Monthly Archives: August 2013

Book Review Saturday – ‘Rat Runners’

This week, it’s the turn of Oisin McGann’s ‘Rat Runners’ to fall under the Review-o-Scope…

Image: ebookweb.org

Image: ebookweb.org

Four teenage spies, a vast crime network, terrifying surveillance, and a murdered scientist – all the ingredients for a thrilling, twisty adventure story are to be found in the pages of this novel. It’s well written, well plotted, fast-paced and fun; as well as that, it delivers a punch of action right where it’s needed. The high-tech elements in the book, particularly near the end, are brilliantly observed and described, and they’re also – to be frank – monumentally clever.

Nimmo, Manikin, FX and Scope are our unlikely heroes, each of them with their particular skill, each of them surviving without family (besides Manikin and FX, who are brother and sister and live together in a fiercely guarded bunker), and each of them leading an existence outside of the eyes and ears of the law. This last achievement is no mean feat, for in the London of ‘Rat Runners’, to be alive is to be watched. Cameras and recording devices abound, and everyone lives in fear of the creepily described ‘Safe-Guards,’ who have access everywhere and seemingly limitless power to observe, record and dissect your life. The entire city is run by ‘WatchWorld’, who can invade your privacy and peer into every nook and cranny of London and the lives of those who live in it with impunity. One of the things I liked the most about this book was its use of the term ‘rat runners’ – in the world I know, a ‘rat run’ is a shortcut through a city, taken by someone who knows where they’re going. In this book, the term means a route through a city that is as invisible as possible – timed to be just outside of a camera’s sweep, or using shadows and architecture to your advantage – and our heroes are adepts at getting around London like this.

Our four young criminal protagonists are thrown together by crime boss Move-Easy, who requires them to do some work for him. Their task is seemingly simple: find a box which was, until recently, among the possessions of a certain Dr. Watson Brundle. Poor old Dr. Brundle has met a sticky end and the box has, apparently, vanished; the best guess is that it is in the possession of Dr. Brundle’s daughter, Veronica.

How hard can it be to steal it back? Well. Pretty hard, as it turns out.

Not only do the four anti-heroes have to contend with WatchWorld and the Safe-Guards, but they are also being pursued by two rival criminal gangs, including the mysterious ‘Vapour’, a crime-lord about whom nobody seems to know anything. To further complicate matters, a pair of ambitious but incompetent small-time crooks named Punkin and Bunny (think Bonnie and Clyde, minus the charm and intelligence), are continually getting in the way, and they’re bent on revenge against our foursome for an earlier slight. Ingenuity brings our heroes into contact with Veronica Brundle, and sheer guts and brains help them to uncover the truth behind the project her father was working on – a project which, if it fell into the wrong hands, could spell the end of the world as they know it…

This book is so good. I enjoyed every word. Everything about it, from the surveillance state to the technology to the criminal underworld, feels real and believable. The four protagonists are, at all times, seen as individuals with their own skills and talents. As well as this, they are all given a vital role in telling the story and in bringing events to their conclusion; the book could not exist without even one of them. The girls are as brave and strong as the boys, and the boys are as intelligent and quick-witted as the girls. I can’t tell you how much I loved the way McGann handled his protagonists. I was utterly absorbed in the technological reality of the world this novel creates – the CCTV state feels so believable, and the fear of being spied on is something which is already such a part of our world. The book couldn’t be more timely, really – the tech is futuristic, but the mindset is already with us. The dialogue is pitch-perfect and so well written that each character’s voice is clear in the reader’s mind from the first time they are encountered. The baddies are properly scary, and there is something to be wary of in almost everybody. As is to be expected in a place where WatchWorld holds sway, nobody finds it easy to trust anybody else, and this is very cleverly explored in the book.

My absolute favourite thing about ‘Rat Runners’, though, is this: in the world of Safe-Guards, books which contain ideas about freedom and corruption and surveillance and overturning the state are seen as so dangerous that they are banned. Books like Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, 1984, A Clockwork Orange, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (‘Ratched’ is even used as the name of a place in the novel, which I thought was a nice touch!) are ‘contraband’, passed from person to person and sold by ‘dealers’ under the noses of WatchWorld. This aspect of the book was such a thrill that I was sorry more wasn’t made of it, but I enjoyed it hugely anyway.

