Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Gates - John Connolly

I am a huge fan of John Connolly's writing. That being said you are probably wondering why it has taken me so long to get around to reading this novel, marketed for both adults and children and published in 2009. It is simply a Charlie Bucket and the birthday chocolate thing. In Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Charlie gets a bar of chocolate on his birthday but instead of eating it at once he spends as long as possible looking at it before he can stand it no longer and he must eat the gift. I have been looking at this book for a long time waiting for the right moment to unwrap the gift that John Connolly has given us, that moment came when the book was chosen for one of the teen reading grouped I help organise.

Samuel is 11 and is not in a happy place, his Dad has left home and his mother has started getting dressed up to go out again. Samuel is a very unusual child, he is questioning and intelligent and the adults around him are by turns bemused, frustrated and irritated by him. In characteristic fashion Samuel decides to think creatively and steal a march on Halloween by going trick or treating a few days early. When he gets to 666 Crowley Road he finds more than he bargained for when Mr and Mrs Abernathy (with a little help from CERN's Large Hadron Collider) open a portal into another dimension and the gates of Hell begin to melt which will allow The Great Malevolence to lay waste to the world. Clearly Samuel and his dog Boswell have to stop this but when Samuel seeks help from adults they see only a child and do not believe him. Samuel has to rely on his wits and his dog, a few friends and a demon called Nurd, the scourge of Five Deities to save the world.

This is a hugely entertaining read. The tone of the book is light and accessible and Connolly has allowed the humour, which features in all of his books, even the dark Parker series, full reign. It is not just a book that entertains as there are also footnotes and riffs on particle physics, the Big Bang, philosophy and babysitters. The Gates has a very linear story line, there are occasional small branches off the main story that are short entertaining sketches but it's story arc is uncomplicated and perfect for ages 9+. I remain skeptical about it's marketing on publication to adults, but then the two adults who run book group both enjoyed the book immensely - so I am probably wrong.

I am interested in whether the book reveals Connolly's views on religion, although the story features the gates of Hell which will release The Great Malevolence, there is no mention of Satan and there is no sign of God - who you might think would take an interest in whether the gates of hell melt. The reader is treated to an opening chapter on the big bang theory which 'contained the building blocks of all that you see around you' and which also contained evil.

'There's a little bit in all of us, and the best thing we can do is to try not to let it govern our actions too much.'

It would seem that personal responsibility, rather than religion and a higher power, is the message, if there is a message, to be taken from Samuel's willingness to oppose Mrs Abernathy when the adults around him do not believe him. Taking personal responsibility is not a bad message to take away having read this entertaining and funny book.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Zombie Apocalypse created by Stephen Jones

Wanting something a little different over Christmas, Stephen Jones' Zombie Apocalypse had caught my eye. It is a mosaic novel ie 'a novel where individual chapters are written by different authors with the aim of telling linear story from beginning to end' (Wikipedia). There are twenty co-authors of this book each responsible for a particular voice or narrative within the whole. The different sections range from diary entries, transcripts of radio broadcasts and audio files, Internet pages, police transmissions, medical reports etc. The experience of reading the novel (and I use that term loosely) is like picking up a file full of different data and forming an overall impression of a series of events.

Set in an increasingly authoritarian UK, where the current coalition government have decided to hold a new Festival of Britain 'To put the Great back into Britain'. Excavation has begun at a church and graveyard in London which is to be the site of a new train station for the festival. Concerns are raised that the graveyard contains a plague pit which if excavated could release Bubonic Plague - the rest as they say is history.

I have to say that this is the first zombie novel I have read and for me the zombies were not the point of the book. What the book does well is to look at the progression of a disease event (the zombies are irrelevant to this save as a transmission mechanism) through a western society, both from an individual perspective (think in cinema terms 'Cloverfield' and 'Blair Witch Project') to the often extreme and useless measures taken by government to combat the problem (together with bureaucratic inefficiency). One of my favourite contributions was 'Minutes of Meeting' by Kim Newman which as the title states are the minutes of a meeting of the Parliamentary Select Committee Supervising the Extreme Contingencies Planning Group during which the Minister with responsibility quizzes the Junior Assistant Planner on the circumstances leading to the formation of 'Contingency Twenty-Four: In the Event of the Zombie Apocalypse' which leads to official government advice being 'Run Away Screaming.'

Due to the fragmented nature of the various contributions, and when the novelty wore off, I found myself bored with my inability to connect with anyone in the book as almost inevitably things end badly and prematurely for everyone, I began skipping ahead. The book does convey a good sense of panic and fear (together with the global spread of the disease) but I felt the ending (which I won't give away) let down what had gone before it. Am I taking this to seriously? Possibly, but as one reviewer I spotted said 'personally I found it a little unrealistic'!

