January 30, 2014

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Review: Afterparty by Ann Redisch Stampler)

Ann Redisch Stampler
Simon Pulse 2013

Emma has always been a good girl. Obedient daughter to an overprotective father, she dutifully moves from school to school, keeping her head down and generally Doing The Right Thing. However, when a move to Los Angeles coincides with Emma's increasing urge to perhaps step outside her comfort zone thing begin to change. Enter charismatic, crazy, impulsive Siobhan who drops into Emma's life with all the subtlety of a hand grenade, introducing her to a life of parties, drugs and booze. Add to the mix a few mean girls, an extremely laid back educational environment and a conflicted love interest and Emma the Good starts to slowly disappear. For a while it's all the fun of the fair but when Siobhan starts pushing Emma to make a series of pacts, Emma starts to wonder if it really is better to burn out than to fade away and if Siobhan will leave her to make the choice for herself?

Emma is an interesting character with a strong narrative voice. She's likeable but hard to get a bead on, sometimes seeming entirely disconnected from everyday life even while living it to the full.  She is also, vitally for the story, fairly malleable and when Siobhan sweeps into her life it is easy to see why Emma gets swept up in her wake. Yet it is clear from the opening chapter that Emma has just been waiting for a chance to take a risk, to misbehave. Finding herself entrapped in a web of lies, Emma makes bad decision after bad decision but this is often infuriating to read it is also understandable.  As she slowly comes into her own, Emma emerges as a strong young woman who, while still learning, might have a chance of surviving the train wreck that is her relationship with Siobhan.

Siobhan herself is a force of nature, a born rule-breaker who isn't afraid to say what she thinks and take what she wants.  At first this is a heady and attractive mix and it is easy to see why Emma is drawn to her - in the same way that it's easy to see why moths are drawn to flames.  As Siobhan's behaviour grows increasingly erratic she emerges as a whirlwind of narcissism, manipulation and chaos. It's hard to tell if she's deeply damaged or an actual sociopath, or both, but either way she is impossible to ignore.  The dynamic between the two girls is electric, compelling and disturbing and when Emma's friend Dylan is drawn into the messiness it becomes even more so.

Dylan has the whole smart/slacker/loner thing going on with practiced ease. He's charming yet evasive and clearly has more than a few family issues. He also has absolutely no idea what he really wants. The relationship that develops between him and the two girls is odd and often nonsensical yet hangs together pretty well in terms of the relationship that the girls themselves have. He and Emma can't seem to figure out if they are any good for each other and, to be honest, it's never clear but this is largely to do with the ever lurking Siobhan who's ongoing manipulations serve to muddy what one suspects would be otherwise fairly clear waters.

Afterparty opens dramatically and the opening scene would keep readers turning pages even if the book wasn't so very well written.  Ann Redisch Stampler adeptly builds the tension to almost unbearable levels, with revelations regarding Emma's past adding context to her behaviour in sad and eerie ways. She also cleverly uses Emma and Siobhan's parents to riff on the idea of nature and nurture and how-well-do-we-ever-know-our-children to great affect. As mentioned before, Emma's narrative voice is really good and the writing style as a whole is both pleasing and original. Saying that, Afterparty is a car crash of story. Readers will find themselves seeing where Emma's road is leading far ahead of Emma herself yet be unable to stop turning pages even as they mentally scream at the characters to just Look Around. If there is one flaw, it is the time spent on Dylan's brother - a totally unnecessary character in a book that is chock full of interest without him.  But that really is a minor quibble - Afterparty is a compelling if disturbing look at the dangers of obsessive, all consuming friendship as entertaining as it is deeply unsettling.  Fans of Abigail Haas's Dangerous Girls, Cat Clarke's Undone or James Dawson's Cruel Summer would be wise to give Afterparty a look - as would everyone else.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Afterparty is available now.  Thank you to the publisher and Edelweiss for providing us with a copy of this title to review.

January 25, 2014

Water, Water Everywhere (Review: Vengeance by Megan Miranda)

Megan Miranda
Bloomsbury 2012

Vengeance is the follow up to 2011's Fracture and, as such, this review contains some spoilers for the original title.  You can read our review of Fracture here and if you haven't read the book already, you really should. Then come back.  

About six months have passed since Decker hauled his best friend, Delaney, from the icy depths of Falcon Lake.  Six months since the eleven minutes that she was technically dead and six months since she miraculously awoke, the same but also terribly different.  Now more than friends, Decker and Delaney seem to have come to terms with the ability afforded to Delaney by her damaged brain - the ability to sense imminent death.  But there seems to be a lot of imminent death around.  Still reeling from the loss of close friend Carson, when Decker's father then dies his grief takes his mind down murky paths.  Did he, by saving Delaney, cheat death?  And are people now dying in her place?  At the heart of his fears, and those of an increasingly unhappy town, lies Falcon Lake - a flat, dead expanse even in the height of summer.  Is it possible that it carries within its depths a curse, a secret, an end?

