March 27, 2014

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea - April Genevieve Tucholke talks Amoral Love Interests

Between The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea is the debut novel of April Genevieve Tucholke - and what a debut!  Violet White is waiting away a long, hot summer in a house on the edge of the pacific. Life is quiet, dull even, until the arrival of River West. There to rent out the summer house, River is enigmatic, seductive and unsettling. Violet cannot stay away. But strange things are happening in her corner of the world and before long she is realises that there is more to River than meets the eye, that she cannot trust her own eyes, never mind her own heart, and that she doesn't really care.

Between the Devil and The Deep Blue Sea is utterly mesmerising. All faded splendour, old money and bohemian parents who run off to Paris for their Art, it is set in the modern world yet feels oddly ageless - falling somewhere between Manderlay and Gatsby. It's all very atmospheric, brimming with odd monikers, imperfectly perfect community otherworldly children, chasing devils and telling strange stories.

The writing is incredibly visual and astonishingly good and readers will find themselves pulled helplessly into the world that April Tucholke has created even as they silently urge Violet to get out of it.  Violet herself is a joy to read, a slightly eccentric character who is remarkably clear sighted when it comes to her feelings, and incredibly honest with herself even as she navigates difficult relationships with her twin brother, her best frenemie and, of course, River.  River is something else. Truly unsettling yet utterly captivating he will send chills down your spine - in the best and worst possible way.  But doesn't everyone love a bad boy - or at least one who is not, perhaps, entirely good?  April Genevieve Tucholke is an author who clearly thinks so and here she is to talk about some of the best:

I’m not a big fan of black and white characters. With some key exceptions, such as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, I’m more comfortable with gray. I have a high tolerance for amorality (and mischief) when it’s presented to me in a charming, complex package. River stands on the back of many fictional characters with questionable morals. Here are my top five.

1. Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He's proud, aristocratic, mysterious, and utterly evil. Francis Ford Coppola's film version, in particular, depicted Dracula as a sensuous Byronic hero--and I can't help being drawn in every time. You want him to die, you want the protagonists to kill him, you do....just not yet. Not yet. 

2. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.  I wanted River to have the charm and mischievousness of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre and the wildness, passion, and manipulative ferocity of Heathcliff. And I wanted him to lie more than both of them put together.

3. Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. 
He’s reckless and wicked, but he really knows his poetry. He’s thoughtless, and selfish, and yet his love for Marianne is genuine.

4. Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind.
Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. I love his love for the flawed, flawed Scarlett. I love how he is drawn to her ambition, and greed, and unsentimental determination.I love that he is both a cynic, and an idealist. What a fascinating, brilliant character.  

5. Jaime Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin (SPOILERS ahead)
Jaime starts off with a bang by pushing a kid out a tower window in A Game of Thrones. And then, in book 3, everything changes. He loses a hand and gains a heart.

Thank you, April. What an excellent list. We'd like to add The Darkling from Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Bone (because Hannah at F&F clearly loves him) and also Max De Winter from Rebecca because, well, swoon. This post has been brought to you by the combined forces of April and Hannah at Faber and Faber (who we would like to thank for sending us a copy of this title to review) and we broke our recent no blog tour rule to be part of this one because the book is just so damn good.  You can find the other stops on the tour on the banner in the sidebar and you can find the book in all places where good books are sold.

March 21, 2014

Goodbye, and Keep Cold (Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black)

The Coldest Girl In Coldtown 
Holly Black 
Little, Brown 2013
"He would hold onto revenge.
It would be his fairy story, his lullaby, sung softly by flayed lips.
Off-key and deranged."

