Category Archives: Young Adult

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

I’ve been finding it difficult to get drawn into novels recently. You know the kind of thing, you’re busy with work and life, so when you do get the time to read you’re so tired that your brain doesn’t really engage enough to full commit to the world of the novel.

But every so often, something comes along which really hooks you, so you forget about that. The kind of book where you go and have a lie down with a low level headache when the baby’s gone to bed at seven, start reading the first chapter, and before you know it, it’s two in the morning and you just have to finish the last chapter even though you know you need to be up at half past five. Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig was that book for me this week.

The novel opens with fourteen year old Ginny, an autistic girl who is living with her Forever Parents  having been removed from the care of her unreliable, drug addict mother, looking aft er one of those electronic plastic babies they give teenagers to give them a better understanding of what an unplanned pregnancy can do to your quality of sleep. She’s tried rocking it, shushing it, letting it suck her finger, but it just keeps crying. And it reminds her of her Baby Doll, the real one, which she left in a suitcase at her mother’s apartment when the police came to remove her into care.

People will inevitably compare Ginny Moon to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but for me, Ginny Moon was actually a far more gripping read, the kind of gripping where someone has hold of your intestines and every now and again gives them a little twist to make sure that you’re paying attention. With respect to Mark Haddon, it might be the benefit of fourteen years life experience and having worked with autistic children since I read The Curious Incident… and it might be having a child of my own, but I really felt that in Ginny Moon the author Benjamin Ludwig had crafted something much more involving.

I don’t want to give too much away, because I would highly recommend that you read this, and that you do so without spoilers, but I felt like I was being dragged along through Ginny’s story, seeing all of the pieces fitting together from the information that Ginny was unable to communicate to her Forever Parents and therapist because they were unable to fully appreciate that what she was saying was true, and becoming more and more horrified by the potential situations that I anticipated playing out but that Ginny was partially blind to because of her all-consuming fixation on her Baby Doll. I found myself simultaneously feeling an immense like for characters for the way they behaved towards Ginny, and a total empathy and pity because who could honestly say they would have been able to behave differently?

I was one chapter from the end of Ginny Moon when my nearly-two year old woke up. I went in to her room, picked her up and cuddled her back to sleep all the while thinking how lucky we are. A real privilege checker of a book.

City of Heavenly Fire by Cassandra Clare

city of heavenly fire cassandra clareWay back when, I mentioned that I’d started reading Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series and was quite enjoying them. I dutifully worked my way through the various cities (namely, City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass, City of Fallen Angels and City of Lost Souls) before realising that City of Heavenly Fire wasn’t due to publish for about another year. Hate it when that happens.

Fast forward a year and I spotted a copy in Tesco while shopping with my father and niece. Readers, I have read it and my thoughts are below- these WILL contain spoilers, you know I normally don’t but there were some very specific points that stuck in my head and I wanted to get these down.

 

*Here Be Spoilers*

On the whole, I enjoyed the book well enough. It has many of the strengths of the previous books in the series, snappy dialogue, beautifully wrought magical worlds and some engaging characters but for me this book went a little bit off the boil and at times felt as though the author was writing fan fiction of her own work.

While Clare’s series standalone, she works characters from other series into her books to maintain the world narrative throughout (something you can do when you have cast of immortals) but in this book, she begins foreshadowing a new series which for me left a chunk of the narrative unresolved. I don’t mind characters being brought in from elsewhere, but when I read the last book in a series I do want to have a sense that the book is finished. Otherwise it feels a bit like a fanfiction hook to get you reading the author’s corpus. I won’t be reading The Dark Artifices on principle.