I wish, having said all this, that McGann had made more of the Safe-Guards themselves, and WatchWorld as an entity; the book becomes all about the criminal underworld, which is excellent (of course), but I would have loved to find out the truth behind the Safe-Guards, and the ‘face’ behind WatchWorld. Outside the scope of the novel, perhaps! I also found myself marginally irritated at something which happens to Scope toward the novel’s conclusion, in relation to her ability to see; I completely understand why it’s there, and why it was necessary in terms of the book’s denouement, but I still wish there had been another way to resolve the plot point. There’s also a description of a female character near the beginning of the book which – while totally in keeping with the tone of the character describing her – was, to me, annoying. I had a few small issues surrounding the character of Veronica Brundle, actually, but nothing important enough to stop me enjoying the book.

Overall, this is one of the best YA books I’ve read in a long time. On the question of genre: the storyline is, in my opinion, perfectly appropriate for a children’s book, and in many respects it fits neatly into that category, but some parents might want to be warned about the mild foul language that is used throughout; this probably elevates it to the lofty heights of 12+, which is fair enough. If you are lucky enough to have any young ‘uns of that age hanging around, and they look bored, then shove a copy of this book into their hands before they can pick up their PlayStations, or whatever. They’d be much better served by this wonderful story!

Happy weekend, everyone. Whatever you’re doing, I hope it’s reading.

Image: publicdomainpictures.net

Image: publicdomainpictures.net

Looking into the Abyss

As some of you will doubtless be aware, I am a person who is currently working on a novel. I am almost 58,000 words into that novel. Earlier this year, I wrote another novel (it came in at about 62,000 words, fact fans), and late last year, I wrote a third – the behemoth that was the first ‘Tider’ – which weighed in at over 150,000 words. I have written nearly 300 blog posts, many of which come in at around 1,000 words apiece.

That’s a lot of words, for one person, over the course of one calendar year. I’m not saying they’re good words, but still. I wrote them all. That counts for something. Right?

Image: wordmedia.co

Image: wordmedia.co

There are times when I sit and think about my writing, and where I want to go with it. I know I love it, and I don’t want to stop, but one thing that bothers me very badly is: what will I do if I reach a point where I really, truly don’t have anything left to write about?

Everyone knows this quote: ‘And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.’ This piece of wisdom from Friedrich Nietzsche has always interested me. It makes me think about how easy it is to allow yourself to get stuck into a particular way of thinking, and how hard it can be to turn your mind around when it over-focuses on something. Certain thoughts have that ‘abyss’ quality – you create a sort of ‘feedback loop’ inside yourself. You feed the abyss, and it feeds you.

If your abyss holds candyfloss and rivers full of rainbows, perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing. However, if you’re like most people, your abyss will tend to be full of nothing except darkness, and a howling wind will be licking its way around the sharp, pointed rocks that line it all the way down, like teeth around a gullet.

A writer’s greatest fear is lack of inspiration, I think. I tend to get a little worried when I read interviews with other writers where they talk about their ‘boxes’ full of ideas, or I see they’ve written hundreds of books already, or they mention that they have too many ideas to ever make use of during their lifetime. I get ideas, too, but not like that. Mine don’t come to me in a torrent, leaving me grabbing frantically at them in an attempt to salvage as many as possible before they get washed away. It’s more gentle than that – they come, dropping slow, into my brain every once in a while, in a completely unpredictable way. I have a list of ideas saved on my computer, but I don’t have hundreds of them, by any means. I have some, and I hope to have more eventually. I guess I’m not one of these people who is overrun with inspiration, so blessed by the Muses that they can’t get out of bed in the morning because their brain is too full; every time a flicker of an idea suggests itself to me, it’s a cause for celebration. I work hard to keep my eyes and ears peeled for ideas, and I work hard to craft them into sentences and – sometimes – into stories or even novels. It’s not an easy thing.

My abyss laughs up at me, in all its emptiness. It says ‘I have nothing. There’s nothing in here! Go on, have a good look. Shine a light into all my nooks and crannies. You won’t find anything, trust me.’ The abyss I can’t stop myself from looking into is the death of my inspiration. It’s the abyss of fear that, one day, the ideas will stop coming, and that if this does happen, I won’t have any idea what to do next.

