Archive for April, 2013

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Some books are born great.

Some books achieve greatness.

Some books have greatness thrust upon them.

This book is not one of them. It’s not great. It’s not beautifully written. It’s not literary.

But it is immensely fun!

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Mark Hodder propels us into Victorian London: the search for the source of the Nile, Stanley, Livingstone, Sir Richard Francis Burton, Oscar Wilde and Algernon Swinburne, Darwin, Babbage and Isambard Kingdom Brunel; smog, hansom cabs, Penny Farthings. And giant, genetically engineered swans pulling kites in which people can sit.

Yes, giant swans. Yes, genetic engineering. Huge elephantine megadrays. Trained parakeets for delivering verbal messages – spiced with additional swear words of the parakeets’ own choice. Werewolves. Flying steam powered armchairs. Even the Penny Farthings are motorised.

There are two basic sects in Albertian London: Libertines who celebrate freedom, art, poetry and sexual experimentation and their slightly more extreme brethren the Rakes for whom every law is an undue limit on their freedom; and scientists who are split between Engineers and Eugenicists.

Hodder’s London is a steampunk alternate history world which gives Hodder plenty of opportunity to be playful and inventive. At times, I felt he was at risk of becoming somewhat self indulgent in his creativity and re-interpretation of Victoria’s London into Albert’s but there is a cracking yarn at the heart of the story which knots it together.

Our hero is Sir Richard Burton – soldier, explorer and linguist – scarred physically and mentally from expeditions in Africa and the debate with his friend John Speke over the source of the Nile – adrift in a world that seems to be turning its back on him. Until he is offered the position of King’s Agent with the brief to investigate the weird and unusual. Yes, there are weirder and more unusual things in the world than giant swans. Werewolves or loup-garou for example; and Spring-Heeled Jack.

Burton is accompanied and assisted by Algernon Swinburne, the poet whose incarnation here is a libertine influenced by de Sade but small and childish he gives the infamous and deadly Burton something of a foil … and an opportunity to infiltrate the chimney sweeps of London. He was the weakest character in the book for me: he didn’t offer much and the humour he added was a tad puerile and focused on his sexual enjoyment of some of the beatings he received. Whereas the were elements of Holmes about Burton; Swinburne didn’t balance him the way Watson balances Holmes.

The explanation for Spring-Heeled Jack was one that I guessed pretty quickly but is, I guess, a spoiler. Perhaps it will suffice to say that 10th of June 1840 is the critical date in the novel: the day in (true) history when Edward Oxford attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria. It has to be true: its in Wikipedia! Imagine the effect of that assassination attempt on his descendants, the shame forever attached to the family. Imagine them wishing that he had never made that attempt…

As I said at the beginning, this was not a great book; it was a fun, well imagined, romp through a steampunk alternative universe. It is creative and well paced; it works as steampunk and it works as an action/thriller.

Good. Clean. Fun.

No real thinking required.

And there’s nothing wrong with that!

This is a debut novel and clearly – whilst self contained – anticipated to be part of a series: not all the antagonists are captured or disposed of and it is a rich world full of potential and two further books have been written The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man and Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon.

Worth a look?

Hell yeah!

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When we got the books for the Carnegie Shadowing in school, there was a lot of excitement that this was a book about a dyslexic, in the voice of a dyslexic, written by a dyslexic. Obviously, in an educational environment, it was … enticing. And, whilst that is all true, that is only minor part of the book: the is a novel with a dyslexic protagonist; it is not a book about dyslexia.

The main character was Standish Treadwell: dyslexic and heterochromatic, 15 year old schoolboy and orphan.

Standish world is an unusual one: he lives in Zone Seven in some post-apocalyptic alternative universe. There are elements that are familiar here in Standish’s school days, elements that are Fascist and echo the Nazi obsession with purity – which makes the different coloured eyes and different intelligence of Standish dangerous and subversive; and elements of Soviet Russia. Gardner does not develop the political or historical roots of the world; instead she just plants the reader directly into it. Many reviewers have found that difficult, which I don’t understand: there are enough recognisable elements for the world to make sense and Standish’ story operates in that world.

The story is actually rather complex: alongside Standish’ life at school, his need to deal with bullies (both fellow students and teachers) and his developing friendship with new neighbour Hector, his parents have been removed by the tyrannical Motherland and his grandfather is part of an underground resistance group. And this is within the context of The Motherland attempting to land a man on the moon on order to demonstrate its scientific, strategic and technological superiority in the style of the American-Soviet space race. Possibly inspired by the moon landing conspiracy theories, Standish becomes embroiled in a theatrical reconstruction of the moon landing which has proved to be impossible.

The language of the novel is a tad unusual: on the one hand, Standish comes across as childish in some of his language; and at other times the rather sparse prose becomes almost lyrical with phrases like

One thing bled into another. The wound kept oozing grief, no matter how many bandages of ‘it will be alright’.

There are some moments in the book that may upset done younger readers: Sally Gardner seems not to believe in patronising her young adult readers, especially in the final chapters of the novel.

