November 26, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Things I'm Thankful For

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and The Bookish and is jolly good fun even though I regularly forget to take part. This week, it being Thanksgiving in America it's all about things you are thankful for. I'm not American, but it doesn't do anyone any harm to reflect. So, in no particular order, I am thankful for:

My Daughter

This is Mila. She's pretty awesome with a feisty personality, a desire to travel to foreign lands, a huge imagination and a true love of all things Doctor Who and Harry Potter.  She's also developed an affection for the audioboo of Fire by Kristen Cashore - not the usual fare for a five year old but I'm not knocking it. In short, she's perfect. Yes, I am aware of my lack of objectivity.  No, I don't care.

Great stories

There's nothing like a really good story, is there.  They can transport you, move you, make you laugh, make you think and even be the catalyst for change in the world.  They are, and always have been, one of my very favourite things.

The end of my street... because it looks like this:

My job

I work in library. Prior to this I had a career in marketing, which was all very nice but how it took me so long to realise that my perfect job was obviously going to be in a large room, full of books and people who want to read them I will never know.  

Bookshelves full of books

I live in a very small house and really, I have perhaps a few too many books for the square footage.  At least, that's what I have been told.  But every night I retire to my boudoir, survey the shelves and am happy.

My wood-burning stove
I'm working of the top of my head here and it's cold.  Or it would be if not for this:

My family

Because they are really very special.  Even when they won't tell you exactly what they want for Christmas.


I love to travel and have been lucky enough to do a fair bit. I've lived abroad and visited interesting places both far and wide.  My very best dream would be to travel to all the settings of my favourite books. One day, I'll do it.


Because it's just around the corner and it is my favourite time of the year, regardless of financial constraints or bad weather or trees that are really far too big for my living room.

My Book Club, the Lady YAckers

I am a member of the best book club in the entire world. Seriously.  Sometime we talk about actual books, sometimes we talk about issues in literature but generally we ramble on nonsensically and force books upon each other and have SUPER SEKRIT SANTAS. It's just THE BEST. I mean, are you in a book club that has its own Round Table of Knights and will fail a book should it not provide at least one perfect casting opportunity for Richard Armitage (ahem, KING Richard Armitage - sorry, Laura)?  No, I didn't think so.  Seriously, there is nary a day that passes when this lot don't make me laugh out loud which. Lady YAckers, kisses to you all. You can find us here. Only if you don't mind extreme bias and a lot of swearing.

And that's it.  The nice thing about thinking about things you might be thankful for is that you end up realising just how lucky you are.  Give it a go and tell me something that warms your cockles in the comments.

Oh, and to all Americans - Happy Thanksgiving!  Enjoy eating that weird thing you eat with the marshmallows and the potatoes.

November 18, 2013

Ordinary World (Review: Unravelling; Elizabeth Norris)

Elizabeth Norris
Harper Collins 2012

Janelle is a pretty ordinary girl.  She perhaps has more than usual on her plate what with her bi-polar mother, hardworking FBI father and a younger brother who she has pretty much raised but she’s doing OK.  As her summer draws to an end, she walks home from her lifeguarding job along a coastal road.  Then, suddenly, she is dying.  Hit by a speeding truck she knows without doubt that there is no recovering from her injuries and slowly starts to drift away.  Until a familiar face wills her to wake up, to hold on and to let him help.  By the time the paramedics arrive, her injuries appear to have largely disappeared and her saviour with them.  But Janelle knows who saved her and is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding her disappearing injuries even as it starts to tie in with a terrifyingly strange case being investigated by her own father.  Soon Janelle and her best friend Alex are in up to their necks in a world that will never be the same again.

Janelle is an instantly likable character.  She has an incredibly authentic voice and a strong personality that jumps of the page from the start.  She has had a lot to deal with in her seventeen years and her mother, in particular, has engendered toughness in Janelle as well as a surety in her own strength.  This is seen in her interactions with her peers.  For reasons that become apparent over the course of the book, Janelle has largely limited herself to the friendship of Alex and her brother yet she never seems isolated or tragic – rather she’s raised herself above past experience and come out stronger, better and more mature.  She has her moments, though, sometimes overreacting and letting her mouth run away with her but she owns her mistakes and (sometimes) learns from them.  Sometimes.  Because, as she herself would say, she’s like that.

