‘Get Lost – Get Found’

Paper Towns by John Green

PAPER-TOWNS-POSTER-570I still haven’t read John Green’s best-selling The Fault in Our Stars – but I did see the film. I enjoyed it and predictably, I cried. My daughter lapped up book and film, and is forever quoting ‘it’s a metaphor’ at me; she surely wants to go to Amsterdam and sit on that bench. (We will do that someday, OK?) Anyway, Green’s previous novels are now getting the big screen treatment, with films of his 2008 novel Paper Towns coming out this summer and Looking for Alaska in 2016. I decided to get ahead of the game this year, and appropriated Paper Towns from my daughter’s TBR pile…

paper townsPaper Towns is set in a suburb of Orlando, Florida – it’s not just a holiday destination, people do live there and the action takes place during the last couple of weeks of High School following a group of friends who will be graduating and going off to college in the autumn.  It begins:

The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. Like, I will probably never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust. But if you consider all the unlikely things together, a least one of them will probably happen to each of us. I could have seen it rain frogs. I could have stepped foot on Mars. I could have been eaten by a whale. I could have married the queen of England or survived months at sea. But my miracly was different. My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.

Our narrator is Quentin, he has known Margo since they were kids. Despite moving in different circles, they have a shared experience that will link them forever – as children they found a dead body in a park together!

Q, as he is mostly known, tells us this in the prologue. Q is best friends with the oversexed Ben and geeky Radar. The prom looms and the key thing in most of the students’ minds is getting a date. Relationships between the graduating students are being redrawn daily it seems. Q doesn’t have a girlfriend, and seems resigned to not going.

Then one night, at midnight, Margo appears at his window and tells Q that he needs to get the keys to his mum’s car and that they are going out. He can’t refuse… they sneak out and Q is driving following Margo’s directions:

“I love driving under streetlights.”
“Light,” I said, “the visible reminder of Invisible Light.”
“That’s beautiful,” she said.
“T.S.Eliot,” I said. “You read it, too. In English last year.” I hadn’t actually ever read the whole poem that line was from, but a couple of the parts I did read got stuck in my head.
“Oh, it’s a quote,” she said, a little disappointed. …

I’m glad Green signposts the quotes, for I wouldn’t have recognised it (further research leads me to a chorus in The Rock – a pageant play with words by T.S.Eliot, published 1934).

Anyway, Margo and Q spend the night playing pranks on all those who have slighted Margo, putting fish in places where they’ll stink, shaving off a bully’s eyebrow as he snores – that kind of thing. It’s slightly dangerous and a real thrill for Q and even when they get caught later, trying to sneak into Seaworld, Margo can talk her way out. Q is besotted with Margo, and hopes that it will lead to something.

The next day Margo doesn’t turn up at school. She’s run away – something she’s done many times before. She always leaves a convoluted trail of cryptic clues, but as she has just turned 18, her parents are at the end of their tether, her little sister needs them. So it’s up to Q, with his friends to decipher her plans and find Margo before graduation – they only have a few days. Quentin begins the tortuous procedure of deciphering the clues. He has an increasing worry that she’s done something more ‘final’? Will they find her in time?

I must admit that I’m rather glad that the American High School culture of ‘Prom’ wasn’t around when I was at school, the pressure they all put themselves under – to get a date, to lose their virginity, to conform – I always end up thinking of Carrie!  There will always be those who get left out, and also those who choose not to participate – like Q and Margo respectively. Quentin is a lovely young lad, and I felt confident that he would blossom at college later. Margo though, the girl of mystery, wild-child, with an independent streak a mile-wide, really just wants to be loved. Why else would she always leave clues?

It’s on their night out before she runs away that Margo talks about ‘paper towns’ first – likening Orlando’s bland expanse of white roofs viewed from a high-rise to a sheet of paper you could fold up into a plane and throw away.  That’s a nice metaphor, but the reality of the ‘paper towns’ is fascinating. The term refers to copyright traps – ficticious towns placed on maps, so publishers know if their map has been plagiarised. This concept will be very important in finding Margo.

I am so behind on John Green, the phenomenon, that I didn’t know about his Youtube channel – the vlogbrothers in which he and his brother Hank talk about all sorts of things – and style themselves as ‘nerdfighters’. I’ve watched a few of the videos and it’s lovely to see these men in their 30s championing nerds and nerdish pursuits, talking at nineteen to the dozen like overgrown teenagers, offering good advice and having fun. I’ve subscribed!

One thing is clear – John Green reads a lot – and he has a mission to sneak as many literature references as he can into his books. Apart from the Eliot quote above, we get Moby Dick and Emily Dickinson in Paper Towns, and I’m sure I’ve missed many others. The Fault in Our Stars, of course, is itself a mashed up quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’  This referencing to literature in American High School novels is not just limited to Green though – Meg Wolitzer’s recent novel Belzhar (my review here) is entirely based on The Bell Jar by Plath and there are others which I can’t recall at the moment. I don’t recall British YA novels mentioning A-level set texts in the same way though!

