September 27, 2013

They'll Grind Your Bones to Make Their Bread (review: Sick by Tom Leveen)

Tom Leveen
Amulet 2013

A perfectly normal, perfectly average, perfectly dull day turns into something for Brian, Chad and their fellow high-schoolers. Brian worries about his panic-ridden ex, Laura; Chad wonders if he'll get with Brian's sister before he leaves for the army; drama geeks work in the theatre department and jocks prepare for the latest pep rally. Except the rally isn't particularly preppy and the drama crowd aren't going to be putting on a show anytime soon. Primarily because they are rapidly overrun by a hoard of, er, infected citizens who run like apes, are covered in odd, calcified skin and who seem to have a fondness for bone marrow. Being avid observers of pop culture, it quickly becomes clear to the rag tag bunch of students that Brian finds himself at the heart of, that their former friends and teachers resemble...well...zombies more than patients, no matter how much it seems nicer to refer to them as ill. Stuck in a school that has plenty akin with a prison, they only have a matter of time to break out before the infected break in.

Brian is a pretty nice bloke with a strange choice in friends. Obviously bright, he still gives off a decent slacker vibe without seeming like a future high-school drop out. Devoted to a sister he almost lost and clearly not over the girl he dumped literally for her own good (seriously, he really means this and his reasoning is not unsound), he's loyal almost to a fault where his friend Chad is concerned and genuinely interested in his fellow students. An observer at heart, he's a great protagonist through whom Tom Leveen explores the insanity of the situation the characters are in. Chad is less likable. While he's clearly a good friend to have, he's also a bit of an arse. The kind of teenager who rather artlessly throws around words homophobia and racism more because, one suspects, it suits his carefully constructed hard-man image than through any true bigotry. It's hard to stomach, but not unfamiliar to anyone who has ever been a certain age – there is a Chad in every year group, sadly. This Chad loves his friends, loves his mum and eventually seems to be able to put aside his default moron-mode for the greater good. He's a fairly bravely written character and, in fact, holds more interest than his protagonist friend.

Other characters pepper a diverse cast. Gay, straight; fat, thin; black, white; rich, poor; all are represented in a pleasingly non-stereotypical manner. The portrayal of Laura as a girl with mental health issues (specifically intense anxiety) was pleasing to read, if rather quickly resolved and Kenzie's history of leukemia is an interesting counterpoint to the life/death situation of the day. The majority of characters are teenage but Brian's mother plays a small part. As a doctor on the “outside” she is more often than not a tool for exposition but she's believably frantic and plays a vital role in the group's understanding of the infected.

Sick has been publicised with the tag line “Walking Dead meets The Breakfast Club” but what it really reminds me of is The Faculty. It's a lot of fun, despite the rather grim reality that the characters are faced with and the plot is pacey and well put together. Particularly nice was the section in which a character first mentions the Z-word. Often in zombie books the characters seem not to mention that the hoards of living dead that surround them bare a striking resemblance to those seen on TV and in movies. This lot bring it up relatively quickly and just as quickly realise that it's not a term they are comfortable using, a reaction that seems entirely realistic. There's also some nicely expositioned science that attempts to explain what is happening, with Brian figuring out a possible reason for the illness based on his sister's leukemia. Whether the scientific explanation holds water or not it's believable enough to carry readers through.

Zombies have, in YA, been rather done to death (ha!) but Tom Leveen has managed to present a fast-paced, enjoyably brutal story that shines a light on humanity and survival rather than the lack of it. For lovers of the undead, this is an entirely acceptable addition and the realistic dialogue, well-rounded characters and well-walked trope of a united gang of misfits are all well written. Sick is a title that is certainly worth a look from an author who is a welcome face on the YA scene and a great way to spend a rainy evening on the run up to Halloween.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Sick will be published on 21st October 2013 and Zombie fans should add it to their wish-lists now.  Thank you to the publisher for sending us this title to review.

