Tag Archives: SF-themed children’s books

Book Review Saturday – ‘A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair’

I first heard about this book in an interview given by Frances Hardinge, an author whose work I absolutely love. Her new book, Cuckoo Song, was published in early May and, when she was asked about books which influenced her writing of that story, she mentioned A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair and how much she loved it as a child. It sparked my interest immediately.

Image: bookdepository.com

Image: bookdepository.com

First published in 1980, A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair is hard to get now – which is where having a good relationship with an obliging bookshop can go a long way. The edition I have is the one pictured (badly) above, a reprint issue from 2007. It’s a short, fast-paced and deceptively simple book which ends up making a huge statement about humanity and morality, all without getting too caught up in fancy language or over-explication. It’s a lesson, in fact, in how a good story doesn’t need too much embellishment.

As the book opens we are introduced to Brin Tuptal, a twelve-year-old genius with an IQ of 180, who is being ushered into a meeting with the Seniors of his city. Straight away, the reader is struck by the strange reversal of roles – Brin, the child, is shown deference; the elders are the ones who are ‘lesser’, and Brin speaks to them without consideration for their age – at least, at first. Brin is owed – and demands – respect, due to the fact that he is young, and therefore priceless. He lives in a future version of earth in which the human population has been decimated due to a long-ago nuclear disaster which resulted in a rapid loss of fertility and a massive drop in birthrate. Children are prized, and spoiled.

Brin is interrogated about his world and its norms – a very quick (if rather graceless) way of alerting the reader to the strangenesses of this future Earth. One of the questions he is asked concerns Reborns – what are they? Who are they? What use are they? – and we realise that the Reborns are clones, cooked up from leftover genetic matter. But they are not clones of people who are living, or even those recently deceased – for what would be the point in cloning, and bringing back to life, a person who was sterile, as the vast majority of people now are? These Reborns are people from the distant past whose genetic material (i.e. their remains) have been used to ‘reanimate’ them. The Seniors tell Brin that he will be included in an experiment to see if the Reborns are the answer to repopulating the planet, without telling him exactly what the experiment involves.

Brin is then ushered into a room which looks utterly different to anything he’s ever seen before. It has something called a ‘range’, and an icebox, and a fireplace, and a wireless, and battered old furniture, and it is small, and low-ceilinged, and dark… Brin is told then that the Reborns he is about to meet lived during 1940, and this room is designed to mimic the environment they would have been used to. Two children – Brian (the name is significant) and Mavis – then appear to him, along with an older lady whose relationship to them isn’t really explained. She is called Mrs Mossop, a hard-working woman who never takes a moment’s rest. The children begin to play with Brin, introducing him to things like toast and Marmite, and ludo, and Monopoly, and talking incessantly about Hitler and the war. He tells them that he is to live with them until his uncle Rick arrives from the Bahamas to collect him – but there is no uncle Rick, of course. He meets with no resistance, because the Reborns have been programmed to accept him, and not to question where they are.

But if they leave the room that the Seniors and their scientists have recreated for them, something dreadful will happen…

An alternate, long out of print cover for the book

An alternate, long out of print cover for the book. Image sourced: amazon.co.uk

Brin goes back and forth between the experiment and his own world, gradually realising that he likes Brian, Mavis and Mrs Mossop more and more. He begins to see that they are individuals, people worthy of respect and dignity and not mere lab-rats to be experimented upon. He knows that the Seniors have plans to destroy them, beginning with Mrs Mossop, and he knows he has to do something – and then, out of a moment of desperation, something like a miracle occurs. Something the Seniors could not have anticipated…

A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair is one of the most unique books I’ve read. As I said at the start, it’s not a sophisticated book, certainly not by today’s standards, but it’s definitely one that’s hard to put down. The language is simple, the descriptions basic, the dialogue expository and not terribly nuanced, but it’s the characters which bring this book to life. Mavis, Brian, Mrs Mossop and Brin, in particular, along with Tello (one of the Seniors) jump off the page and immediately demand to be loved and taken to heart. The slow unfolding of Brin’s realisation – that past ages were not peopled with mindless savages, and that the cold cruelty of his own age is comparable with anything that could have been done in the the past – is touching, and, as Frances Hardinge said in the interview I linked to at the top of this post, the twist at the end really made me think.

I’m not sure this is a book which would appeal to kids of today, and I think that’s sad. There’s a lot to be gained from reading it, particularly in relation to ideas of individuality and the value of the human spirit. I was struck, too, by how much of the ‘futuristic’ society has already come to pass in one way or another, particularly the ‘state’ having access to all your personal data, and every citizen having to wear an ID which contains everything about them and which must be surrendered to any authority figure on demand… In a way, it mimics the ‘papers’ that everyone had to carry in wartime Britain, but in another it’s a scary reminder of how centralised power can rob the individual of their personhood, and how much of our humanity we lose when we allow machines to run too much of this world in which we have to live.

Or perhaps that’s my innate techno-skeptic coming out again.

Anyway, if you can get your hands on a copy of this book, I’d recommend giving it a go. Bear with it in the opening chapter or two, and you’ll be rewarded with a thoughtful and philosophical little tale.



Book Review Saturday – ‘Quantum Drop’

Just before we begin, a little note to update you all on my publications: yesterday, I learned one of my stories, ‘Hello Kitty,’ placed third in a competition judged by William Nicholson, who is – among other things – the screenwriter of  the award-winning movie ‘Gladiator’. You can check it out here! And now – back to our regular programming.