I can see why John Green has become so popular though. His text is literally full of great one-liners – both comic and serious, that are just crying out to be put on a T-shirt, or made into a poster. If you google John Green quotes and look at the images, you’ll see thousands and thousands of fans’ artworks featuring his words. One thing I did pick up on from Paper Towns though, is that he is a big fan of using the word ‘metaphor’ – but if I hadn’t know about the ‘It’s a metaphor’ quote from The Fault in Our Stars, it may not have stuck out quite so much…  This was a really enjoyable novel, and I really want to explore his others now.  (8/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon (affiliate link) please click below:
Paper Towns by John Green, Bloomsbury childrens books paperback, 320 pages.

Advertisements

“…good to get out of the rain.”

You all know how I love to use a good quote from a song lyric to introduce a review. There are just so many songs about rain though… but I have two oft-used favourites that always seem to yield an appropriate phrase for me – one is Hotel California by the Eagles; the other, as used here, is Horse with No Name by America.  Add in the blues chord glide from The Rain Song by Led Zeppelin (A-flat9 into G9) and we’re ready to go…

.

The Rain by Virginia Bergin

rain

When a colleague at school told me that a friend of hers had written a YA novel and would be glad to get a review, I ummed and aahed a bit, said sure I’d take a look at it and gave her my email. When I discovered that it wasn’t self-published and that Virginia had been signed up to Macmillan for two books, also that it had a post-apocalyptic setting – of course I was going to read it.

Set in the near future, the Earth has been saved from an asteroid collision. They nuked it – problem solved and life goes on. It’s a summer evening, the air is thick with the smell of barbecues and Ruby Morris is at Zak’s house: ‘sitting in a hot tub in my underwear snogging Caspar McCloud.’

Suddenly, Zak’s parents arrive home early, the party’s over and all the drunk teenagers get dragged inside, out of the imminent rain and warned NOT to go outside. There’s something in the rain – there are warnings on the radio, they need to sober up – fast.  But Caspar wants his MP3, left out in the rain. He makes a dash for it and slips back in. No-one notices until he groans…

He looked at his fingertips, at the blood and bits of torn-up skin that coated them. There was blood running down; not tons of it, but trickles and smears . . . from his scalp, from his face . . . where there were sores, red marks, like burns, but bleeding . . . He looked like one of those gory Jesus pictures, minus the crown of thorns. Wherever the rain had touched him, wherever it had seeped through the towel, there was blood . . . even his shoulders, even his chest. Soaking through the kaftan. His naked feet looked like he’d walked a mile on broken glass.
Saskia flounced back into the room and screamed.
Sarah rushed over to Caspar – ‘Don’t touch him! Don’t touch him!’ said Barnaby – and she hesitated. […] ‘It might be contagious.’

The asteroid dust coming through the atmosphere had not only caused brilliant sunsets, but released a dormant, deadly bacterium that reanimated in the water vapour in the air.

So we are now firmly thrust into survival territory. People will find out the hard way what water is safe to drink and what isn’t – and thirst will become the major issue for everyone. We know that Ruby lives at least until the end of this book (yes, there will be a sequel), as she is our narrator, but will any of her friends? What of her family? Will they find enough clean water to survive? Will someone find a way to kill the bacterium? How contagious is it? Is it the end of the world? Has Ruby survived by luck or clear-thinking?

The story continues to follow the usual post-disaster tropes of fighting for survival, finding unusual comrades, searching for loved ones, trying to find a safe haven, and so on, but what makes The Rain different from other YA post-apocalypse novels is its narrator. Ruby is a delight. She is down-to-earth, yet quirky, fun – but sometimes very irritating. She’s also a bit naïve in the ways of the world – Caspar would have been her first real love, yet she is sassy and garrulous and finds it so hard to be separated from her phone. Touchingly, although the situation she’s in makes her need to swear about it, she can’t bring herself to do it in front of us as her mum wouldn’t have liked it – so the text has the occasional butterfly inserted instead of bad words, which is a novel way of getting around something that is often a problem for YA books.

As the publisher’s blurb suggests, The Rain is very much ‘Georgia Nicholson meets the Apocalypse’. (For anyone who doesn’t know – Georgia Nicholson is the narrator of Louise Rennison’s fab teen diary series which begins with Angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging – made into a film a couple of years ago.)

The mixture of a likeable heroine and a credible disaster leavened with lots of humour, a bit of gore but also inevitable sadness is a great combination. I devoured The Rain, enjoying it very much and I hope it does well for Virginia. Roll on volume two – The Storm! (9/10)

* * * * *
Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Rain by Virginia Bergin. Published 17th July by Macmillan Children’s Books. Paperback 400 pages.
Angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging by Louise Rennison

The Savages are back …

American Savage by Matt Whyman

savagesLast summer I had the pleasure of reading one of the funniest YA novels I’ve yet encountered in Matt Whyman’s The Savages – don’t you just love that cover?  Although it was written as a standalone novel, so many people wondered what happened to the family in it, that Matt has now written a sequel – American Savage.

At this point, if you haven’t read the first one – you should click here to see what I’m talking about, and read no further below for now…

* * * * *

AMERICAN_SAVAGE (2) The first novel started briefly at the end – with an exquisitely cooked feast from which the Savage family had to flee before flashing back to tell their story.