September 22, 2013

Everybody's Looking for Something (Review: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater)

The Dream Thieves
Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic 2013

In Henrietta, everything is opportunity, magic and myth.  The ley line has been woken, Cabeswater has taken its frightening yet wondrous sacrifice and dreams perch on the shoulders of boys.  Blue, Gansey, Ronan, Adam and Noah stand on the brink of discovery, the sleeping king, Glendower seeming tangibly close. Yet Henrietta crackles with menace. Shadowy figures and frightening forces press ever closer while demons of a more personal nature stalk the minds of those vital to their containment. In this second instalment of Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, ancient forces converge, friendships are tested and fate brings the full force of its terrible, wonderful power down on the Raven Boys.

The Dream Thieves is a triumph of characterisation. In The Raven Boys, Blue’s eyes were the prisms through which we were introduced to Henrietta and Aglionby.  Here, Stiefvater moves through multiple viewpoints – an astonishing amount, in all honesty, yet the story never loses cohesiveness.  If anyone drives The Dream Thieves, however, then it’s Ronan Lynch.  Ronan is an oxymoronic mix of loyalty and loathing, pissiness and piety.  He’s wreathed in secrets that are both wondrous and terrifying, yet he himself is fearless and almost blindly accepting talents. He is an incredibly intricate, cleverly drawn character who rather owns this instalment of Stiefvater’s story.  Contrasting Ronan, is new character Levinsky.  Levinsky is a psychopathic, foul-mouthed creation of carefully orchestrated fecklessness and cruelty.  He is what Ronan would be without the inhabitants of Monmouth Manufacturing: a dark mirror on Ronan’s reality.  Their interactions also suggest more hidden aspects of the story, coming across like an illicit affair, thrilling but ultimately sordid and with one always wanting more than the other.

While Ronan is accepting of recent events, Adam is not.  He’s losing time to visions that he doesn’t understand and is terrified. For almost the entirety of The Dream Thieves he fights to hold onto the identity of Adam Parrish but flounders awfully, lashing out where he should be asking for help.  His overwhelming self-pity and pride could be irritating but In Stiefvater’s hands becomes a tragic hubris, almost noble in its very destructiveness.  Anyway, it’s hard to be irritated at someone who is so desperately lonely and sad. Of all Adam’s moments in the book it is those he shares with Blue that hit home hardest in terms of his loneliness.  This is not lost on Blue but she is realising that she could quite safely kiss Adam and this realisation leads, in turn, to one that has been inevitable since the opening scenes of The Raven Boys. Blue remains slightly in the background of The Dream Thieves but is still at the heart of the group of characters, drawing together the boys, the women and the energy.

Blue’s inevitability (and not only hers) stems from her friendship with Gansey, who remains as fascinating here as he ever was in The Raven Boys.  Stiefvater cleverly allows readers to see a Gansey who is, while still enigmatic and driven, very much a teenage boy with a beloved car, the impulse to throw caution to the wind and girl troubles.  Except even as a teenage boy with a beloved car and girl troubles he is one part seventeen-year-old rich kid and ten parts seemingly timeless wonder.  An old soul, perhaps, or maybe someone who’s lived through more time than anyone yet realises. 

Alongside this core group, there are many others who become indelible parts of the ongoing story.  Noah, the living dead boy, is far more present than before and demonstrates an unquestioning innocence and lust for life that seems strange in someone who suffered such a violent death.  More than anything he delights in his friendships and is particularly lovely with Blue, just when she needs it.  The women of Fox Way are also very present in this book and, unusually for a YA title, are allowed to emerge without the presence of Blue or the boys.  They do this largely in the company of the mysterious Mr Gray, a character who it is best for readers to discover themselves.  Above all, Stiefvater’s characters contain not a stereotype among them.  They are utterly unique – something that is seen less often that one might think.

So often, the second book in a series is the equivalent of “that difficult second album” but not so Stiefvater’s tour de force. The multiple viewpoints and shifts in focus hang together to create a story that is utterly mesmerising and full of moments that are beautiful because they are sad and sad because they are beautiful. The darker moments, which include some rather well written horror, are contrasted with moments of utter glee, humour and the kind of knowingly glorious potential that can surely only be felt by watching dreams fly with dreams.  Yet the menace is there, surrounding the story as surely as her characters are surrounded by Mitsubishi shark teeth.

