sure that were I to go through my Neil Gaiman collection, I could fill this post with only his first lines.  But this one is my favourite. It’s simple, striking and instantly demands answers. It’s also a beautifully small start. Just a hand, in the dark, with a knife. From this point, Gaiman’s story spirals out to a room, a crib, a child and a journey. Genius.

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

Here is a line that tells you just about everything you need to know about the character it introduces.  On reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader for the first time at the age of eight, I despised Eustace. Really, hated him. He was, to my mind, the worst kind of boy. Yet, as I read on I discovered that perhaps he, deep down, had the potential to be a little bit more than the sum of his rather unsavoury parts. A lesson that I’ve tried to remember ever since. Because, really, to truly and utterly deserve such a moniker, you’d have to be a horror indeed.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Surely there are few other lines that so perfectly introduce the reader to the narrator. Holden Caulfield is one of literature's most memorable protagonist and the reasons why are all there in that ballsy first line.

My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die. I counted.

Marchetta has the ability to combine haunting phrases with stark reality and it is seen no better than in the opening of Jellicoe Road, arguably her best work so far. It’s an incredibly sad line, encompassing unbelievable horror without ever describing it.  It is, as one later discovers, a pivotal line in the story, despite not being delivered by the novel’s protagonists and the image created in that first moment is one that will stay with readers long after the end of the book.

It strikes me that these first lines all have one thing in common – Like the mystery of Manderley, they all create questions to which a reader must have an answer. Why does his dog talk? Does anyone deserve the name Eustace? Why is there a father slowly dying in front of his children?  Why is Marley so definitely dead? Whose hand holds that knife in the dark?  These questions are what grabbed me, pulled me in and kept me reading.  Hopefully, you’ve all read these particular stories – if you haven’t then you SHOULD. Equally hopefully  you all know of some first lines that dragged you into a book and never let go.  Please share them, and their power, with the rest of us.

May 25, 2013

The Horror, The Horror (review: The End Games by .....)

The End GamesThe End Games
T. Michael Martin
Balzar and Bray 2013

Michael is deep in The Game. Travelling through a desolated America he has only the voice of The Game Master to see him and his five-year-old brother through a country that is only barely recognisable to the final Safe Zone. On this most perilous of journeys, they are continually running from the hellish Bellows, undead creatures who echo the cries of those they pursue. As Michael tries desperately to keep Patrick going, it becomes clear that there is both more and less to The Game than is first apparent and that this new and scary landscape is populated by monsters that are less obviously monstrous than the Bellows. Ultimately, Game or not, Michael has only himself to rely on as he navigates his way to a Safe Zone that may or may not exist.

Michael, while not always easy to like, has an authentic teenage voice. In fact, he’s incredibly well written. Straddling, as he does, the immaturity inherent with his age and the very adult responsibilities he has voluntarily shouldered, he is a fascinating mix of motivation and confusion. His inner monologue is tinged with desperation as he tries to figure out how to survive and also filled with memories of a geeky, nervous, unhappy school life and a home life that has kept him running despite the horrors of the outside world. These memories create in him a lack of confidence but Michael is, in actuality, very capable and focussed. He’s a real survivor and his slow realisation of this is both excruciatingly slow and satisfyingly believable. His relationship with Patrick is extremely well drawn, his understanding of his brother at times almost heart-breaking as is the fact that he embraces the role of parent so willingly and with a real maturity. Conversely  his interactions with Holly highlight the fact that he is, still, a teenage boy who fumbles his way around girls and comes out with utterly ridiculous attempts at flirtation. It’s a clever and delightful paradox and engenders the heart of The End Games with a realness that is occasionally lacking from the rest of the book.

Holly herself is an interesting enough character. While at first she practically shrieks Manic Pixie Dream Girl, she later evolves into something quite different and is as flawed and believable as Michael. Patrick is also well realised as a child who is clearly somewhere on the autistic spectrum trying to understand a no longer understandable world. The Game, for Patrick, provides an absolutely necessary structure to the madness he’s encountering and the fact that The Game cannot last forever provides a sense of dread for readers in that it is unclear what will happen to Patrick should his structured world disappear. As the only real adult in the story, Jopek is a strange mix of Tallahassee from Zombieland and Colonel Kurtz from Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now. Yet this lack of originality doesn't make him any less of an imposing, intimidating figure, if a rather predictable one.