As I hinted before, there were times when it felt a bit like the author was… fangirling. Nowhere was this more evident for me than in the scene (massive spoiler here) where the Heavenly Fire has left Jace’s body and Jace and Clary have sex for the first time. I felt as though the author seemed overwhelmed by the fact that she’d been building up to this for so long that her writing felt very clichéd and a little too saccharine. It also felt very politically correct to the point that I felt that the characters were lapsing out of character. I get that you have to be very careful writing a sex scene in YA literature because there are so many issues and sensibilities are at stake, so the emphasis on consent in the passage was fine and in keeping with the characters. But the issue of contraception and STD protection is an interesting one (and no, apparently shadowhunters don’t have a rune for that). Shortly before the scene takes place Clary “wished she’d worn something prettier, but it wasn’t like ‘fancy lingerie’ had been on her packing list for the demon realms”.  Reminding us that at this point, the characters are in the midst of hell, awaiting a battle in which there is a very good chance that they will die. And Jace, a reckless character and brilliant strategist who would have been focussed on preparing for the battle with weapons etc has made sure that he’s brought a condom on the off-chance… to hell. Right. Since it was so explicitly brought up (enough to really stand out in the text) it felt really incongruous to me.

But don’t worry, because everything turns out fine in the end. I think this bothered me most. It was as though nothing had ever been at risk. Everyone gets out fine, and Simon who has exchanged his immortality and memories for their freedom gets to be a shadowhunter and regain his memories. Very much like they all lived happily ever after (except Jordan who Maia replaces very quickly with Bat). Maybe I’ve been dabbling too much with Divergent and The Hunger Games, but I don’t think it’s a real battle unless a central character is harmed. I think I would have let Isabelle die from the demon wound and have Simon stay in hell after that. It felt a lot like fan pleasing at the expense of a story, but I can see that I’m not the primary market.

On the whole, an enjoyable enough read but a bit too neat and sterile for my liking.

I read the Divergent Trilogy (no spoilers)

“I have a theory that selflessness and bravery aren’t all that different.”

This weekend I read the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth. Yes, the whole trilogy. I had a seven hour train journey back from Edinburgh to look forward to after a work thing, my brain was a little frazzled and I’d nearly finished A New York’s Winter Tale so I decided to pick up the first book in the series as something “light” for my journey. Something light? Books should carry addiction ratings.

There are plenty of people out there who looked down their noses at the stories and criticized the writer. Yes, there are editing mistakes that you could point out if you were feeling picky- times where Tris’ memories change between books, the whole Jonathan/George Wu name change thing.  And of course, plenty of fans flipped out at the ending. I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but I will say that these responses miss the point.

Divergent, Insurgent and Allegiant are a brave and powerfully written series of books which hold a mirror up to Roth’s concerns about our society and the way it’s headed. Genetics and science aside, I think that a world where people’s identity is defined by the groups that they belong to, their worth weighed up by how well they fit into those groups and society’s widespread suspicion and prejudice towards those who are other or don’t belong is something that everyone can recognise and would be wise to fear. I think it makes the books highly relevant and worth reading.

The author’s unflinching commitment to the brutality of her storyline is impressive and hammers home the cruelty of society both at the micro and the macro level. All the characters are flawed, all of them are human, most of them think that they are right. I like that Four recognises and admires Tris’ strength. I like that she recognises his. I love that their relationship is based on mutual admiration and that there is so much emphasis placed on the need to respect each other. I like that the novels show that life is about the choices you make, both good and bad, and how identity stems from these and how you move on from them.

Yes, people will dismiss it as “just” YA fiction, but there’s a reason that the books are so addictive. There’s a truth and a power in what Roth writes, and I think that everyone could take something away from these books, regardless of their age or “sophistication”. It’s a strong work of speculative fiction.

Image from Empire of Books

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

forgive me leonard peacock by Matthew QuickThe P-38 WWII Nazi handgun looks comical lying on the breakfast table next to a bowl of oatmeal. It’s like some weird steampunk utensil anachronism. But if you look very closely just about the handle you can see the tiny stamped swastika and the eagle perched on top, which is as real as hell.

I take a photo of my place setting with my iPhone, thinking it could be both evidence and modern art.

Then I laugh my ass off looking at it on the miniscreen, because modern art is such bullshit.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock– Matthew Quick

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is the kind of young adult fiction that every young adult should want to read, by which I mean it doesn’t feel “aimed” at young adults at all. It doesn’t deal in “themes of teenage angst” and the “friend who changed everything” trope but addresses raw, intense pain without shying away or compromising. It is, in short, a book for anyone who liked Thirteen Reason Why but felt that The Perks of Being A Wallflower was just a little patronising, and more than a little overrated.