The Dream Thieves is storytelling at its best.  The kind of storytelling that makes you reflect on how much better the world is for having stories in it.  The characters are unique yet ancient, the story new yet timeless.  King Arthur is referenced more than once in The Dream Thieves, allowing this reader to spend many happy hours wondering who might Merlin, or Lancelot, or Morgana turn out to be but also leading me to turn to other great tales.  TH White’s The Once and Future King and The Dark Is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper among others.  Read them, read The Dream Thieves and then be glad because this story has yet to be finished and that there is surely yet more magic and yet more wonder to come from a writer at the top of her game.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. The Dream Thieves is available now.  Thank you to lovely Nicole, who posted a copy across the Atlantic.  You rock.  Also, we'd like to recommend the audio recordings of both The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves - Will Patton has a voice like syrup.

September 09, 2013

He Speaks For Me At Last (review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane)

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane Neil Gaiman William Morrow 2013
At last! A new Neil Gaiman novel is always a breath of fresh air and it's been eight years since his last full-length outing, for adults at any rate. I'd already started twitching and itching, literary DT's are unpleasant in the extreme. Finally he has returned with The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, a short story turned novel which is so thoroughly Gaiman it's verging on ridiculous. Cliches abound about how reading a new work by a favourite author feels like slipping into a favourite, well-worn t-shirt but this takes it to extremes.
The Ocean At The End Of The Lane begins near the end, with the narrator returning to his childhood home under unpleasant circumstances, sparking the memories of long-forgotten misadventures which form the core of the book. Recalling a childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock, who once lived in a small cottage at the end of a lane, he pays a visit and his past comes flooding back. As a child he, his parents and sister lived happily in their country home until financial troubles forced them to take in lodgers.
One such lodger takes his own life in a moment of desperation, triggering a series of peculiar events in the village. Following a visit with Lettie to an otherwordly forest a  mysterious presence starts giving the locals that which they most desire. Everything has a price though and our protagonist soon finds himself in deep trouble, with a manipulative nanny turning everyone against him and thwarting his every effort to set things right. Only Lettie and her family can see what is happening and stand a chance to return the world to normal.
Whenever I attempt to describe Gaiman's work to the uninitiated I usually resort to the old 'fairytales for grown-ups' line, my standby since American Gods and Stardust in particular. The Ocean At The End Of The Lane does not even require the 'adult' qualifier, being an unashamed and perfectly crafted fairy tale for a modern age. The tone of the tale will unsettle grown-ups and give some genuine scares to younger readers - if it were a movie the cover would doubtless display a "Contains scenes of extreme peril" warning. However in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm and their ilk there is always hope, a ray of light for our heroes to cling to. Of course no real fairytale's ending is ever entirely happy - for how else would we learn about consequences? - but The Ocean At The End Of The Lane never sinks too deep into dark territory for us to get lost in its grim aspects.
And as with all great fairytales there is a message to be divined here. Or maybe not. Perhaps there are many. One of the joys of reading Gaiman is that it can be understood on many levels depending on the reader's mood at the time. On its most superficial level it is a simple story, one to be relished by young and old alike. However adult readers will soon realise what is triggering their unease while reading. The Ocean At The End Of The Lane plays skillfully on that harsh line forever fencing us off from our childhood days. It's a reminder of how quickly everything transforms from peaceful idyll to chaos, one moment cosseted in the bosom of a loving family and the next tossed out into an unforgiving world with little or no idea of what is happening. Younger readers may not realise this, having yet to face the great upheaval, but they will no doubt appreciate the message that things do get tough sometimes but you will survive as long as you hang in there; that there are people out there looking out for you as long as you can trust them enough to do so.
I'm trying desperately to find something in this book to criticise but it's just not happening. My initial reaction was that it was just too short - give me an epic like American Gods any day - but on reflection it's exactly as long as it needs to be. Indeed it was originally commissioned as a short story which refused to be constrained and kept growing to its natural length. The writing itself is everything you would expect from Neil Gaiman, so fluid and natural that it feels as if one is floating in a warm bath while reading, even at the darkest moments. In fact it's a security blanket as much as it is a book, one you'll want to wrap yourself up in before sleeping. There are no excuses, go out and buy it right now. As I type this in Taiwan there is a tropical storm overhead seemingly emptying the entire contents of the Pacific on my head and it makes me want to pick it up again and start reading. Whether you are a seasoned Gaiman fan or completely new to his works you will love this book, want to carry it around with you and probably make a little bed for it next to your own. Lovely stuff.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane is available now and we heartily recommend that you pick up a copy along with Gaiman's entire backlist (yes, even if you've read them all before).