I hate Twilight. I'm sure most of you agree, I just had to get it out there. I used to ignore it but that changed when I visited a bookshop in Bangkok and the English section featured an entire table dedicated to teen vampire romance stories. Public vomiting is frowned upon so I restrained myself but I was close, so very close. So what am I doing reviewing a book like this? Well, comfort zones are there to be escaped and anyway, Boing Boing said it was allowed. So let's visit The Coldest Girl In Coldtown...
Tana is a normal 17-year old schoolgirl living in small-town America. She goes to parties, fights with her boyfriend, teases her sister. She's just like you may have been at that age, except for one thing. Her mother is dead. More precisely, when Tana was younger her mother was on the verge of turning into a vampire when her father was forced to kill her in order to save his daughter's life. One morning, following a hedonistic farmhouse party, Tana awakes to find herself alone and surrounded by the blood and bodies of her classmates. The only living people aside from herself (take the word 'living' with a pinch of salt) are her on/off boyfriend Aidan and the mysterious Gavriel, a vampire.
In the alternate universe inhabited by The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, vampirism existed underground until recently when one Caspar Morales went rogue, converting humans into the living dead by the hundreds, causing a plague which forced their nocturnal habits into the mainstream. Different countries responded in their own ways. Europe took a liberal approach, resulting in either freedom or carnage depending on your viewpoint. America opted for containment and created several Coldtowns, fencing off infected cities and designating them safe havens for the undead and their human admirers. Anyone can get into a Coldtown but only humans can get out, and even then only with a marker, a rare token gained by handing over a free-roaming vampire to the authorities.
Tana is presented with something of a quandary. Aidan has been bitten, she knows this much. However he's not going to turn just yet, he's merely Cold, a novel state which Black has invented as an intermediate stage on the path to full-blown bloodsucking. When a vampire bites a human it transmits some form of bacteria into their bloodstream. This causes them to experience unbearable cravings for human blood for a period of several months before it safely leaves the system. Should the affected person give into their desire and drink human blood then they die and rise again as a vampire. It was in while in this state that Tana's mother attacked her and as such she knows what Aidan is capable of. Furthermore she's been scratched herself and may or may not be turning Cold. Her only hope is to head for the nearest Coldtown, gaining a marker from taking the strangely willing Gavriel with her and eventually using it to leave when she's satisfied that she poses no threat to her father and younger sister.
The rest of the story proceeds more or less as you might expect. To be honest, and contrary to expectations I actually really enjoyed it. Tana's character was a tad overblown but otherwise a very solid female lead - every bit as scared as she should be but at the same time strong and becoming more focused and decisive as the story progresses. Gavriel is also a rather intriguing and novel creation, a vampire charged with hunting other vampires, eventually cracking under the strain of his task. The rest seem somewhat cartoonish, particularly Lucien playing the Big Bad of this tale, but I can let that slide. We're not dealing with hardcore literature here, it's a YA vampire novel.
The Coldest Girl In Coldtown is actually an impressively original read. The concepts of Cold and the resulting Coldtowns breathe new life into a thoroughly saturated genre and there's enough meat in the tale itself to make it rise well above its shelfmates. It may slide into cringe-inducing cliched territory occasionally but such occurrences are rare enough to be forgiven. Even if you're a hardcore Twilight despiser like myself there's plenty here to keep you entertained for few hours on a cold winter night.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Splendibird, who was sent a copy for review, wholeheartedly agrees with his thoughts. Thanks, Little, Brown!
The Coldest Girl In Coldtown is available now.

March 18, 2014

Your Parents Fuck You Up, You Know (review: Reality Boy by AS King)

Reality Boy
AS King
Little, Brown 2013

Gerald was an angry/bad/troubled/awful little boy. And everyone knows it. Every aspect of his rage, frustration and confusion was played out on national TV in glorious, awful Technicolor.  The ultimate problem child, his issues made for great entertainment for the masses.  Twelve years on and Gerald has his rage pretty much under control - not bad for a kid known universally as The Crapper - attending an anger management programme and keeping his head generally below the bar. Yet, as he approaches his seventeenth birthday he has an overwhelming feeling that his life has been terribly Unfair. For all that everyone knows everything about him, for all that they watched as he was pigeonholed before he even started school, no one ever wondered what was behind the nice house and the clever editing and the fake nanny. Now, he doesn't believe that anyone ever will so perhaps it's time for him to take matters into his own hands and confront his family, or run from their rotten core.

Gerald is a character who will break your heart. Utterly screwed over as a young child, he has spent his life living a label, condemned by a society who long ago decided his future (special ed, jail, Amen). As a result, he's a ball of frustration and confusion, an incredibly angry character who long ago realised that acting out physically gave him the only satisfaction he could garner in a terribly fucked up situation. What started out as a young child behaving in an incredibly disturbing way has developed into a young man with a penchant for violence - albeit one that he is learning to successfully control. Gerald's temper could make him hard to like, but it is so utterly understandable and he works so hard to avoid triggers (which is hard, given his fame and his home life) that instead he is an incredibly sympathetic character. Particularly moving is his ability to retract from the real and everyday into his own imaginary world, a world filled with all the things that his childhood self should have had - circuses and candy and ice cream and Disneyland. It's heartbreaking, as is his slow coming of age, his understanding that he cannot linger in the unfairness of his past and that only he can pull himself out of it towards a brighter future.