Quick’s narrative is brilliant and convincing, and we inhabit Leonard, recognising that, despite his intelligence and self-knowledge which make him seem older than his years, that he is a vulnerable and flawed teenager who has been badly damaged, and emotionally neglected by his parents. The novel opens on Leonard’s eighteenth birthday as he sits alone (his vacuous mother away in New York and has forgotten his birthday) and lays out his plan to kill his former best friend with his grandfather’s WWII trophy before turning the gun on himself. Before he does though, he wants to give you a thank you present to his four friends: his elderly neighbour, a brilliant violinist at his school, an evangelical Christian who looks like Lauren Bacall, and his holocaust studies teacher. Each interaction makes Leonard’s dark secret and tragic plan clearer to the reader, and prompts a gut sinking feeling as Leonard avoids each life line thrown his way, or burns his bridges to avoid deterring himself from the mission he has laid out.

There are moments of the book which you could argue aren’t especially original or subtle. Leonard’s fixation on Hamlet, for example, might be something we would expect from a teenage boy contemplating suicide but I would argue that this too is a strength of the novel. Leonard is in so many ways exceptional and different, that this common touch makes him seem that little more human, even while his theatrical flair makes him seem otherworldly.

I recommend this book to everyone, but a word of warning- it deals with some very difficult themes and issues that some may feel are not the remit of “young adult” fiction and you shouldn’t expect a happy ending.

Quick holds his nerve and doesn’t sell out.  I look forward to reading more of his work.

The Twyning by Terence Blacker

the_twyning_terence_blackerBeneath the city of man is a kingdom of rats. The rats are a sophisticated society, with each rat working for the good of the collective depending on its individual abilities. It might be a warrior, a taster, a historian, a spy or a translator but it will put the needs of the kingdom ahead of its own desires because they understand that tradition and love is where the strength of their kingdom lies, and nothing demonstrates the strength of the Kingdom more effectively than The Twyning:

“They were The Twyning. They tugged against one another, forever in motion, forever going nowhere. For almost all their lives, they had been united by an accident of nature that had occurred while they were still in the nest.

Their tails had become inextricably entangled. As they had grown, the knot of living tissue that was at their centre melded and fused together so that, with adulthood, each of these was less an individual rat than a limb on a greater shared body, a spoke on a wheel of flesh.

We know that to have a twyning within the kingdom is a rare blessing. As it grows, it is fed and kept alive by citizens, and it is respected by all, even by the Court of Governance and by the ultimate source of power among rats, they king.

The Twyning expresses life’s mystery. Unable to move in any one direction except at an awkward, complicated shuffle, it has its own kind of strength, for nothing terrifies a human more than the sight of rats, helpless, bound together, yet powerful.

Above all, it shows the power of the kingdom.

For it is love which keeps The Twyning alive.”

                                                The Twyning by Terence Blacker

The most important tradition in the rat kingdom is the abdication of a dying king, who swims downriver to the world above allowing his successor to be named, but when the time comes for the great King Tzuriel to step down, something terrible happens. It will push rats and humans to the brink of war, and at the heart of it all is a young rat called Efren…

I am on a rat run at the moment. By which I mean that I have been reading a lot of books about rats, which my boyfriend is a bit worried about. He suggests that I may have a few issues, but really, there a few things finer than a fictional rat and The Twyning by Terence Blacker is one of the best rat books I’ve ever read.

Set in Dickensian London, The Twyning portrays a world in which talentless politicians conspire with fearful and biased scientists to achieve their personal ambitions, bending the law of the land and spending public money to support their pet causes while impoverished children live on the street ignored or abused by those in authority. In many ways it’s a novel for our times. Swap the word rat for badger, unemployed or disabled person and Dr Ross-Gibbs’ plans might read like a Tory manifesto, but don’t for a second think that I mean to suggest that this is a soap box rant. It’s more a politically aware, urban Redwall for the noughties- vividly imagined and sharply executed.