The story of The End Games is almost less important that the way in which it is structured. The idea of The Game is extremely  clever and Michael’s point of view verges on being a stream of consciousness rather than standard he said she said. This gives the story an immediacy that zombie stories often lack. And make no mistake, this is a zombie story yet it is a relatively original one with some pleasing Science in the mix. Particularly interesting is the idea of a mutating virus – one of those ideas which is so perfect that you wonder why no one thought of it before.  However, the story occasionally lacks coherency with aspects of it verging on the surreal rather than the believable.  In particularly, the hot air balloon and especially it’s appearance towards the end of the story made little sense – something that will perhaps have been resolved in the final copy, this review being based on an e-galley.  Finally, there is a fair amount of discussion on God in The End Games.  Such discussion is interesting in an apocalyptic tale but here it felt like sneaky preaching.  While Michael dismisses the idea of God, he still has a mysterious-voice-in-his-head-that-manifests-as-a-deer thing going on that comes across as pretty overt. There's a possibility that the author was trying for genuine philosophy here - I certainly have no idea of his personal beliefs - but it didn't work, coming across as a "message" rather than an idea.  I have no issue with religion, but it all made me a bit uncomfortable.

Despite that, The End Games is accomplished. It’s a zombie world with a twist, a look at family and identity and many, like me, will read it in one sitting before having it lurk in the corners of their mind for days afterwards.  It says a lot that the book’s flaws do not detract from what is ultimately a compelling read and I urge you all to pick it up and decide for yourselves what to make of it.  Then come back and tell me – there is much to discuss!

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. The End Games is available now.  Thank you to the publisher, via Edelweiss, for sending us this title to review.

May 23, 2013

Afterlife (review of Reboot by Amy Tintera)

Reboot (Reboot, #1)
Amy Tintera
Harper Teen 2013

When Wren was twelve, she was shot in the chest three times.  For one hundred and seventy eight minutes, Wren was dead.  And then she wasn’t.  Ever since humanity was struck by a virulent illness, some people, like Wren rise from the dead, returning better or worse than before.  They are, in effect, rebooted.  Rebooted adults return crazed and drooling, unable to function and dangerous.  Rebooted children, though, come back somewhat enhanced – strong, fast, fit.  Wren One-Seventy-Eight returned in particular good shape because the longer you’re dead, the more physically improved you are on return.  Yet the longer you’re dead, the more emotionless you are as a Reboot and Wren watches her life as if from a distance even as she is used by the HARC corporation to subdue and kill those who threaten a somewhat tenuous hold on order.  When not on assignment, Wren (now seventeen), trains new Reboots – which is how she ends up with Callum.  Callum Twenty-Two barely died at all and has Rebooted with all his human emotions and few of the usual Reboot enhancements.  He disregards orders, treats Wren like she is more alive than dead and slowly cracks open the shell she has placed herself in, leading her to question the life she has been leading for the last five years.

Wren, by her very nature, is a fairly remote character.  She finds it difficult to connect to others and her feelings appear to be completely cut off to her.  She enjoys her assignments, having no issue with pursuing rogue humans and Reboots, enjoying the chase and never wondering whether those she catches are innocent or guilty.  The closes thing that she has to a friend is her roommate Ever but even then she holds herself at a distance.  This, in part, is due to her One-Seventy-Eight status – she seems to inspire both fear and awe in those who encounter her which is why her surprise at Callum’s warmth and interest in her as a person is so utterly believable.  Even as she struggles to understand why he isn’t at all afraid of her, he allows her to access emotions she thought long dead.  What is particularly interesting about Wren is that her life before Rebooting was so horrendous that her emotional remoteness is as much to do with a lack of nurture before her death as it is to do with the minutes that passed after it.

