Tag Archives: debut novel

The Eye of the North Book Launch

The author, modelling her book, at the launch of The Eye of the North. Photo credit: Jan Stokes

The author, modelling her book The Eye of the North, at its recent launch! Photo credit: Jan Stokes

Last Thursday evening, in Eason’s of O’Connell Street in Dublin’s city centre, I had the great joy of welcoming my book into the world in style. With the support of my publisher Stripes Books, and the fantastic organisational skills of Eason’s management and staff, I got to drink wine, make a (terrible) speech and read the first chapter of The Eye of the North to a motley crew of friends, family and well-wishers.

It was a truly wonderful experience, and I will be grateful to everyone involved for as long as I have full use of my mind (which, hopefully, will be quite some time).

However, because I made rather a mess of the speech I had prepared – including forgetting to thank some very important people – I’ve placed the text of it here, to give those who couldn’t attend a sense of the night and to assuage my own guilt at the bits I forgot. So. Without further ado:

The first thing I think of when I look around this room full of dear and beloved people, my friends and family, is this: have yiz nothing better to do in Dublin on a Thursday evening? Thank you all for being here. Every one of you is here because you’ve been in some way helpful or encouraging or supportive – perhaps you sent a Tweet, perhaps you did more than that – and you’ve all had a role to play in bringing this book to life. Thank you all.

I particularly want to thank, of course, the staff and management of Eason’s for hosting the event for us here and making us so welcome, and my publisher, Stripes Books, who have been a dream to be involved with. Beth Ferguson and Lauren Ace are absolute gems, who’ve managed to get me out of my comfort zone as kindly as possible, and they’ve helped arrange this fantastic event which is more than my tiny culchie mind could ever have dreamt of – so thank you, Beth and Lauren. Thanks to Katie Jennings, too – Katie is my editor, so she deserves your sympathy and admiration as well as my gratitude. The whole team at Stripes are just wonderful, and they’ve made me look very good, so they have my eternal devotion. I also need to thank two people in absentia – my agent, Polly Nolan, is the first of these. Polly’s hard work, her belief in me and in this book, and her commitment to me before we’d even signed up to work together, meant that I had the encouragement I needed to keep going when it seemed like a book deal was an impossible dream. The other is author Kieran Fanning, who has believed in this book since before it was even a thing – and that support has meant more than I can express.

I won’t detain you long, but I do want to say a few small things while I have a fairly captive audience. The first is this: I don’t come from power, or wealth, or influence. My grandfathers both worked in factories, among other things; my grandmothers were in service, taking in washing to make ends meet, doing whatever they could to support their large families with very little. Neither of my parents had the opportunity to follow any artistic or educational dreams they might have had, as such things weren’t for people like them. I am fiercely proud of all of them, and of all my family, and of where I come from. The fact that I stand here today not only as an author launching her debut novel but also as a person with a PhD is an overwhelmingly emotional thing. I wish my grandparents were alive to see me do this thing, this thing they could hardly have imagined, and I hope they would have been proud of me as I am of them.

The second is: I began my reading life at home with my parents, who did everything they could to feed my mind and my curiosity, to give me access to books, and to encourage me. Sometimes I think I scared them a bit with my appetite for words and knowledge, and I think at times they didn’t understand where it came from – but I think they always knew they were raising two children, my brother and me, who had artistic leanings and a sensitivity to creativity. They helped us fly. I want to thank them for all they have done, for being entirely unsurprised at the fact that my brother is a playwright and short-story writer, not to mention the editor of a literary magazine and the holder of an MA degree, and I am what you see before you, and for loving our odd little ways. I don’t think it can be overstated that doing as my parents did and giving a child access to books, encouraging their literacy – both in terms of reading books and in reading the world around them – and allowing them to know their dreams are realisable are the best gifts a parent, teacher or carer can give. As an author and a parent, I am so proud to be a small part in that huge and wondrous process, that amazing thing where I get to share what I have been given and light the flame anew. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí.

My two wildest dreams are in this room. I’m holding one, and my husband is holding the other. I am so glad to have both my babies here with me this evening, and I am so glad to be sharing all of this with all of you. Thank you.

So. If you were there – thank you so much. If you weren’t, but you’re reading these words – thank you, too. Nobody writes a book alone, despite how it feels at the time. We all need our net of support to keep us going. I’m so lucky to have one like you.

