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.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Boy Called M.o.u.s.e.- Penny Dolan

A Boy Called M.o.u.s.e. is an exciting and fast moving book about Mouse, a boy who has no surname and a surprising amount of enemies for someone so young. The reader knows more about Mouse’s story than he does himself as, though the majority of chapters are written in the first person from Mouse’s point of view, some the chapters are written in the third person from the view of both people who wish him ill and wish him well. Because of this from the start the reader knows what Mouse does not: that he is the son of rich parents who are lost at sea and his nursemaid Hanny, who he calls Ma, ran away with him to save him from his uncle Scrope who wants him dead. But Scrope is not the true villain of the piece. He is in the clutches of the sadistic money lender Mr Button who likes to cause others misery as much as he likes to collect the money they owe him. Scrope thinks that he has Button under his control but his perception is clouded by the jealousy he feels because his brother’s wife did not choose to marry him. Scrope needs money to pay back Button and feed his gambling addiction and Mouse is in his way. This leads him to leave Mouse’s affairs in Button’s hands. Button quickly discovers where Hanny has taken Mouse and when he judges the time is right he brings Mouse to Murkstone Hall, a cruel and tough school in the middle of nowhere run by an unhappy, uncaring man. But even during Mouse’s trials in his lessons we know worse is to come since we have seen Mouse as a servant in the kitchen of the school near the start of the book. Luckily we also know from the Dramatis Personae (if we have read it before starting the book) that Mouse has many cheerful friends to look forward to such as Nick Tick, Charlie Punchman and even a heroine, Kitty. Mouse longs to return to Hanny. The only clue he has to who he really is is a small silver disk with his name and a mouse carved on it that Hanny gave him and made him swear never to show to anybody.

This book is about love and friendship during hardship and what family really means. Even though Mouse is cruelly treated and pursued by villains throughout the book he also finds some true friends and how to survive in the world that has treated him badly. It also shows Mouse’s feelings of displacement because he knows he doesn’t know the full story about who he is and why the villains of the piece have it in for him. Mouse learns that it is love that creates a family and he uses this knowledge to create a life that he is happy in.

Mouse is a cheering and lively character. His skill at climbing and his head for heights are phenomenal and help him both in finding a place for himself wherever he is and when escaping from those who wish him ill. The other characters, whether hero or villain, in the book are all as vividly depicted as Mouse and have their own lives and, for some, secrets. I thoroughly enjoyed A Boy Called M.o.u.s.e. It is due out on 4th October and is an exciting book for the 9+ age group. I would like to thanks Bloomsbury for providing me with an advance copy for review.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Reckless - Cornelia Funke

Cornelia Funke has a world wide army of fans following the publication of her Inkheart Series. With 'Reckless' Funke will keep those fans and add new, older, ones beguiled by her writing style.

Jacob Reckless has lost his parents. His father has disappeared and his mother is lost in her grief. A year after his disappearance Jacob enters his father's study to look for clues as to what happened. Instead Jacob finds the way into a different world, through the glass mirror hanging on his father's study wall. From that moment Jacob is also lost to his mother and brother Will, disappearing for extended periods into this alternate world but as Will and Jacob Reckless grow up Jacob's secret does not remain a secret and Will follows him through the mirror.

Although we first meet Jacob as a child the story very swiftly jumps to a point when the Jacob and his brother are adults in their twenties, their alternate universe is peopled with humans, fairies elves and goyle. It is a place where magic is real but not in a benevolent way. The goyle (stone men) aided by the Dark Fairy are at war with the humans, the humans are loosing. Due to a mistake made by Jacob his brother is injured by a goyle as a result of which Will's skin is slowly turning to stone. Will is turning into the Jade Goyle dreamed of by the Dark Fairy and sought by the Goyle king's most trusted general. Jacob must find a way of reversing the Dark Fairy's spell in order to save his brother.

Funke has created a beguiling and dangerous world, from child eating witches to Sleeping Beauty whose prince never came (and I don't even want to think about the Tailor who is stitching clothes of skin!). There is an argument that this is not a book for those under 12 although children who have grown up with fairy tales will be no stranger to the grotesque. The fact that the Reckless boys are in their twenties which is unusual in 'childrens' fiction also means that there are more adult elements to the story, there are intimations that Jacob has had a chequered love life in this mirror world and there is possible confusion as to who Will's girlfriend Clara (who has also ended up in this mirror world) truly loves, Will or his brother Jacob.