Callum stands out in Reboot because he is so different to everyone else.  He’s not human and so doesn’t act with the barely disguised disgust of HARC when interacting with Reboots but nor does he really believe that he isn’t human.  His defining characteristic is an almost unwavering optimism even when faced with the most depressing of situations and his adamance that, human or Reboot, his principals will remain the same.  He seems at first entranced with Wren, almost seeing her coldness as a challenge but as the story progresses he grows genuinely fond of her, drawing her out of herself with a disarming charm that is hard to resist.  Other characters flit in and out, from the emotionally bizarre Reboots to fragile Ever to the human guards who can barely seem to look at their charges.  All are interesting and all are well written.

Plot-wise, Reboot is solid.  While many reviews have commented that it is primarily a romance, in actuality the growing bond between Wren and Callum only serves to drive the story that lies at the core of the book and which revolves around ideas of experimentation, imprisonment, equality and identity.  It’s all very well handled, as is the tenuous relationship between the two leads.  Reboot’s real strength, though, is in its originality.  Tintera has taken the idea of traditional zombies and turned it completely upside down while still alluding to the more traditional ideas of walking dead. It’s smart, compelling and the world building is great – evil corporations, when done well, are always a hell of a lot of fun.  Reboot is, rather inevitably, the first in a series but is both a solid start to what should be an interesting story and an excellent debut novel in that it’s hard to put it down once you pick it up.  Which you absolutely should.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Reboot is available now.  Thank you to the publisher, via Edelweiss, for sending us this title to review.

May 21, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday - Book Covers

This is my first Top Ten Tuesday!  I really enjoy reading this feature, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish and while I doubt I'll take part EVERY week (no point in actively setting myself up for a fall) I plan on taking part as often as possible.  This week, it's a topic close to my heart - book covers:

Shiver (The Wolves of Mercy Falls, #1)

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
I love the minimal use of colours, the fairytale connotations of woodland and heart-shaped leaves and the blood spatter that hints at a darker story.

Sisters Red (Fairytale Retellings, #1)

Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce
Another fairytale, clearly, and again using minimal colours, this one is beautifully clever in its double aspect.

The Fault in Our Stars
The Fault in our Stars by John Green
Controversial in its simplicity I think this cover is rather beautiful.  It's eye catching and screams literary fiction.  Gorgeous.

The Radleys (Young Adult Edition)
The Radleys by Matt Haig
Er, clearly I like the use of red, white and black because this again is a cover that I found massively eye-catching.  A crossover novel, this is the YA cover - which, in all honestly, is far more striking than the adult one.

The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo
A change of pace here, but at eight years old this was the first book I ever bought for myself and that was largely due to the cover which my eight year old tastes thought was the most beautiful I'd ever seen.

Delirium (Delirium, #1)
Delirium by Lauren Oliver
This is the original UK hardback cover and is quite lovely.  Sadly, the UK publisher has seen fit to change the covers of Oliver's trilogy not once, but twice and they are now horribly generic and lack the beauty and simplicity seen here.

The Sky Is Everywhere
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
This is cheating slightly as the cover is enhanced by the packaging of this story as a whole. Still, the blue sky and rough texture of this cover image perfectly illustrate the bittersweet magicality of Nelson's wonderful story.

The Mockingbirds (The Mockingbirds, #1)
The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney
I like the starkness of this cover, the graphical nature of the bird and the colour scheme.  It's eye catching and simple making me want to pick up the book and find out more.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth (The Forest of Hands and Teeth, #1)
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
Again with the black and red, but this cover is so special.  Beautiful yet oddly discomfiting it has little relation to the contents of the book yet complements the feel of it perfectly.  Very clever.

Seraphina (Seraphina, #1)
Seraphina - Rachel Hartman
This is old school "here be dragons" sort of stuff.  Beautifully drawn, sumptuous to look at, perfect for the story found in its pages.  Sadly, the UK cover was far less alluring - I'm glad I have this one.