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender’

One of the ways in which I know a book is good – or, perhaps, that it’s resonating with me – is that I read it with a pack of post-its to hand, ready to mark particularly beautiful passages or memorable quotes.

My copy of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is festooned with such ribbons of remembrance.

Image: librarymice.com

Image: librarymice.com

This book took me by surprise. I heard its author, Leslye Walton, speak at the recent CBI conference, and – perhaps as a result of the conference’s focus on children’s and YA books – I had expected Ava Lavender to be a more ‘typical’ YA novel. This is despite the fact that Ms Walton several times referred to her work as ‘magical realism’, and so I should have been prepared for it to be wonderful, otherworldly and captivating. I guess I forgot that, and it was all to the good in terms of my reading experience.

The novel begins with a letter penned by the 70-year-old Ava, telling us that she is going to relate ‘the story of [her] young life as [she remembers] it’ (p. xi), and she tells us from the get-go that she was born in March, 1944, with the wings of a bird. These wings – speckled, beautiful, an intrinsic part of her skeleton and circulatory system – create different reactions among the people who encounter Ava throughout her singular life, but throughout it all Ava knows the truth about herself – she is ‘just a girl’ (p. vii).

But before we even get to any of that, the book sweeps back to the beginning of the twentieth century and tells the story of Ava’s grandmother, Emilienne, a young Frenchwoman brought to America by her idealistic father. He believes that he, his wife and four young children will have a better life in ‘Manhatine’ than they will en France. We learn of their fates in the years that follow their arrival, the tolls that life in New York take upon them and the various adventures, and crushing disappointments, and soaring beauties, which love visits upon them. Eventually, Emilienne (who, by now, has been left entirely alone in the world) marries Connor Lavender, whom she believes to be ‘a man [who] would have trouble leaving anywhere, or anyone for that matter’ (p. 29), and they move to Seattle, settling in a strange house which was built for a semi-mythical child named Fatima Ines de Dores many years before. The reader is then swept into Fatima’s story for a time before the narrative weaves us back into the lives of the Lavenders, and the strange town in which they find themselves living.

In time, Emilienne gives birth to Viviane, a baby who grows up largely ignored in the midst of her parents’, and eventually her mother’s, bakery. Viviane, too, falls in love as she grows, and finds the experience one which shackles her to home instead of freeing her to follow her heart wherever she wishes to go. When she is unexpectedly made pregnant, and gives birth in due course to Ava and her twin brother Henry, there is already a love in her life which she cannot see or appreciate and which she risks losing forever unless she opens her eyes to it – but her old love, the one which imprisons her, refuses to relinquish its hold on her.

Image: perpetualpageturner.com

Shut up! So what if I am? Image: perpetualpageturner.com

You won’t have missed the fact, of course, that all this happens before Ava Lavender is even born. The fact that a girl with wings, and her twin brother who does not speak, yet knows what’s truly going on in his family, are characters in this novel is just another jewel in its crown. This is a book stuffed with wonders, and I’m still not sure whether I am sad or glad that Ava, and her wings, almost seem normal in this cast of unique and engraved-upon-your-heart-at-first-glance characters.

An oft-repeated refrain in the novel is ‘Love makes us such fools’, and that’s one of its main themes. Love which beautifies and disfigures us, love which elevates and enervates, love which destroys and which bestows life – all those loves, and more, are in this book.

Here’s a quote I stickered with gusto:

By this point Viviane Lavender had loved Jack Griffith for twelve years, which was far more than half of her life. If she thought of her love as a commodity and were, say, to eat it, it would fill 4,745 cherry pies. If she were to preserve it, she would need 23,725 glass jars and labels and a basement spanning half the length of Pinnacle Lane.

If she were to drink it, she’d drown. (p. 107)

I am not normally a fan of books about love (yeuch). I don’t do romance, usually. But this isn’t a romance novel, really; we’re not talking pages of swooning dialogue and creaking bodices and burning glances stolen across crowded ballrooms, or any of that old nonsense. We’re talking souls and fanaticism and obsession and devotion; we’re talking maternal and paternal and grandmotherly love, and the sort of love that persists between siblings, even long after death. We’re talking the sort of love that gets crushed between the grinding cogs of a bad marriage but which haunts an abandoned partner in their dreams, all the same. We’re talking friendship so profound that it overlooks difference.