The sequel sees them safely escaped to America where they’ve settled into the quiet seaside town of Jupiter, Florida.  Titus is a property manager and has gone a little paunchy and Angelica is a fitness freak with an adoring Argentinian personal trainer. Ivan is being bullied at school by the jocks on the football team, big sister Sasha is now at university and doesn’t make an appearance this time, baby Katya is now a Disney princess at primary school. Titus’s centenarian father Oleg lives in a nearby old people’s home where he’s found love again at 103.  Lastly there is lodger Amanda, a vegan who recognises that the Savages’ predilection for a particular kind of meat represents the ultimate in local sourcing and makes this exception.  As before it starts with a feast, and Titus is regarding his table:

Right now, Angelica looked quietly satisfied that she had delivered another unforgettable spread. Titus lifted the spoon to his mouth. Sensing his shirt pull tight across his belly as he did so, the slightest hint of self-loathing soured the mouthful. There was no denying that he had put on a few pounds lately. Ever since the family had moved here, in fact, he found himself climbing onto the scales with a heavy heart, but what could he do about it? He had always taken pride in locally sourcing food for their feasts, and it was inevitable that the meat from these parts would carry a little extra fat. There also tended to be a lot more of it on the bone, and the Savages never left anything to waste.

If you’ve stayed with me, I assume you have twigged what’s different about the Savages. However abhorrent it may be, like Tony and his family in The Sopranos, there’s something strangely lovable about them. They don’t whack people to eat unnecessarily – they are chosen carefully, people who won’t be missed (a bit Dexter-ish don’t you think), then lovingly prepared and consumed at a feast. They eat normally the rest of the time, except for Amanda.

The trouble starts again when Amanda gets a job as a waitress at a sports bar, and refusing to dance for the patrons manages to get it closed down. Unfortunately the bar was owned by the Russian gangster and used for money laundering. The gangster is rumoured to be a cannibal, who ripped off a guy’s ear in prison and ate it raw. He makes threats to Titus and his family – they need a plan. The answer is to reopen as a vegan restaurant – something totally new in Jupiter, Florida, the land of rib-joints.  The only problem is that they make a success of it, and the Russian gets interested again… Set against the main story is Ivan’s battle with his tormentors. Ivan is at a tricky stage of adolescence and needs, in his mind, a way of getting even – how would a Savage do it?

Necessarily, in reading this book, we are in on the secret, and it loses its initial shock value.  However, Whyman again has huge fun with his characters.  The shock of Titus harvesting a victim gets replaced with a different kind of shock when he realises he’s no longer fit enough to do it in that way – the tables are turned, and more resourcefulness is needed.  Through this and other sequences, Whyman is able to have a discussion about food and healthier lifestyles – even eating less, but better quality meat – ha, ha!  By being quite matter of fact about the cannibalism, the book stays on the right side of goriness. There is plenty to laugh about, but the feasts are always treated with reverence.

This family is too much fun to leave to live happily ever after. I’d love to see them in Hollywood or the frozen north of Canada for another adventure or two, and also to read about how Titus met Angelica.  Please…

Why should teenagers have all the fun in reading about the Savages?  In the tradition of The Radleys by Matt Haig (see my review here), both of these novels ought to be crossover hits with adult readers too. I loved this sequel even more than the Savages’ first outing. (9.5/10)

* * * * *
American Savage (Savages 2) by Matt Whyman. Published by Hot Key Books, June 2014. Paperback, 288 pages.
The Savages by Matt Whyman
The Radleys by Matt Haig

 

A’s HoB Q&A – The Answers – Part one!

Book questionThank you for asking some great questions – some of which required a lot of thought to answer!

I’m splitting my answers into two posts – the specific science questions will get their own treatment in a day or two, but here are my answers to all the rest – and do feel free to add your two pennyworth to the discussion:

Dark Puss asked: Why are so many readers of fiction keen to say that they don’t read “Science Fiction” (or indeed “Romantic Fiction”)? Surely there are good books, average books and poor books and some deal with romance and some with a different sort of imaginary world. Why the desire to categorise and is it ever helpful?
If we disregard quality of writing and just concentrate on categorisation or genre, I think there are pros and cons to this issue:
My local indie bookshop did an experiment to see if integrating all the crime and SF&F novels into one big fiction selection made a difference. It did – fans of those types of novels couldn’t find their preferred fare and didn’t buy any books – so they sorted them back again. I use tags for genre on my book reviews so I can find similar types of books easily. These sorts of categorisation are helpful.
It’s less clear with some types of book however whether categorisation is useful. For instance, the crossover appeal of many YA titles these days is increasing, but many adult readers still don’t want to read what they perceive of as children’s books. But, put a YA book with the adult novels rather than on the YA shelves, and it will sell to adults.
Variety is the key to my reading – I try not to read similar books one after the other. I read across genres quite widely – yet ‘romance’, ‘Chick-lit’, or ‘commercial women’s fiction’ – whatever you want to call it, is a genre I rarely venture into. But that’s not because I don’t enjoy it – when I pick a good romantic novel, I love reading it. I do, however – whether true or not, perceive the majority of these titles published as not meeting my quality threshold for a good read – yes I can be a little snobby on occasion about what I read. (Ditto many popular thrillers like the one I read the other week, ‘Misery Memoirs’ too).
Which brings us back to quality – but that is another issue.  Dark Puss, you do pose some fiendish dilemmas!

