Tag Archives: YA literature

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Lie Tree’

Well.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

Shortly after I’d finished reading this book, I engaged in a Twitter-versation about it with another book blogger (and all-round fabulous lady, whose Twitter feed you can follow here), where we concluded that Frances Hardinge is an underappreciated genius. The Lie Tree is a ‘typical’ Hardinge novel, insofar as it is the equal – in terms of beauty, plotting, characterisation, language, setting and complexity – of all her other novels, yet at the same time it is entirely different from anything that has gone before. There is no ‘typical’ Hardinge novel, really – they are all different. She is versatile, invigorating, and never less than compelling, in everything she writes.

I’d really love to spend five minutes in her imagination.

The Lie Tree is the story of Faith Sunderly, her father Rev Erasmus Sunderly, her mother Myrtle and her younger brother Howard. It is set in the 1860s, beginning with a journey from England to an island called Vane, possibly in the English Channel, where the Sunderly family are beginning a new life. Rev Sunderly has been asked to attend an archaeological dig (because, as well as an Anglican clergyman, he is an expert in fossils – or, at least, so we think), but Faith knows from the get-go that there is something larger going on. Her family seems to be fleeing from something, and her inquisitiveness and courage soon allow her to discover that her father’s reputation is in tatters. He is suspected of intellectual fraud, and is leaving ‘society’ for a time to allow the dust to settle. On the island, the family struggles to settle in their new home, dealing with sullen staff and – as soon as word of the ‘scandal’ reaches the islanders – the disdain of their peers. No matter how far the Sunderlys run, the whiff of impropriety is hot on their heels.

Then, Faith’s father dies in mysterious circumstances. He is suspected of having taken his own life, which means he cannot be buried in consecrated ground, and the family’s desperation deepens. But Faith soon begins to suspect that the truth surrounding her father’s death is far more complex, and in her attempts to uncover what really happened, she gets drawn deep into a mystery which, ultimately, destroyed her father – and threatens to destroy her.

This story appears ‘simple’. It it true that there is no detailed world-building here, no complex magical and/or political systems nor any larger-than-life characters; it is firmly set in the Victorian period, with all the upheaval that went with that era. Darwin’s Origin of Species has just been published and its repercussions are creating pained ripples in society; science and faith are intermingled; social roles are rigid. Faith (whose name, along with the root of ‘sunder’ in her surname, seems to me a comment on the division between belief and rationality) is a highly intelligent, scientifically-minded, headstrong girl who is stymied at every turn, told she cannot live the life she wants because of her sex, and the frustration this causes her is tangible. Her brother Howard is locked into his own rigid role, forced to stifle his natural left-handedness for fear it will cripple his future prospects and assume the mantle of the ‘man’ in his family despite being barely six years old. It is the character of Myrtle, the children’s mother, who I found most intriguing; calculated, cunning and extremely clever – though not in ways which are immediately apparent to her hot-headed daughter – she is a survivor in a world which is stacked against her. Myrtle’s self-preservation in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death turns Faith’s stomach, but to the reader, what she’s doing is obvious. Myrtle knows she will be disinherited, and she has no asset besides her beauty and appeal to men, which she wastes no time in bringing to bear upon her relationships with the important men of the island. It is no surprise that her daughter finds this upsetting, but one can’t help but be consumed with a sort of admiration for Myrtle’s machinations, at the same time.

I haven’t even mentioned the lie tree itself yet, and that’s not accidental. The Tree, referred to as the Mendacity Tree by some, is the only non-realistic part of this story, and in so many ways it’s symbolic of Faith’s struggle to find out the truth about her family and her father and about the realities of life in the Victorian era, particularly on a small island. Much of the book takes place without its even being an important part of the plot. As an object in and of itself, it is a mysterious plant which feeds on lies, sprouting fruit which, when eaten, affords the consumer visions of the ‘truth’ – or a truth, at least. Faith’s father had discovered this plant years before and had been keeping it secret – but it appears not to have been as secret as he thought. Faith becomes entangled in the Tree as she searches for her father’s killer (for she is certain he did not take his own life, and knows that if she can’t prove it, her father’s estate will be confiscated by the Crown), and – as lies are wont – the Tree’s effects spread far beyond anything she intended, growing more and more complex and terrifying with every lie she feeds it.