This is a story about the effects of love, more than love itself. It’s written beautifully, it’s gorgeously spun, the characters are marvellous, and the ‘baddie’ suitably deranged and horrific. A climactic scene involving Ava and someone who has convinced themselves they ‘love’ her was mentally scarring to read; the rehabilitating power of ‘good’ love was, by comparison, a balm. The ending was perfect, if a little surprising.

Emily Dickinson once wrote: ‘”Hope” is the thing with feathers’, and I think that’s what this novel has at its heart like a treasured secret. Ava is determined as much by her hope – that she will be happy, that she will be accepted, that she will find companionship of all kinds – as she is by her wings.

So, let’s just say I loved it – no pun intended. It’s a wonder. Read it as soon as you possibly can, and then buy a copy for someone close to you, and watch them as they read it.

Have a happy, and feathered, weekend, everyone.

Saturday Book Review – ‘Half Bad’

Sally Green’s début novel, ‘Half Bad’, has been getting a lot of press lately. It’s been called an ‘edgy and gripping success’ by the Telegraph, but the Guardian declared that ‘any sense of menace had been magicked out’ of it; over on Goodreads opinions appear similarly divided, with some readers feeling it owes a little too much to Harry Potter and others quite certain that its magical rites and traditions are utterly unique.

As for me? In typical fashion, I can see the merits of both points of view.

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

Nathan Byrn lives with his grandmother and siblings (or, more technically, half-siblings) in an unnamed town in a country we can reasonably assume to be modern-day England. His eldest sister, Jessica, hates him with utter conviction, but his other siblings – Deborah and Arran – are depicted as kind and caring. Their mother, we soon learn, took her own life at some point in the past. Jessica, Deborah and Arran’s father is also dead – killed before the book begins by Marcus, the greatest and most powerful Black Witch in existence. Marcus also happens to be Nathan’s father.

After a very brief introduction to the child Nathan, the book opens in stunning form, introducing us to an older Nathan who is – for reasons unexplained – locked in a cage and living as a semi-slave under the total control of a tall, strong woman who is utterly immovable, both physically and emotionally. It takes us through his daily routine, his attempts to keep his sanity, his desire to escape. Those parts of the story which deal with Nathan’s imprisonment are narrated in the second person, an extraordinary technique which simultaneously makes the reader feel what Nathan’s feeling while also expressing his desire to distance himself from what is happening to him:

“You’re dizzy so it’s easy to swoon, sinking to your knees. She grabs you by your armpits but your left hand isn’t injured and it finds the handle and slides the knife out of her boot while she grapples with your dead weight and as you let your body sink further you bring the blade to your jugular. Fast and hard.

But she’s so bloody quick, and you kick and fight and fight and kick but she gets the knife off you and you’ve no kick and no fight left at all…”

(‘Half Bad’, page 17)

The text backtracks to show us why, and how, Nathan ended up in this situation, beginning as he starts secondary school at age eleven and comes into contact with the O’Brien children, who are powerful White Witches. The book takes place in a world where witches and ‘fains’, ordinary folk, intermingle – most fains aren’t aware, or don’t care, that witches exist and most witches are utterly indifferent to them, too. However, within the world of witches a huge gulf exists between the White and the Black. Hatred isn’t too strong a word to describe what they feel for one another. Nathan, as a half-Black, half-White witch, apparently the only one of his kind, is a focus for the Whites’ anger and disgust for Black magic, and receives severe treatment at the hands of the O’Brien boys.

It is the O’Brien’s sister Annalise who shows Nathan kindness and acceptance, and Annalise who becomes his only friend. That is, of course, until her family forces them apart.

Fearful that Nathan will develop into a Black witch – and perhaps one as powerful as his fabled father – he is kept under strict control. His life and freedom is curtailed by decree after decree, he must present himself for regular testing by the Council of White Witches, and – eventually – he is imprisoned by them. Not the most effective way of encouraging Nathan’s White side, inherited from his mother, to emerge, perhaps, but it’s such a human, bureaucratic, blind course of action that it feels utterly real. Throughout the book, the idea of White magic as ‘good’, no matter what it thinks of itself, and Black magic as ‘bad’ is constantly questioned; certainly, the White witches in this book are cruel, inhumane and severe, almost to an individual.

But of course we can’t forget the Black witches and their tendency to commit murder, most particularly Marcus, Nathan’s father, who not only kills his victims, but also eats their hearts…

Nathan embarks upon a quest to discover the truth about who he is – White or Black, a murderer or not – and, of course, the clock is ticking. He must figure all this out by his seventeenth birthday, the traditional day of a witch’s Giving ceremony, where they imbibe (along with the blood of their ancestors) the magic which will define them for the rest of their life.