The story is told from Jacob's point of view. He has clearly operated both in this world and the mirror world as an independent entity for many years leaving his mother and Will for long periods of time. He is in all respects a mercenary, paid for his services and hired for his expertise in tracking down artefacts. He is calculating and alone, apart from Fox. The impetus for his quest to save his brother is the mistake he made which resulted in Will's injury but along the way he comes to value that which he is about to loose - his family. There are however other relationships in this mirror world that Jacob does not necessarily value and it will be interesting to observe through this intended trilogy whether Jacob's lessons in caring are the point of the series.

My only critism of the book would be Jacobs capacious pockets, he seems to have a magical item for every eventuality, which became quite conspicuous by the end of the book. It is clear however at the end that there are further adventures to be had in this new world and Jacob faces further challenges. I for one will be waiting for the next instalment with baited breath.


Friday, September 17, 2010

Alien Storm - A. G. Taylor

A taut roller coaster ride of danger, betrayal and superpowers this book continues A. G. Taylor’s tale of six children who have gained special powers following a virus infected meteorite strike (The first in the series is 'Meteorite Strike').
Saved from capture and befriended by Russian billionaire Nikolai Makarov, the six friends are pitted against their strongest and most dangerous adversary yet as more deadly meteorites head towards the earth in what will be an extinction event.
 Perfect for the 10+ age group this is a thrilling sci-fi adventure with strong characters of both genders, so the book should appeal to a wide audience. At 412 pages the book is also one for confident readers younger than 10.

'Alien Storm' will be published on the 26th November so there's plenty of time to catch up by reading the first book in the series before publication day!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Noah Barleywater Runs Away- John Boyne

Noah Barleywater Runs Away is about eight-year-old Noah Barleywater and the adventures he has the day he decides to run away from home. Noah has decided it is better to leave home and not to think about the things there that make him sad. Instead he faces the path before him. After all eight is old enough to leave home, all the books he has read show how easy it is. But Noah is surprised by how different it is to run away in real life and, having skipped breakfast, he is very hungry by lunchtime. The villages he passes through are strange. When he takes some apples off a tree they vanish and no one seems friendly. In the third village things are different. He is fascinated by a strange tree and the odd shop behind it. When Noah goes into the shop he meets an old man there and his fortune changes. 

              This book is an interesting blend of fairy tale and the present day. The stories Noah tells the old man are firmly set in the unmysterious modern world. But the old man’s stories take place in a strange, slightly magical world in the past and are strangely familiar... I personally found Noah’s stories more interesting but enjoyed those of the old man almost as much. It is a touching story about love, death and growing old. It is also about not being afraid to make the choices that will make you happy in life. The time that Noah and the old man spend together leads them both to share things that they are scared or ashamed of. Both their futures are put on a different path by their meeting.

              I enjoyed the book, especially after the familiar story lines began to emerge. It is a clever combination of a sequel to a classic children’s story and a modern story about a child trying to deal with a problem that is out of his control. The novel is due out on the 30th September and is a great read for anyone in the 8+ age group.

I would like to thank David Fickling Books for providing me with a copy for review.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Stray Sod Country - Patrick McCabe

The people of Cullymore, Ireland are startled by a scream. And so begins this novel of the innermost thoughts and desires of a town. Strangely compelled to act upon these impulses, the town may indeed have stepped onto ‘The Stray Sod’, a clump of grass enchanted by fairies so that you become lost and disoriented, the familiar becoming unfamiliar. Allied to this is William Blake’s vision of a ‘Nobodaddy’, a patriarchal god who is nobody because he never shows himself to those he supposedly created. McCabe has combined the two in a characteristically savage and fantastical tale of a town, its relationships and petty jealousies which is a song to the rural communities of the 1950’s. Who is the narrator of this tale? A Fetch designed to presage the death of the community and its way of life or, in the absence of God, the Devil come to taunt the devout community. As 1958 draws to a close and the modern world comes closer, the echo of the community and its actions reverberates through time.

Friday, September 10, 2010

X'ed Out - Charles Burns

Doug is in bed with a head trauma, he is woken by his cat Inky who died years ago. The cat is sitting in front of a hole in Doug's bedroom wall, the cat enters the hole and Doug follows, through this portal into another world.