I particularly like the well-timed moral ambivalence of this book; there are good humans, ordinary humans and bad humans at times just as there are good rats, ordinary rats and bad rats at times. Both sides have members who act well, both sides have members who act badly so there are shades of grey for readers, young and old, to interpret.

It’s difficult to express how good this book is without giving too much away, but if you like stories with friendship, battle, love, gore, misadventure and redemption then this book is for you.

And if anyone thinks that the idea of a tangled group of rats called a Twyning is silly, check out these Rat Kings to see that these things do, in a sense, exist.

The Mortal Instruments – City of Bones

So, I’ve just finished City of Bones the first book in The Mortal Instruments series and have to say, I quite enjoyed it. The plot is admittedly a little clunky at times, as though the author felt that dropping the hint once wouldn’t be quite obvious and though fans of the series will hate me saying this, some scenes were a little derivative of other YA or fantasy books/television (Harry Potter, Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer to name but a few), but that didn’t stop it being enjoyable. I will probably read the other books in the series, if only to see how the incest angle plays out.

Having said that, I doubt I’ll bother with the films until they are out on TV. Despite having a pretty good cast – Aiden Turner switching from vamp to werewolf and Robert Sheehan taking a turn as another smart mouthed teen caught up in a supernatural drama- the trailers seemed a little camp I’m not feeling a burning desire to see this.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

age of miraclesImagine that the earth’s rotation slowed, so that days gradually became longer. It might happen in minutes at first and you wouldn’t even notice, but what about when it started increasing in hours, twenty-five hours, twenty-seven hours, thirty hours… how would society cope?

The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel is said to have sparked a huge bidding war among publishers, and though there have been criticisms of both the science behind the slowing and elements of her writing style, you can see why it has generated such excitement. The prose is matter of fact and the narrative voice ideally suited to her eleven year old narrator Julia for whom the slowing is juxtaposed against her teenage concerns of being dumped by her best friend and having a crush on the remote Seth who by turns blows hot and cold. I found it particularly interesting as a piece of apocalyptic fiction as the focus is very much on how life goes on and mankind struggles to adapt, where they can, if they are able. As temperatures soar during days which last weeks in clock time and then plummet during the endless nights, weather becomes more violent and unpredictable, food becomes scarce. It’s easy to read as a warning about climate change with seabirds and marine life dying off first, but it doesn’t feel especially rammed down your throat.

I bought The Age of Miracles on a visit back in Wales a few weeks ago, when the days were getting longer but the weather was bad enough to convince you that we were still in the grip of winter. Reading it on the train back to Oxford was a really disconcerting experience, as the light evening contrasted against the miserable weather almost made me believe that the slowing really was occurring.

I’d certainly recommend this as a good read for anyone who enjoys young adult fiction, and I wouldn’t let the science behind the slowing bother you either. I saw a news broadcast on the BBC the other day which basically said that scientists still can’t explain or predict the movement of the jet stream, even though they’re working really, really hard.

Sometimes I think it’s good to accept that some things are still beyond our understanding.

The Venetian Contract- Marina Fiorato

In 1576 a ship sails from Constantinople to Venice carrying both life and death in its hold.

Death comes in the form of a dying man, a victim of the Bubonic Plague, sent by the Sultan to spread the disease through the city and bring his enemies to their knees. Life comes in the form of a talented young doctor, Feyra, a stowaway, running from the Sultan’s advances and carrying an important message for the Doge of Venice. But Feyra has few allies in the plague ridden city, and time is running out…

 

Taking real historic details as a starting point, Marina Fiorato has created an enjoyable story which, though clearly very well researched and brimming with historic detail, feels natural and engaging. Those with a passing interest in history will be pleased with the detailed reconstruction of plague struck Venice, with its saints and quacks, while those reading for adventure and romance will not be disappointed.