I enjoyed this book. It was compelling, and well-written, and the central characters (particularly Nathan, whom I really warmed to) were fully drawn and fleshed out. I could see the similarities to the world of Harry Potter – the Hunters were a little like Aurors, the looming figure of Marcus was somewhat Voldemort-like, Nathan was scarred, like a certain Boy Who Lived – but I really feel Sally Green has done something different with her magical world. Of course, J.K. Rowling drew on folklore and witch-lore for her books, too, and Green draws on the same store of knowledge, but that doesn’t mean they are telling the same story. ‘Half Bad’ is gritty and violent and ‘real’, for a book about witches; it is about pain and suffering and struggle more than it is about magic. It’s about finding out who you are when you’re not sure you’re going to like who you are.

I wasn’t entirely sold on the ending – and, if I’m being honest, the last quarter of the book lost its hold over me, just a little – but nonetheless I’ll be impatiently waiting for ‘Half Wild’, its sequel, due for publication this time next year. I’m intrigued by Nathan Byrn, and I want to see how he ends up – and that’s recommendation enough for any book.

Image: s.667.photobucket.com, created by devillygirl88

Image: s.667.photobucket.com, created by devillygirl88

 

 

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Skull in the Wood’

Oh, thank goodness for this book. Thank goodness.

Image: sandragreaves.com

Image: sandragreaves.com

I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed good, solid, decently scary, folklore-tinged, well-written storytelling until I read this book, Sandra Greaves’ debut novel. Published late last year by the wonderful Chicken House, it’s a gem. I hope the author is planning to keep writing, and that there are plenty more stories where this one came from.

The novel is narrated through the alternating viewpoints of two primary characters, thirteen-year-old cousins Matt and Tilda, who are forced to live together during a particularly charged and emotional time in Matt’s life. His parents have just separated, and his father has removed himself entirely from the family, leaving Matt to deal with his mother’s new boyfriend Paul (the ‘four-eyed pillock’, as Matt memorably describes him on page 1.) Matt, understandably, struggles to cope. He decides to decamp to his uncle’s house – the widower of his mother’s late sister – in order to get some space. This brings him into close contact not only with Tilda, but with Kitty – his bubbly, beautiful five-year-old cousin who is, in so many ways, the focal point and the heart of the story.

Among the new people he meets on Dartmoor (for this is where his uncle and cousins live) is Gabe, the handyman neighbour, an older man who is in touch with the local folklore. Gabe is a strange and slightly odd character, interesting and layered and eccentric, and I loved him. It’s from him that Matt hears about Old Scratch Wood, a scrubby area of woodland, apparently the oldest in England, which lies some miles away across the moor. Gabe warns him off going there, which – of course – has the effect of making Matt want to see it as soon as possible. Tilda is instructed to bring him, and – during the course of their attempts to frighten one another half to death inside the spooky old wood – they discover something strange, buried deep in the long-undisturbed soil. This strange object starts to have an effect not only on Matt and Tilda and their relationship to one another, but also the continued existence of Tilda’s family. It is so slow and gradual that the children don’t understand that a larger force, a corrosive force, is at work, but Gabe knows better. He repeatedly tries to warn the children about the ‘gabbleratchet,’ a gathering of infernal darkness heralded by birds; at first, of course, they have no time for what they perceive as nonsense, but they soon learn that they’re mistaken to treat it so lightly. Gabe has seen the gabbleratchet once before, and he knows exactly what to look for…

This was a delicious story – and I mean ‘story’ in the old-fashioned sense of the word, a satisfying read which ticks all the boxes and sends the customer home singing, with no bells or whistles or unnecessary faff. It had everything I adore in a book, and more. I loved the mingling of the supernatural – and the darn spooky supernatural, at that – with the ordinary, everyday existence of the characters; I loved the ‘city boy’ Matt and his inability to get into the flow of life on a farm. I adored beautiful Kitty and her sparkly, sunny ways. I even liked Tilda, bruised and battered since the death of her mother, forced to take on too much responsibility, afraid that the life she knows and loves is about to be taken from her – and with nobody upon whom to focus her anger besides her cousin.