So begins this graphic novel of the American sequencial artist Charles Burns, a homage to Herge's Tintin ( the cover specifically references 'The Shooting Star') and William Borroughs. Doug is a teenage artist who possibly got into an altercation with the boyfrind of a (possibly) ex-girlfriend which resulted in the head injury. At home in bed, drugged with pictures scattered around him, Doug drifts between reality, flashbacks and drug induced hallucinations. The hallucinations take over more and more of his life until it becomes increasingly unclear what is reality and what's not.

This novel is concerned with Burns' enduring preoccupation with identity, the ability to cover or alter yourself, the wish to transform and become a new person - that a person may indeed be 'X'ed Out'. Doug's head wound is clearly visible as a result of having his head shaved, his 'affliction' is in plain sight. Doug can not cover the cause of his suffering, but can Doug transform himself? The eternal teenage quest for identity.

Filled with strange creatures and grotesque human figures -and eggs, Doug hallucinates a reptilian race who clearly hold some power. This race have found a new Queen and Doug is instantly smitten but she is being taken to the hive - yet another possible reference to the erasure of the individual, subsumed into a collective mentality much as modern society demands conformity.

Tintin is also referrenced in the artwork Burns' has produced, the hallucinated panels are in the style of Herge with flat bright colours. The panels dealing with Doug's reality have a different visual style, much darker. Images from Doug's reality are replicated in his dreams, much as Burns has replicated some of the images that recurr throughout his past work in this novel.

This is the first in a planned sequence of books (the next is 'The Hive'). There is much to look at and think about in this, the first part of Doug's story. My only critism is that it is too short. There is no sense that we have understood or resolved anything from this first part of the story, indeed I suspect that I have only just begun to scratch the surface of the complexity that Burns will offer to his readers in this series. Whilst the brevity of 'X'ed Out' is frustrating there is enough to engage the reader and keep them guessing until the publication of 'The Hive' (for which I have no release date).

I am indebted to an interview between Charles Burns and Brian Heater at The Daily Cross Hatch here .

I would also like to thank Jonathan Cape and Random House for my copy of 'X'ed Out' for review.

'X'ed Out' is released on the 16th October.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I Shall Wear Midnight - Terry Pratchett

'I Shall Wear Midnight' is the fourth book about Tiffany Aching. Tiffany is a witch and she’s run off her feet. She’s not even sixteen but she’s the one who is called in by the people of the Chalk to deal with births and deaths. She’s also responsible for all the assorted nursing that everyone else is too busy to do or even think about, like cutting old ladies toenails. Usually Tiffany cannot remember when she last ate or slept in a proper bed. But even though she is doing all the work no one wants to do people seem to be suspicious of her. Tiffany knows that people always dislike witches a bit because they wish that they did not need them but it seems that the dislike is getting out of hand. And the kelda of the Nac Mac Feegles is telling her that that there is danger in her future. Tiffany may not have the time or energy to think about or fear what is in store for her but she will have to face it soon.

'I Shall Wear Midnight' is another excellent book by Pratchett. Like his other books concerning witches it deals with close knit communities and the problems that arise in them. Though the world it is set in seems old fashioned the ideas put forward are not. Tiffany and her fellow witches are involved in doing damage control for all the bad things that can happen in a community as well as being the equivalent of a local doctor. People think that magic can fix everything but Tiffany knows that sometimes difficult decisions have to be made and sometimes it is not deciding what the ‘good’ choice is but which of the two bad choices is the best. In an earlier book concerning Granny Weatherwax she plays Death for the choice of whether a mother or her baby dies. It is these choices that Tiffany is talking about in this book, the ones that you do not speak about afterwards but have to be made by someone. In Pratchett’s books it is witches that have to make them. Tiffany is not even an adult and she has to make decisions where there is no right choice. This book is partly about the fear that people who make such decisions can provoke in society and how it can lead society to turn on those who are trying to help them. Of course, it has the humour and excitement of all the Discworld books. No book containing the infamous Nac Mac Feegles (also known as Pictsies) could fail to be hilarious. While these are my favourite characters for providing amusement, the rest of the cast also lived up to expectations.

For Pratchett fans this book ties up a few loose ends and brings up old characters that might have been forgotten. There are also some fascinating new characters that can at times be very surprising! As there often is, there is a little crossover with characters from other Discworld subseries and it is fun to see people who are usually protagonists appearing in the background. The plot is fast moving and it is sometimes very scary. The importance of everyday life to the book means that the dangerous magical forces are even more terrifying in contrast.