Gerald's parents are a study in denial and disregard. His mother seems to have actively brought a film crew into her family's life in order to justify her own desperately pre-conceived ideas of the family dynamic (primarily that Gerald is deeply problematic) and justify her inability to love her children equally. Her husband stands by, weakly, seeing the truth all too clearly while saying nothing. They are hugely disturbing and one of the only flaws of Reality Boy is that they seem too awful to be real - yet they are so cleverly written that it's easy to imagine them existing. As is briefly surmised towards the end of the book, no prospective mother ever expects their child to be awful and Reality Boy is an interesting illustration of what happens when a mother, faced with a terrible truth, descends into denial in order to cope.  The terrible truth in this case (as is clear from early on in the book) is Gerald's eldest sister, Tasha. Tasha is an incredibly frightening character, who jumps from the page and into the mind of the reader - where she is likely to stay for some time. She is the kind of character who makes it hard to breathe and Gerald's increasing feeling of suffocation will be palpably felt as the pages are turned.

Reality Boy, while compelling and skillfully written (Gerald's narrative voice is exceptionally strong) is not exactly the kind of book that you like - it's far too bleak for that - but it is the kind of book that should be read.  In a world of Supernanny and Fat Camp and 16 and Pregnant, it is vital that we consider the morality of the format, understand that the editing booth plays a large part in what we see and stare our own Schadenfreude in the face. AS King has written an alarming and disturbing tale for the Big Brother generation, one that should be read and considered and discussed in media studies classes and lectures wherever reality TV rears its often ugly head. Highly recommended to all, particularly if you also enjoyed Sex and Violence by Carrie Mesrobian (another great story with a conflicted male protagonist) or  Jennifer Castle's, You Look Different in Real Life, which also shines a light on the what really happens after the camera's leave.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Reality Boy is available now and we'd like to thank Little, Brown and Edelweiss for providing us with a copy to review. Additionally, the YAckers are YAcking this title SOON, so keep an eye out.

March 13, 2014

Home, Sweet Home (Review: Sweet Damage by Rebecca James)

Sweet Damage
Rebecca James
Faber & Faber 2014

In his early twenties, Tim Ellison has yet to decide what to do with his life. In fact, he's not really in a hurry to decide and spends his time crashing at his ex's apartment, working in the family restaurant and surfing. Eventually, his stay with Lilla (said ex) becomes untenable and he finds himself a cheap room in Fairview, a beautiful house far outwith his usual means. Looking for the catch, all he can see is his fellow housemate, the reclusive Anna. Yet, as time passes and he becomes attached to not only his surroundings but also to Anna, things start to go bump in the night. As his new home becomes the location of some increasingly eerie phenomenon, Tim starts to wonder about the secrets that keep his housemate housebound and whether it might not be better for him to leave her and Fairview behind forever.

Genuine and happy-go-lucky, Tim really does just want an easy life. Nice to everyone he meets, the strangeness of Anne doesn't put him off living with her nor make him treat her differently, instead he treats her with real kindness. Tim, in short, is a good bloke. The kind of bloke who will always give a second chance, and a third and maybe even a fourth. Which explains why he cannot seem to break free of manipulative ex, Lilla. However, he's no fool - in fact, he's pretty smart- and is not as easily taken advantage off as one might assume. His growing fondness for Anna is very touching and his unease at goings on both palpable and believable.

While Tim is rather lovely, Lilla is a stone cold bitch. Strong words, yes, but she is utterly unlikable from the start. While she clearly no longer wants Tim, she still wants him to want her and infiltrates his life at every turn. Her treatment of Anna is particularly horrid. As a character, she transcends the predictability of your average mean girl and, awful as she is, she is totally fascinating. Anna herself is a bit of a wet rag to begin with, creeping about her house like a tired mouse. As her story unfolds, she becomes alternately more likeable and admirable or more frightening, depending on how you read her. Other characters are thin on the ground but the ever present Fiona and Marcus are both vital to the story and also almost impossible to get a bead on, which works extremely well as their rather staid, straight-laced presence adds yet another layer of murk to an already eerie story.