quoyle1The shipping news by Annie Proulx - Random House 25th Anniversary editionKaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings asked: If you had to (or even could!) pick one desert island book, what would it be?
This is easy after the last question! I would pick The Shipping News by Annie Proulx which I re-read last year and reviewed here. It’s a book I’ve read several times, and I still love it. But vitally, each of the chapters is prefaced by an illustration from a book of knots – and knots will be useful (once I’ve managed to make some string or rope!).

Simon T (Stuck in a Book) asked a whole batch of questions:
1. Which book do you think is the most underrated?
That’s difficult for me, for I’m relatively easy to please generally. If you’d asked which book I think is the most overrated I’d have instantly replied back with The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho!
However, I do think that Ernest Hemingway’s first novel The Sun Also Rises is underrated because it is so literal and repetitive – in that the bunch drink, fight, make up, drink, fight, make up … His style instantly clicked with me though when we read this for book group back in 2007. Not everyone agreed.

2. If you had to go on the same holiday every year for the rest of your life, what would it be?
My immediate reaction was Provence or Sorrento – villa with a pool, good food and wine. But y’know, if I had to do it every year I’d be really bored. So I’ll have a staycation and plump for Cornwall (or Northumbria if Cornwall was cut off). I’d need a large cottage with all the modern accoutrements, sea-views, beach within a few minutes’ walk, good pubs and a chippy nearby, ideally a good bookshop in the nearest town. There’s plenty to do in either location – and I could take the cats…

3. Who would play you in the film of your life? Emma Thompson naturally (with soundtrack by Tracey Thorn of course).

4. Which is your favourite Oxford college?
I didn’t go to Oxford – I went to Imperial in London, and then I lived for ages in Cambridge (which I think is a more pretty and compact city). Now I live ten miles outside Oxford in Abingdon which I love. I’m still getting to know Oxford, but I’d have to say my favourite college is an unconventional choice. I am a fan of Modernism, so I’ll go for the Grade I listed and Arne Jacobsen designed St Catherine’s.  I went to a ball there many years ago before moving here and the dining hall was striking as the design detail goes down to the table lamps and cutlery, and trademark Jacobsen chairs.

5. A bit of a vague question, but I’d be interested to know how you go about writing a book review post – people’s different techniques and approaches always fascinate me.
As I read a book, I use lots of those sticky tabs to mark places I might want to refer to when I write the review, but when it gets to writing the review itself, it often takes a good deal of pondering to get started. I like to find a hook to hang the review on – the USP of my reading experience of that book – be it positive or negative. The hook dictates the style the review will take. Whilst thinking about that I’ll do the set-up bits – the title, the cover photo, other photos, the bit at the bottom – source and affiliate links. If inspiration still hasn’t come, I’ll type up the quotations I’ve picked, and start on some plot summary. Rarely do I start a review at the top and later arrive at the bottom. I tend to get a lot of typos this way though, as half-finished or edited thoughts sometimes get miss outed or left in with extraneous words… apologies for this. Sometimes I’ll nip in to tidy it up once posted – I am my own worst proof-reader, even in preview mode. I can’t dash off posts though. The better ones take at least two hours to write with more honing.
Thank you Simon!

snow childDenise asked: What’s the book you would most like to see turned into a film/TV series?
I think Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child (see here) would make a wonderful film, as long as the question over whether Faina is real or imagined is never answered or given an American ending, ie: kept art-house.
Peter Wyngarde as Jason KingI would love to see a TV series of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels, Rivers of London and its sequels. Shot on location, and given decent special effects. Slightly strangely perhaps, I see Inspector Nightingale as Peter Wyngarde playing Jason King back in the 1960s.

Queen of the Park asked: As a ‘passionate reader’ what do you love most about living in Oxford?
Firstly, I think I’m going to remove the word ‘passionate’ from my About me. It’s overused these days, especially on Masterchef and its ilk!
Now I’m going to commit a bit of a heresy, and say although I live near Oxford, I don’t actually know it that well despite living only ten miles from the centre in nearby Abingdon for over a dozen years now. I’ve never drunk at the Eagle and Child where the Inklings went, I’ve not been inside many of the colleges, etc. But: I have been to book events at the Sheldonian, exhibitions at the Bodleian Library and this year I went to my first events at the Literary Festival, I’ve eaten at Inspector Morse’s favourite pub The Trout, I’ve shopped at Blackwells many a time, and also met some lovely bookish Oxford people including Simon. I’d say Oxford has a lot still for me to discover as a reader!