Image: onthebridgeway.wordpress.com

Image: onthebridgeway.wordpress.com

I hope to finish my current book in the next couple of weeks. I already have my next project lined up, and when I finish that, I intend to redraft the book I’m currently working on with a view to getting it ready to submit. I have a book doing the rounds at the moment, and who knows but I’ll pick up some agent interest from that. I’m keeping busy, and so far this has stopped the abyss from chewing me up and spitting me out. I’m not sure if I can keep doing this forever, though. Once all my current projects have been completed, I am very afraid that there will be a hole in the road, or a wall of nothingness across my path. I dread the feeling of ‘not knowing’ – not knowing whether any of what I’m doing has a point, or whether any of it is worthwhile, or whether there is a way to bridge the gap.

I have to keep remembering a few truths about life. The first truth is: ideas are everywhere, and the only way to miss them is to stop looking. The second is: nobody really knows what they’re doing. Some people are better at pretending they do than others, but in reality we’re all just doing our best to get along. The third: there is no such thing as an inescapable abyss. The fourth: help is always there when you need it.

The fifth: the world is packed full of wonder.

Happy Friday. Keep your eyes on the road ahead, and don’t let anything knock you off your stride.

Image: pdpics.com

Image: pdpics.com

 

Baby Steps

At around this time of year, children start to go back to school. My local primary school opened its doors again yesterday to welcome in the very little people, those who are only beginning their education; I happened to be outside yesterday afternoon at around the time they were being released into sweet, sweet freedom after their morning’s learning. It was an interesting, and rather poignant, thing to witness. I saw one young boy, his schoolbag almost as big as he was himself, holding his mother’s hand as he made his way home. When I tell you his face bore an expression that wouldn’t have been out of place on a man coming up out of a coal-mine after a fifteen-hour shift, I’m not telling you a word of a lie.

Man, all that colouring in this morning was so hard... and as for *playing?* I mean, the teacher's a slave-driver! Image: roadtrip62.com

Man, all that colouring in this morning was so hard… and as for *playing?* I mean, the teacher’s a slave-driver!
Image: roadtrip62.com

This little boy – who can’t, realistically, be more than four – looked like he had been broken. It was as if all his tiny dreams had fallen apart, and everything he’d ever believed to be true about the world had turned to dust. I almost wondered if he was saying to himself: ‘Right. So, I tried school. I didn’t like it. At least I’ve got it out of the way. Phew! Am I glad I never have to go back!’ I wondered how he’d react when his parents gently broke the news that not only would he be going back to school the next day, and the next, but that he was actually at the beginning of at least fourteen years of education.

I have some very fuzzy memories of my earliest schooldays. I remember being shoved into a sandpit and pushed down a slide; the same boy, incidentally, was responsible for both these hilarious and rather painful japes, but luckily we became great friends later in life and I don’t still have a master plan in place to wreak my revenge upon him. (Honest.) I recall that my favourite school dinner, as a tot, was a concoction of small pieces of sausage mixed up with baked beans, which is something that would turn my stomach if I tried to eat it now. I remember a lesson about birds – I could have been no more than five or six at the time – which the boys at my table found hilarious because it mentioned ‘Great Tits’ and ‘Blue Tits’. I didn’t really understand what was so funny, but I do remember laughing anyway, as one does when one is outwitted by one’s peers.

Hahaha! I get it now! Hilarious! (I still don't get it.) Image: publicdomainpictures.net

Hahaha! I get it now! Hilarious! (I still don’t get it.)
Image: publicdomainpictures.net

Actually, I was one of those weirdos who enjoyed school. My parents tell me that I never really minded going back to the classroom when August rolled around, probably because I was the kind of kid for whom sitting down indoors and looking at a book was, pretty much, as good as life could possibly get. I really loved to learn, and – to be honest – I still do. Back then, being at the beginning of a school year was a wonderful thing. The excitement of empty copy-books, waiting to be filled with slanted, wobbly handwriting; the (not so happy) anticipation symbolised by the pages of my maths homework book, all the words I still had to learn to spell, all the fresh new textbooks waiting to be read… The memory of it still gladdens my heart.

