Archive for the ‘Young Adult’ Category

 

Railhead-Philip-Reeve

This is a delightfully fun and engaging tale with all the confidence you’d expect of Phillip Reeve, returning to the steampunk genre, if in a very different world, of Mortal Engines.

Here, rather than walking cities, we have sentient trains and K-gates – wormholes or portals, taking trains and their passengers instantly to different worlds and different planets – androids who may or may not be sentient, AIs who may or may not be divine, street urchins and renegade consciousnesses and hive monks. It is a richly imagined and realised world, only a brief fragment of which we see but with enough detail and verve to make the rest imaginable. A word which exists but which ever impedes the cracking pace Reeve creates.

The story follows Zen Starling, the aforementioned street urchin, fulfilling every child’s fantasy role: a meagre existence, relying on his hard working sister and occasional thefts, is transformed when he meets Nova and her employer Raven who reveal that he is actually a lost scion of the ruling Noon family and employ him to infiltrate their train to steal a valuable item. As is not-unexpected, an item whose value is more than financial: a powerful and dangerous artefact within the world created by Reeve.

On the surface, this is a fairly traditional heist tale: various exploits by Zen and Nova lead to them infiltrating the train and they steal the artefact; when abandoned by Raven and learning more about it, they cobble together a revenge heist to steal it back.

There is however, a real humanity in this book and sympathy, albeit generally directed at the non-human characters: the beautiful and  tender trains bearing tags and art with pride and the motoriks, robots and droids with ore soul than R2-D2 or C3PO. And Phillip Reeve is not scared to give the reader shocks: the fate of the sentient trains destroyed (killed?) in the heist and the fate of Nova and, even more so, the tagger Flex were genuinely shocking and moving in a young adult book. 

Reeves gives a nod to a number of classic and popular examples of the science fiction genre from  Blade Runner to Dune to Stargate with touches of Arthur C. Clarke. 

I hear rumours that this is the first of a trilogy and I hope that’s true because it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and thrilling ride 

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It being March, the CILIP Carnegie Medal Shortlist has been announced and I’m embarking on the ritual of trying to read them.

This year, the list is:

For various reasons – Ofsted, toddler, family visits – I’ve not been able to add reviews recently and am about to try to catch-up. Once again.

As an aide memoir to myself, to you – and a short cut to adding photos later, the books I’m yet to review are:

Autumn by Ali Smith: gorgeous, transformational, not (as advertised) a post-Brexit novel.

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The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden: a dark and wintry Russian fairytale mythic novel.

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bear nightingale

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett, a re-read of my favourite and first Pratchett.

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The Boy In the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen, a young adult apocalyptic novel.

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We Are All Made Of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen: a young adult family saga.

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The Plague Charmer, by Karen Maitland, an historical fantasy novel.

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This certainly has a distinctive and gorgeous cover on it, which has graced the window front of local bookshops for weeks!

But they do say that you shouldn’t just a book etc etc etc …

The book is narrated by Isabella, a young girl on the island of Joya, who has been brought up on her father’s stories and myths in the years following her brother and mother’s deaths. The world Hargrave creates is intriguing: there is a nineteenth century feel to the world, and perhaps a colonial setting with the almost omnipotent Governor; yet familiar names are rendered differently with passing references to Amrica, Afrik and India. References which must, perforce, be passing as the island appears to be cut off and isolated from the rest of the world; and indeed Isabella’s town of Gromera cut off and isolated from the rest of the island. This isolation makes Isabella’s father’s occupation of cartographer particularly redundant, but the idea of maps and of creating charts and of knowing our place in the world is a redolent one.

Hargraves does move the plot along at a rattling pace and I wasn’t sure that it quite worked in the first half of the book: a girl, Cata, is found dead; a curfew imposed; a public act of violence; and Isabella’s best friend, Lupe, runs into the forbidden and forgotten rest of the island to seek the killer. Isabella, inevitably, gets included in the expedition mounted to rescue her and embarks on a voyage into the interior, somewhat unnecessarily dressing as a boy to do so.

Hints are dropped that there is something dark occurring on the island: songbirds have fled it; livestock run into the sea and drown; marks beside Cata’s body are apparently huge gouges in the earth, suggesting that those responsible for her death may not be human. But these hints are dropped in and undeveloped; the world is undeveloped; the characters and their relationships felt undeveloped and I wasn’t sure whether I was truly engaged or not.

In hindsight, however, this is more of a fairy tale, myth or an allegory than a novel. And stories and myths of the family and community are told and retold throughout the novel, particularly the story of Arinta. The mythography – for wont of a better word – within it was much stronger than the characterisation or the psychology or the world building. In fact, Isabella is explicitly following in the steps of one of her father’s legends as she descends towards what may – or may not – be a fire demon at the heart of the island. And that light-touch characterisation actually helps to create the mythic and allegorical feel of the book.