Jane at Fleur in her world asked: How does being the mother of a daughter influence your reading?
That’s a wonderful question – but strangely, the answer is not a lot! I’ve always loved to read children’s books, I get a lot out of them, and I have a huge admiration for the best authors who create engaging works that don’t talk down to children and are just as well-written as novels for adults (often better, as they have to be more careful with language and sex etc).
faultMy daughter has singular reading habits. She positively dislikes any book with more than a hint of the paranormal or alien about it. When she chooses for herself (as opposed to school saying you must read a *insert genre here* over the hols) she enjoys reading two types of novel – teen romances and mysteries. I was surprised at the latter, but at the moment she likes books that give closure – the girl gets her boy, or the mystery is solved.
However, when I look at the YA shelves now, I do see them differently – thinking would Juliet like that, so she is beginning to influence me. Recently, she asked me if I had any John Green books – and I was able to say, ‘Yes!’

Jenny@Reading the End asked: Is there now, or has there ever been in your life, somebody whose book recommendations you absolutely trusted? If they say “read this” then you read it straight away, no questions asked?
That was certainly the case with my late Mum. We shared a lot of books and fiction-wise I know that anything she enjoyed I would too – but only for fiction though. And it mostly worked the other way around too, provided I left the quirky stuff I’m very fond of at home, I’d take her a bagful of books on a visit, and they’d all come back read with post-it notes on telling me what she thought – and we usually agreed.
I could swear that my local indie bookshop gets in quirky novels and puts them on display just in time for me to come in the shop and buy them too.’We only put that book out today,’ they say!

Helping YA readers decide …

Some time ago, I wrote a post which opened up a great discussion about age-appropriate reading for teens (see here), particularly about sexual boundaries – and the debate is still open – it’s a book by book decision.

Today I’d like to raise another question?  How might you help picky teen readers find books they want to read?  Read the blurb – naturally, but they tend to make snap decisions based on the cover art. By the time they might turn the book over to see the blurb, it’s often too late in my limited experience.

That’s why I really like what Hot Key Books have done. They are specialist publishers of titles aimed at children aged 9-19 years old. I’ve read several of their books now and have been impressed by them all.

Their innovation is that all their books have a simple little “themes wheel” on the back cover, which tells you at a glance where each title is situated in the world of genres and general fiction. Here are a few examples:

SAVAGES_RING_ACTUAL This is for The Savages by Matt Whyman which I reviewed here.  Personally, I’d have made the black comedy portion a little larger, but it is accurate enough – it just doesn’t mention one key word, which I think I’ll leave as a surprise – click through if that intrigues you!

STRAY_Ring This one is from Stray by Monica Hesse, which I reviewed here.  The theme ring captures the four main themes perfectly. I loved this novel and can’t wait to read the sequel set in this kind of dystopia.

madness ring I’ve just finished reading The Madness by Alison Rattle – review to follow, but you can get the picture from the graphic and title, without needing to see the cover necessarily…

TRIBUTE ring

And lastly my next read from Hot Key Books is called Tribute by Ellen Renner. It has a feel of Dark Ages mages and slavery about it… I hope I’m right.

Forgive me if this is sounding like a commercial for this particular publisher, (I should say too that all the titles mentioned above have been sent to me by the publisher after selecting them from their lists), but, I think this is a genuinely helpful little graphic device.

Anything that encourages teens to keep reading and to not dismiss a book by its cover should be encouraged.  As an adult who loves to read books written for teens, I’m finding them useful (although I think the general populace might think them condescending were they to start appearing on grown-ups books!). I do like the idea that they might get people to read outside their comfort zone too – I’m not a big reader of full-blown historical fiction – but 30% historical, 30% passion and 40% obsession sounded good to me – and The Madness was excellent!

What do you think? – Discuss!

* * * * *

Don’t forget that my giveaway of a signed poster and copy of Mark Miodownik’s excellent new paperback Stuff Matters continues until Wednesday tea-time. See the previous post or click here.

Where is your North?

Soonchild by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Alexis Deacon

220px-Soonchild_Cover

This was the last book that Russell Hoban finished before his death in 2011. It was published posthumously by Walker Books as an illustrated short novel for a teen audience, and it is dedicated to Hoban’s grandchildren who are probably the perfect age to read this modern folktale of the frozen north…

Maybe you think there isn’t any north where you are. Maybe it’s warm and cosy and outside the window the street is full of cars or maybe there’s just emptiness and a train whistle. There aren’t any Eskimos or dog sleds, nothing like that. But in your mind there is a North.

There’s a north where it’s so cold that your nose hairs get stiff and your eyeballs get brittle and your face hurts and your hands will freeze if you leave them uncovered too long. A north where the white wind blows, where the night wind wails with the voices of the cold and lonesome dead. Where the ice bear walks alone and he’s never lost. Where the white wolf comes trotting, trotting on the paths of the living, the paths of the dead. Where the snowy owl drifts through the long twilight without a sound. Where the raven speaks his words of black.

In this north there’s a place on the shore of the great northern bay with forty or fifty huts and a co-op and some boats and some of those motorized sleds they call skidoos. Some of the people still live by hunting and fishing but many have jobs and buy their food at the co-op.

These are the opening paragraphs of Soonchild, and those of you who’ve encountered Russell Hoban before will recognise his trademark way of bringing a flight of fantasy down to earth with the introduction of the mundane and a dash of humour.  This novel is full of these touches of humour, but underneath that is a rather dark and profound story of death and rebirth based on Inuit folklore. 