Best friend Alex and the mysterious Ben are the primary supporting acts in a story that has a large cast of characters.  Alex is the consummate best friend.  He’s stuck with Janelle through childhood, understands her complex family and pretty much always fights her corner without letting her get away with her more impulsive actions.  He’s pretty great and his role in the expanding story is always interesting.  Ben, the boy with all the secrets, is another well-written character.  Elizabeth Norris moves him seamlessly from artless stoner to friend to tentative love interest.  He’s a vitally conflicted character and the interactions between him and Janelle are enjoyable and real – there is no instalove here, just a slow burn of attraction and mutual respect and support.  With Ben comes the spiky Elijah who resents Janelle and hates the life in which he finds himself.  In his own, sometimes abhorrent, way Elijah is as great a best friend as Alex and adds both tension and a bit of pathos to what is often an all action storyline.

Special mention must go to the adults in Unravelling.  Janelle’s father, in particular, is a well-drawn character.  His love of Star Wars, the X Files, his work and his children is tangible as is his bone-deep weariness.  The nature of his relationship with Janelle is interesting but there is never any doubt of his utter devotion to her and her brother’s wellbeing.  His FBI colleagues, especially partner Struz and the shady Agent Barclay could easily have been rather two dimensional, but Norris gives them the page time necessary to give Janelle’s world real believability. Finally, her mother is a heartbreaking portrayal of a mental disorder that has moved past the point of no return.

The plot and premise of Unravelling is not one seen in YA previously, although fans of both Doctor Who and Fringe will be familiar with the ideas that Norris has used to create a fantastic, action packed and emotive story.   It’s incredibly compelling storytelling and Norris never pulls her punches, regularly pulling the rug out from under the readers flailing feet, imbuing her sci-fi thriller with real emotion as well as adrenalin. The first in a series that has been tagged as “the X Files meets 24”, it never fails to thrill and works as well as a standalone as it does as the start of an ongoing tale - it is certainly some of the most accomplished YA science fiction out there.  For fans of the aforementioned TV shows, reading this should be a no brainer.  In fact, we highly recommend it to anyone who likes an intelligent with a side helping of heart. Read it, and enjoy a truly enjoyable ride.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Unravelling is available in both physical and e-book versions as it its sequel, Unbreakable (review coming soon). Thank you to Harper Collins for sending us this title to review.

November 16, 2013

Full Fathom Five (Review of More Than This by Patrick Ness

More Than This
Patrick Ness
Walker 2013

There is a boy and he is drowning. The sea batters him unforgivingly against unrelenting, insurmountable rocks, which cut his skin and ultimately snap his spinal column. He dies, his final thought a plea for what he knows not. Then, he wakes up.  He’s dead, of this is is certain, so why does he find himself in a strange post-apocalyptic version of a childhood he left long ago, a childhood that leaving was a blessing? Is this his own personal purgatory?  
Or is it something more?

We meet the boy in the midst of death and watch as he dies, wakes and slowly attempts to make sense of his subsequent eerie surroundings.  His initial panic is tangibly real, as is the fear, confusion and denial that follow.  Through a series of dream sequences he relives key moments from his life, all of which seem to be leading to some sort of revelation but whether that revelation will be for the boy or for the reader alone remains tantalizingly unclear. It would have been easy to write the boy as a cipher, with his experience rather than his character taking centre stage but Ness instead imbues him with strength, weakness, hubris and regret.  Even in his weaker moments, the boy is smart, self-aware and almost unfailingly kind; most importantly he is a character that it is exceptionally easy to relate to.

Other characters pepper the boy’s story, and as we gain insight to both his past and his present they come into clearer focus. His friends and parents are beautifully drawn, particularly his mother who is at times nothing less than chilling and whose actions pose question after question.  A shout out must go to the charming Tomasz, a character who injects both humour and pathos into More Than This and leaps from the page with his imperfect yet ambitious English, his huge heart and his terrible secret.

More Than This is incredibly skilled storytelling in terms of both plot and world-building as well as in its ideology. The world that the boy inhabits is palpably real.  Claustrophobic layers of dust, the disturbing image of a screaming horse, a terrifyingly silent prison, sleek black coffins and the deeply inhuman, helmeted Driver; none of it should make sense – yet is falls together effortlessly into a truly unique and sinister landscape that is as full of every day familiarity as it is disconcertingly alien.  Within this world, the boy’s story unfolds slowly while Ness quietly beavers away in the background, creating a parallel tale, refusing to dovetail the separate strands until very late in the day.  Each time the outcome seems clear, Ness turns things around.  The ending is satisfying, yet ambiguous.  And it works perfectly.