In so many ways this story reminded me of Alan Garner’s work; it’s not in the same league in terms of language, at least for me, but it definitely comes from the same mindset. It features so much stuff I love, which I also find in Garner’s work: a traditional setting, taking in folklore and folk wisdom (I loved the ‘gabbleratchet’, a version of which is also found in Garner’s majestic ‘The Moon of Gomrath’); confused and frightened children facing down a supernatural power vastly superior to themselves; innocence threatened, and deep family secrets coming to the fore.

Image: amazon.co.uk

Image: amazon.co.uk

The central motif of the story – the actual skull itself, which has lain in Old Scratch Wood for so many years – is thrillingly spooky. I loved the way Sandra Greaves uses the characters’ inability to appreciate the changes in the skull as a way of pointing out to the reader that it contains some deep and disturbing power, and I loved the way the gabbleratchet is described. It’s different, while remaining completely true to its traditional roots. A reader doesn’t need to be familiar with English – or, I suppose, British – folklore to understand or appreciate the power of the gabbleratchet, as it’s so well described and perfectly utilised within this story, but if you do, it can only help to heighten your appreciation for the finer details in the story. I loved, too, that the raising of the gabbleratchet is not the only problem the children face – there are also ‘real life’ issues for them to deal with, including separated or deceased parents, parents taking new partners, families with money worries, devastating illness and fears for the future, which end up being harder to sort out than the supernatural.

This book is well-written, expertly handled and perfectly realised. It has great pace and suspense, as well as emotional heft. I know it’s early days for 2014 yet, but I don’t expect to read many books this year which will top this one.

Highly recommended.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Arclight’

Happy Saturday, campers.

Today we’ll be looking at a book that made quite an impression on me – not necessarily for good reasons, admittedly, but an impression nonetheless. It’s ‘Arclight’, a début YA dystopian fantasy from US author Josin L. McQuein. Unfortunately, I’m probably going to have to drop a few spoilers in here in order to discuss my issues with the plot (though I’ll try to keep them to an absolute minimum), so if you’d rather remain unspoiled you might prefer to toddle off and have a cup of tea instead, and I’ll see you on Monday.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

Okay. So, you don’t mind spoilers? Are you sure? Right. Let’s get cracking.

This book sounded like it was going to be great. The protagonist is a teenage girl – Marina – who lives in a world where light is life, light is safety, and going into the Dark spells death. At some point before the story begins, she is found on the borders of the Dark in an area known as ‘the Grey’, with no memory of who she is, or how she got there. She’s taken into the Arclight – the ‘fortress of light’, for want of a better term – populated by humans, which acts as the last outpost against the Fade, creatures who live in the Dark. She is the only human to have survived an encounter with the Fade for generations; feted as a ‘Fade-killer’ and condemned as ‘Fade-bait’ in equal measure, she cannot find a place to fit comfortably in her new surroundings.

The story progresses in that slightly predictable way that all YA dystopian novels have: conflict, battle, injury, wounds, (insta-)love, powerful friendships, testing of friendships and family bonds, wrongheaded adults who refuse to listen to reason, journeys into the unknown to find out The Truth, and all that. If I sound jaded, I don’t mean to – these are the things a reader expects from a YA dystopian novel, and ‘Arclight’ delivers all this in spades, as it should. I have no problem with any of that, and the book does all of these things very well.

What I do have a problem with, though, is a book which leaves its reader feeling a bit like this while they’re reading:

Image: terisaburger.com

Image: terisaburger.com

At several points during my reading of ‘Arclight’, I have to admit that I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I couldn’t follow threads of conversation, I couldn’t get a mental hold on anything that was being described, and at several junctures I wanted to insert myself into the novel and give several characters a robust slap across the jaw. The book begins just as the Fade mount a violent attack on the Arclight (so, very much ‘in medias res’, which is not something I object to, generally, as long as the reader is given something to hold on to), and in this case I found myself flailing a little, not really understanding anything, but carrying on in the hope that it would all be explained as things went on.

Well – things did, and did not, become clearer as the story progressed.

My first issue was with the Arclight itself. I was never sure whether it referred to the physical building in which our human characters live, or merely the large circle of powerful lights which switch on as night falls, keeping the humans safe in the face of the Dark. Mention is made in several places of ‘breaches’; it wasn’t clear to me whether this meant that the enemy was crossing the light, or breaking into the physical building. It seemed to change, as required. Then, we have the Fade themselves – the enemy of the humans, and the frightening denizens of the Dark. Our first encounter with them, during the initial battle, makes them seem a lot like the Dementors from Harry Potter – tall, faceless, skinny, dressed in grey ragged robes, complete with slashing claws and gnashing fangs. They seemed like a cross between zombies and vampires, to my mind, at first; but then, midway through the book, they change completely into something entirely different.