Sweet Damage has an interesting and deceptively predictable story - just when it seems sure to go one way, Rebecca James turns it all around. It's fairly creepy but simplistically written, denying readers any real leave-the-lights on moments in terms of the weird happenings around Fairview. The opening of the book seems to set Fairview up as a kind of Manderley, which no-one should ever do unless they can deliver the oppressive, all consuming presence that Manderley represents in Du Maurier's Rebecca - which James, sadly, can't.  However, the subject matter itself is extremely dark and it is in Anna's story that Sweet Damage delivers real horror - all the more shocking for the simplicity with which it is told. All in all, Sweet Damage is a compelling read. While it won't necessarily stay with readers for long it is a decent mystery and one that will have you turning the pages with dark glee as James's pieces start falling into place. This would make the perfect beach read this summer and is particularly recommended to those who enjoyed James Dawson's Cruel Summer and Abigail Haas's Dangerous Girls

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Sweet Damage is available now.  Thank you to Faber & Faber for sending us this title to review.

March 06, 2014

Don't Read That Read This welcomes Nicole!

Don't Read That Read This is a sporadic feature (because ALL our features are sporadic due an entire lack of organisational skillz) that asks you to come up with three books that you don't think are read often enough or raved over with sufficient frequency. This month we welcome Nicole, a lovely person and a Lady YAcker (and yes, we are aware of the inherent contradiction there).

Welcome, Nicole!

I thought about arranging the books I chose in a type - high fantasy! Or all pretty words! Maybe strong characters! But then I thought, screw this, I'm just gonna pick books that I can't stop rereading and want everybody else to love as much as I do.

Without further ado, here are THREE BOOKS that MORE PEOPLE NEED TO LOVE because I DECLARE IT SO.

DRAGONFLIGHT by Anne McCaffrey (1968)
Lessa survived her entire family being slaughtered and hid in the house that should have been hers. Plans to take it back fall into place - until the dragonriders of Pern show up and ruin everything. But a chance is offered to her: to ride a Queen dragon, and to lead not only her home, but all of Pern. Should she take the offer, danger would lurk on every horizon... especially with the mysterious Red Star coming back into orbit.
I feel kind of like this is cheating by making this my first choice. After all, this book has won a lot of awards, and the entire book series (of over 50 books!) has almost always landed on a bestseller list of some sort. However, it's coasting off of its success in the past; few readers who haven't had the books recommended to it seem to flock to it. Besides, this is my favorite series of all time, and I want everybody to read it.

FIRE BRINGER by David Clement-Davies (2002)
Young buck Rannoch just manages to survive after his father is murdered. Forced to hide the oak leaf mark on his forehead, he wanders the woods and speaks to the other animals, trying to stay one step ahead of the stags with sharpened antlers who wish to kill him. But when those same stags start to terrorize the forest, Rannoch must turn and fight - and bring to fruit the prophecy that made him hunted in the first place.

Okay, I realize that description sounds weird - oh no! Angry deer hunting nice deer who just want peace in the forest! But Fire Bringer is undoubtedly one of the best books I have ever read, and one of the books I try to reread every year. It's beautifully written with some amazingly well-crafted characters, and it manages to comment on things that humanity does without ever showing a human's point of view. Look past the hesitancy on the animal narrative and try it. It's utterly fantastic.

EYES LIKE STARS by Lisa Mantchev (2002)
Beatrice Shakespeare Smith was born in the Theatre Illuminata, a place where all the characters in every play ever written come to life. They are born to play their parts, and bound to the Theatre's legendary Book - all except for Bertie. But still, they are the only family she has evern known. Losing them is not an option. 
Eyes Like Stars is one of the few books that I have multiple copies of. My hardcovers are all pristine and nice and my paperbacks have all of my favorite lines highlighted - and when the rule is to highlight anything that makes me laugh out loud, let me tell you, every page is highlighted. It's clever and poignant and funny, just awesomely funny, and I love all of the characters. Definitely a read, especially when you need a pick-me-up!

Nicole has blonde hair and a love of dragons. The rest changes without notice. She is the editor of YA Interrobang (, a bi-weekly online magazine for YA news. You can find her on Twitter at @nebrinkley.

Thanks, Nicole - next time our very own PolkaDot Steph! If anyone out there would like to take part in this feature (and the more that do, the less sporadicalness) then please contact us by the usual means or say hello in the comments.