This story is about feminism, Victorian social attitudes, the clash between religion and evolutionary belief (and the real, true agony caused by it to intelligent people of faith), the nature of lies and the nature of truth and how to disentangle them, and the impossibility of keeping a lid on salacious gossip and life-destroying lies. It is told simply, in a straightforward manner (so, very unlike some of Hardinge’s other books, but totally in character with Faith’s scientific, matter-of-fact outlook), and perhaps at the end it felt a little too well tied up, but that is the only thing I could point to as being less than entirely satisfactory. I loved this book. Frances Hardinge is, to me, an author who is constantly pushing at the boundaries of MG/YA literature and showing exactly what writing for this age group can do. This philosophical, intelligent and deeply strange book is a haunting, complex and beautifully written piece of literature, and deserves a wide readership.

I’m Ba-aaack!

Image: spinoff.comicbookresources.com

Image: spinoff.comicbookresources.com

Did you miss me?

Probably not, I’m wagering. I should think you’d probably have missed me a lot more if I’d done a better job of going away to begin with. I didn’t blog very much, true, but I wasn’t as absent from Twitter as I’d planned (darn you, smartphone!); and I did a lot of dropping in on Facebook, too. As well as all that, my brain was always ‘on’. It’s something which I’m really going to have to work on, you know, this tendency I have to never stop thinking. It’s almost like my mind goes even more doolally over writing-related stuff when I know I’m not supposed to be thinking about it.

So, long story short: I’m only back from two weeks ‘off’, and I feel as tired as ever. Wahey!

However, one of the reasons I’m tired is that, during the last couple of weeks, several cool things happened. I can’t go into detail about them all yet, but – all in good time, my dears. All in good time.

The first cool thing is: I read a whack-ton of books, some of which I’ve been asked to review for a brilliant kidlit-related publication which will be out later in the year. The books included Witch Light (originally published as Corrag, and read just for pleasure) by Susan Fletcher, which was a beautifully written story of one young woman’s struggle to escape her impending execution and her recounting of the massacre at Glencoe in 17th-century Scotland, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Shockingly, I’d never managed to get around to reading the latter until now, despite it languishing on my TBR-list for years. I also devoured The Wolf in Winter, the new John Connolly novel (again, this was just for me!) and it was as fascinating as any of his previous Charlie Parker books. I love and adore children’s and YA books, of course, but it is nice to step into the realm of adult literature every once in a while (if only to reaffirm your conviction that kidlit is way better).

Speaking of which, did you read this article by Ruth Graham, published in Slate on June 5th, about how adults who read YA literature should be ashamed of themselves? Yeah. Well, you can all probably guess how I feel about that particular viewpoint. Let’s just say it did my heart good to watch the backlash to this article’s publication on Twitter. Author after author after reader after reader took to the airwaves (do people still say ‘airwaves’? Anyway) to promote and share the love for the YA/kidlit books that they adore, and that was wonderful to witness. In the last week alone, I’ve read a YA book about a fourteen-year-old girl tormented with guilt and self-hatred after the death of her younger brother, for which she blames herself. The story takes us through her psychiatric treatment and the depth of anguish she must face in order to deal with her pain. I’ve read books aimed at young readers which deal with death, genocide, totalitarian regimes, slavery, abuse, imprisonment, injustice and every kind of loss imaginable – in other words, nothing less than what you’d find in a literary novel – and Ruth Graham appears to take issue with YA literature because of its tendency to offer ‘neat’ and satisfying endings. To that I say ‘tosh’. Most of the YA books I’ve read show the characters coming through a crucible of some sort, learning to live with it, and then moving on somehow changed, somehow unimaginably different. Not neat. Not trite. Real.