More Than This will leave readers with questions and it seems that this might be exactly the point. In his own clever way, Patrick Ness is encouraging us to think about Big Things.  His book demands that the reader think about choices, free will and whether the grass is ever really greener.  Ness also plays heavily on the idea of physical reality versus mental reality and leaves us to figure our what it means all on our own.   There’s a bit of the old Dumbledore about Ness in this writerly persona, in that he left this reader pondering whether just because something is in your head, does that make it any less real. And vice versa.  Patrick Ness is a writer who has picked up every major prize in children’s literature and one suspects that More Than This will garner him a few more.  Yet this is a story that isn’t just for Young Adults but rather for all adults.  It will remain with readers long after they have finished it and is certainly the stand out book of 2013.  Highly, highly recommended.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. More Than This is available in both physical and e-book versions now but we recommend the rather gorgeous hardback. Thank you to Walker Books for providing us with this title to review.

November 12, 2013

MOI Welcomes Alexia Casale to talk Bone Dragons, Bone-inspired writing and future Ghosts!

Evie's shattered ribs prompt her to finally tell her adoptive parents the secrets that she carries from her early life, but as the physical scars heal and all she is left with is bone fragment in a jar, she realises that her journey is far from over.  Her bone fragment is carefully whittled into the image of a dragon, a physical representation of her inner strength, and a talisman representing battles won.  This talisman, however, is not quite as it seems and Evie finds that she gains more than positivity from having the little dragon around as she starts to uncover some hard truths about her past, and her future.
The Bone Dragon

Following on from her successful debut appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, we caught up with author Alexia Casale on the makings of The Bone Dragon and her plans for the future.   

As a debut novelist, have you found the transition to full time writer a difficult one?
I wish I could afford to be a full-time writer already! Actually, to be fair I would never writer full-time: I'm one of those dreadful people who're never happy if they're not rushing around doing a million things. Life's too short for just one job at a time. Plus, if I were a full-time writer, sooner or later I'd have nothing left to write about. There has definitely been a transition, though, in terms of writing officially being a 'paying' part of my career. The key thing is that I'm not 'writing into the ether' any more: there are people who want me to write and who want to read what I produce. And if something goes wrong with a manuscript, I have an amazing agent who will help me fix it. The whole thing has been wonderful: even better than I'd dreamed being a proper, official, published writer would be. Case in point, I spoke at Hay and Edinburgh this year! Lifelong dream fulfilled twice over!

Were you aware that you wanted to write for a young adult audience?
Deciding to submit to a YA agent and to publish the book as YA were marketing decisions, not creative ones: they came after I wrote the book. For me, the key thing is that YA is a fantastic category to publish in because it allows writers to blur genre boundaries to an extent that adult genres don't usually encourage. For The Bone Dragon, it makes double sense because of the age of the protagonist. However, recent statistics show that over 60% of YA is bought by adults over 25 for themselves: this seems to be the case with who is buying and reading The Bone Dragon, which begs the question 'Is a YA audience comprised of young adults or people who want what YA books deliver?' I think there's an argument to be made that YA is becoming a genre, not an age category. Certainly, I wrote the book for 'anyone over a certain level of maturity' rather than for a specific age-group.

What was your main inspiration behind The Bone Dragon?
I'd had elements of the idea floating around in my head for years, but I just couldn't find the right characters or the right hook for the story. Then I went into hospital, where I was handed my very own rib-in-a-pot, and, in a drugged-up haze, I slurred to the surgeon, 'Well, if all of womankind came from Adam's rib, I'd better get something amazing out of mine.' The surgeon, playing along, asked me what I would get if I could choose. So of course I said, 'A book.' And just like that everything fell into place. On that note, I should hasten to add that the book is not autobiographical: a rib-in-a-pot is just one of those amazing things that you literally could not make up. But when they happen, and you happen to be a writer, it would be a crime not to use them. So I did. Evie gets her Dragon, and I got my book.

The Bone Dragon is an unusual take on a not too unusual topic, did you read any other abuse-themed novels as research and did the market prompt you to take a different approach in your writing?
I've worked in the mental health and human rights fields for a long time so I didn't do very much research specifically for the book. There was some basic fact checking, especially about fostering/adoption, but I didn't want the book to become about the mechanics of Evie's situation. Instead, I was very much writing in response to what I see as the 'popular lies' many stories (fictional and nonfictional) tell about these issues.
For instance, one of the key themes in the book concerns the stereotype that 'speaking out' is always a healing process for victims. Reporting serious violent and sexual crimes to the police is vital in terms of stopping perpetrators, but it is often a horrendously traumatic experience for the victim. If we want people to speak out, we should do them the courtesy of being honest about how hard it is likely to be: the bit that most people actually find empowering is the knowledge that they did it anyway. A related issue is that victims are routinely told that 'talking about it will help'. Now, while there is always a value in reporting a serious crime to the police, there isn't always one in talking about all the details outside that context. It's perfectly possible to take part in very effective 'talking therapy' while remaining silent about specific aspects of trauma. It all depends on the individual: some people need to describe their experiences out loud, again and again, to therapists and friends and family and even strangers. But some people don't. For some people it's damaging on its own account. So while people should be encouraged to talk if they feel it will help, I want to call into question the blanket assumption that all types of 'speaking out' are positive for all people.