While to this day I love to learn, it’s a shame that the one thing I didn’t bring with me from my schooldays was that same sense of excited anticipation surrounding new beginnings; nowadays, I tend to be rather more like the young boy I saw yesterday, he of the crushed dreams and tethered spirit. I look up at the mountain of ‘things to do’ and I get a so overwhelmed at the thought of how far I have to climb that I forget about the view I’m going to have from the top. Every new project undertaken is like beginning from first principles over and over. It’s so easy to allow the feeling of ‘I can’t do this again’ to shout louder than your desire to start something new, and make it impossible for you to keep going. Overcoming this takes constant vigilance.

I’ve been pulled out of my writing process for the past few days due to ‘real life’ issues, and so today I have earmarked for working on ‘Tider’. I know what I’m doing, I know where the story is going, I have a clear plan in mind; my goal is to write three thousand words before ‘close of business’. I have the enthusiasm for the work, and I certainly love the story. I know I can do it. Getting myself started after so many days away from it – taking the first step up that huge, looming mountain ahead of me – is the hardest part, though. Wherever that little boy is this morning – whether he’s crying into his cornflakes at the thought of another day at school, or whether he’s glumly packing his books and his pencils into his schoolbag, or whether he’s being supervised as he ties his shoelaces – I feel a certain kinship with him.

Getting started can feel like such a huge obstacle. However – as I’m sure that little boy, and plenty of other small people all over the country, will learn – once you get your momentum built up, there’s no limit to where you can take yourself.

Happy Thursday – hope it’s a productive and happy one for you.

Image: watoday.com.au

Image: watoday.com.au

Wednesday Write-In #54

This week’s words were:

academy  ::  pot of tea  ::  bunch  ::  snap  ::  vending machine

The Last Dance

‘I should so not have gone to the café at lunch,’ said Emily, with a frown. ‘Why didn’t any of you evil selfish cows drag me to one side and scream ‘Not one more pot of tea, do you hear me? You have to dance this afternoon!” She grimaced as she folded herself in two, neatly, her forehead coming to rest against her legs. ‘I think you’re all just out to sabotage me, frankly,’ she concluded, her voice sounding a little strained.

‘So you think it was the tea that did the damage, and not the scones, then?’ replied Marcy, coaxing her feet into fifth position. She raised her arms above her head as she winked down at Emily, who was regarding her gravely from behind her own knees.

‘Most uncouth of you to bring those into the conversation,’ she observed.

‘Come on,’ laughed Nora, practising her plié at the barre while admiring herself in the mirror. Her empty hands looked as though they were full of flowers, and her hair, in the same neat bun as everyone else’s, was like a painting. ‘As if anyone didn’t know. You’ll be thumping around here like a pregnant hippo all afternoon. Every Tuesday is the same with you.’

‘You bunch of absolute…’ Emily began, before the rest of her words were drowned out by the sound of forty dancers drawing themselves to attention, then falling into a curtsey.

‘Yes, yes, all right,’ snapped Madame, sweeping into the room. ‘First positions, ladies, s’il vous plait.‘ Her movements were perfectly graceful, despite the silver in her hair. She turned her back on the class as she dropped her bag to the floor and bent to rummage through it. For a few seconds she listened to the hisses and rustlings as the class rushed to obey her instruction, and she turned around only when she was sure her face was smooth, uncreased and calm. She was Giselle. She was Ophelia. She was the Swan Queen. She breathed deeply, her mind cycling through the steps, settling gradually, until she was ready.

‘She looks like one of those dolls, you know the ones,’ Nora hissed into Emily’s ear as they began their warm-up. ‘With all the sticky-up hair and an expression like a walked-on doughnut.’ Emily bit her lip as she tried to imagine one in a practice leotard.

‘The sort you’d get out of one of those vending machines, the ones with the grabbing hooks,’ she muttered back. She felt a gentle pinch on her back – Nora’s way of trying to keep her own laughter in – and did her best to focus on her arm movements. A tiny snort bubbled out of Nora, and Emily’s shoulders shook.