Soonchild is an unnaturally quiet baby, and she plans on staying in her mother No Problem’s womb. She can’t hear the ‘world songs’, so there is no point in coming out, she doesn’t believe there’s a world out there.

Sixteen Face John is her father, he is the local shaman, as was his father and grandfather before him, but he has got fat and lazy drinking Coke and watching baseball on the telly.  No Problem challenges John as shaman to fix it.

Illustration by Alexis Deacon from Soonchild by Russell Hoban

Illustration by Alexis Deacon from Soonchild by Russell Hoban

Somewhat reluctantly, John goes off and makes a big-dream brew – and he jumps into the raven’s eye to go and visit Nanuq, the ice bear, chasing these elusive songs. He will meet all manner of wildlife of the North as well as his ancestors in his quest in which he will die and be reborn many times in his search for the songs, and he will need courage as he finds out some hard truths about himself too.

With the exception of the mysterious snowy owl, Ukpika, many of the animals that John meets are straight talking and worldly.  “… my houth is youw houth and you’we my browther. What can I do fow you, bwo?” says Timertuk the walrus with a shocking lisp.  However, if you took out these playful bits of vernacular and the references to Coca-cola and pizza, what’s left could be a traditional folktale.

What makes the story really come alive, and takes it to a whole new level though are Alexis Deacon’s superb monochrome illustrations as above. They are ghostly and slightly savage – you can see the ribs and skulls of some of the wolves showing through their skin. You can sense that it’s hard to stay alive for the animals in this harsh landscape.

monster 1Given the fantastic nature of Hoban’s story, it lends itself to being illustrated. This was the same for Patrick Ness’s novel A Monster Calls, which I reviewed here. Jim Kay’s Greenaway Award-winning illustrations for that book were elemental, full of a life darker than the story itself. Reading the illustrated version was an absolute pleasure, yet Walker Books also produced an picture-less version of the paperback as a conventional adult crossover edition. I don’t think this would benefit Soonchild – it needs the illustrations to take you past the humour so you can savour the story underneath.

I’m a fan of Hoban, and the allure of the frozen North and its spirits, encountered from my cosy armchair made for a magical hour or two of reading. (9/10)

By the way: Another novel for older children and teens with its roots in the far north that I’d recommend is The Secret Ministry of Frost by Nick Lake, which I reviewed here.

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Soonchild by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Alexis Deacon. Walker Books 2012, 144 pages, paperback – Feb 2014.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, illustrated library binding.
The Secret Ministry of Frost by Nick Lake

Being John Malkovich meets The Matrix

Stray by Monica Hesse

StrayLona Sixteen Always doesn’t have her own life. She spends twenty-three hours a day living the life of someone else.

That someone is Julian, a psychologically suitable boy that grew up fifty years ago having all his memories and experiences recorded for Lona and the others on the ‘Path’ to relive for themselves. They’re all on different days of Julian’s life corresponding to their own ages.

They have just one hour per day out of their chairs, primarily for exercise, but also they share Julian’s life with each other – the good days and the bad days.

She didn’t technically remember – none of them did – but she had learned about Before, in one of the presentations that sometimes happened during Calisthenics. Path History. Emotional Well-Being Proper Calisthenics. In this particular presentation they learned about Before Path.. Before Path, Lona would have been beaten or neglected by parents who had been declared unfit. If she were lucky she might have been put in something called ‘foster care’, but even that was dangerous. The presenter showed pictures of a shrunken boy locked in a dog cage, staring through the bars with huge eyes. “That’s how the authorities found him,” the presenter said. “That’s where his foster parents kept him. He didn’t know how to read. He spent every day in his own filth. This is what it used to be like, for everyone like you. You have all been given a very special gift.”

That gift was the Path, the man said. That gift was the fact that when these potentially unfit people disobeyed orders not to have children, the children were rescued and put into a life they never would have been able to have. A good education. Proper nutrition. When the Julian Act was passed in Congress, the CT said, people wept with joy.  (page 17)

One day Lona’s Julian-feed is interrupted by a face she knows – a boy, Fenn who is two years older. They had become friends during their hours out of their chairs, and the last time she’d seen him, he’d ‘touched’ her on the arm – something unheard of. Fenn’s apparition completely disrupts her mental patterns and the bosses decide to take her for remersion, to wipe her memory of it. However before she gets to the centre, Lona is rescued by the band of rebels who have left the Path including Fenn, and finds herself in the real world for the first time since she was a baby. She has a lot to learn very quickly, as the authorities are searching for them. The next few weeks will be very hard, and there will be surprise after surprise as she finds out what happens when teenagers leave the Path for the next steps at seventeen, and who the rebels are…

I really enjoyed reading this book. Not having read the blurb before receiving it, which compares it to Being John Malkovich, I was thinking of The Truman Show, but Julian certainly knew his life is being captured for posterity, if not exactly what for. Then when I started reading, there is definitely an influence of The Matrix there.