While Fracture was told from Delaney's point of view, Vengeance has moved to Decker's perspective. In the previous book, Decker fought to remain by the side of an increasingly erratic Delaney and while he didn't always manage to do the right thing, he came across as a loyal, kind and concerned friend. In Vengeance, he and Delaney have made the inevitable move into a relationship and seem, at first, to be happy.  However, even before the death of his father it is clear that Decker is carrying around a lot of issues.  He remains overwhelmed with guilt regarding Delaney's accident, something which she struggles to understand believing, as she does, that he saved her. This guilt feeds directly into his grief when his father dies. He realises that Delaney must have been aware of his dad's imminent demise, an awareness caused by an accident which Decker truly thinks is his own fault and so he is thrown into a whirlwind of anger, confusion, loss and suspicion. When odd things start to occur it is easy to see why Decker makes connections between them and recent events but what is never clear is whether he is right or wrong. He becomes a character that readers can totally inhabit, being carried along by his fear until it is almost impossible to understand what is happening, other than it is deeply disturbing.

As in Fracture, Megan Miranda has made Delaney pretty ambiguous. She's still a likeable character and one who has now been embraced once more by the friends who seemed to keep their distance after her accident but she is also distant, often seeming to exist more in her own head than in the real world. She can, at times, seem very compassionate.  She clearly loves Decker and her friendship with new girl Maya - a girl who seems to have her fair share of problems - shows a caring nature.  But she has also learnt to turn this into a cool, almost cruel, logic when necessary.  She is able to place walls around herself - sometimes out of self-preservation, sometimes out of her need to protect those around her from the truth.  Her relationship with Decker is fascinating to read and it's hard to tell how healthy they really are for each other, even as you root for them to succeed.  The book's other characters are all well written with the embittered Janna and strange Maya being particularly compelling.

If there is a character that stands head and shoulders above the rest, however, it has to be Falcon Lake itself.  It touches every aspect of the story, looming in the background as reminder of all that has been lost and all that has been irrevocably changed. The fact that it is so very frightening is down entirely to Miranda's clever writing. The plot of Vengeance is very different to that of Fracture and, at it's most basic, is a story of guilt, grief and divided loyalties.  Yet, within this, Miranda has written a classic ghost story - classic in that it's all about what you (and the characters) don't see and don't know. Her use of imagery is extremely accomplished, to the point where water - any water - becomes chokingly eerie.  Yet, as with Fracture, it would be a mistake to consider Vengeance a paranormal tale. In Fracture it was made repeatedly clear that Delaney's ability was due to brain damage, with Miranda wielding science instead of heebie-jeebies. Here, she has wields psychology in a similar way.  While Fracture benefited from a slightly stronger premise than Vengeance, the story here plays believably on the repercussions - although Maya's part in it sometimes stretches credulity a little.  But that's a small part of an ultimately compelling whole.

Fracture was one of the stand-out books of 2011, a title that was refreshingly different even as it seemed to be offering up familiar fare and Vengeance is just as enjoyable.  Great characterisation, unclear motivations and a storyline that drips menace into ever corner will leave readers with much to ponder in terms of what, exactly, is the more frightening - the everyday or the ghostly. We've used the US cover to illustrate this review, primarily because it isn't as girly as the UK one (above right) and Vengeance is not a girly book. Additionally, the US cover is relevant to the story. More shame on the Powers That Be in the UK who decided to stick on a cover that will appeal primarily to only female readers not to mention one that is frankly nonsensical - it's a bit of a lost opportunity.  Instead, I highly recommend it to ALL readers, particularly fans of Stephen King, Kimberly Derting and Carrie Ryan - grab a copy and prepared to be chilled.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Vengeance will be published on 13th February 2014 and should be added to all wish lists immediately.  Actually, just go and pre-order it now.  Thank you to Bloomsbury and NetGalley for providing us with this title to review.  And we like all your other covers.  Honest. 

January 23, 2014

Once Upon a Terrible Time (Review: Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville)

Gretel and the Dark
Eliza Granville
Penguin 2014

Lilie does not believe that she's human.  She came in to being to kill the monster.  After being found naked and unconscious by the side of a Vienna road, she is taken in by celebrated psychoanalyst Josef Breuer.  She could be his greatest achievement, if only he could figure out who she was and where the hell she came from.  And perhaps if he didn't find her quite so beautiful...