As always I believe Terry Pratchett’s books are suitable for all age groups but this book is listed as Young Adult so I’ll put it down as 10+.

'I Shall Wear Midnight' is out at the start of September. It is a fantastic read and will not disappoint Pratchett’s fans.

My thanks to Doubleday for providing me with an advance copy for review.


Monday, September 6, 2010

A Most Improper Magick- Stephanie Burgis

Kat Stephenson’s family is in trouble. Her brother’s gambling debts will have him thrown into debtors’ prison if they are not paid in two months. For Kat and her two older sisters, Elissa and Angeline, this would put paid to any prospects of marriage. As it is their marriage prospects aren’t good. They have no real dowries and though their father is a clergyman, their mother was a witch and in the nineteenth century that was a disgrace in the eyes of society.

Kat is only twelve and her plan of dressing as a boy and running away to London to make her fortune is quickly foiled by her older sisters. Her stepmother has a much more practical plan. She hopes to marry off Elissa to a wealthy man, Sir Neville Collingwood. Elissa has agreed to this but Kat knows there is something ominous her two sisters are not telling her about him. Both Kat and Angeline are determined to stop the match from happening. Kat’s plans are brought to a halt but when she finds her mother’s magic books in Angeline’s possession she realises that Angeline’s plans are more risky. Kat realises that magic could be an effective means of preventing the marriage but when she searches her mother’s belongings she finds out there is more than one type of magic and that those who practice it are not always the friendliest people. As the meeting with Sir Neville grows closer Kat is determined to ensure that catastrophe is diverted without marrying her sisters off to men they do not love.

Kat is a lively and likable character. Her family seems to be a typical fairy tale family with the wicked stepmother and the weak father. It is an interesting twist that it is the girls’ dead mother who was the witch not the stepmother. The book is exciting and fast moving. It’s quite scary in places and very funny. Kat is perpetually making mistakes but she always has good intentions. The reader will be able to relate to her because she is not perfect even if she has powerful talents. The book has the familiar plotline of the young protagonist being responsible for dealing with the mess that her older relatives make. It is distinguished by its great heroine and sinister villains. It has a well thought out structure for its magical world and what is revealed about makes the reader want to know more. It also brushes against problems of class in both Kat’s home life and the magical world that she enters. A Most Improper Magick is an exciting book for readers in the 10+ age group.

'A Most Improper Magick' is Stephanie Burgis’ first novel. There are two more books about Kat and her family due to be published in the next few years. Stephanie Burgis has had short stories published, many of which are available to read online on her website www.stephanieburgis.com Most of these short stories are written for adults.

'A Most Imprper Magick' is available now.

My thanks to Templar Publishing for my review copy of the book.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Dark Matter - Michelle Paver

Dark Matter (n): Matter inferred to exist from it's gravitational effects on visible matter.

It is 1937 and in a foggy London four gentlemen of science await a fifth, the potential wireless operator for an expedition to Gruhuken in the Arctic to study High Arctic biology and conduct a meteorological survey. The fifth member of the group is Jack Miller, a clerk who had to abandon his dreams of a scientific career to care for his mother after his fathers illness and death.

'Dark Matter' is comprised of Jack's diary entries primarily written during his time in the Arctic. However, at the beginning of the book is a letter from a medical Doctor in 1947 seeking more information from a member of the Arctic team regarding Jack for a monograph on  'abnormal fears' and 'phobic disorders'. The reader is therefore placed on notice that the contents of the journal may not be reliable and of the need to assess how far Jack can be trusted to tell us the 'truth' of his experiences in the Arctic.

Jack is 28, lonely, poor and has a chip on his shoulder about his life circumstances and the wealth of his expedition companions. He has no friends and has been alone for 7 years since the death of his mother. Judgmental and resentful of his companion's opportunities due to their wealth Jack isn't a very likable character. Jack wants to change his life and views the Arctic and the expedition as a way to do this:

'I think that's what the Arctic means to me. I think that up here, I'll be able to "breathe with both lungs", as Mr Eriksson says: to see clearly for the first time in years. Right through to the heart of things'

Like the obscuring London fog at the beginning off the book, Jack is unable to view his circumstances and history clearly and without emotion. He hates 'all this raking up the past' and hopes that the expedition to Gruhuken will be a new start.