Image: blog.8bit.io

Image: blog.8bit.io

Okay, so I can get on board with that. An author has a right to do whatever she likes to her characters, yes? Yes.

But then, we have Rue. A character who I liked, because he was strong and brave and loyal; a character whose human-seeming inhumanness did, to be honest, unnerve me a little. But, it’s also true to say that he’s a character whose actions, when he’s in the Arclight, make no sense – unless, of course, you guess at one of the novel’s major plot twists, and then things start to fall into place. Sadly, Rue’s actions mean that guessing at the aforesaid major plot twist becomes too easy, and – in essence – reading about his illogical insistence on Marina accompanying him through the Arclight compound when he’s more than strong and capable enough to do it by himself gives a Huge Giant Hint as to what the truth behind their relationship is. I thought that was a shame. To me, it was a major signpost toward the novel’s conclusion, and it sort of ruined the big reveal.

I also have major problems with the backstory between the humans and the Fade. If even half of what the novel says about the Fade, and what they’ve done to humanity, is true (within the story world), then the whole book makes me profoundly uneasy. As ‘Arclight’ progresses, and we learn more about the Fade and how they operate, the overall question in my mind was ‘why?’ Why did they choose this particular course of action, why would an organism develop or evolve in quite the way they have, and why – why now – do they want to interact with the humans? Most importantly, I found myself asking: ‘what exactly are the Fade?’ It’s explained, sort of, but I’m not sure I fully understood that explanation. It was pleasingly SF-lite, with mention of futuristic cures for disease and the perennial ‘man tinkers with nature, and nature bites back’, which never fails to deliver, but even still. I was left with a very confused idea about this species at the end of the novel. Then, this book is the first in a series, so perhaps the story of the Fade will be dealt with more fully in future volumes.

Anyway.

There were good bits to this book, too. There were some scenes I did enjoy, and there are passages which are exceptionally well-written. A scene near the end of the book when an unexpected person saves Marina from danger is touching, and I was intrigued by the character of Rue who, despite his courage and loyalty, has touches of cruelty too; he makes a nice change from the flat and bland Tobin (the other male lead – one female lead and two male, I’m sure you can see where we’re going with this one.) I enjoyed reading about Marina’s sparky best friend Anne-Marie and her family, and I sympathised with Marina’s essential problem – which world to belong to, which identity to cleave to, which family to choose – and her need to find a way to grow up into the person she’s supposed to be without denying her past.

But, overall, ‘Arclight’ left me confused, and bequeathed unto me a headache. It wasn’t a bad book, as such, but it reminded me of a freshly-plastered wall which hadn’t yet been smoothed over. It had everything a great YA book needed, but it all seemed jumbled and spiky and hard to enjoy.

Has anyone else tried this one? If so, what did I miss?

Once More Unto the Book Review – ‘ACID’

How on earth is it Saturday already? *Shakes clock* *peers at it peevishly*

I'm not *this* desperate to slow down time - not yet, anyway! Image: dailymail.co.uk

I’m not *this* desperate to slow down time – not yet, anyway!
Image: dailymail.co.uk

Oh well. In any case, Saturday is the day it appears to be, and so it must be time for this:

The Book Review Post!

Image: nosegraze.com

Image: nosegraze.com

This week, it’s all about fighting The Man, as I’m feeling the love for Emma Pass’ marvellous début novel, ‘ACID’. It’s not exactly a comfortable read, but that – in essence – is what makes it so good. And it is, indeed, so good.

I read ‘ACID’ pretty much in one sitting – no mean feat, considering it’s over 400 pages long – and when I tell you it gripped me from the first sentence, I mean it. ‘ACID’ has one of the most arresting opening chapters of any book I’ve ever read; Pass’ grip over language and character doesn’t relax for one second for the rest of the book, either. I felt like Jenna Strong’s story was dragging me by the nose. I had to find out what happened to her, because her voice was so compelling and urgent. The book is tight, well-written, expertly paced and so very clever – it’s almost too much to believe that it’s Emma Pass’ first published novel. It’s extremely accomplished, and my hat is off to her for that alone.