Silence,’ barked Madame, from the back of the room. She made every move gently, wondering when she’d feel the snap and the rushing pain she’d grown so used to. She distracted herself from thinking about it by watching the dancers, their every movement like a beat of her heart. She allowed her expert eye to follow the sweeping movements in front of her, the arms being raised and lifted, the feet sliding perfectly into position.

Then, from nowhere, a flourish of red-black feathers tickled the side of her vision; she closed her eyes and saw a glitter of sparkling frost spinning behind them. A snatch of music soared through her head. She gritted her teeth until it passed. She opened her eyes again, gazing upon her girls. They were a pile of sticks, a heap of rocks. They were a line of knights in armour, dancing.

‘Your arms are like a forest grown wild!’ she shouted. ‘This is not a class pour les enfants. We are the Academy of Dance, ladies. Remember it!’ The room filled with muttered apologies, and she watched as the girls, stealing surreptitious glances in the practice mirror, attempted to move as one.

She closed her eyes.

The lights were up. The heat filled her nostrils with a mixture of scents – makeup, sweat, anticipation. Her audience was hushed, waiting. On stage, she sat crosslegged, bowed and broken. In the wings the monster lurked, red and covered in feathers, teeth dripping and claws extended. This was the role of her life, her last as a prima, her swan-song. Lifting her hand to her forehead, she showed the audience her fear, and they ached along with her. Rising to her feet, she pirouetted once, twice, before crumpling to the ground once more. The monster roared, and she trembled at the sound. She heard the audience’s intake of breath as it took its first steps onto the stage, its claws clicking sharply on the boards. Her muscles felt like ice as she watched it approach…

‘Madame?’ came a voice. ‘Are you okay?’ She opened her eyes again to find two or three of the girls standing around her, looking concerned. She hated them, in that instant.

‘Enough!’ she barked. ‘Back to the barre, immediately!’ She hoped they hadn’t noticed the beads of sweat on her brow, or the red-black flashes she felt sure were in her eyes.

‘What’s eating her today?’ muttered Nora, as she and Emily settled back into position beside Marcy.

‘Who knows?’ said Marcy, stretching out her neck.

‘Who cares, right?’ giggled Emily. She turned to smile at Nora. ‘She’s nothing but an old witch, anyway.’

Suddenly, a loud thump jerked the girls out of their concentration, and they turned to see the crumpled form of their teacher, lying on the floor. After a few moments of shocked silence, some of the older girls took charge. Mobile phones were fetched from the dressing room; a too-late ambulance was summoned.

‘She… she executed a perfect plié and flew into a beautiful pirouette,’ babbled one girl, a junior, when the doctors came. ‘And then… she just fell.’

In the mirror behind them, unnoticed by all, a red-black beast devoured its prey.

It’s the Little Things

Lots of things in life bother me. I’m one of those people where ‘the river runs close to the surface,’ if you know what I mean; I am emotional, and sometimes I find myself shedding a tear where other people would go unmoved. If I’m honest, I like this aspect of my personality, though I know it upsets my loved ones at times. I like the fact that I feel things deeply, even though it’s painful; it makes me feel connected to myself, and to others.

Image: 123rf.com

Image: 123rf.com

At the weekend, I was standing at traffic lights waiting for a chance to cross the road in safety. Facing me, coming in the opposite direction, was a set of young parents and their two boys, probably aged about seven and five. I’m not a parent, but I’m more than aware of how boisterous and energetic children of this age can be, and these two little boys were no different from the average kid. One of them started pressing the ‘Walk’ button repeatedly, as children do, and the other was prancing about from foot to foot, singing a little song to himself. Just as I was thinking what cute children they were, I witnessed a show of anger from the parents that left me reeling. The children were shoved and shouted at, and the boy with his hand on the ‘Walk’ button had it forcibly removed. The singing child was yelled at and told to shut up. As they started to cross the road, one boy dawdled, his attention caught by something in one of the idling cars, and his father grabbed him and shoved him across the road with what I felt was unnecessary force, shouting at him all the way. In no point was the child in danger – the green ‘walk’ signal was lit, and the cars were not moving. The physicality was extreme and unwarranted, I thought. I glared at the man, and said, very clearly, ‘there’s no need for that!’ as we passed one another on the road – he ignored me, of course. I hardly expected anything else. I’m fully prepared to accept that my actions may not have been appropriate; it’s not for me to say how anyone else raises their children, and I know that. Having said that, I watched the two little boys as they reached the far side of the road; from being the curious, singing little things they’d been at the beginning of this scenario, now they were both crying and angry. The whole family was furious with one another, and it radiated from them like steam from boiling water.