A sequel, Burn, will follow in which Lona will explore what happens when the ex-Pathers near the age of eighteen – a critical moment for them. I will be looking out for it as I really enjoyed Stray.  The author has created some great characters in Lona, Fenn -and Julian, and I’m keen to know what comes next.

As for the Path – it is a classic well-meaning experiment that is bound to fail in the end; started with good intentions, but with the consequences poorly thought out, meaning that the Path has to be protected, and the public mustn’t know what’s happening either and the management thus become the enemy.  

I found it an intelligent futuristic thriller, and I’m glad that, as the vogue for paranormal romance is beginning to wane, books such as this are appearing. Although the lead character is female, with its technological base, I hope it will appeal to male readers too. (9/10)

* * * * *
Source: Review copy from publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Stray by Monica Hesse. Published Jun 2013 by Hot Key Books, paperback, 342 pages. 12+

YA books and sex!

I wasn’t going to write a post featuring the book below as it was a DNF (Did not finish) for me, but it did raise questions and I wanted to ask your opinions, especially after I heard someone calling for debate on lowering the age of consent to 15 on the radio this morning …

My daughter, now 13, is getting into reading teen romances and has been a fan of Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, and Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicholson diaries for a year or two now. I’m always on the lookout for new authors to introduce to her and came across the following book on a review list – the text description said 12+ …

When it happens by Susane Colasanti

when it happensThis is a book about a girl who is looking to find love – and has a clear idea of who will fit the bill, but ends up falling for the complete opposite. Set in NYC, senior year of high school, with the Battle of the Bands as a backdrop.

When it arrived there was a sticker on the front cover saying ‘Contains explicit content’. I visited the UK publisher’s website and there it says 14+, so I started to read the book to see what that was. I made it about a third of the way through, and skimmed the rest.

I found there was a lot of sex talk and it seemed that most of the characters were only after one thing which was more to do ‘it’ – sex, rather than find ‘it’ – love, although being a teen romance, that true love is found too in the end. OK – they are all in their senior year at High School, so the place is likely to be seething with sex, but there are references to girls doing it since they were 14 etc. Within the first few chapters, Sara, the virginal lead character was getting instruction on how to put a condom on – educational, yes, but any romance was spoiled.

Definitely one for older teens I thought.

Contrast that with …

Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher

billy and me

The debut chicklit novel by the wife of McFly’s Tom. It’s about a young woman coming to terms with being the girlfriend of a teen heartthrob actor and the scrutiny that she as the WAG is exposed to. It’s pure fluff – chaste and charming, yet it is specifically marketed as chicklit.

I got sent a copy by Penguin (thank you), and after my 16yr old niece recommended it, I was more than happy to let Juliet read it, and she enjoyed it too.

* * * * *

I love reading YA fiction for myself now, but I usually stick to books with a fantastical element of some kind.  As a teenager, I went straight from children’s books to adult titles – there were few written for teens in the 1970s, but I got largely sucked into science fiction then.  The only romances I read as a teenager were the Regency ones of Georgette Heyer – so this is a new area for me, and I have to admit…

I’M CONFUSED!

Naturally, I want to encourage my daughter to explore and find books she wants to read for herself, (with just the occasional nudge from me). I don’t want to censor her reading – I think she has good taste in that regard, but I want to canvass your opinions too.

How is it that a teen book can be more explicit than chicklit?
Can you recommend any good teen authors who deal with sex in a less in your face way?
Or, am I too prudish and worrying too much?
Do share your thoughts!  Thank you.

* * * * *
To find out more on Amazon UK, please click below:
When It Happens by Susane Colasanti, Scholastic paperback.
Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher, Penguin paperback

‘The sleep of reason brings forth monsters’

Dark Satanic Mills by Marcus & Julian Sedgwick, John Higgins, Marc Olivent

dark satanic mills

It’s a rare thing for me to read a graphic novel – in fact the only one I’ve read since starting this blog was The Crow by James O’Barr, (see here). When I finished reading that, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to read more of such dark fare in this style, figuring I’d read Posy Simmonds instead. Well, I never got around to that, and two years later I’ve just read another dark and very dystopian graphic novel.

It was the name of Marcus Sedgwick being attached that drew me to it – I will read anything he writes, the title promised strong visions inspired by William Blake, and there’s a motorbike.

Before getting into the story proper, the front cover folds out to reveal a series of panels containing the words of ‘Jerusalem’ by Blake, and the vision of England therein gets bleaker with each panel as the colour is faded out to end in a drawing of a bluebell in monochrome. England’s green and pleasant land indeed!

Now to the story – it starts with a motorbike courier trying to deliver a package through the gang-ridden, semi-derelict and overgrown streets of London. The rider stops to help a man that was being set upon and rescues him.  The rescued man, Thomas, happens to be involved with a bunch of atheists who are enemies of the True Church – the de facto fundamentalist rulers of this defunct England. The rider is revealed to be a girl – Christy, and she’s sympathetic to Thomas’s cause.