The novel – or series – that I feel bears most comparison to this one is Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. In both books, the main character is thrust into a fantastical world through the discovery of an horrific death; in both books, there are monsters. But Riggs’ hollows were described and clearly depicted and lost much of their power as a result; Hargraves’ tibicenas remained clothed in shadows and smoke even after we encountered them.

Hargraves created something more by giving us less. And I feel that the books will remain with me and I’ll reflect on it for longer than Riggs’.

In short, I am not surprised by the fact that it has been longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal for 2017.

 

cuckoo's calling

Okay.

I’m putting my hands up to this.

I did not like this book.

Yes, I know that Robert Galbraith is J. K. Rowling and the sainted J. K. can do no wrong in the eyes of many… but this did not work for me.

The plot was decent enough: the death of Lula Landry, the eponymous cuckoo, was dismissed by police as a suicide; a private detective, Cormoran Strike, is hired by her brother to prove that her death was, in reality a murder. There were some vivid characters to interview. A crime scene to explore. A dysfunctional family to investigate.

But the writing in the book was not good. It was – dare I say it – a little juvenile? The client, John Bristow, adoptive brother to Lula Landry, was described in the following terms within three pages:

distinctly rabbity in appearance with a short upper lip that failed to conceal large front teeth…this whey-faced leporine man…with his pink eyes, the resemblance to an albino rabbit was heightened.

I don’t need to be told that three times? Does – let’s call the author Galbraith – Galbraith not know that rabbits and hares are different? What was the point in that description being so laboured? Really? And what on earth of the point of the word leporine? It just seems – as a number of other examples I could have used do – as if Galbraith was consciously trying to shoe-horn in as many words as he could that did not sound like a young adult vocabulary. What happened instead was that Galbraith took me out of the novel and made me think about his thesaurus instead.

Equally, the opening pages when Strike nearly knocks Robin, his new temporary secretary, down the stairs and saves her by grabbing hold of her breast – yes, her breast – was very odd. It didn’t seem realistic from a physics point of view; it felt like a cheap titillation; it felt forcedly not-young-adult. And the swearing. In a novel which was primarily juvenile in its language use and forced in its descriptions, the swearing didn’t fit. I’m no prude. I can cope with swearing and with breasts. But in this novel, in this style, they didn’t work for me.

And even worse than that, Galbraith alternates between the points of views of Robin – the temp secretary who becomes permanent at the end of the book – and of Cormoran Strike himself. Now, in and of itself, that’s fine. But it felt very badly handled here. Clumsy. Yes, clumsy is the word that comes to mind a lot as I read the book. Clumsy and clunky.

And borderline offensive. The depiction of Guy Somé, the fashion designer for whom Lula worked, was so stuffed with stereotype and cliché with his

“eyes exopthalmic so that they appeared fishlike, looking out of the sides of his head… He held out a hand with a slight crook of the wrist… looking up into Strike’s face, his voice was camp and faintly Cockney. “Much butcher though.”…”Bring us some tea and bicks, darling.””

I actually came close to stopping reading at this point. But again, consider the clumsiness and self-consciousness of this metaphor: “Strike felt abnormally large and hairy; a woolly mammoth attempting to blend in among capuchin monkeys.”

And, let’s look at Strike: ex-military police, injured in Afghanistan, the product of his mother’s fling with a rockstar and having had a turbulent childhood as a result. Consistently described in terms of his size and clumsiness, gauche, yet sleeping with the super-rich and models. Again, it didn’t work for me.

As I said, the plot was intriguing enough and, without the title of the book, I might not have been able to predict the killer. And that’s probably a good thing in a novel. But the writing and structure – it was bloated and needed a damn good editor – were bad enough that I am not rushing to read the next in the series.

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I am coming to adore Frances Hardinge!

I’ve only read this and Cuckoo Song to be fair, but there’s something about her
imagination and her writing which chimes with me: dark, intensely personal, yet somehow mythic at the same time. She captures a sense of wonder,  of terror, of awe which is simultaneously so childlike and so mature.

And she does write girls who are struggling to find their own identity really well!

Here, Hardinge branches away from contemporary fantasy to historic fiction with a fantastical edge. Perhaps magic realist. But not quite. She’s a hard writer to pigeonhole into a genre – as if that is ever a meaningful thing to do in any event! Anyway, the novel opens with Faith Sunderley consoling her brother Howard on a ferry to the island of Vale as her father,  Reverend Erasmus Sunderley – famed naturalist – and her mother Myrtle busy themselves elsewhere.

We are transported whole-heartedly into this provincial Victorian post-Darwinian world. Science strives against religion; women strive against patriarchy and each other; children strive to find themselves. Reputation and courage and a coquettish sexuality become the currency with which her characters compete.