I walked home feeling so sad at what I’d seen. It stayed on my heart all day, weighing it down.

There’s a poem called ‘Children Learn What they Live,’ which played on my mind for most of the rest of the weekend. It begins: ‘If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn; if a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight; if a child lives with fear, he learns to be apprehensive.’ I’ve often read this poem and it has always been clear to me how perceptive and true it is. It makes me wonder how a parent thinks treating their child with aggression can lead to anything but pain, or how they think that a child is going to grow up as a happy, contented and secure adult if they’ve felt bullied and belittled all their lives.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that the family I saw was abusive, or anything like that. Every family has its bad moments, and perhaps I simply happened to be there at the wrong time for this particular family. I’m also not saying that children shouldn’t be corrected when they misbehave; teaching a child how to negotiate the world with respect for themselves and others is a vital part of parenting, and discipline is part of that. For the record, I don’t believe in physical discipline of children, but I know opinions differ on that. I feel, too, that correcting a child’s misbehaviour with appropriate discipline is different from using them as punchbags for an adult’s own feelings of anger or upset or frustration; the latter is inexcusable.

Of course I would love to see a world where no child would ever know aggression, whether it’s verbal or physical, but we’re all aware of how realistic that dream is.

Image: 123rf.com

Image: 123rf.com

I have a huge amount of sympathy for parents who, under pressure from every corner, find raising their children difficult; it’s not easy to find the money and the time and the energy to parent energetic, never-sleeping, inquisitive little people. There are going to be times when tempers boil over and anger reaches flashing point and things are said which will be regretted later – but it’s really important to express this regret, and ‘mend the fences’, and reassure the child that they are still, and always, loved. Love is such a little thing – such a short word, and so often bandied about – but at the same time it’s the single most important thing a parent can give their child. I’d go so far as to say it’s the single most important thing one person can give another.

I would love to see a situation where every child was afforded an education, the chance to learn how to read and write fluently and confidently, and the knowledge that – no matter what – they are loved. Imagine the generation of happy, compassionate and intelligent people we would raise.

Imagine the difference it would make to the world.

Image: 123rf.com

Image: 123rf.com

 

 

 

 

Techno-Twittery

My mobile telephonic device, she is busted. This makes me sad.

This little fella says it better than I ever could... Image: publicdomainpictures.net

This little fella says it better than I ever could…
Image: publicdomainpictures.net

It couldn’t have happened at a worse time, either. I was just stepping onto the train that would carry me on the first leg of my journey home (well, to my parents’ home, really) for the weekend when I discovered that my phone had decided enough was enough. It was a strange moment for me. I haven’t been mobile-phoneless for about fifteen years – which is scary, when you think about it – and, of course, the trains I took both ended up running late (this is Ireland, after all), which delayed my arrival. For the first time in a very long time, I was unable to contact anyone to let them know. I could send no texts, receive no texts, make no calls. For four hours, nobody I knew could speak to me. It was weird. If aliens had chosen that moment to appear out of the clouds and abduct me, my family would never have known. If I had been inspired in that moment to tap out a particularly beautiful text message to a loved one, it would have had to go unsent. Truly, it was a tragedy of the technological age.

As well as my train-journeying, I was supposed to be meeting some old schoolfriends over the weekend. Naturally, then, I needed my phone in order to make plans, change plans, break plans, or whatever. ‘Typical,’ I fumed, raging at my phone’s tiny screen. ‘You work fine for months on end when I don’t really, truth be told, need you; just when you become indispensable, you decide to go belly-up!’ Somewhere in there is an important life lesson, even if I haven’t quite separated it out from all the crimson fury just yet. I was surprised at the depth of my own anger, to be honest. It seems silly that a small lump of plastic and glass could have such an effect on me, but there you are. It did.

