Tag Archives: violence in YA literature

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Outsiders’

Yes, yes, I know. ‘The Outsiders’ has been around for far longer than I’ve been alive. So, you might reasonably ask, why am I only getting around to it now?

Well.

I don’t really have an answer. I always wanted to read ‘The Outsiders’, and it’s only managed to work its way to the top of my TBR pile in the last few months, and those are the facts. In any case, better late than never.

Image: snazal.com

Image: snazal.com

Among the many amazing things about this book is that it was written by an actual teenager, in the actual nineteen-sixties, and that teenager went on to write lots more books and is still alive, and still writing. Another amazing thing is: that teenager was a girl.

‘The Outsiders’ tells the story of Ponyboy Curtis, a fourteen-year-old in a dangerous world. Where Ponyboy lives, there are two groups – the Greasers and the Socs, or in other words the kids from the wrong side of the tracks and the upper-class, privileged set. Ponyboy is a Greaser, as are his brothers Darrel and Sodapop, who live by themselves after the deaths of their parents. Early in the book, Ponyboy notes that his oldest brother (Darrel, or ‘Darry’) shouldn’t have to work ‘like an old man’ as he is only twenty, but this is the reality of their lives. He is the main supporter of their family, and they are fiercely protective of one another. They, and the other Greasers, regularly rub up against the Socs, and these encounters are never pleasant. The novel opens with Ponyboy leaving a movie theatre having watched a Paul Newman film and being set upon by a bunch of Socs. He is rescued by his older brothers, which leaves him a confused mix of relieved and embittered. Later in the story, the boys meet some Soc girls, which begins the process of learning about ‘the other’; ‘The Outsiders’ of the title is an easily switched label, for of course the definition of who, or what, is ‘outside’ depends on where you’re standing. The girls are nice, and sweet, and treat them decently, which makes them wonder whether there is some good in the Socs after all.

Shortly thereafter, a serious rumble between the groups takes place, and a character is accidentally killed in the course of it. As a result, Ponyboy and his friend Johnny skip town, hiding out in an abandoned church some miles away where they spend a week with little to do besides reading ‘Gone With The Wind’ and wondering about their fate. When their friend Dallas – a volatile, charismatic, dangerous, compelling character – eventually comes to find them, he brings bad news: the situation between the Greasers and the Socs has become grave. The boys decide to return home to try to pacify things, but before they do, they realise the church is on fire – with children inside…

‘The Outsiders’ is a remarkable novel. There are things about the way it’s written which make it clear that it is the work of a young author – and, sometimes, a young female author – including passages of description, and a focus on the appearance of the main characters. Ponyboy describes himself within the first paragraph, comparing himself unfavourably with Paul Newman; several other characters, including his brothers, are described by him as handsome or some derivative thereof, which is a little unlikely in the mouth of a fourteen-year-old boy. I doubt the majority of fourteen-year-olds would notice whether or not their brothers could be considered ‘handsome’; somehow, I don’t think it would be important to them. However, this is my only slight gripe with the book. In every other respect, it is a masterpiece.

The cast of 'The Outsiders' movie (1983) Image: sf.funcheap.com

The cast of ‘The Outsiders’ movie (1983)
Image: sf.funcheap.com

In its characterisation – particularly of the narrator, Ponyboy – it is touching, real, and honest. In its dialogue, it is rounded and believable. In its plot, it is moving, powerful and relevant, even now. Anyone familiar with ‘West Side Story’, and innumerable other teen movies and books since ‘The Outsiders’ was written, will not be taken by surprise by the plot overmuch; however, that doesn’t remove anything from the fact that the story of the Greasers and the Socs is as important now as it was then. I loved the people of this novel, especially the orphaned Curtis brothers and their attempts to live well and to conduct themselves in a way which would have made their parents proud. I loved their emphasis on hard work and education, and Sodapop and Darry’s paternal worrying over Ponyboy’s tendency to throw away his own potential. I loved the fiery Dallas, unhinged but loyal, dangerous but loving. I admired Johnny, despite his faults, and I loved the delicate way Hinton deals with the Socs, gradually unpicking Ponyboy’s lifelong conviction that they were out to get him, and nothing more.

Parts of the end of this book had me in tears. Hinton is wonderful at handling emotion – not only the heightened senses of a fight, but also the agony of loss and the punch of love – which is hard to believe, given that she was fifteen as she started to write this novel and eighteen by the time it was published. It felt real as I read, immersing me in its world from the very first line. The central message of the book – outsiders are people, just like us – is one that I don’t think the world has yet learned; there is a lot to be said about the way in which Hinton describes death and destruction in this book, and how it affects everyone. With every death, we are all lessened.

‘The Outsiders’ has been a staple on school reading lists for decades in the US, but it should be recommended reading everywhere. It’s one of the most enjoyable – if a little corny and clichéd in places – books that I’ve read in recent memory. If, like me, you’ve been meaning to give it a whirl, don’t delay any longer.

Image: fanpop.com

Image: fanpop.com

Book Review Saturday – Days of Blood and Starlight

I debated for a long time whether to even tackle a book like ‘Days of Blood and Starlight’ in my weekly book review; I feared it was too much for me. After much deliberation, though, I’ve (un)wisely decided to go ahead with it, and all I can do is hope I don’t get swept away in a torrent of emotion.