The Memory Cage-Ruth Eastham

The Memory Cage is Ruth Eastham’s first novel. It is a touching story revolving around the effect of Alzheimer’s Disease on a family. Alex’s grandfather suffers from the disease and it is getting worse. Alex is adopted and his bond with his grandfather is very close as he is the one who made him feel most at home in England. Alex does not want to lose Grandad and so he covers up for him. Grandad makes Alex promise that he will not let his parents send him to a nursing home. A leaflet on Alzheimer’s Disease suggests that making a scrapbook can help sufferers. Alex clings to the hope that doing this will improve Grandad and that he will be able to keep his promise. But looking at the past upsets Grandad and some things do not add up. There are the strange words of Mr Webb and Grandad’s angry reaction to a figure in an old photograph. On top this there is the locked attic room in the house where no one is allowed to go. Alex is sure that all these things hold the secret to Grandad’s past. Piecing together the history leads to revelations about the Second World War but it also brings up memories of Alex’s past that he wants to forget forever.
                The Memory Cage deals with many more issues than Alzheimer’s Disease. It shows the difficulties surrounding adoption in the jealousy of Alex’s adopted brother, Leonard. It also shows Alex’s fear of rejection by his family. He is scared that if his family send his grandfather away they will be capable of sending him away also. It also illustrates the tragic effects of war on people through Grandad’s Alzheimer’s and references to Alex’s past. Alex’s memories of his life in Bosnia before his adoption are repressed by him. It is clear that what happened to him damaged him deeply. The story also touches on how secrets within families can adversely affect the relationships between the people in them. Eastham provides a list of websites at the end of the book that give further information on the topics introduced in it.
                I thought that The Memory Cage was an excellent book. I was thoroughly absorbed by it and, though I do not usually cry in books, I could barely read the last chapter through my tears! I would like the thank Scholastic for providing me with a copy of it to review. It is due out in January 2011 and is an excellent read for anyone in the 9+ age group.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Odd and the Frost Giants- Neil Gaiman

Odd and the Frost Giants was originally written as a U.K. World Book Day book. It became a bestseller and subsequently was published in America. The edition being reviewed here is in hardback with expressive illustrations by Adam Stower. It is suitable for the 8+ age group and is available to buy from October 2010.
                Odd lives in a small village in Norway in the time of the Vikings. His name does not mean odd in the English sense but instead translates as the tip of a blade. But Odd is strange in other ways. When he is told about his father’s death he just smiles. When he cripples his leg his reaction is the same. His mother’s new husband doesn’t have time for him and the winter seems as if it will never end. Odd decides to run away. He leaves for his father’s old woodcutting hut and that is when his adventures begin. He meets a fox who leads him to a bear and an eagle. They are not all they seem and through them Odd finds out why the winter has been so long and what must be done in order to end it and help his new friends. So Odd sets out on a journey to a place that stories are told of and on the way he finds out things about himself.
                Odd and the Frost Giants is a book that uses Norse mythology to weave an interesting coming of age novel. Odd is out of place in his village after his father dies and he gets crippled. His journey with the fox, bear and eagle lead him far away from there. It is at this distance that Odd realises what he wants to do next in his life, after he has solved the problem of the Frost Giants of course! This is an exceptional piece of writing. I would never have guessed that it had originally been written for World Book Day if I hadn’t found out after I finished it. It is one of the best World Book Day pieces I have ever read and shows great skill on Gaiman’s part to be able to put together such an exciting and moving story with such a small word limit. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to people of all age groups!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tomorrow, when the War Began - John Marsden

This book by Australian author John Marsden is regarded as a classic in it's native country and is taught extensively in Australian schools. The first in a seven book sequence it deals with the effect on a group of teenage friends of returning from a week of going bush (camping out away from civilisation in the Australian bush) to find their homes and towns empty of people and livestock, their pets dead and their country invaded by an unknown foreign force. Families, friends and townspeople are being held in a makeshift camp where the celebrations for Commemoration Day had been held.

Marsden's teenagers are educated but are, at the beginning of the book, more concerned with their friends and potential romantic connections than the strident voices issuing from the TV and radio. This all changes as they return from their trip to Hell to find that a version of hell has landed in their front yard.

Marsden's novel ticks all the right boxes for young adult literature dealing as it does with growing up, change and self discovery, where it triumphs however is in it's portrayal of teenagers as being thoughtful, concerned by the consequences of their actions and being able to see many sides to an issue. This is no gung-ho flag draped all action adventure but a hard look at the reaction to war/invasion by those who haven't really been interested in politics and current affairs and are forced to reassess their relevance to them.

The essential question that Marsden asks is what would you do? Hide, surrender or fight. The group of friends decide to fight for their country and society, from that moment on they have to grow and change to accommodate their new roles and experience.