Christy and Thomas

Through rescuing Thomas, Christy misses the timed drop, losing her day’s wages – but is not so late that she doesn’t see a man being murdered – and she was seen. She flees to the house of an old friend, and finds their son is ill and being left to die as the True Church doesn’t believe in doctors, her friend’s husband has converted. Not welcome, Christy abducts the child to take him to hospital but he dies before she gets there – now framed for his murder, she needs to get out of London. Meeting up with Thomas again, they head north towards the seat of the anti-True Church movement’s home base. A cat and mouse game ensues as they try to evade the Soldiers of Truth who are on their tail…

The Anti-Sci Gang

It’s all very grim. The picture spreads are black and white echoing the fanatical beliefs of the True Church, there is no room for grey in their credo. In this semi-drowned world protected by giant mirrors in the sky, it is always twilight, always dark. It’s never made clear whether the catastrophe that has beset this England was environmental or, dare I say it an act of God, or man-made for that matter.

The text is full of biblical quotations; in particular from the last supper and Jesus on the cross, alongside the paean to Blake’s poem. The story is bookended by words from Francisco Goya too, (as used in my title for this post) – it is crammed full of references, some of which are discussed in the afterword by Marcus and Julian Sedgwick. The story with its race to leave London for a better life elsewhere reminded me too of John Christopher’s marvellous 1956 novel The Death of Grass, reviewed here.

breaking glassChristy in her black leathers could be Hazel O’Connor (left) in the 1980 film Breaking Glass, (loved that film). Personally, I find that women, drawn in this heavily shaded style used in graphic novels often look rather mannish and over-strong of jaw but, in my limited experience, they’re given little opportunity to display any femininity. In the well-lit hospital scene in particular, Christy does get to show some vulnerability – thumbs up to illustrators Higgins and Olivent for that bit.

Given that this novel is published by Walker Books, a children’s book publisher, and aimed at 12+, I did like that the Sedgwicks chose a heroine for the lead character and I hope that girls will read it.  There is much to enjoy in this world gone bad and much to think about from the text. My main complaint (and this is good) is that at around 160 pages, it was all over too fast – I wanted more!  (8/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Dark Satanic Mills by Marcus & Julian Sedgwick, John Higgins, Marc Olivent, officially pub 7th Nov by Walker Books, softback, but available now.
Breaking Glass [DVD] starring Hazel O’Connor, Phil Daniels.
The Death of Grass (Penguin Modern Classics) by John Christopher

A novel in reverse…

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Midwinterblood Hardback

This is a rather different kind of YA novel. The cover of the hardback (left), would have you believe it’s full of blood, and possibly vampires. Blood, yes – and there is a part with a vampire, but in reality the paperback’s cover with hares leaping around the red moon (below), gives a better flavour of the story.  That’s not to say that this is not a dark book though…

Midwinterblood is a story cycle of seven tales spanning the centuries, all linked by the setting and named for the moon’s folkloric phases, Hunter’s moon etc.  It is told in reverse chronology; starting sixty years into the future, and from there travelling back to the present day, and then leaps of around half a century, until the 6th and 7th stories which delve back much further into the days of the Viking sagas.  With each step back in time, we learn more about the ancient roots of the stories which lead up to the first story, which is revisited in an epilogue.

Midwinterblood Paperback

It starts with a young journalist, Eric, visiting an island in the far north, known as the Blessed Isle, investigating a rumour that its people live forever. He lands at the jetty:

Eric Seven does not believe in love at first sight.
He corrects himself.
Even in that moment, the moment that it happens, he feels his journalist’s brain make a correction, rubbing out a long-held belief, writing a new one in its place.
He did not believe in love at first sight. He thinks he might do now.
‘I’m Merle,’ she says. Her light hair falls across one eye as she shakes his hand, she flicks it aside. And smiles.
‘Of course you are,’ he says. Inside, he makes a note to punish himself later for such a lame reply, and yet, he had not said it with arrogance, or even an attempt at being funny. He said it as if someone else was saying it for him.

Eric soon discovers that he’s not really welcome on the island. Tor, their leader is unfailingly polite, but sinister underneath.  Only Merle is on his side – he feels as if he’s known her forever …

The other stories tell the stories of other incarnations of Eric and Merle and how they find and lose each other over they ages. They are enchanting in whatever form they appear including as twins, and mother and son. There are many other recurring motifs including black tea, hares, there is an important painting – and of course, the island’s secret. (NB: If you plan to read this book, you may choose not to examine the painting at the bottom of this post too closely. It provided Sedgwick’s inspiration for this novel.)

This novel is probably Sedgwick’s most grown-up book yet.  Although primarily aimed at a teenaged audience, it’s main characters although young, are not children. The cyclical nature of the narrative, and the slow reveal may not be to all younger reader’s taste, but I relished it.  It’s dreamy and contemplative, yet it is very dark – there’s an undercurrent of horror swirling around in the mists and eddies of this island.

I would love to see Sedgwick win the Carnegie Medal this year with this book, but I fear that it is brooding and atmospheric, it is almost too adult in its prose style – I loved it though. (9/10)

P.S. I am offering a copy of Midwinterblood in my YA Giveaway on a previous post. You have until Sunday teatime, (4pm GMT)  click here to enter.

* * * * *
I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Midwinterbloodby Marcus Sedgwick, Orion Children’s paperback.