Also, if ‘growing up’ means putting aside the magic of beautiful literature and living on an unceasing diet of Pynchon and Updike and Franzen and Banville and Roth (even though I quite like Roth), then count me out. Give me fairy tale and dreamscape and adventure and the thrill of discovery any day.

'I suspect that, for his escape, he took advantage of the migration of wild birds.' (The Little Prince, Chapter Nine). Text and illustration: Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  Image sourced: mtlsd.org

‘I suspect that, for his escape, he took advantage of the migration of wild birds.’ (The Little Prince, Chapter Nine). Text and illustration: Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
Image sourced: mtlsd.org

The second cool thing to happen while I was away was this: I had a story published (it’s called ‘The Monument‘, and there’s a teeny sliver of ‘bad’ language used in it, so be aware of that if you’re planning to read it). I also had another story (‘Hollow’) accepted for publication by a very cool ‘zine called ESC, and a piece I wrote about the Date with an Agent event went live on http://www.writing.ie. So, all that was plenty awesome.

The third cool thing was this: a friend asked me to join him in helping out with editorial duties on a literary journal which investigates the interplay between literature and science. So far my role has included such duties as brainstorming themes, thinking up submission guidelines and trying to write a cool, snappy bio, which I’ve managed with varying degrees of success. I’m sure there’ll be more to say about this in the future, but for now here’s a link to the journal’s website where you can find out more about it.

In non-writing related news: I watched X-Men: Days of Future Past and loved it; my husband had a birthday, which was great; we got to spend some time with family, which was very great, and there was actually some sunshine to enjoy, which was fantastic.

How about all y’all? How have things been over the past couple of weeks? I can’t wait to hear all your news.

Grab one o' these, pull up a chair, and let's have a chat. Image: theguardian.com

Grab one o’ these, pull up a chair, and let’s have a chat.
Image: theguardian.com

 

 

Great Power and Great Responsibility

In my rambles around the internet this week, this article caught my eye. For the unclickables among you, it sets out the case for bad relationships during a girl’s teen years being more than just upsetting, and sad, and heartbreaking, but also the cause of much mental distress and – even – ill-health. Teenage girls can, apparently, define too much of themselves and invest an excessive amount of their self-worth in their relationships with others, particularly their romantic entanglements with boys, and when these relationships end it can shatter these fragile constructions of identity.

Claire Danes as Juliet in Baz Luhrmann's 1996 'William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet' - surely the prime example of teenage love gone off-kilter... Image: hotflick.net

Claire Danes as Juliet in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 ‘William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet’ – surely the prime example of teenage love gone off-kilter…
Image: hotflick.net

The article goes on to discuss how girls and women (I think the author’s focus was America, but we can use it as a general base for discussion) are encouraged to think of themselves in relation to others, as caregivers or supporters or ‘good’ people who make life easier for those around them; decorative creatures who bring beauty and light to the lives of their loved ones simply by existing. Sex and sexuality education place undue pressure on girls – as both gatekeepers and providers of others’ pleasure, they must operate in an impossible situation. Now, I’m not saying I entirely agree with the viewpoints put forth in this article, but I think it’s interesting nonetheless. The author makes mention of cultural factors in her discussion – the hysteria surrounding weddings, for instance, and the pressure on women to have a ‘perfect’ day and to look like a ‘princess’ – but one thing she doesn’t mention, which is something I think is important when we’re discussing teenage girls and fraught romance, is the trope of the ‘perfect’ boyfriend in YA literature.

Shailene Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster and Ansel Adams as Augustus (Gus) Waters in the promotional poster for the movie version of John Green's novel 'The Fault in Our Stars.' Image: twitter.com

Shailene Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster and Ansel Adams as Augustus (Gus) Waters in the promotional poster for the movie version of John Green’s novel ‘The Fault in Our Stars.’
Image: twitter.com

Movies, I think, have a lot to answer for – they’re the crucible of the perfect Hollywood romance of young girls’ dreams – but increasingly, too, YA novels (and, of course, their movie adaptations) mean that young female readers have more and more opportunity to lose their hearts to beautiful, flawless and – importantly – fictional men. A bit of romantic escapism is wonderful, of course; a little fantasy of how wonderful it would be to have someone love you the way Gus loves Hazel Grace, or Peeta loves Katniss – but when you start to bring those expectations into your real life, a phenomenon I’m pretty sure is not unknown to the teenage (and, sometimes, not so teenage) readers of these books, problems can arise.