This is one of those books which will remain with the reader after the final page. There is a haunting beauty to it and to its characters. It didn’t grip me the way some novels do, but I feel that it will linger and haunt and echo inside me for a long time, maturing in the memory.

I have been enjoying this series. They were nothing exciting, nothing terribly original.

But they were fun.

They were light hearted.

They were fast-paced and witty.

But niggles and worries are starting to mar my enjoyment of them now. The worse elements are coming to the fore and the books are becoming increasingly dark, violent and disturbing.

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The plot focuses much more on Valkyrie Cain than the previous books: the threat doesn’t come from an escaped convict or a malicious gaggle of vengeful past characters; no one is attempting to return the Faceless Ones to power. Instead, the novel continues the quest to identify the new threat Darquesse and develops Valkyrie’s final realisation from Dark Days that her true name is Darquesse and that she is herself destined to kill her own family and destroy the world.

Two parallel plots develop: Valkyrie seeks to have her true name sealed in order to stop anyone from forcing her to become Darquesse by using the power of her name; and the Necromancers accidentally release two thousand ‘Remnants’ into Ireland. Remnants, which had been introduced the Dark Days are slivers of dark power capable of inhabiting human bodies and accessing their skills, powers and memories.

It is the first strand of these plots that I balked at: in order to seal net true name, Valkyrie had to enter a state of conscious death, had to watch and observe her own dissection, the removal of her heart and the etching of symbol magic into the flesh of her heart. And the dead / undead surgeon Nye then proceeds to imprison Valkyrie and continue to dissect her organ by organ. And she lies there and watches the procedure in a state of inertia.

I’m sorry.

That’s grim.

There’s a lingering on it which hadn’t been there in the darker aspects of the earlier novels . Yes, to be sure, Tanith Low is regularly tortured (I think as revenge on the editors who thought it was too dark to kill her off in book one); Skulduggery is tortured. But these are brief moments, usually off stage, referred to but not seen. Here, Landy lingers and describes and we see the heart. And, whilst dissected, Valkyrie contrives to escape her bonds, standing up, organs removed, folding her sternum and chest back onto itself, chucking her own heart and removed organs into a carrier bag.

This is almost torture-porn.

And for children.

I’m not the sort of chap who thinks children’s books should be sentimentalised and anodyne. I like gritty young adult books: I thought Between Shades of Gray, fir example, was wonderful in its honest unsentimental realistic horror of the war. Violence, loss, death are, in my opinion not inappropriate for young adult fiction, if there is a point to it.

But this, like Darren Shan’s Demonata series revelled in gore for its own sake and there was no other point. The gore did not make the situation tense; it did not add to the plot; it did not develop any character – although apparently Nye, the ‘doctor’ who performed the procedure will be brought back in future books.

In retrospect, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I object to the pointlessness of Landy’s torture-fest.

Roddy Doyle is a great writer.

He wrote The Commitments which is a fabulous book and one of my favourite films of all time!

He wrote Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha which is a fantastic evocation of a ten year old boy’s childhood.

Roddy Doyle does voices extremely well. He creates the voices of children extraordinarily vividly.

So I was excited to see him on the Carnegie Shortlist. I was brimful of excitement and anticipation.

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Alas, I have come away distinctly nonplussed. This is not a bad book – not at all – perversely I’d have preferred to have hated it – it just didn’t grab me. Or I didn’t get it, perhaps. It was sweet, it was pleasant, it was… okay. I came away from it thinking m’eh.

Now the book cover didn’t inspire: that insipid yellow; the static, limp-looking girl; the rather unconvincing greyhound. But, as we are told, as I teach, one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover so I ploughed on!

The tale revolves around Mary, a twelve year old girl. We are told repeatedly that she is cheeky and clever. Beyond her adding the phrase “I’m not being cheeky!” to half of her dialogue, I didn’t feel her to be witty. Compared to Shorty in Nick Lake’s In Darkness who never tells us he is intelligent but whose voice clearly is, Mary’s didn’t.

Mary is dealing with the fact that her grandmother Emer is poorly and has been hospitalised. Mary and her mother Scarlett go to see Emer every day. One day, Mary meets a strange old woman named Tansy who looks old but isn’t and who turns out to be the ghost of her dead great-grandmother, Emer’s mother, who died when Emer was just three.

Tansy, Emer, Scarlett, Mary.

There is (deliberately and consciously) an absence of men in this story.

Now, normally, the gender of the main characters doesn’t terribly matter to me. But there are men here who have a story but who are given no chance to tell it: Jim, Tansy’s farmer husband who is left a widower with Emer and a baby to bring up; Gerry, Scarlett’s Dubliner father and Emer’s husband; Paddy, Mary’s father; and even Dominic and Kevin her teenage brothers who preferred to be called Dommo and Killer and skulk around the house.

Did I as a male reader feel excluded from the narrative in the same way as these characters were excluded? I think I did, actually, and I don’t usually react like that. The sublime A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – the 2012 Carnegie winner – showed that male characters can do emotion just as well as female ones in a similar context as the supernatural helps a child come to terms with a family member’s dying. But Ness’ book is raw and painful; this one is… sweet.