The characterisation is decent, there being enough complexity to prevent Feyra becoming the stock plucky yet virtuous maiden, and enough warmth to prevent Annibale becoming a Renaissance Mr Darcy in a bird mask. The relationships which develop between characters are for the main part credible, if a little oversimplified, though the author uses a subjective narrative to understate or overstate the bonds between characters to great effect at times.

The novel relates some very dramatic moment- births, deaths and destruction- without seeping into hysterical melodrama.  And though there were occasions when the novel felt a little awkwardly paced, or when characters felt a little more like plot devices than characters (Columbina Cason) I was impressed with the way the author managed the pace and scope of the novel.

Looking at the cover with its beautiful woman in a low-cut corseted dress against the backdrop of Venice, you could be forgiven for thinking that this would be something of a bodice ripper and dismiss it as a result. Don’t. The cover is beautiful in its own way but really doesn’t do the story justice.

On the whole this is an enjoyable read, which is suitable for young adults but which has enough flair to impress an adult reader as well.

If you’ve read this and liked this try Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders or Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence.

 

 

The Hunger Games are a Battle Royale Rip Off…

….Real or not real?

Not real. In fact, this statement has been bugging me all week.

I started reading the books when our editorial assistant lent me the first after having enjoyed it herself. I got hooked, not only is it compelling reading, but FINALLY a young adult heroine who has some guts, fight and more important things to worry about than the love triangle she’s in.

For anyone who has been hiding under a rock with no access to any form of media, The Hunger Games has been accused of being a Battle Royale rip off because it features a contest in which teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18 are forced to fight to the death, the winner being the survivor. In both books this is a means of controlling the populations of futuristic dystopias, in The Hunger Games this is overt, the games are a punishment for an uprising by the thirteen districts 75 years before, in Battle Royale it’s less overt- the government pretend it’s a military experiment.

As a result of this similarity, people have called The Hunger Games a rip off of Battle Royale. I guess it is then. In the same way that Battle Royale is a rip off of concepts like The Running Man and television programmes like Sliders which used the story line of game shows in which people fight to the death or struggle for survival prior to the publication of Battle Royale in 1999. But then if that makes any of these works bald-faced rip offs, then someone needs to have a word with Mr Shakespeare’s agents or estate because, damn, people have been ripping off the whole star-crossed lover thing that he did in Romeo and Juliet for centuries now. What? What do you mean he ripped it off from someone else?

I guess the point with any story or film is, does a work that shares a concept with a novel as striking as Battle Royale have enough originality and flair to pull it off successfully in its own right? I would argue that The Hunger Games does. The cultural commentary is less than subtle but sharp as a knife as it parodies the current obsession with reality TV and the image of its “stars”, the Capitol’s investment in Showmances and intrigues inviting the reader to take a clinical look at their own participation in a less extreme form of this culture (do any of you or have any of you watched The Hills, Jersey Shore, Big Brother or Castaway by any chance?)

If I was going to compare Suzanne Collins’ efforts with The Hunger Games to anything, it wouldn’t be Battle Royale, that’s too obvious and doesn’t do The Hunger Games justice. In many ways they are crueller and uglier than the world of Battle Royale. Terrible, yes, that adults should send children to kill each other to control a populace. Worse still that the same adults should watch it for sport. But to have adult Gamemakers pushing buttons which starve, suffocate and burn children as they are taunted by birds which scream with the voices of their loved ones being tortured? That’s worse still.

For me, The Hunger Games is like Margret Attwood for young adults with Katniss Evergreen as a Handmaid who is thrust to the forefront to become a symbol of hope in a world which seeks to destroy her. The mutations were like echoes from Oryx and Crake to me, an abuse of science which lead to pain and suffering for mankind. The smoking borders of the legendary district 13 were like the nuclear fields that characters were sent to toll in when they were deemed of no future use to society in The Handmaid’s Tale.

So are The Hunger Games a blatant rip off of Battle Royale? Only if you are too crude to read the subtleties. I enjoyed them immensely and will be going to see the film on Saturday. And possibly taking archery lessons, though Holley Maher assures me that these side effects are common and will pass with time…