September 02, 2013

Dead In The Water (Review: Cruel Summer by James Dawson)

Cruel Summer
James Dawson
Indigo 2013

Last year, the good times rolled for Ryan and his friends. Beautiful young things each and every one, with bright futures shimmering in the sunset of their school years, they seemed unstoppable. Until one of them did stop. Permanently. A year on, the rest of the gang go on holiday, trying to connect, trying to forget; yet the past is never far away and Janey is hard to leave behind. Janey who fell off the edge of the world and never returned; Janey who may or may not have chosen this dramatic exit for herself. As the group dedicate themselves to sun, fun and sangria, suspicions are never far away and when an unwelcome face from the past shows up, the friends find themselves once more embroiled in a world of secrets, lies and...whisper it...murder.

There's nothing quite like an ensemble cast and James Dawson has assembled one worthy of any good teen drama. We're talking the high-class bitchiness of Gossip Girl, the sun-kissed hotness of 90210 and the gritty, oh-so-British underbelly of Skins. Cruel Summer is told primarily from the view points of Ryan and Katie, childhood friends. Ryan is an highly entertaining yet also cleverly multi-faceted character. Camply gay, he's an aspiring actor who views everything through a imagined lens, arranging the events of the book into a screen play starring Ryan, himself, as the main attraction. After the cliffhanger of Janey's death, he sees this holiday as the start of a new season on the show, or perhaps a high-drama spin-off in the sun, a la Hollyoaks. While Ryan is likable, and disarmingly honest with himself, as the back story progresses (which we see through a mix of character exposition and flashbacks) it becomes clear that he is far from perfect. At times, his vision of life through a lens seems vaguely sociopathic. It makes him a fascinating protagonist. Katie is an archetypal, somewhat neurotic good girl. She's everyone's friend, has arranged the holiday and has an interesting (and pivotal) back story with geek/god, Ben. She swings from sweet to irritatingly pathetic to sweet and her character development is rather brilliant. Of all of the characters, she seems the most affected by Janey's death and therefore illicits more sympathy from the reader.  As the story progresses, Katie becomes more and more upset and more and more compelling.  She's rather brilliantly imagined.

Ben himself is somewhat lightly sketched, which is vital for the plot as his back story with Janey and with Katie is rather important. He's a nice bloke who seems to have found himself in a terrible mess and it is clear why bad girl Alicia finds him so attractive. Alicia is the screw-up , her partying ways having led her to repeat a year at school; but she's learnt from her mistakes and rapidly emerges as the only character who has any moral fibre (and by any, I don't mean much). Filling out the cast are footballer Greg who is all too aware of the risk his past might be to his future and his non-stereotypical WAG Erin who, bless her, knows nothing about anything. Both are lightly drawn yet interesting. Finally there is the gloriously wicked Roxanne. The less said about her the better but golly, is she a LOT of fun to read.

Cruel Summer treads a well worn path, previously walked by many authors from Agatha Christie, to RL Stine, to Christoper Pike and most recently by Gretchen MacNeil with her relatively recent debut Ten (a great companion read to Cruel Summer) and treads it well. In his second book, Dawson creates a knowing homage to all of the above while also cleverly riffing on reality TV, celebrity and the nature of popularity. As his story twists to its clever (not to mention dramatic) denouement, his use of flashback supports a plot that paint its characters as a tight group, a clique, even, who swing between likability and a kind of witless cruelty and ugly narcissism. In the end, their fate is pleasingly predictable in the same way that the fate of all teenagers-stuck-in-an-isolated-location-who-may-have-murdered-their-best-friend is. Apart from the twist. Which is hard to spot, a triumph when writing a story so familiar. As a follow up to the hugely successful Hollow Pike, Cruel Summer is a thrilling, enjoyable and sophisticated story that should be a must read before the end of this year's sunshine.  

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Cruel Summer is available now.  We particularly recommend this to those who have a late beach holiday on the horizon.