March 04, 2014

Bloody, But Unbowed (Review: Half Bad by Sally Green)

Half Bad
Sally Green
Penguin 2014

Nathan has been largely unwanted his entire life.  Outcast by the society he was born into he has spent the majority of his life in the fragile care of his grandmother, brother and sister even as another sister torments him with his own nature. Nathan, you see, has been born into a modern Britain inhabited by witches. Good, righteous, White witches and bad, destructive Black ones. Yet Nathan is neither White nor Black but is a Half Code born to a White mother and a particularly notorious Black father. The world that Nathan is growing up in is overseen by a council of White witches who bombard his family with an increasing amount of edicts on how Half Codes should be cared for while endlessly assessing the taciturn boy in order to determine if he is more White... or more Black. Struggling to understand both his nature and his place in the world, Nathan finds himself in a cage, wearing a collar, unable to escape as his thoughts revolve increasingly, desperately, around his murderous father and his own fate.

Nathan is an utterly unique creation, both in his own mythology and in Young Adult literature. It has been a long time since a character has appeared who is so instantly compelling.  I'm going to wager that we last such creation we saw was Patrick Ness's Todd (The Knife of Never Letting Go). Yet, unlike Todd who is all instant emotion and heart, Nathan is harder to get a bead on. Nothing good has ever really happened to him and he has lived a life rather bereft of affection. While his grandmother and, particularly, his brother have tried their hardest to make him feel normal his sister, Jessica, has tormented him almost since babyhood with stories of a mother who hated her child so much she was driven to suicide. Therefore, even as Nathan understands that his treatment by society is unfair, he seems to also believe that he is as much a  danger to them as they suspect. This leaves a character who is rather shut off, remote and sometimes a little frightening in their isolation. As his story progresses, Nathan's character development is interesting yet slow paced.   At times his fight for survival makes him almost immoral and his lack of trust in others makes him seem hard and therefore sometimes hard to like - in large part because he has never had opportunity to be soft, funny or friendly. Yet he is always utterly sympathetic, endlessly (yet never unbelievably) brave and absolutely himself. And he will stay with readers even when the book itself is back on the shelf.

Other characters in Half Bad are generally well realised.  While the Council member's not-so-white-as-whiteness is a more than a tad predictable, Sally Green has ensured that just because this bastion of authority is corrupt one shouldn't assume that Black witches are therefore good. In fact, Black witches sound downright awful and Nathan's encounter with one later in the book doesn't really undermine this. Half Bad, in fact, swims in swathes of grey where the good are flawed, the bad are sometimes good, the weak are strong and the strong are frightened. Nathan's brother, Aaron, shines as a character who seems truly kind, but too gentle for his own good whereas a potential love interest is lovely and carefree and good... possibly. It's all terribly clever and makes for a great mix.  A shout out must go to Gabriel, who appears later in the book and starts to emerge both as Nathan's first ever friend and also as the third angle of a potential love triangle - which, were it to be realised might make love triangles not such a bad thing anymore.

The world building and storytelling in Half Bad more than deserve the buzz which has grown up around this debut since the day it sold to a whopping 44 countries. The mythology of Nathan's world is almost flawless and while the structure (which moves between the present and the past) slows the pacing a little, the narrative itself is so strong that it doesn't really matter. At times the story running through Half Bad is heart-breaking but largely it is a one of defiance and adversity and an exploration of identity and where we find it. To go into the plot in any detail would be to ruin it for potential readers, suffice to say that it is gripping and intriguing - not least when the actual number of existing Half Codes is made apparent which, while subtly executed, will send a shiver down the spine. 

Green's writing is exceptional and this is a book that will appeal not just to teens and fans of YA fiction but also to adults who are more familiar with the literary fiction shelves of the bookstore and library. In style, Green calls to mind Susannah Clarke whose debut Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was equally arresting if a great deal longer and more complex. If there is any criticism to be made of Half Bad it is that not an awful lot happens in the actual present. There is a vague feeling, on finishing the book, that we have only just reached the start of the story proper - but what a story it is building to be! So pick up a copy. Don't let the subject matter put you off if witches and their ilk aren't your bag because with storytelling of this standard, it really doesn't matter. Highly recommended.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Half Bad is published today - hooray!  Thanks to Penguin for sending us a copy of this title to review.