The move to the island is shrouded in mystery for a large portion of the book, as is a mysterious plant brought along by Erasmus.

And we are introduced to the microcosm of the island: phrenologists,  photographers and prelates; scheming wives, a hint of a love that then did not dare say its name, ratting and archeology; the faithful, the faithless and the superstitious. All the details – especially perhaps those deliciously macabre details of the mocked up post-death photographs in a world without PhotoShop – were so utterly convincing.

And evocative.

Hints and teases of layers of symbolism lay behind almost every image in the book. Nothing ever pinned down by a clumsy exposition. The feeling I was left with is that, like the lie tree itself, these layers – perhaps these leaves – of subtle whispery layers of meaning would burn away with too much sunlight. Enjoy the teasing.  Enjoy the evocation. Don’t try to pin down a single meaning because you’ll lose so much more!

The mystery persists in the book until, that is, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderley dies and Faith discovers his notebooks and the fantastical truth: the plant feeds off lies and its fruits contain visions of truths. Her father’s big lie was a fraudulent skeleton of a nephilim; the truth he sought was of the nature of God and man.

Big topics for a purportedly young adult book!

The novel is – in part – a detective mystery seeking to uncover the truth of Erasmus’ death. It is a meditation on the power of narrative. It is a coming-of-age story. It is a multifaceted jewel. A pomegranate of a book.

There was so much to love in it! But what particularly moved me was Faith’s reconciliation with her mother: distance and coldness became active disgust on her father’s death; but, as Faith became more aware of the constraints put on women by the patriarchy, there was a genuine mutual respect and warmth between the two.

It is a delight of a book and deservedly won the Costa prize this year and – all things being equal – should garner a clutch of other prizes too.

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I’m not going to dwell long on this review: it concludes the story begun in Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children and continues in Hollow City from which this book continues directly. It is also my last book of 2015, and Miss Peregrine was my first book of 2015 so it gives my year a nice symmetry.

It also doesn’t take long to read.

Having entered London in Hollow City, Emma and Jacob narrowly avoided being abducted by the nefarious Caul, Miss Peregrine’s evil brother. The other children from the first two books are abducted.

Rather than flee, Jacob and Emma with the help of Addison – a peculiar talking dog – track the wights to another time loop, a labyrinthine Devil’s Acre, where they are assisted by a somewhat taciturn boatman named Sharon. Tall, gaunt, with a hood. Sharon. Really, Riggs? You couldn’t have made him more like Charon? Dangerously close to Percy Jackson territory.

Anyway, within Devil’s Acre, various atrocities are discovered: drug use, slavery and crime.  We also find more allies in the form of Sharon and Bentham.

The depictions of Devil’s Acre were pos
sibly more vivid than those of London in the previous book. And this one had a stronger plot: find the wights’ base,  rescue everyone. Somehow.

Again, this is a strongly paced novel preferring action to emotion and that’s where the writing is strongest especially in the assault on the wights’ fortress. I also did enjoy the full awakening of Jacob’s peculiar gift: not just to be able to see the hollows, nor to be able to communicate with them but actually merge with their consciousness and maintain full control over an army of them.

The ending of the book – which so many people have praised – I found difficult. I don’t normally do this but…

HEREAFTER BE SPOILERS. ..

Jacob wins. Everyone is rescued. A mythical time loop containing the additional second souls which give peculiar people their gifts is discovered. Bentham who was also Miss Peregrine’s brother betrayed Jacob *boo! and then betrayed Caul *yay! The mythical time loop is destroyed with Bentham and Caul in it.

Okay.

So the world of peculiardom has died? The thousands of souls contained in the library and which create peculiars had been destroyed. So I’m expected to celebrate what is essentially a genocide? A mass extinction of innocent souls?

And Jacob is from the present with a family to which he would like to return; but has fallen in love with Emma – his own grandfather’s ex – who is from 1940 and would age to her true age within a few days of being out of a time loop. She can’t be in the present; Jacob can’t bring himself to abandon his family in the present. That’s a nice conflict as a writer. A little clumsily handled perhaps. But a nice conflict. The hero who saves a world he cannot share.

So how does Riggs resolve it? The destruction of the time loop containing the library of souls stops the aging-forward problem. And no one knew. So on the day, the very moment, that Jacob is about to be institutionalised because of his ‘delusions’ about the peculiars, they turn up and rescue him. And can live happily ever after.

I just found that far too trite. Too convenient. Too deus ex machina.

And then there’s the Hollow – the first one that Jacob bonded with – which we learn retain an aspect of consciousness – left in Bentham’s house having its blood and tears drained indefinitely to power the Panloopticon device?

Maybe I’m reading too much into what is, essentially,  a kids’ adventure book. But the ending bothered me.0

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Okay.

I confess.