Shadow and Bone (The Grisha, #1)
Shadow and Bone - Leigh Bardugo
Initially, this was published with a boring cover and a different title in the UK but now they've got with the programme and have produced this beauty.  Again, the simple colour scheme is eye-catching and the Russian aspects representative of the story without hitting you about the head with it.

And there you have it.  It appears that I like simple covers with few covers and, importantly, no people... who knew??  Let me know about your favourite pretties in the comments - I'm intrigued to see what others like.

May 18, 2013

The Light It Seeks (Review: Stone Junction by Jim Dodge)

Stone Junction: An Alchemical Potboiler  Jim Dodge
Rebel, Inc. 1997

Everybody has a few books which make a deep and lasting impression on them. Books which they read at just the right time, in just the right mood to ensure a well-worn copy remains on the nearest shelf for decades to come. Books which will inevitably worm their way into every single conversation about literature, no matter how tenuous the connection. For me there are three: Catch-22, my first ever 'serious' book and catalyst for my ever-strengthening pacifist views; Bad Wisdom for it's utterly compelling honesty and insanity; and Stone Junction: An Alchemical Potboiler, an indescribable wonder whose lack of general recognition both saddens me and makes me happy to belong to 'the club'. It is a masterpiece of magical realism, verging at times on urban fantasy and exhilarates as much as it breaks your heart. That it is one of only four volumes published by Jim Dodge (among them a collection of poems and a short children's book) makes it all the more precious.

Stone Junction is the story of Daniel Pearse, a young man emerging from a strange and wondrous childhood. Daniel finds himself adopted by the mysterious AMO, the Association of Magicians and Outlaws, an organisation his mother served throughout his early years. What follows is a coming-of-age story as Daniel finds himself passed from mentor to mentor through the ranks of the AMO, learning every imaginable trick of the trade along the way. From alchemy to card-sharking, he leaves no stone unturned in his quest for knowledge. Daniel is not just after an unorthodox education however; powering every step is his desire to finally discover what really happened on a pivotal night years before.

Throughout the course of his schooling Daniel is deposited with a number of unforgettable father-figures, some more than willing to take on a temporary apprentice, others less so. Here Dodge plays with the idea of Daniel's lack of a real father-figure, having never actually known his own. No matter how the mentors feel about their new charge, their vignettes are invariably as entertaining as they are inspiring and informative. Dodge draws on his own experience of inhabiting all manner of insalubrious worlds to paint each scene with enviable authenticity and warmth, suggesting an uncanny familiarity with everything from safe-cracking to drug ingestion. Even an extended game of Lo-Ball during the cards section is magically imbued with a level of interest and tension which should, given the subject matter, be impossible. When I first read this book back in university I even found myself hovering around the card games shelves in Waterstone's, pondering the feasibility of a career in Vegas (thankfully I had a combination of common sense and sloth to save me).

During the course of his training, Daniel begins to uncover his own hidden talents as well as honing those he has learnt and soon rises through the ranks of the AMO. Before long he is involved in the search for the Faith Diamond, a jewel of incredible size and purity which captures the imagination of all those who cross its path. Daniel is drawn to it instinctively and as time wears on it becomes more and more clear that the hunt for the diamond holds the answer to the fate of his long-lost mother and that which may await him as well.

Jim Dodge’s great strength is the warmth and authenticity which he manages to bestow on such a fantastical epic. You know you’re immersed in a world where magic is real, alchemy works and ornery old mules can speak but your disbelief remains suspended throughout. This is largely due to the strength of the characters themselves. Despite their otherworldly talents they remain the most down-to-earth, utterly real people you could hope to meet. You’ll find echoes of them in your own family and acquaintances and will even miss them once the story moves on and leaves them in the dust. Add to this cast an incredibly original, compelling and addictive story and you’ll wonder why this isn't paraded in bookstores everywhere as a paragon of modern literature.

Stone Junction is many things to many people. On the surface it’s an ensemble piece, focused on an unforgettable cast of characters who will carve out their own niche in your psyche and lurk there for quite some time afterwards, chattering and taunting. It’s a coming of age story revolving around a boy becoming a man and facing the demons of his past. It’s a tale of love, loss and redemption, of friendship and betrayal. It’s a touching homage to the author’s own youth, an autobiography viewed through the lens of an untamed imagination.