For boys and men can’t live up to the standards of fictional heroes. Girls embarking upon tentative, tender relationships for the first time perhaps expect their partners to speak to them in the measured tones and poetic cadences of a John Green hero, or to be as strong, and yet supportive of their right to be themselves, as Four is to Tris or Po is to Katsa. I’m sure plenty of teenage readers understand that these characters are just that – characters – and are not supposed to reflect the reality of relationships, but perhaps there are some who find it harder to draw the demarcation line. As I was growing up, the only books we had to read about kids our own age were the ‘Babysitters’ Club’-types, the ‘Sweet Valley High’ sort of books which were, at their heart, more about girls than boys; I didn’t have an Augustus Waters to lose my heart to as a teen. My crushes were all movie-based, and that made it easier to exit the cinema, sighing, knowing that I was leaving behind the fiction and stepping back out into reality. I didn’t go home expecting Jack Dawson to come knocking on my front door with a glint in his eye – though it would have been amazing if he had.

Leonardo di Caprio as Jack Dawson, the hero of the movie 'Titanic' (1997) Image: titanic3d.tumblr.com

Leonardo di Caprio as Jack Dawson, the hero of the movie ‘Titanic’ (1997)
Image: titanic3d.tumblr.com

Books are different. Books get into your heart in a way that movies don’t, I think. And the books that young people are reading these days are chock-full of the sorts of characters that grab the heart and mind, sweep the reader away into a fantastic world where male love interests are both strong and sympathetic, desirable and ‘safe’, utterly in love with the heroine and yet utterly respectful of her agency and boundaries. In so many ways, this is a great thing – girls are being given examples of the sorts of relationships which are healthy, and which will bring them satisfaction, and which they can strive for – but in another, it can be a drawback. They can start looking for this sort of mature relationship with boys who are not ready or able to give it to them (and for which they’re probably not ready themselves, if they were being honest), and when a boy acts like himself – goofy, and irresponsible, and interested in things besides his girlfriend, and fun-loving, and carefree, all things which are natural to him and which he should be doing at this stage of his life – his girlfriend can feel disappointed and disillusioned. Also, if girls’ expectations are raised, pressure is placed upon boys to conform, and that’s not a good thing either.

Writers of YA books have great power. The kidlit and YA market is a massive player in publishing, and fans read these books with utter devotion. But, of course, this great power has to bear responsibility for the mind-worlds it creates.

Perhaps – as I do with many things – I am overthinking this whole scenario. However, I do feel that the cultural landscape in which today’s teens are growing up and forming their ideas about love and relationships is entirely different to the one in which I formed mine; the Mr Darcy of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, whom I loved with my whole heart as a teenager, pales beside a modern literary hero. The ease with which I shifted between the fictional and actual worlds is perhaps unknown to teenagers today, who are surrounded by screens and .gifs and Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook and fan pages and discussion boards and goodness knows what else, all fuelling their dreams of romantic perfection. As I said, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of romantic escapism, and dreaming of the ‘perfect’ love which will one day be yours is something everyone does as a teenager, whether they read or not.

But it’s important to know that love is not perfect, because people are not perfect; it’s important to know that the love you read about and see in movies doesn’t always translate into real-life relationships. It’s important to know that there’s far more to life than who you’re dating, and that the only person to whom you owe happiness is yourself.

I wish I’d known all this when I was a kid. I wish today’s kids knew it, too.

 

Here we go again…

I start this morning with a heartfelt sigh. It’s not because the day outside is so dark it looks as if the sun has been switched off, or there is a high and wuthering wind tickling the eaves of my house, or because I’ve only barely got enough decaf left for one more cup, but because a friend shared this article with me.