Image: publicdomainpictures.net

Image: publicdomainpictures.net

And so, of course, my phone will have to be replaced. But the question is: what with?

So far into my telephonic life, I have resisted the lure of the smartphone. I have no need for such a device, I tell myself; all I want from a phone is the ability to make and take calls, and to send and receive text messages. I don’t want a phone which can run my life for me (despite the fact that I have trouble running it myself, sometimes), which is smarter than I am, or which is able to tell me what the weather is like in Kuala Lumpur at the drop of a hat. I am a troglodyte, and I want my phone to match. The phone I had – the one which has just broken – was a pretty ordinary model, but it did have a touchscreen, upon which its functionality depended; this touchscreen is the part which is now broken, which renders the whole thing useless. (This doesn’t sound all that smart, to me.) The phone I had before this one was a standard Nokia ‘brick’ – pretty much indestructible, easily able to survive being dropped down stairs or sat on for prolonged periods or being stored carelessly in a pocket – and I had it for about six years, without a problem. I was persuaded to ‘upgrade’ to the slightly fancier model less than a year ago, and now I find myself in my current predicament. In a way, this is entirely as it should be. Show me something sparkly and technological, and I bet I’ll have it broken (accidentally, of course) before the day is out.

It’s a strange situation, this. When I come to replace my broken phone, I am pretty sure that I will have to go with a smartphone. Phones are pretty much all morphing into mini computers, these days; it’s not easy to get a phone that just does phone-stuff, and none of the Personal Assistant-stuff. However, the ‘smarter’ a phone is, the more vulnerable it is, don’t you think? The more likely it is to break, or throw a hissy-fit, or be stolen, or sat on (because its flashy ultra-slim case is impossible to see, and it’s too light to make any sort of impression in your pocket, leading you to forget it’s even there at all); the more moving parts it has, the more likely it is to give you a nervous breakdown, is my philosophy. So, truly, the least smart thing I could do is purchase myself a smartphone.

I have a feeling that’s exactly what I’ll be doing, though. I won’t have a choice in the matter. It’ll be a case of ‘go smart, or go home.’

So, today will be about bowing to the inevitable, and spending uncomfortable amounts of money on something at which I will squint, and mumble, and swear under my breath for months to come. Occasionally, perhaps, I will make a call on it or send a message, though this remains to be seen. In a way it’s sad that my new phone will be a piece of technology more powerful than the rocket which brought men to the moon; I will probably use it for scheduling the time at which I get out of bed in the morning and for throwing irritable feathered things at stupid porcine things. I just hope I get slightly more than a year out of it, or there will be trouble…

This is more like it! Image: welcometolensville.wordpress.com

This is more like it!
Image: welcometolensville.wordpress.com

On the upside, it might make checking my online life (swiftly growing more interesting than my real-life life) a bit easier, and I’ll certainly be able to keep you all apprised of any impending alien abductions.

I hope you all had wonderful weekends, stress-free and technologically unchallenged, and that you’re fresh and ready for a new week. Happy Monday!

Book Review Saturday – The Father of Lies Chronicles

Happy Saturday, all!

This weekend’s book review post is more of a ‘series’ review, really. I’ve recently finished ‘Arthur Quinn and Hell’s Keeper’, the final book in Alan Early’s ‘The Father of Lies Chronicles’, and it’ll be tough to do a review of it without touching on the two books which came before it. So, I’ll jumble them all in together here and hope for the best.

Image: argosybooks.ie

Image: argosybooks.ie

Very few things in life please me more than finishing a series. I love trilogies, and – unlike a lot of readers – I love waiting for the second and third instalments in a sequence of books. I’ve been following Arthur Quinn’s adventures for a while now – you may remember me mentioning him way back in January – and it was great to finally get my hands on the wrap-up to his story, and to finally find out the answers to some of the questions that have always hung over the character: why was it Arthur who was chosen to stand against the gods? What happened to his mother? And, most pertinently: is it even possible to slay a god?