It is a book that has great relevance in today's world, almost 20 years after it was published, for a generation that also considers that the strident voices issuing from TV and radio and politics has no relevance to them. In fact, the book is asking the biggest of questions of it's teenagers and the society in which they live, particularly now. What are you going to do? Hide, surrender or fight (figuratively not literally of course) for your country and the type of society you want to live in.

Originally published in Australia in 1993 the book has held up well to almost 20 years of technological advancement (the absence of ipods, ipads and mobiles goes almost unnoticed). No longer in print in Ireland, if you can root out a copy it would be well worth it for a well written account of real teens facing tough choices rather than easy actions with no consequences (nobody dies or is hurt badly).


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Dead of Winter - Chris Priestley

This tale opens with a funeral. Michael Vyner's mother has died leaving him  an orphan. Michael's father died in Afghanistan when Michael was a baby saving the life of another,Sir Stephen Clarendon who has been Michael's benefactor and is now his Guardian. Michael is invited to Hawton Mere, Sir Stephen's ancestral home in the middle of bleak Cambridgeshire fenland, to spend Christmas with Sir Stephen and his sister Charlotte. But all is not well at Hawton Mere and Michael begins experience strange and sinister noises and apparitions. Who is the woman in the white shift? What or who is the image in the mirror?

This is a great spooky and frightening Gothic tale for children that has all the required elements for those who enjoy the more subtle horrors of vast and empty landscapes, castles, madness, death, secrets and ghosts. This is no blood and guts tale but an atmospheric and well crafted page turner that gathers its horrors around it like a cloak of thickening fog until the reader has sunk into the bed with a single lamp burning into the night, afraid not to finish the book and afraid to finish the book - and then afraid to turn the light off afterwards!

Read this in one giant bite and tell your friends, I doubt they will be as thrilled by anything so fearsome this year.

My thanks to Bloomsbury for my copy of Chris Priestley's book.

The Dead of Winter is available now.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Matched-Ally Condie

Cassia is seventeen and she is about to attend her Match Banquet where the Society will reveal to her who her Match is. Her Match is her future husband found using a mixture of genetic and psychological compatibility. The government, known as the Society, has picked the partner who she is most likely to have a happy family life with and who is most likely to produce strong healthy children with her. Everyone in Cassia’s world is matched when they are seventeen unless they choose to be single for the rest of their lives. Only those who are matched are allowed to have children. In Cassia’s world the people are watched closely at all times, even while they are dreaming or exercising. People’s careers are determined by what they are best at and they are not allowed to have knowledge that relates to jobs that are not theirs. The Society even determines when people die, on their eightieth birthday. Cassia fits perfectly into this world, accepting all the rules the Society makes without question. It is only after her Match Banquet that she finds out more about the totalitarian regime that the Society really is and begins to see what is lost when lives are run purely on rules.

Cassia’s Match Banquet goes perfectly. She is matched to her best friend Xander, a surprise as is it rare that a person knows their Match prior to their matching. She is happy until she goes home and puts the microcard with Xander’s personal details onto her computer. Xander’s picture is replaced by someone else’s after a second. Someone that Cassia knows, Ky Markman. Curiosity leads Cassia to learn more about Ky and why he is one of the people in the Society who is not allowed be matched. Her relationship with Ky develops and through him she learns about things that have been lost due to the Society’s rules and about the people the Society exploits in order to maintain its control over the majority of the population. Cassia finds herself falling for Ky with no thought for the consequences.

Matched is a book about freedom of choice and about how something can look perfect on the outside until the consequences of achieving that perfection are shown. It explores the effects of a totalitarian government’s brainwashing on society when there is no one left who remembers what life was like before the totalitarian regime was established. It also puts the reader in mind of the Aryan race of Hitler’s regime as the matching system is essentially a breeding programme. It is a powerful book and as two more are to follow in the series it promises to continue to be so. My only problem with it is that probability gets such a bad name as it is one of my favourite branches of maths!

Condie has created a disturbing dystopian book, which not only makes the reader look to the future to see the faults that could happen there but to examine the faults in our own time. The Society shows why they rejected the world we live in now in the book. It easy for the reader to look at the world Condie portrays and to see the flaws in it but it is unsettling to see the flaws of our own as an outsider would see them. Dystopian as the world shown is, the inequalities of our own are equally unpalatable and the book helps us to remember that our world could be considered as a dystopia by an outsider. At least the people in Cassia’s world have the excuse of being brainwashed from birth in accepting their society. We have no such excuse.

Matched is a great, if disturbing read. It is suitable for young adults in the 14+ age group and is due out on 2nd December 2010. I would like to thank Razorbill Penguin for providing me with an advance copy for review.