If you’re not the ‘clicking on links’ type (and to be honest, I can hardly blame you), this is the title of the offending piece: ‘Children’s fiction is not great literature.’

Well, now. Let’s just think about that one for a minute.

Image: unrealitymag.com

Image: unrealitymag.com

My first issue with the piece is this: I have no time for articles about children’s literature and/or YA literature which rely on the work of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer as their sole examples of the genre. This article mentions both these authors in its first paragraph, and doesn’t trouble itself to examine any other works of children’s fiction. Newsflash: there are far more books in the children’s lit. firmament than Harry Potter and Twilight. Honestly! To begin with, while I loathe the Twilight books with a passion, Meyer has also written a wonderful SF-themed, philosophical book titled ‘The Host’ which, despite being made into a movie, doesn’t seem to get enough credit – and which certainly isn’t mentioned in the article. ‘The Host’ deals with the idea of what makes a human being ‘human’, what it means to have a soul, how far one is willing to go for the people one loves, self-sacrifice, courage, and commitment. It is a book for teenagers which needs a large canvas; it examines everything an adult novel does, and more.

The author of the article does, to his credit, admit that some children’s books are better written, and more creatively structured, than adult books – this is undeniably true, though that’s not to say adult books are all bland, vanilla copies of one another. There are adult books which are intense flights of fantasy, or which are structured (‘Cloud Atlas’, anyone?) in wonderfully arresting ways. There are also a lot of bad, boring, irritatingly simplistic children’s books – I am not trying to deny that. However, when a children’s book is excellent, it really shines. I think the transformative power of a children’s book, the potential a good children’s book has to change a whole life, affect the reader’s entire way of thinking, is much stronger than an adult book. This numinous power is even felt by adult readers – I know I often find myself far more deeply moved by the emotional range and weight of children’s books than those written for adults. The issues in children’s books – loneliness, abandonment, powerlessness, love, bone-shattering hate, fear, adventure, injustice, bewilderment, identity, forging one’s place in the world – can be raw, and vital, and wounding, and just as relevant to an adult reader as to a child. Despite this, the author seems to take greatest issue with the ‘fact’ that children’s books just don’t tackle the same issues that adult books do, such as the grey areas of life, or the moral challenges of modernity, or the huge existential questions posed by writers like Joyce and Kafka.

In answer to that, I say: clearly, sir, you have not read very many children’s books.

Image: cafepress.com

Image: cafepress.com

For life’s grey areas, I direct you to the work of the current UK Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, or the moral ambiguity at the heart of Cal, the central character in Catherine Fisher’s magnificent ‘Corbenic’, or the ideas around fatherhood in Gillian Cross’ novel ‘Wolf.’ Can you be a good person while doing bad things? These books will tell you that. So many children’s books deal with existential questions like ‘why am I here?’ ‘why was I born?’ ‘what happens when we die?’ – a few that spring to mind are Terry Pratchett’s ‘Tiffany Aching’ series, in which Tiffany’s deceased grandmother is as important a character as any of the living people in her world, and the timeless ‘The Little Prince,’ a book which teaches me something new every time I read it. Sally Nicholls’ amazing ‘All Fall Down,’ a book set during the time of the Black Death in England, is an unflinching look at mortality and loss and a powerful story about how it is possible to pick oneself up and carry on after suffering more than anyone should have to. It is aimed at young teenagers, but speaks to all ages. A recent children’s book which made no effort to shy away from the brutality of life was Sally Gardner’s ‘Maggot Moon’, a book which examines the horror of fascism and oppression and pulls no punches about doing it. If you want a story about political intrigue, ways to rule a kingdom, justice and injustice, how to distinguish between good and evil, and the terrible necessity – sometimes – to mask your true self in order to live in peace, then look no further than Kristin Cashore’s trilogy of ‘Graceling,’ ‘Fire’ and ‘Bitterblue,’ all aimed at the 12+ market.