However you see Stone Junction, one thing is certain: it will not leave you unchanged. Take a deep breath, submerge yourself in it and let its wonders wash over you. You’ll not regret it.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Both he and Splendibird read this book the same week, many years ago, and both urge you to pick up a copy NOW. Stone Junction is available in all good bookstores.

May 16, 2013

What Kind of Love am I Facing? (Review: The Secret of Ella and Micha by Jessica Sorensen)

The Secret of Ella and Micha (The Secret, #1)
The Secret of Ella and Micha
Jessica Sorensen
Sphere 2013

Ella and Micha have been friends forever, seeing each other through their difficult childhoods.  However, after a series of tragic events, Ella realises that she needs to leave her past behind and flees to college, leaving Micha behind with no idea of where she is or whether she will ever return.  While Micha has searched for her, suspended in place by the night she disappeared, Ella has spent the year reinventing herself but she can’t stay away forever and, come summer break, she finds herself returning to a house full of bad memories and the boy next door who won’t take no for an answer.

Ella is a character who will be quickly familiar to any readers of the newly minted New Adult genre.  Damaged by a past that involves both violence and neglect, she’s trying desperately to change her life.  Brittle, suspicious and fragile she’s also resourceful and smart – she got herself to college, made new friends, funded herself and seems to generally have her head screwed on the right way.  However, she’s clearly not come to terms with the events of her past and needs someone to help her do so.   So far, so NA protagonist.  And she really doesn’t get much more original.  The best that can be said for Ella is that she’s vaguely likeable and her character’s mental health is handled with a degree of care.  Her treatment of Micha is understandable, while selfish, and her reluctance to spend time with him a measure of her desire to escape a past she doesn’t really understand.

Micha, sadly, is also all too familiar.  When Ella returns he is understandably angry and hurt, as well as worried.  This could have been a great way to create a sympathetic, conflicted character but instead Micha reacts by turning into the rapidly emerging stereotypical male of the genre.  In order to get the attention of a girl whom he knows to be deeply damaged, he flirts with people in front of her, climbs unbidden into her bed (sadly another well-worn scenario in the world of NA), slides his hand up her skirt in public and states that he “has to have her”, seeming to truly believe that his moronic, testosterone fuelled claim on her will somehow ease her troubled past.  What a PRINCE!  In the few chapters in which Micha manages to get his mind away from his nethers, he actually comes across as quite a nice, thoughtful guy and later does address Ella’s long-standing intimacy issues but it’s too little, too late.  To be honest, the fact that he recognises that she has intimacy issues at all only sheds an even nastier light on his possessive, pushy behaviour.

The Secret of Ella and Micha is frustrating in that it has the potential to be so much more.  The issues raised are interesting, the family dynamics curious and the gorgeous best friend, desperately worried for his neighbour should be breath-takingly romantic.  But this is New Adult, people, and so rather than focus on the aforementioned plot points, The Secret of Ella and Micha focuses largely on sex.  Now sex scenes are fun, hell, more books should have them, but New Adult as a genre seems to use sex instead of storyline, regularly mixing it into stories in which the girls are damaged and the boys are lined up to convince them that therapy won’t work as well as a good dicking.  Certainly, consensual sex has a role in these storylines, with Ella and Micha it certainly represents her starting to overcome some issues, but the way in which the men in NA push their desire onto the women is, quite frankly, a bit icky – I don’t care how gorgeous they are. 

This isn’t the first NA book that has disappointed me. I keep reading the genre in the hope that one will appear that will illustrate to actual New Adults (whatever they are) that the start of your adult life isn’t necessarily filled with trauma and sexual manipulation.  Thus far, the best New Adult books I’ve read haven’t been published under that particular genre label but rather remained in the YA bracket.  Both Where She Went by Gayle Forman and Lovely, Dark and Deep by Amy McNamara look at issues surrounding a troubled past and an uncertain future, both feature protagonists in their late teens/early twenties and both feature sex; both, critically, handle it all far better than anything on the NA shelves, including, sadly, The Secret of Ella and Micha.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird who, in the pursuit of open-mindedness would like to state that she appears to be in the minority in her opinion. The Secret of Ella and Micha is available now. Thank you to the publisher for providing us with this title to review.