This week’s book review will focus on Saci Lloyd’s action-packed thriller, ‘Quantum Drop.’

Image: hachettechildrens.co.uk

Image: hachettechildrens.co.uk

A short, fast-paced novel, ‘Quantum Drop’ introduces us to a young man who goes by the name Anthony Griffin. Early in the novel he tells us that this is not his real name – he’s chosen it in order to tell his story, but he can’t tell us who he really is. Anthony lives in the Debtbelt, a place which sounds a lot like a rundown suburb of a large city, perhaps London, with his mother and younger sister Stella. Stella is eleven, highly intelligent, an expert on crow behaviour and a person with Asperger’s, and I loved her – she’s one of the most interesting characters I’ve come across in a long time. Anthony’s father is absent, but we learn a little about what happened to him as the book progresses, and we discover that Anthony finds it very difficult. His grandfather – who appears to be his paternal grandfather – is still a huge part of his life and gives him guidance, even if sometimes he chooses not to listen to it.

There is a group of people in Anthony’s world known as the ‘Bettas’, who appear to be like a gang; they have initiations, they are involved in crime, they are significantly better off financially than the other people who scratch out a living in the Debtbelt, and they are – on the whole – bad news. Anthony’s best friend is Ali, who has become wrapped up in the Bettas, for what he says are economic reasons. His loyalty appears to remain with Anthony, but the fact remains that Ali is a Betta – perhaps the word rhymes with ‘Better’ – and this causes conflict between the boys.

The existence of the Bettas, and the grinding reality of the Debtbelt, are not the only notable things about Anthony’s world. There also exists something called the Drop, into which certain people can connect themselves through their handheld computers (I imagined them like smartphones, but with far more capability); skilled users can make their living through manipulating the Drop, and Anthony’s friend Lola does just this. Another person who was an adept at using the Drop was Anthony’s girlfriend Tais; at the book’s outset, however, we learn that she has been grievously wounded, and that she is in a coma in hospital. Anthony’s grief and rage at this terrible situation blight the rest of his life – he flunks out of his school exams, and seems to be heading down a difficult road. Then, he is approached by a mysterious figure known only as ‘the Teller’, who seems to know the truth about what happened to Tais…

The book moves quickly through the reality of Anthony’s world: he finds out that there is a connection between the Bettas and Tais, and he enlists the help of his friends to get him into the Drop to get to the bottom of it. Anthony is not as skilled at using the Drop as his friends are, and this leaves him at a disadvantage – as well, of course, as endangering everyone else. Lloyd creates a disturbingly real and believable connection between Tais’ fate and the realities of ‘big banking’, economic collapse and massive scale financial fraud as we know them in our world – the scenarios she describes are cleverly constructed and extremely easy to picture. What is not so easy to picture, however, is pretty much everything else in the novel.

I am all for books dropping the reader straight into the heart of the action. I love stories that begin ‘in medias res’, and I love to be thrown into a story, having to figure out things as I go. I have no problem with trying to work out terminology, concepts, and the ‘technology’ of a fictional world, like a detective putting clues together. I love that challenge, being truthful. However, in order to do this effectively, a reader needs something upon which to base their imaginings. The Drop (i.e. the ‘Quantum Drop’ of the book’s title) is never properly explained, or described – it seems to be like a ‘virtual reality’, or a Second Life type scenario, where people exist in ‘reality’, wearing headsets which connect them to a second existence inside a computer. Inside the program, they can change their appearance, even creating a whole new identity for themselves which can fool everyone but the most adept of users. Injuries they suffer in the  Drop appear on their physical bodies; if they die in the Drop, we’re led to believe they die in reality, too. Dodgy dealings are done in the Drop, and users who get involved with crime – helping criminals hide their ill-gotten gains, and so on – are the ones who earn the most money from it.

I have to be honest, though, and say that I found the Drop really hard to envision. My mind kept going to The Matrix, and how the characters in that movie ‘jack in’ to the other reality in which they live, one that can be controlled and affected by skilled programmers. I guess this was the idea Saci Lloyd was aiming for – but I think the Matrix did it a bit better. In that story, at least, there was a solid reason for the existence of the Matrix: in ‘Quantum Drop’, it’s just there. We don’t know why, or what it’s used for besides crime. It’s not properly described, and there’s no payoff for the reader in expending all their mental energy trying to imagine it. We don’t get to find out whether what we’ve imagined is ‘right’. I found that frustrating.

Image: ign.com

Neo (Keanu Reeves) loading himself into the system. Image: ign.com

Having said all that, the plot is tight and fast and exciting, and the mystery at the heart of Tais’ fate is gripping. The characterisation is excellent throughout – each character is unique and distinct, and they are all interesting. I found myself emotionally invested in the story and interested to see how it would resolve; I particularly loved Stella’s role in the final showdown. My favourite aspect of ‘Quantum Drop’, however, is the thing which made me buy the book in the first place – the voice. Anthony Griffin’s voice is excellent. Lloyd has created a fantastic character in her protagonist, and I loved having him as a guide through the confusing and strange world in which he lives. The characters were more rewarding and ‘real’ than the world, I thought, but I really cared about Anthony and his family and friends, and their story was great even if the setting was sketchy and hard to envision. Saci Lloyd’s writing is poetic and imaginative, and she definitely spares no blushes in her handling of the harsher realities of life.

I would recommend this book, but I do think it would have benefited from slightly more clarity, and a little more in the way of concrete detail regarding the eponymous ‘Drop’. Besides that, it’s a great, fast-paced read.

Happy Saturn’s Day, my loves. Go! Read!

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