If I do get swept away in a torrent of emotion, by the way, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Image: lainitaylor.com

Image: lainitaylor.com

‘Days of Blood and Starlight’ is the second part of a trilogy – the first book in this series was ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone,’ and the third part, ‘Dreams of Gods and Monsters’ will be published next year. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel so packed full of imagination as ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone,’ and I’ve been eagerly awaiting its sequel for months on end. When I eventually managed to get my hands on ‘Days of Blood and Starlight,’ I devoured it – so much so, in fact, that I think I’ll have to go back to the beginning and read both books again, just to savour the utter miracle that is Laini Taylor’s mind.

‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’ introduced us to Karou, a character who also takes centre stage in ‘Days of Blood and Starlight.’ A seventeen-year-old with bright blue hair who lives in Prague and studies art alongside her best friend Zuzana, Karou is an independent, talented and intelligent young woman. She does have the irritating habit of disappearing without warning whenever she is summoned, however; Zuzana wonders what Karou does every time she runs off, but Karou can never tell her. The only hint to Karou’s secret life is the fantastical drawings she makes of half-human, half-animal hybrid creatures, all of whom have names and whose adventures Karou uses to entertain Zuzana. But what Karou has never made clear to Zuzana is that these drawings are far more than just works of art. They are portraits taken from life, and the individuals they depict are far from imaginary. To Zuzana, they are merely characters in Karou’s imagination, but in truth they are Brimstone, and Issa, and the other members of Karou’s ‘family’, who have raised her since infancy. Karou is their ‘eyes and ears’ in the human world, and they need her to carry out various tasks for them – hence, her need to disappear whenever they call her.

For Karou’s family are monsters – monsters who love, and who care for one another, and who fight bravely for their place in the world. Their strange and frightening appearance is not their whole story, however. They are ancient and powerful beings, among whose terrifying powers is the ability, when conditions are right, to raise the dead.

‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’ takes us through the standoff between Karou’s family (who are known as ‘chimaera’) and the seraphim, who are far from being the angels a reader might expect. These seraphim are militant, savage warriors who keep track of the amount of ‘beasts’ (chimaera) they’ve killed by the amount of tattoos on their fingers, and they are determined to wipe the ‘stain’ of the chimaera from the face of their realm, Eretz. Unfortunately for Karou, she meets an angel, a seraph named Akiva, and they discover they have a connection that goes far deeper, and much further back in time, than either of them expected.

‘Days of Blood and Starlight’ picks up after a massive showdown between the seraphim and the chimaera that took place on earth – in Prague, specifically – which finished ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone.’ Karou is reeling with grief having suffered a massive bereavement, and she and Akiva have been separated – seemingly forever. As well as her grief, Karou is struggling to deal with the truth about herself, and what she is; she has also begun to realise that the work of raising the dead which was begun by her foster-father Brimstone has now fallen to her. She has been training for it all her life, sometimes without even realising it, but she still finds it an incredibly onerous burden. She is kept on a tight leash by Thiago, the White Wolf, an extremely powerful chimaera who has set his sights on destroying the seraphim; the angels, of course, are not going to take this lying down, and are fighting back with increased savagery against the chimaera. Over the backdrop of this supernatural war, Akiva is searching for a way to find Karou and try to heal the rift he has caused between them, and she is fighting to keep her people alive.

With the help of three people from her past who she feared were lost forever, Karou keeps struggling to survive – but in a world where angels are the enemy, and not all the monsters are good, how can she know what she’s risking her life to accomplish is right?

If this summary sounds confusing, that’s because the books are so intricately plotted that trying to make a synopsis of the story is well-nigh impossible in this short space. We are thrown into a world of resurrectionists, hybrid creatures, tattooed angels, thuribles containing the souls of the dead, hamsas with the power to repel the seraphim, multiple worlds, massive battles, brutal savagery and tender affection. It is a huge canvas, and every inch of it is covered. Laini Taylor’s writing is beautiful and poetic, and in her hands a 500+ page novel with small type and a massively complicated storyline just zips past. However, we have a romantic melodrama which (I have to be honest) got a bit much for me in places – I had this problem with ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’, too, but that’s just because I’m not a huge fan of romance novels, to begin with – and there were points in the book which I felt were a little ‘wordy’ just for the sake of it. Having said that, when the words are as beautiful as the ones Laini Taylor uses, that’s not always a bad thing. The world/s Taylor creates seem real enough to live in, and her characters spring off the page – especially the non-human ones – and I adore the way she’s flipped the angels vs. demons thing on its head by making her seraphim the furthest thing from heavenly that you could imagine.

In short, if you’re in the mood to get lost in a rich and vibrant other world, and you’re able to follow a complex plot, and you have a strong stomach (some of the battle scenes are graphic in these books), you really can’t go wrong with ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’ followed by ‘Days of Blood and Starlight.’ You just might look a bit like this once you’ve finished reading them, particularly back to back:

Image: mischiefmonster.deviantart.com

Image: mischiefmonster.deviantart.com

Happy weekend, y’all. Hope you’re tickling your eyeballs with something good!