May 11, 2013

If You Go Down To The Woods (Review: A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz)

A Tale Dark And Grimm
Adam Gidwitz
Puffin 2011

"You're being foolish," Gretel told herself. "Rain can't talk."

No, of course it can't. The moon can eat children, and fingers can open doors, and people's heads can be put back on.
But rain? Talk? Don't be ridiculous.
Good thinking, Gretel dear. Good thinking.

Okay, stop me if you’ve heard this one - a brother and sister go wandering off into the darkest depths of the forest, ignoring all of their parents’ warnings. Stumbling across a gingerbread house they proceed to gorge themselves until its haggard resident returns. She proceeds to fatten up the siblings, preparing them for a feast, when they turn the tables and roast her alive in her own oven. The end. Or so your own parents may have had you believe...

Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark And Grimm is a loving homage to the stories of our childhood, taking the familiar tales and returning to them some of the grit and grime which have been slowly polished away in the centuries since their inception. Hansel and Gretel do indeed form the core of the story but the witch episode above is merely an early chapter in their grand epic. Weaving together eight separate tales, Gidwitz crafts his own cautionary fable about the dangers of the outside world, of trusting in strangers and, charmingly, of being a parent.

At the outset the parents are cast in the role of despicable villains, at least in the eyes of Hansel and Gretel. Due to a hideous curse (it’s a long story) their father, the king, reluctantly chops off their heads in order to save their lives. It’s alright, they get better. But old wounds have a tendency to reopen, especially when decapitation is involved, and as soon as the children learn what happened they set off into the great unknown on a quest for a more loving family.

Initially they seem to find success. New homes are waiting in every village with fathers in search of daughters, woodsmen in search of brides and witches in search of, erm, dinner. But behind every fairytale facade lurks rot and decay. Murderers enchant their victims before slaughtering them and imprisoning their souls in birdcages. Fatherly rejection turns brothers into sparrows, seeking refuge in far-off caves accessible through only the most gruesome of methods. And yes, there be dragons. Big ones.

Only a brave soul would attempt a retelling of such well-known tales but I’m pleased to say Adam Gidwitz carries out the task with aplomb. His knowledge of and love for the Brothers Grimm shines through in every tale, never allowing himself to become too cruel to his characters or to let them lose sight of the light at the end of their tunnel. Inevitably things do get a bit dark and grim sometimes - after all, these tales were originally more survival manuals than bedtime stories - but it’s all in the name of fun. He does take a perverse glee in dialling up the body count at times though, and bucketloads of blood are spilled throughout the proceedings.

Despite all the blood and horror, A Tale Dark And Grimm is held together in a light vein by Gidwitz’s fourth wall-breaking narration, infused with a wonderful sense of irony and knowing winks to the older reader. Regular urgings to rid the room of younger readers at tense moments only serve to heighten their interest and ensure a rapt audience. Children will all too readily identify with Hansel and Gretel, relating to their struggles against the grown-up world, while adults can chuckle away at the inside jokes and marvel at the masterful storytelling itself. Some of the light relief characters (the three ravens and their tangential conversations for example) come from the same comic stable as Pratchett and Python, nudging the story along while bringing us back down to earth after each adventure.

Despite expecting something aimed at a more mature level I found myself entranced by A Tale Dark And Grimm immediately and found myself cursing my classes for getting in the way of reading. The story just feels so genuine and steadfastly refuses to patronise children in the manner of the Disney-fied versions of the tales with which they are more familiar. Something about this honesty just makes it so endearing and yes, I admit it - I also loved the gore. So will your kids, I guarantee it.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones.  A Tale Dark and Grimm is available now.