Unfortunately, of the original team of five, only three make it to Gruhuken - Jack, Algie and Gus.

What follows is a quiet winding of tension as both Algie and Gus have to leave Grunuken and Jack remains to carry out the meteorological objectives of the survey. But as endless day turns into endless night, Jack and the reader enter a world where science and reality hold no sway:

There's no dawn and no dusk. Time has no meaning. We've left the real world, and entered a land of dreams'

What actually happens to Jack, what he sees, hears and feels are the 'Dark Matter' of the title. Jack doesn't like the past 'poking through' but this is exactly what seems to be happening to him. The past influences Jack in how he lived in London and the past influences his behaviour in the Arctic winter. The scientific mind is pitted against our most primitive fears:

'Fear of the dark. Until I came here, I thought that was for children; that you grew out of it. But it never really goes away. It's always there underneath. The oldest fear of all.'

As the polar night engulfs Gruhuken in darkness and the point of no return approaches, what exactly is Jack experiencing?

Gruhuken and the Arctic are physically present in this book in their own right. What lingers in the mind are Pavers' descriptions of the expedition surroundings, the first sight of which is like 'a blow to Jack's heart'. The noises of the ice talking to itself, the pistol shot as part of a glacier breaks off and sinks into the sea and behind it all, the stillness

'Immense. Overwhelming. I realised that this place is and always will be No-man's-land.'

This is no high octane action adventure, more of a slow burn as tension and doubt are layered on top of each other. Paver's tightly controlled narrative and character development meant that I never lost belief in Jack's character, there are no slips or jarring notes to bring the reader back to their own reality. Jack's character begins to change as his story unfolds, thawing and relaxing, due to his friendship with Gus and his love for one of the team of huskies. Paver is equally convincing in the portrayal of the unraveling of Jack's view of reality. As we are left to try to sort out what actually happened to him in Gruhuken we are given a glimpse into Jack's future - a view which I found as unsettling as the events in Gruhuken itself.

Definitely a book to read in large bites (if not in one mouthful) if you are a lover of the strange and chilling.

This is Michelle Pavers' first ghost story for adults, her style is simple and direct and as such the book would be accessible for older teens.

My thanks to Orion for providing me with an advance copy for review. Because my copy is an advance some of the quotes above may differ slightly in the final version of the book.

'Dark Matter' will be published on the 21st October


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dark Life - Kat Falls

When the oceans rose, entire continents were swallowed up by the rising water. Now humans live packed into high rises on small tracts of land, while those willing to forge new frontiers settle deep on the ocean floor.

Ty is the first child to be born on the ocean floor in Benthic Territory, an underwater community. He has spent his entire life as one of the new settlers in this new environment. There are other children in the territory but he is the oldest. When he discovers a submarine without lights sitting on the sea floor it provides a convenient place to wait out some sharks that are a little too interested in him. Inside Ty finds the sub dripping with blood and a girl, Gemma, an orphan and ward of the Commonwealth, who is searching for her brother sent to a juvenile detention centre when she was young. But things are about to change in the territory, outlaws and pirates are preying on the ships of the 'wealth and they are about to turn their attention to the settlers. The children of the territory have secrets that could destroy their community and the life they live on the ocean floor.

Kat Falls has written an compelling book that owes a debt to many different genres and types of story. Variously a western (frontier life, pioneers, outlaws and a sheriff), a dystopian novel of life after global warming, a coming of age novel (both for the central character Ty and the community in which he lives), love story and science fiction all action adventure. Despite all of these different styles Falls has managed to keep a firm hand on her story which rattles along at breakneck speed and which will keep it 11+ audience entertained and enthralled.

Falls has done an excellent job of underwater world building, her awe and fascination with the creatures of the deep oceans is transmitted clearly through her vivid descriptions which, coupled with her underwater technologies, make the Benthic Territory a character in the book in it's own right. She touches on but does not labour the politics of the new frontier - control and exploitation by the Commonwealth. The reader is also made aware of The Topside (where Gemma comes from) an overcrowded, hot teeming place where space is a luxury and where the Commonwealth still maintain martial law and elections have not been held for 20 years. There are therefore many areas of interest for intelligent and interested teens to consider.