The series began with Arthur and his dad Joe facing the prospect of moving away from their home in Kerry just after the death of Arthur’s beloved mother. Joe’s job is bringing him to Ireland’s capital, and Arthur isn’t best pleased at having to leave behind everything he has known and loved. This first book (‘Arthur Quinn and the World Serpent’) introduces us to the Jormungand, the terrifying snake which circles the earth in Norse legend; it has slept beneath Dublin for a millennium, and in the course of works needed to build a tunnel for Dublin’s new underground railway, the creature is awoken accidentally. It is up to Arthur, and some new-found friends, to stand against the creature. The Jormungand is, of course, one of the three children of Loki, the trickster-god of Norse mythology; as well as dealing with the serpent, then, Arthur also has to cope with its father, who wants to unleash Ragnarok, or utter destruction, upon the world. We see how skilfully the terrifying character of Loki weaves his way into Arthur’s life, manipulating him without Arthur even being aware he’s doing it. It takes all of Arthur’s strength, and the help of a band of long-dead (now reanimated) Viking warriors to see off the World Serpent… but, of course, Loki manages to escape their clutches, because that is what he does best.

The second book, ‘Arthur Quinn and the Fenris Wolf’, introduces us to Fenrir, the second of Loki’s terrible children. In mythology, Fenrir ate the sun at Ragnarok, plunging the earth into darkness and despair; in the book, he is a man who has been tasked with building an army of wolves, one which will help Loki bring about the end of the world. New characters are introduced in this book, including the Lavender siblings, Ellie and Ex, whose motivations are never quite clear; we also meet Ice, a puppy which Arthur’s friend Ash risks her life to save, and who turns out to be far more than appearances would allow. The book concludes with a fantastic showdown between Loki and the children, where help arrives from an unexpected place, and Arthur makes a huge personal sacrifice to save the world, once again, from Loki’s wrath.

Finally, then, we come to the final book in the trilogy. ‘Hell’s Keeper’ is the goddess Hel, who is – in mythology – a horrifying half-alive, half-dead creature, the guardian of a realm of the same name, where the dead live. In this book, the idea of ‘Hel’ is used to powerful effect, even if the goddess herself only makes a brief appearance. The book begins back in Kerry, where Arthur has not had long to recover from the exertions of his last adventure before a strange dream invades the sleep of everyone on earth, all at the same time (with exceptions made for time-zones, and so forth!) The dream shows a child being kidnapped, and Arthur and his friends know who the kidnapper is – Loki. They know he is planning something, but clues are scant as to what, exactly, he’s up to. Then, the trickster god appears, and tells Arthur a heart-shattering secret which asks as many questions as it answers; even more terrifyingly, he uses his power to destroy Arthur in front of his friends. Luckily, however, this is not the end: Arthur is transported to Asgard, and from there to an alternative version of Dublin, one in which he has never existed. In this ‘Dublin’, Loki is king, and Arthur not only has to face him, but also some familiar-looking enemies from his past.

I really enjoyed this series of books, for a lot of reasons. I love books set in Ireland, and/or written by Irish authors, for a start; I really enjoy reading stories which take place in settings I’m familiar with. I also love books which breathe new life into old stories, and which make myths and legends come alive in the minds of their readers. I am a big fan of children’s books which base themselves in the rich cultural legacy of their country of origin, and for that reason alone, I knew I’d love this series.  In the final book, I particularly enjoyed the author’s imagining of an ‘alternative’ Dublin, and how an apocalyptic disaster might affect humanity – it was a dreadful picture, but there were some sparks of compassion and kindness there, too. I found myself delighted with the character of Arthur; his courage and self-sacrifice, as well as his love for his friends and family, were wonderful.

At times, however, the style of writing in ‘Hell’s Keeper’ was a little description-heavy and a lot of things were ‘told’ instead of ‘shown’; it’s hard not to do this, though, when you’re writing a book of this nature, which relies so much on ‘stories within stories’. I also felt that ‘Hell’s Keeper’ could have been a little more compactly edited – bits of it felt too long, to me, and I thought the other books had a better structure, and better pacing. Overall, though, this is a series I’d recommend for anyone 8+ who’s looking for a fresh voice in children’s fantasy fiction, and who wants to learn a bit about Dublin and the Vikings, to boot!

'Loki's Brood', 1905, Emil Doepler. Image: en.wikipedia.org

‘Loki’s Brood’, 1905, Emil Doepler.
Image: en.wikipedia.org