May 09, 2013

Yellow Feathers in her Hair and a Dress Cut Down to There (review: Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins)

Lola and the Boy Next Door (Anna and the French Kiss, #2)
Lola and The Boy Next Door
Stephanie Perkins
Dutton Books 2011

Lola is living a life of high costume drama in San Francisco.  She spends her time festooned in fabulous creations of her own design, attending school, working in her local cinema and hanging out with her two dads.  Oh, and having a relationship with 22 year old Max who may or may not be OK (or possibly even TOO OK) with the fact that she’s only seventeen – it’s hard to tell.  Despite the complications of dating an older man, not least her fathers’ ardent disapproval, life isn’t at all bad.  Not, that is, until erstwhile neighbours The Bells return to the house next door.  More specifically to Lola, the Bell twins return – one of whom is her nemesis, the other the source of her deepest hurt.  With Lola at the helm, channeling her own special brand of crazy, things are about to get interesting.

Lola is delightful.  She’s kind of like a little Zooey Deschanel, zipping about San Fran, being disarmingly kooky – but without the annoying smugness that is Zooey Deschanel. While she’s hard not to like, she’s far from perfect.  Her relationship with Max seems to embody with the kind of blinkered selfishness that can sometimes be engendered by first love.  To the point that at one point the abandons St Clair (yes, that St. Clair) in a club – it’s THAT BAD. And her selfishness isn’t the only thing that’s blinkered – Lola is generally pretty good and not seeing anything she doesn’t want to see and at hiding the things she wishes others to not see either.  However, as her story progresses, she forces herself to see things as they really are – including herself.  It might take her a while, but her character develops rather beautifully and, even when her decisions might make you cringe, she’s rarely anything other than entirely lovable.

The insanely (and delightfully unexplained) monickered Cricket and Calliope Bell are instantly intriguing what with Lola hinting at some hurtful backstory before they even appear on the scene.  Calliope is a fairly brittle character, a driven competitor who doesn't have much in her life other than her skating and her brother.  Her interactions with Lola are often unpleasant, but Calliope is an oddly sympathetic character, particularly when seen through the eyes of Cricket.  Cricket himself is rather excellent.  He's no St. Clair (who could be?) but he's exceptionally charming in a bumbling genius sort of way that will have readers rooting for him from the minute he appears in all his long legged quirkiness.  The friendship between him and Lola is believable only, sometimes, due to his exceptional patience and understanding.  She's a lucky girl.  

Elsewhere, the story is peppered with well written and interesting characters.  Max, Lola's much older boyfriend isn't exactly a prince.  Dating a girl five years his junior (and a teenager to his early twenties) often seems a bit icky but he does seem to care for her, in his own conflicted should-i-be-dating-this-child way.  His doubtfulness at her honesty at first seems unfair but is increasingly justified as it becomes clear that Lola really does seem to spend more time hiding things from him than telling the truth.  Lola's dads have to be a story highlight. They are interesting characters in their own right but really, I just got excited because it reminded me of that sitcom My Two Dads.  And yes, I'm aware that that very statement ages me.

The story running through Lola and the Boy Next Door is a classic coming of age one.  Lola grows before our eyes, makes mistakes, recognises those mistakes and adjusts her life view accordingly.  The romance aspect is just as pleasing as the one seen in Anna and the French Kiss but in many ways this story is more about the girl than the boy and is extremely well told.  It's in turns funny, moving and thrilling and anyone who loved Perkin's debut outing is surely going to fall in love with this.  The third in the series (although they all work perfectly as standalone titles so far), Isla and the Happily Ever After is out this year and Lola and the Boy Next Door has some tantalising hints as to how all of Stephanie Perkins' engaging characters might actually manage to appear in the same story.  I, for one, can't wait.  Perkins writes the kind of clever, touching stories that are full to the brim with romance and friendship and that will always have me coming back for more.  Perfect escapism of the best kind, Lola and The Boy Next Door comes highly recommended from The Mountains of Instead.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird.  Both Lola and The Boy Next Door and Anna and the French Kiss (review here) are available now.  Treat yourself and pick up copies of both.