‘ACID’, set in 2113, is the story of the aforementioned Jenna Strong. At the time of the novel’s opening, Jenna is incarcerated in Mileway Maximum-Security Prison, having, we’re told, murdered her parents at the age of 15. She is (perhaps a tiny bit implausibly, but I instantly forgave it) the only female inmate in this prison; as a result, of course, she is sexually and physically victimised by the male inmates. Or, at least, the male inmates attempt to victimise her – Jenna, easily the most kick-ass heroine I’ve read this side of Katniss Everdeen, does not take their maltreatment lightly, and learns very quickly how to defend herself. After the breath-holding tension of the first few chapters, where we learn all about the prison, Jenna’s past, and her painful present, the story quickens into a rescue mission, mounted by persons unknown, to break Jenna out of Mileway.

The book takes us through Jenna’s new existence outside of prison, her efforts to stay under the radar and away from ACID – the Agency for Crime Investigation and Defence, i.e. the most brutal, merciless, and omnipresent police force you can imagine – and her growing involvement with an underground resistance movement which is dedicated to freeing the population from ACID’s iron grip. In the course of this, she must assume a new identity, start living a different life (including being forced to take a LifePartner with whom she cannot see eye to eye – the breakdown of their clandestine relationship brings her entire existence into danger), and eventually, inevitably, go on the run. This identity-swapping is done in order to try to evade ACID’s terrifying, all-seeing surveillance; later in the book she is forced to assume yet another identity, against her will this time. All these layers are deftly handled, giving Jenna’s character such satisfying texture and complexity.

The story describes daily existence in a country which was once the UK and is now the IRB, a walled-off, segregated totalitarian state. It is a chilling vision. Everything is monitored – ACID knows who you talk to, what you read, what you think, who your friends are – marital unions are state-sanctioned (everyone is assigned a LifePartner in their late teens, and any sign of deviance from this is severely punished), and couples may not become pregnant without a permit from the state. It’s not a new idea that total power brings total corruption, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea – Emma Pass makes such excellent use of the trope that it seems new and fresh in her hands. The gradual uncovering of the truth behind Jenna’s early life, as well as her own origins, gives the story an emotional punch and makes you care deeply about Jenna and the pain she has been forced to suffer.

The secondary characters are also excellent, particularly Max – he’s almost the ‘heart’ to Jenna’s ‘muscle’, which is a refreshing reversal of expectation – and his kindness and compassion show us exactly how hard Jenna has had to become in order to survive. She is, however, hiding a painful secret from him for a large part of the book, and the strain this causes is made very clear. As well as excellent characterisation, another of my favourite features of the novel is the use of reproduced newspaper articles and komm readouts (‘komm’ being a device worn in the ear, and monitored by ACID, which allows you to ‘link’ to other people – almost like a smartphone, but with a heads-up display), which give us another perspective on Jenna’s first-person narration. I enjoyed the disparity which sometimes occurs between the way she views the happenings in her world and what ACID is actually thinking or doing – it’s nicely used to rachet up the tension where necessary. Plus, it looks really cool.

In short, everything about this book is top-notch – the writing, the characters, the narrative voice, the concept, the action sequences, the world-building (which feels sickeningly plausible!), the technology, and the emotional arc our characters travel. I did have two tiny quibbles, one of which I’ve touched on above (Jenna’s being the only woman in the prison), and another which occurs near the end of the book (where Jenna is handed an opportunity to achieve one of her goals, instead of creating her own means of getting what she wanted, which would have been more satisfying to read). However, these quibbles are swept away in the overall force of nature that is ‘ACID’.

Just to note: ‘ACID’ is probably considered a YA novel by publishers and librarians and booksellers, and so on, because Jenna is in her late teens, but I’m sure it would be relished by fans of crime writing, SF and speculative fiction, too. An excellent piece of work, which is heartily recommended.

Happy weekend, all! May the books be with you…

‘Cinnamon Toast’ and a Book Review*

Behold the loveliness of this book cover:

Hypnotic, isn't it?Image: amazon.ca

Hypnotic, isn’t it?
Image: amazon.ca

I read this book over the long weekend, and it wasn’t a second before time. I’ve been waiting for it to come out for several months (it’s so hard to wait for books!), but it was more than worth it. It’s the kind of book which turns its reader into a really rude so-and-so, a person who’s unable to talk to anyone or take part in anything that doesn’t involve their faces being stuck into their book. So, apologies to anyone who might have tried to speak to me while this book was anywhere within grabbing distance. I probably didn’t hear you.