I only read this and the next book (Library Of Souls) to complete a trilogy for my 2015 Reading Challenge. And because I was running out of time. I did complete them by 31st December… just a little slow blogging about them. Due in part to a busy Christmas and also to an abraded cornea which pretty much destroyed my ability to read and type or see generally since New Year.

So, this book picks up the story from Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children as Jacob – from modern day America – and his friends including Emma, Jacob’s girlfriend and his own grandfather’s ex-girlfriend – yes, you read that correctly – flee their invaded time-looped island back to 1940s war-torn Britain. There, they face the dual terrors of the war itself and of the hollows and wights who had destroyed their original loop-refuge.

Miss Peregrine herself – the children’s matriarchal ymbyrne – had been kidnapped, rescued but stuck in bird form. And there is a loose directionlessness to the plot as a result. They happen upon a lost loop inhabited by peculiar and talking animals, trip over a band of gypsies with their own peculiar child gradually becoming invisible, and generally head towards London with no real idea of what to expect or what to do once they get there. Carrying a child’s book whose tales and nursery rhymes spring out as plot devices from time to time seemed a little forced. A portable deus ex machina.

I had lower expectations of this than I did with the first and the book met them better. L It’s a good read. A decent tale. Riggs does have a tendency to tell rather than show and the horrors of bombing raids in London seemed a little two-dimensional as does the description of the hollows, the monstrous mindless, multi-tongued creatures. He also seems not to be so comfortable with the emotional relationship between Jacob and Emma as he is with the scenario he’s created and the range of characters and action scenes.

If I were to summarise a list of pros and cons, it might look like this:

Pros: imaginative concept, creepy photographs,  good pace.

Cons: slightly pedestrian writing, too much telling, lack of description; two-dimensional characters with unconvincing emotions, directionless.

There was, however, a significant and unexpected twist in the final chapters which I hadn’t seen coming.

Fair play, Mr Riggs, fair play.

  This is an absolute gem of a read – or more likely a listen, as Pullman wrote it for Audible as a free giveaway at some point. That’s how I collected it – see what I did there? – and it’s been lurking in my library ever since and today I thought I may as well read it.
It is a delight!

Don’t be put off by the reviews which talk about it as a prequel to His Dark Materials trilogy, even though it probably does work as that. It is at heart a self-contained, delicious and creepy horror story which is very reminiscent of M. R. James and Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Boy in particular.

Academics and art collectors with their own little petty squabbles and rivalries. Mysterious objects being found and horrific incidents occurring, apparently through their agency. Or maybe coincidence.

The objects in question are a portrait of an enigmatic and beautiful woman and the sculpture of a repugnant and malicious monkey. That’s the connection with His Dark Materials: it’s a young Marissa van Zee before she became Mrs Coulter and her monkey dæmon. But that’s almost beside the point. This is just a cracking good classic gothic yarn!

By golly, Pullman can write!

And as an extra bonus, it’s read by Bill Nighy!

  

Ahhh… a new Patrick Ness publication is like a new China Miéville publication: an event to be savoured. 

Chaos Walking. A Monster Calls. More Than This. He writes science fiction, fantasy, dystopian fictions with drama, true emotion, real depth so well! 

So it’s difficult with this book. It’s fabulous. It really is. But it’s not quite there with those others. 

The basic premise is, you’re a normal teenage child, finishing school, looking forward to prom and graduation (yes, it’s set in America) and worried about trying to get a date… But your town is a hell mouth (for want of a better word; stealing deliberately from Buffy The Vampire Slayer). You’re not The One. You’re not Buffy. You’re not Willow. You’re not even Xander. You’re just trying to finish school and a whole lot of weird stuff is happening around you. 

It’s a GREAT premise! 

It mocks with a real but warm humour the trope and cliches of The Chosen One genre; it also works as an example of that genre. That’s a clever trick and shows a masterful touch. The antics of the “indie kids” which threaten to interrupt (or destroy) the graduation simultaneously irk and frustrate us, and thrill and excite us. The incident with the zombie deer or the possessed police are genuinely creepy. A tad clichéd but so well done – and sparingly and knowingly done – that it doesn’t jar. By golly, Ness is a writer so much in control of his characters and plot. 

The book suggests that we are important as people, even if we are not The Chosen One. We count. All our personal demons, fears and insecurities count every bit as much as the literal demons. Our small acts of courage and kindness and generosity are just as heroic as the demon hunting “indie kids”. 

Each chapter opens with a summary of what the “indie kids” are doing whether it be dying (frequently£, opening portals or battling demons. The chapter then reverts to the trials of Mikey, Mel, Jared and Henna. Dealing with eating disorders, unrequited love, obsessive compulsive disorder, overbearing, absent or alcoholic parents, the descent into dementia of grandparents, sexuality, identity and political differences.