Krysta is bored.  Her Papa works all day at the infirmary for the "animal people" and her housekeeper's incessant storytelling is winding her right up.  Germany is changing around her and people are getting weird.  And the weirder things get, the more important stories become, or at least so her housekeeper says.  But as Krysta's world becomes more frightening and devastating then anything she could have imagined, it may just be those stories that hold the lifeline she so desperately needs.

And this all sounds promising and saucily intriguing but honestly, grown up fairy tales? Again?  I sighed. I have read and watched so much nonsense that attempts to modernise classic fairytales that I was unable to feel anything other than mild dread at the thought of another "strong independent yet glamorous female slays nasty ugly creatures" outing. The fact that I even thought this might be the case with Gretel and the Dark is, frankly, embarrassing.

Firstly, Granville's writing and world building is beautiful. For a debut novel, it truly is extraordinary.  The depth of description of both Lilie's turn of the century Vienna and Krysta's war time Germany is all consuming.  Rarely have I so quickly felt fully absorbed by a world, let alone one based in fact which can often be so poorly painted by authors. Secondly, the characterisation of everyone from Krysta, our main protagonist, to those characters fleetingly mentioned is pitch perfect.  This is a story of perfectly written imperfect characters that we are drawn to for exactly that reason - they are imperfect, they are human.  And they are a reminder that in hard times, people can loose sight of themselves through no fault of their own.  But it is the ease with which Granville entwines the harsh realities of turbulent times with the escapism of the fairytales that we all know and love that is really masterful. At no point does the reader ever lose sight of the fact that the story is not a retelling of a fairytale; fairytale themes and imagery are used throughout to illustrate both escapism and child like innocence but are by no means designed to be a story in their own right. It is this delicate balance that makes Gretel and the Dark something really special.

While I have absolutely no complaints about this book, far from it, I do feel it throws up the much mulled-over question - what makes a young adult book specifically young adult?  If the basis is solely a young adult protagonists, then yes, Gretel and the Dark ticks the box. However, I can't help but think that this may be tough going for some of the younger young adult crowd, both in writing style and in content. The writing is beautiful, fluid and wonderfully vivid but I feel that my 14 year old self, even as an avid reader, may have found it a bit of a turn-off.  And as for the content, while the horrors of the time are described totally appropriately and are at no point gratuitous, there are some pretty dark points in there.  For the younger end of the demographic, there may be an element of parental guidance required with this one - after all, we can't assume that all young adult readers are comfortable with the same themes at the same age.

And yet this is what makes Gretel and the Dark so wonderful. Not only is it a re-imagining of fairytale themes and ideas but it is telling the story of one of the darkest periods in human history through fresh eyes and, I think on the whole, in a capacity that is accessible to younger readers.  Exploring not only the horrors of war and persecution but the power of storytelling and companionship, Gretel and the Dark really is fantastically unusual and wonderfully written.  It has been a long time since a book has so pleasantly surprised me. 

This review was brought to you by Polka-Dot Steph. Thank you to Penguin for sending us this title to review and also for the lollipop which helped deal with at least a little of the traumatisation.  Gretel and the Dark will be published on the 6th of February 2014.

January 19, 2014

New Feature:Don't Read THAT, Read THIS

Welcome to a brand new feature here on The Mountains of Instead. Don't Read THAT, Read THIS is a soap box for all of you out there who have a couple of books that you feel don't get the credit they deserve. Books that are perhaps old, or didn't get quite the right publicity or who got swept away by a flood of vampires or zombies or dystopian futures.  These are books that you remember fondly, read and re-read and spend time encouraging others to read them.  Perhaps the books that you are thinking of aren't entirely lost, perhaps they are quite well known but you really feel that more people should pick them up and talk about them and love-them-forever-and-ever-amen.  Well, now's your chance. Each month (or more, depending on interest), we'll be hosting a different blogger or author or man of the street who will talk about three of their own personal lost gems, hopefully inspiring a few people to look out these poor forgotten or under-appreciated creatures and show them the limelight again.  If you'd like to take part then you can contact us via email, Facebook or Twitter (see the links in the sidebar) or just leave a comment and we'll get back to you.  Today, however, we're starting of with the books that I personally think you should track down and read:

Running Wild by JG Ballard
Ballard is a writer probably best known for Empire of the Sun, a semi-autobiographical account of his own childhood in Asia and Crash, the book that inspired the controversial (and, to be honest, crap) 1997 movie.  His work includes many strong and thought-provoking stories but Running Wild, a novella published in 1988 is my absolute favourite.  It tells the story of, Pangbourne Village, a gated community in England. A veritable oasis of monied elegance and upward mobility, the ten resident families raised their children with care and class.  Until they didn't. The story is told from the point of view of a Scotland Yard psychiatrist, brought in to analyse the scene when the adults are all found efficiently murdered in their private paradise and the children are just...gone.  The mystery of Pangbourne Village and its children is chilling from start to finish, the writing succinct and to the point while Ballard carefully overlays what is essentially a whodunit with the murk of Thatcher's Britain.  It's quite simply brilliant and, once read, will continue to send chills down your spine everytime it's mentioned.  Except it's never mentioned!  To this day, I know of perhaps two other people who have read it.  Change this! You can read it in an hour or so and will be rewarded with a disturbing and though-provoking tale of our time, because Running Wild is as relevant (if not more so) today as it was 20 years ago.

Among Friends by Caroline B Cooney
Among Friends is one of the few books that were around when I was a teen that would fit neatly into today's YA bracket.  Following a six members of a high school class through the diaries that they are asked to keep as an English assignment, it focusses largely on the close and increasingly suffocating friendship between Jennie, all round prodigy and musical genius and her BFF's (possibly) Hilary and Emily.  While Jennie crumbles under the pressure of her own talent, Hilary and Emily become jealous and resentful of the spotlight that never quite extends to them.  As Jennie truly begins to crack, the desert her while their classmates watch and wonder.  It's a great story of the trials of friendship, high school and being different and has dated surprisingly well.  It's recently been republished and I hope that it's new zazzy cover (yes, I said zazzy and I don't care) will attract a host of new readers because it's just so good.

Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith
God, I LOVE this book.  First gifted to me by a boyfriend when I was at university I was mesmerised from the first page.  It's a kind of dystopian (or Utopian, depending on your point of view), sci-fi, thriller, mystery dream.  With the occasional gangster.  And a rather excellent cat.  It follows Stark, a man who Gets Things Done and who has been tasked to find a missing VIP in a world separated into bizarre yet just about functioning districts.  But there's something awry with what at first seems like a simple kidnapping and Stark soon finds himself drawn back to the very real dreams of his childhood and the memory of a lost friendship.  It's exceptionally cleverly written, endlessly funny, superbly sinister and also incredibly moving.  And NOT ENOUGH PEOPLE HAVE READ IT.  So do so.

These choices were brought to you by Splendibird - and we have plenty more coming your way over the next few months. We hope that these posts inspire you to think about the books that you have loved and lost or that you still love and don't want to become lost. This feature will be back in a few weeks, featuring Nicole from YAInterrobang talking about her Most Beloved lost books.

January 12, 2014

That Was The Year That Was... 2013

2013 was a spotty year for The Mountains of Instead.  I found myself the victim of several huge reading slumps and a few reviewing ones as well and it all started to feel like a bit of a chore. Additionally, I was plagued by back problems, a decrepit PC and an increasingly busy life, so I took chunks of time off, tried to read only what I really wanted to read and am returning with re-charged book batteries, a shiny new lap top and a host of exciting titles to review for what is my fourth year of blogging.  Also returning are my loyal compatriots, Polka-Dot Steph and Cannonball Jones, without whom I suspect The Mountains of Instead would have withered and died.  

We've got lots of interesting stuff lined up for 2014, including a new feature (debuting next week) and a week of The Apocalypse and another week focussing on graphic novels (with contributions from MR. Polka-Dot Steph).  In the next few weeks we will be reviewing the darkly brilliant Gretel and The Dark, the satisfyingly well done Into The Still Blue and the deeply eerie Vengeance but for now, here are the YA books that I loved the most in 2014.

These were all so good.  Although they are generally a mixed bag, I really got into my sci-fi and space opera this year and that's very much still what I want to read a the moment, perhaps with a little bit of the apocalpyse on the side... cheery stuff like that.  If I was pushed to pick an absolute favourite of 2013, it would be between The Dream Thieves and More Than This.  Which should surprise absolutely no-one.  In terms of adult books, the stand out of the year was Life after Life by Kate Atkinson, although The Snow Child (Eowyn Ivy) is a close second and Doctor Sleep (Stephen King) creeps in their too. I binged on crime fiction and was delighted to discover Karin Slaughter, who I really enjoy.  

So these were my favourites, what were yours?  And what are you looking forward to reading to next? Whatever it may be, a Happy New Year to all of you from all of us at The Mountains of Instead - may it be filled with friends and stories and all things good. Here's to 2014!