The book (Janet E. Cameron‘s debut novel, ‘Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World’) is set in 1987, in a small town in Nova Scotia. We meet Stephen Shulevitz, a boy who spends his early years living with his parents in a hippie commune, dealing with their unusual relationship with one another as well as with him. At the age of eight, he moves to small-town Riverside with his mother and begins to attend regular school, where he suffers due to his perceived ‘snottiness’, or superiority, over the other children. Of course, Stephen has no intention of elevating himself above his classmates. He simply sees the world differently, has been educated differently up to this point in his life, and finds it hard to adjust. His parents separate, and we read of the sometimes poignant relationship between Stephen and his mother. There is a lot of love between them, but on occasion it fails to find its way to the surface. The book basically takes us through Stephen’s life as he negotiates his family difficulties (including re-establishing a relationship with his estranged father), makes friends, makes mistakes, deals with his Ukrainian, Russian and Jewish heritage, and falls in love. And all this before he’s even finished school.

The book begins with a scene from Stephen’s teenage years on the night he realises he’s fallen in love with the ‘wrong’ person – this is the ‘End of the World’ of the title. The story flips gently back and forth between the pages of his life as he tries to explain to us how he got to this point, and why, exactly, he fell in love. The book is narrated by Stephen himself in a very effective ‘memoir’ style; at times, he feels he’s ‘left out too much’, and he’ll go back to fill in the gaps. We are brought from the ‘present day’ back to important scenes from his childhood – the day his father left, the day he meets his beloved (and the circumstances behind their becoming friends in the first place), among many others – which gives a very realistic feel to proceedings. Despite this, the story doesn’t flinch from telling us all about Stephen’s mistakes. When he messes up, he’s self-aware enough to tell us about it without attempting to explain it away. One particular episode, when he (almost without meaning to) betrays his best friend, had me in tears. I wasn’t sure if it was because I felt terrible for Stephen, or because I could relate so much to his friend (Lana); perhaps it was a bit of both. In any case, it was moving and real and completely believable. Despite the fact that it’s set in Canada (and there are significant differences between their ‘High School’ experience and ours here in Ireland), the emotions, insecurities and relationships were so effective that the story immersed me completely. For the length of time I spent reading this book, I was an awkward Canadian teenager in the 198os (despite the fact that the real me in 1987 was a greasy kid wearing glitter-boots, a sideways ponytail and a Jason Donovan t-shirt).

The characterisation in this book is excellent – even the minor characters are memorable. I found it interesting that the most fleshed-out and ‘real’ character in the story is the person with whom Stephen falls in love. This person’s failings and flaws, as well as their heroism, protectiveness and kindness are all described with such tender touches that by the end of the story I was a little bit in love with this character myself. It surprised me, because the love-interest is full of anger, and at times the hatred and darkness they exude oozes out of the pages. At one point, they hurt Stephen very badly and his life is put at risk, but despite this, Stephen’s love doesn’t waver and, as a result, neither did mine. I understood the character’s reactions, and I felt I knew where they were coming from – product of a broken home, left to take care of a much younger sister, overlooked by teachers and allowed to fall through the cracks at school – so their rage seems natural and even understandable. I was left feeling sympathetic and sorry for this character, as well as full of admiration for Janet Cameron, the book’s author – how right it is that the person into whose psyche we are given the most insight is the one with whom our narrator is in love. Who else does he know more deeply?

I enjoyed everything about this book, from its structure to its narrative voice to its evocation of a world at once totally alien, and completely familiar, to my experience. I have been the character of Lana, also in love with the ‘wrong’ person, feeling too large for comfort, not quite fitting in with the other girls; I felt such affinity with Stephen’s mother Maryna, dealing with her own memories of a hard childhood with an unforgiving father and the cultural baggage she carries, not because I’ve experienced this myself but because Ms. Cameron describes it so well. I admired Stephen for his bravery and constancy, and I hated his father, Stanley, for the way he treated his son. The book deals unflinchingly with drug use, AIDS (particularly the fear felt around the topic during the 1980s), sexuality, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, and rape – so in some ways, it may not be for the faint-hearted. But if you like books which touch your heart and make you think, books which evoke a time and place so skilfully that opening them feels like stepping into a time machine, and books which deal with the Great Universal of unrequited love, then this is a book worth reading.

Image: frontroomcinema.com

Image: frontroomcinema.com

 

*In the interests of full disclosure, I feel I should say that the author of this book is someone with whom I communicate on Twitter; this has not affected the impartiality of my review, however.