Unlike many protagonists in novels centering around abuse, Evie as a character is raw and true yet accessible, where did she come from?
Even before the rib-in-the-pot gave me the story for The Bone Dragon, I knew I wanted to write a book that challenges the way violence is usually talked about. Coming back to the  issue of 'speaking out', I wanted to show how silence can be valuable for some victims - and how 'speaking out' and 'being silent' are not 'either/or' propositions. Looking at this through Evie's eyes also allowed me to show how stories focused on the facts of abuse and violence - the 'who did want to whom' bits - miss the point. The Bone Dragon leaves a lot implicit but in doing so I hope it begs the question 'How much detail about an act of violence do we really need in order to understand the impact it has on someone's life?' There are no 'gory details' in The Bone Dragon: the book doesn't gratify the normal human instinct for morbid curiosity. It denies the reader the opportunity to focus on the facts and so stay emotionally distant. Instead, the book says 'this is what violence really is and what it does to people': the importance of 'the facts' of individual acts of violence pales in comparison. And yet once you give the facts, they're all anyone focuses on because, when you come right down to it, they're the easy bit. The important bit is the pain that, facts aside, we can all empathise with... and, quite naturally, shy away from precisely because we don't truly want to feel those awful things. Fair enough, but that's what the heart of the issue is and we shouldn't pretend otherwise if we want to understand how to deal with violence instead of just goggling at the horrid 'horror story' details as so many news stories and books do.

The Bone Dragon will definitely be enjoyed on different levels by different ages of reader, from mythological adventure to psychological thriller. when writing, were you writing as a teenager or an adult?
I started working on a version of the book in my late teens, but I wrote most of it as an adult. It's just as well, really, as I couldn't have written this version of the story until I knew much more about the human rights and mental health fields than I did as a teenager (though, to be fair, I was elected as a trustee on the Executive Board of a national charity when I was 17 - and had to turn the post down for a year until I could legally accept it when I became 18!). In terms of how it reads for different ages, I'm really proud of the fact that because the most harrowing things in the book are written entirely as subtext, people of different levels of maturity will probably only see what they're ready to see. 

The climax of the book has caused much debate since its release, did you always aim for an "open to interpretation" end?
When I'm reading, I don't like being told how to interpret the story: when writers do that, they prevent me from discovering the meaning for myself (to paraphrase Piaget talking about children's learning). Reading can be a creative activity if writers allow readers to bring their own ideas, imagination and life experiences to bear and, in so doing, create their own unique reading of the story. I want to be that type of writer. The ending had to be open for that reason alone, but it has to be open for a plot reason too. I want the reader to face the same dilemma that Evie does at the end in order to understand her decision: does she confront reality and the stark painful truth, or does she make the truth what she needs it to be so that she can be happy? In real life we often have to choose between a hard truth and a lie we can never fully bring ourselves to believe, but the book offers an opportunity to have the one thing we rarely get - a chance to have it both ways.

What is next on the horizon for you?
Book two is currently in submission so I'm really excited about that. It's another YA psychological thriller, though the protagonist is a little older: sixteen instead of fourteen. The simplest way I can think of to describe it is this: book two is to a ghost/horror story what The Bone Dragon is to a traditional fantasy novel about dragons. It's set in a big country house on the edge of a wood. I'm so proud of this book. It was incredibly hard to write, but I think it says things that are worth saying and I love the people in it.
As for book three, it's a complete change of pace: sometimes I love challenging books, but sometimes I just want to enjoy a good story without having to think too much. Meanwhile, book four is going to be an adult WWII historical novel based on a fantastic true story.

Alexia was interviewed by roving reporter, PolkaDot Steph at this year's Edinburgh Book Festival. Thank you to Alexia for being such a willing interviewee and for Hannah at Faber and Faber facilitating the whole thing. MOI certainly can't wait to read Alexia's next book (ghosts!!!) In the mean time, we urge you to get your hands on The Bone Dragon, available in paperback and ebook versions now.