One of the lines from the article which really irritated me was this: ‘Life is messy, life is surprising and, most of all, life is full of compromises.’ The article’s author means that only adult books are large enough to encompass themes like this, and that children’s books are reductive, black and white, and too simplistic to engage with wider themes like the chaotic nature of reality. But that’s exactly what children’s books are best at – dealing with a world which is frightening, unknowable, utterly surprising, sometimes a total and inexplicable mess, and where a child’s will often has to take second place to that of an adult. Mess, surprise and compromise are three of the central props of children’s literature. What could be more chaotic, or surprising, or fraught with compromise, than having your home life devastated, or war destroy your country, or being thrust into a new family with little or no warning, or having a parent fall ill, or being made homeless, or stateless, or being forced to face up to a changed reality: ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’? ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’? ‘Code Name Verity’? ‘The Silver Sword’? ‘I Am David’? ‘Elidor’? The ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy? ‘A Monster Calls’? ‘Bog Child’? There are so many books about themes like this.

I could go on, but I’ve gone on long enough. Let me just finish by saying that I am the first to admit there are a lot of silly, overwritten, copycat books aimed at children and young adult readers – they are not all masterpieces of modern literature. As well as that, of course there are things children’s books (as distinct from YA books) won’t deal with, such as sexual relationships, or marriage, or anything in that realm, and that’s perfectly appropriate. However, if you’re willing to look for them, you’ll find children’s books – good ones – are just as profound, life-changing, meaningful, brave and beautiful as the best of literature written for adults; they pitch their ideas just as widely, and they deal with as full a range of human emotions, fears and needs.

And I won’t let anyone say otherwise.

Image: m.inmagine.com

Image: m.inmagine.com

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘More Than This’

Right.

For today’s book review post, I’m going to attempt the impossible. It’s something you should definitely not try at home; I’m a trained professional, and all that.

Step back! I know what I'm doing. I think. Image: heritagefightgeardisplays.wordpress.com, picture by Phil Buckley

Step back! I know what I’m doing. I think.
Image: heritagefightgeardisplays.wordpress.com, picture by Phil Buckley

I’m going to try to write a book review without giving away any pertinent details about the story, because the book I’m reviewing is the sort of tale that you just can’t spoil. Pretty much anything you say about what happens in it may, possibly, ruin someone else’s enjoyment, and that would be A Very Bad Thing.

The book is this one, right here:

Image: jenryland.blogspot.com

Image: jenryland.blogspot.com

Patrick Ness is an author who gets my blood pumping. I adored his ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy, so much so that I simply couldn’t wait for the third book to be published in paperback, and I had to buy it in hardback; normally, I hate having two-thirds of a trilogy in one format, and the last book in another, but I made an exception for this one. As well as that, I loved his ‘A Monster Calls’ more than I can express in words. It touched my heart in ways that no other book has ever done, or ever will. ‘Chaos Walking’ and ‘A Monster Calls’ are works of genius – I don’t think that’s overstating the case – and so it might not be a surprise to learn I expected great things of ‘More Than This’.

I’m still not sure, really, whether this book lived up to those expectations, exceeded them, or did none of the above. Reading it has put me in a spin, and I suppose that’s the point behind it. My reaction is, probably, what the author was aiming for; if so, then he achieves his writerly goals in spades.

It’s not giving anything away to say that the protagonist of this book, a seventeen-year-old boy, drowns within the first three pages. The whole point of the story is that we are reading about what happens to him after that. The description of his death is shocking and brutal – we are left in no doubt that he suffers, albeit briefly, before the cruel sea dashes him against some rocks, causing him an unsurvivably grievous injury. The opening chapter is typical of the book, employing sparse and beautiful language, with powerful and gripping imagery and characterisation. The chapters about the boy are written in the present tense, which gives them a chilling immediacy and makes the reader feel as though they are taking each step of his journey with him.

For, of course, there is a journey to be taken.