And a tad sentimental.

Twee.

Tansy has appeared to “help” her daughter in her final days. Apparently, her concern for Emer had kept her “lingering” rather than moving on. And the form that this ghostly help takes is a nighttime road trip from Dublin back to the farm where Tansy died and Emer grew up. Ok. I get that.

And then Tansy steals ice creams for them.

Then they go back.

No, I’m sorry, I don’t get it. Perhaps I am lacking in emotion, lacking in empathy, lacking in x-chromosomes but I don’t get it.

And little, silly, practical things in the book niggled and distracted me which I’d have let slide normally. Tansy goes through a locked door to get the ice creams but comes out with them through the chimney because the ice creams are too solid… But was not the money she took with her to pay for them solid? The doctor agrees for them to take Emer out to meet someone… But no one raised the alarm when they didn’t return at all?

I wanted to like this book, I did; I expected to like it.

But I didn’t.

In Darkness is Nick Lake’s debut novel and an extraordinarily powerful one at that.

Set in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, the novel is literally set in darkness: our narrator, Shorty, is entombed in the remains of a collapsed hospital as rescuers lose hope of finding any survivors. In the darkness and rubble, he tells us the story of his life.

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The language here is poetical and lyrical despite the horrors of Shorty’s world and history. The opening lines are

I am the voice in the dark, calling out for your help.

I am the quiet voice that you hope will not turn to silence, the voice you want to keep hearing cos it means someone is still alive. I am the voice calling for you to come and dig me out. I am the voice in the dark, asking you to unbury me, to bring me from the grave out into the light, like a zombi.

I am a killer and I have been killed, too, over and over; I am constantly being born. I have lost more things than I have found; I have destroyed more things than I have built. I have seen babies abandoned in the trash and I have seen the dead come back to life.

I first shot a man when I was twelve years old.

And Shorty’s life and world are born of violence, trauma and death. The Haitian fault line – the cause of the earthquake – symbolises the division in society between black and white, native and foreign, rich and poor, the gangs named Boston and Route 9, life and death. He was born with his twin sister in a small earthquake in a political and delivered by Jean-Baptiste Aristide who went on to become president before being ousted. On their birth, it was prophesied that Shorty and his twin Marguerite would be “born in darkness and blood and that’s how he’ll die”.

And darkness and blood describes the poverty of Site Soley (or Cité Soleil), the slum in which Shorty lives. We discover babies disposed of in the garbage, drugs, gang warfare, guns, murder, voodoo (or vodou). Lake captures this poverty and violence of twentieth century Haiti without sensationalising or becoming sentimental through the use of Shorty’s voice. And Shorty has a fantastic narrative voice as he narrates his own story: he is utterly convincing and compelling despite the atrocities that he commits and which he describes unflinchingly.

Like many Young Adult novels, especially a number of Carnegie Medal nominees, Lake interweaves the modern story of Shorty’s life with a historical narrative of the nineteenth century slave uprising against the French colonial powers. This side of the novel is narrated by Toussaint L’Ouverture, the slave leader who triumphed over the French and British and became Governor-General of the Island.

This part of the novel was less satisfying for me: Toussaint was portrayed as so unimpeachably noble that he didn’t seem convincing as a narrator. His initial reluctance to lead the rebellion, his insistence that bloodshed and violence be kept to a minimum, his constant arriving to treat the French with magnanimity struck me as too good to be true.

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What did impress me, though, was Nick Lake’s use of vodou to cement these two lives together.

Probably like many of Lake’s readers, I knew nothing about vodou save for the voodoo doll, which has nothing to do with this book at all! What I am aware of (alas through literature rather than travel!) is Nigerian culture. Texts like Things Fall Apart, writers like the late lamented Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are steeped in the traditions and beliefs that Haitian Vodou echoes. The veneration and worship of ancestors, the embodiment of the spirits of Gods and ancestors in religious celebration and the egungun were a strong echo of the vodou rituals which Lake describes remarkably sympathetically for a London-based writer. Papa Legba the spirit or lwa or loa of the crossroads, Baron Samedi the lwa who ferries the dead to the other world beneath the seas which is governed by La Sirene, Marassa the lwa of twins and Ogou Badagry the lwa of war populate both narratives in the novel as much as historical characters such as Aristide and Toussaint and invented characters like Shorty and Marguerite.

Do you need to accept the truth of vodou religion to enjoy the novel? Of course not! Lake portrays the vodou ceremonies with a delicate balance of skepticism (neither Shorty nor Toussaint believe the ceremonies and view them as little more than theatrics) and belief. And the parallel between religion and theatre, belief and suspended disbelief is a deeply evocative and powerful one.

This is a challenging book and an uncompromising for a young adult book – perhaps bridging the gap between young adult and adult fiction – as it balances with a very deft hand the fictional, mythical and historical. The language of the book is heavily accented with Kréyol, the officially recognised creole language of Haiti which (like the people themselves and vodou) emerged from a commingling of West African and French influences.

For Patrick Ness’ review of the book, click here

Papa Legba

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Baron Samedi

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La Sirene

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Ogou Badagry

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Marassa

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