The boy wakes up in a place familiar to him, but also shockingly unfamiliar. As he puts together where he is, and why he has ended up there, we learn about his life and family, his past, and what he has suffered up to this point. The author handles all this – the boy’s thought processes, the setting, the ways in which he struggles to figure out what’s happening, the fear and isolation and crushing loneliness that start to afflict him – with sensitivity and skill, and he creates a truly sympathetic character in his protagonist. The boy wonders if he is in hell, or if he is being punished; as his story is told, we learn that he has spent many years punishing himself for something that happened when he was a child, and for a while I wondered whether this ‘hell’ was of his own making, an extension of the suffering he’d imposed upon himself all through his life.

Whenever the boy falls asleep in this weird world, he relives sections of his life. We meet his parents, his younger brother, his schoolmates. We learn of his love for one of his friends, and their tender relationship. These episodes do not feel like dreams; the boy is literally reliving these moments, and they cause him great pain. At the heart of his sorrow and grief, and his feelings of loss, the reader knows something dark and disturbing is lurking; we know there is a huge, heartrending secret – one too painful for the boy to even admit to – waiting to be uncovered.

I really can’t say much more than this about the plot. Any further detail would destroy the mystery of the book and take away from its central strength – in other words, the unknowable vacuum around which it is built. What I can do is tell you how the book made me feel.

A bit like this, sort of... Image: rgbstock.com

A bit like this, sort of…
Image: rgbstock.com

This is a thoughtful and philosophical novel. It has a teenager as its protagonist, sure, and most of the other characters we meet are also teenagers or children, but… it’s not, in so many ways, a ‘typical’ YA book. It’s a story about life, about fear, about the unknowability of another person’s mind, about hurt and loss and pain and love, and about friendship. It asks huge questions – why are we here? What’s the point of life? Why do bad things happen to good people? – and the answers it offers ask more questions than they solve. This idea, that everything we find out about ourselves or the world actually causes more problems than it explains, is a central theme in the book. Despite its subject matter, it is suffused with positivity, especially toward the end, and – like so many books I love – it shows the power of friendship and self-sacrifice, and how important the connections between people are.

Having said that, I really did feel that the book built up to a crescendo that never really happened. I was crushingly disappointed by the end, but perhaps that’s a personal thing. There were so many things I wished to have explained – and I’m not talking about ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ and ‘What happens after we die?’ because, of course, Patrick Ness knows as much about those things as I do, or as anyone does – but details within the story world, images and characters created in the book, and which could have been explained a bit more clearly. There was one image in particular, a feature of the landscape in this strange ‘other’ place, that I was convinced was full of meaning but which was left unexplored; I found that annoying.

Then, maybe what the author wants is for each reader to come to their own conclusion. If so, then that’s fine – I just wish he’d given us slightly more to go on.

I would recommend this book, but with the caveat that it might upset you if you’ve been bereaved, or if you’re particularly sensitive to reading about the sorts of thing that go in within abusive families. There are some heartrending scenes in this book, sure, and so it won’t suit everyone. However, if you want to read a book which will make you think, and ponder the reality around you, and stimulate your capacity to wonder, then maybe this is the book for you. Just be prepared to be frustrated by it, too.

The most memorable line in it, for me, is this:

Know who you are, and go in swinging.

This is excellent life advice, I think. Believe in yourself, and accept no lies. If I take nothing but this away from ‘More Than This’, then I’ll be happy.

Happy weekend! May you read well.

 

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

Book Review Saturday: ‘The Night Itself’

So, it’s time once again for our weekly look at the latest thing to pass across my reading radar. This week’s review is of Zoe Marriott’s new novel, ‘The Night Itself,’ which is the first book in The Name of the Blade series. Here it is:

Image: the-zoetrope.co.uk

Image: thezoe-trope.blogspot.com

One of the main reasons I wanted to read this book was because it roots itself in a culture and mythology which fascinates me, but about which I know shamefully little: one glance at the (beautiful) book jacket will probably tell you that the culture I’m talking about is that of Japan. The book’s protagonist is a young British woman, Mio Yamato, whose heritage is Japanese. At fifteen, Mio is respectful of this heritage, but she chafes against her father’s oppressive, and rather cold, treatment of her, which she understands to be a consequence of his being Japanese. She loves her gentle mother, and remembers her deceased grandfather – Ojiichan – with affection, but seems to feel as though her brittle relationship with her father overshadows her happiness. As the book opens, we see Mio’s parents leave for a holiday to Paris, during which time she will turn sixteen – she feels as though her father doesn’t want to spend her birthday with her, and has arranged this holiday in order to ensure she is alone on her special day. She pretends not to care, and waves her parents off with the intention of having fun with her best friend Jack (Jacqueline). They plan to attend a fancy-dress party, to which Mio wants to wear her kendo costume, complete with a mysterious sword her grandfather once showed her. This ancient weapon lies in a box in the attic of her house, and has haunted her mind ever since she first laid eyes on it as a child. As soon as she picks up this wonderfully wrought sword, however, strange things begin to happen…

Disturbing the sword’s rest and, particularly, showing it to other people, unleashes a series of ever more terrifying creatures on an unsuspecting London; Mio, of course, is completely unprepared for any of it. She vaguely remembers her grandfather trying to warn her about the sword, exhorting her to keep it secret, hidden, and guarded, but she cannot understand the importance of this warning as he died before he could tell her everything she needed to know. Once it has been disturbed, however, it cannot be put back, and Mio barely has time to realise the sword is at the heart of something very strange before she and Jack become inveigled in a struggle between a terrifying cat-demon (never has the phrase ‘cat-o’-nine-tails’ been so at the forefront of my mind!) and a mysterious warrior who appears, apparently from nowhere, to defend her. This warrior seems familiar and dear to Mio, despite the fact that she has never met him before; his identity, and his origin, gradually become clear as the story unfolds. Mio has suffered from restless and disturbing dreams all her life, dreams which seem to make no sense to her, but the more she gets to know Shinobu, this strange boy-warrior, the more the dreams start to click into place.

Soon, they find themselves at the mercy of the horrifying cat-demon, and must rely on the unpredictable help offered by the inhabitants of the ‘other’ London, a magical Otherworld populated by figures from Japanese myth and legend. Travelling between the worlds is not easy, and fighting as a coherent group is even less so, but Mio has no choice: she must trust these strange beings, and her newly discovered yet somehow also ancient friend Shinobu, as they square off against a creature of darkness and horror which intends to steal her blade and use it to destroy the world. So, no big deal.

So much about this book was wonderful. It’s engagingly written, and fast-paced – the 360+ pages zipped by without me even noticing them – and I loved not only the character of Mio but also her friend Jack, a sparkily intelligent and unconventional ‘sidekick’ who is far more than just that. The girls’ friendship is lovely and ‘real’, and Jack’s love for her sister Rachel is touching, forming a huge part of the emotional heart of the story. This book is the first in a series, and so some of the things I didn’t like so much – Mio’s father, the relationship between Mio and Shinobu which comes very close to ‘insta-love’ (though, on this very point, here’s a blog post from the author about the use of this trope in the book), the secret behind the sword – may well be explained and expanded upon in future books. I was left irritated, but intrigued, at the story’s conclusion – I can’t say why, of course – but I’m hoping the sequel will help to soothe my furrowed brow. I only have a year (more or less!) to wait before I get my hands on ‘Darkness Hidden’, the second book in The Name of the Blade series, but let’s not worry about that part.

'Why can't I have it NOW??' Image: nittygriddy.com

‘Why can’t I have it NOW??’
Image: nittygriddy.com

‘The Night Itself’ is a quick read, but I was pleased by it. I know a quick read usually means the author has taken a long time and a lot of hard work to get the book ‘just right’, so I appreciate the skill on display here. It’s also great to see characters like Mio and Jack, by no means ‘stereotypical’ teenage girls, take centre stage in a well constructed story and kick some butt. I had problems with the book, but they weren’t enough to mar my enjoyment, and if Japanese nightmare demons and beautifully described swords (‘katana’ is the proper name for the sword Mio uses), as well as mythology, folklore, friendship and courage float your boat, then give ‘The Night Itself’ a try. Be prepared for the ending to infuriate you just enough to make you impatient for the sequel, though.