Although Ty and Gemma appear a little young for their supposed 15 years, slightly too gung-ho, innocent and unable to consider the consequences of their actions, they are not too young to feel the first stirrings of more adult emotions towards each other. Ty and his other underwater born friends have their own secrets which they are anxious to conceal, however as the outlaws turn their attention to Ty and Gemma and the 'Wealth reveals it's interest in the children of the new frontier it becomes clear that the children are what will help the settlers survive.

As the book ends and the plot arc draws to a close I anticipate that this is not the last we shall hear of Ty and Gemma, there is a lot more of this new world to be explored. Indeed for such a well thought out and potentially complex world I would hope that Kat Falls can produce fiction that is more complex and satisfying than this essentially plot driven novel. There is huge potential for the world of the Topsiders and Dark Lifers which is only touched on and skimmed over in this book. It is no surprise that the book has already been optioned as a movie.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The 10 p.m. Question – Kate de Goldi

Kate de Goldi is a New Zealand author. She writes young adult fiction, short stories and children’s books and has won many awards for her work. The 10 p.m. Question has received several awards including the New Zealand Post Book of the Year (2009) and the Readers’ Choice award at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards (2009).

The 10 p.m. Question covers several months of twelve year old Frankie Parsons’ life. Frankie’s structured world is changed drastically when he makes friends with Sydney Vickerham, a new girl in his class. Sydney is different to everyone he knows and her intense questioning about his life and family make Frankie worry. Some parts of his family life are taboo subjects that no one ever brings up. What if Sydney asks him questions he does not want to answer?

As Sydney becomes part of Frankie’s life further worries emerge. Sydney’s mother does not stay in one place for long. Frankie worries all the time about everything from earthquakes to spiders and Sydney’s cheerful company helps Frankie to enjoy life more. He does not know how he will cope if Sydney goes. And since he is afraid of flying how will he be able to visit her?

de Goldi has created a fabulous world in The 10 p.m. Question. She has created fantastic characters in Frankie’s family and his school life. From the incredible Aunties to Frankie’s eccentric teacher, Mr A. all the characters in this book come to life on the page. Each chapter ends with a section in italics. This describes when Frankie goes to his mother’s room at 10 p.m. every night to ask her questions about what has been worrying him during the day. The italics make the conversation between Frankie and his mother more private and show what an important and personal part of Frankie’s day it is.

The 10 p.m. Question deals with the effect of mental illness in a family. It is interesting because it covers mental illness in both adults and children and shows the genetic connection within families. It also focuses more on Frankie’s journey to understanding what he wants from life than on how his difficulties with endless worry are solved. It is also notable in that it does not focus on the taking of medication to solve mental illness. It shows that there are limitations in trying to cure people who are mentally ill and that sometimes people need to compromise their idea of what is normal in order to be able to accept these limitations.

The 10 p.m. Question is out this August and is a great read for anyone in the 12+ age group.

My thanks to Templar Publishing for supplying me with a copy of this book for review.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Gregor the Overlander - Suzanne Collins

Published this month is Suzanne Collins' debut novel Gregor the Overlander, previously only available in the US. It is a fantasy adventure novel for ages 9+ that is well written and action packed.

Gregor is 11, his father disappeared 2yrs 7mths and 13 days ago and life has not been the same since. Gregor doesn't allow himself to think about the future, it is too painful, he just thinks about now - the now of not being able to go to summer camp because he has to stay home and mind his 2yr old sister Boots while his mum works. But while he is thinking about the now his mind is not on what he is doing (the laundry) and definitely not on his sister. When Gregor realises his sister is very quite and has been for some time he finds her leaning into a grate in the laundry room, as he reaches for her she disappears, Gregor has to follow and down down he falls into the Underland.

Gregor finds himself in a land where cockroaches, bats, rats and spiders speak and are far larger than in the Overland. Humans have violet eyes and his father is being held by Gorger, King of the Rats. Gregor's arrival leads the Underlanders to believe that he is the warrior prophesied in 'The Legend of Gray' carved on the walls of the palace, a warrior that will affect the fate of the humans in Underworld. Gregor knows he is no warrior, but it is the only way he can rescue his father so he, Boots and two Underworlders set out to build an alliance with the spiders and the cockroaches in order to rescue Gregor's father and save the Underworld from the rats.

Suzanne Collins is known in Europe for her best selling Hunger Games Series, a dystopian adventure for the 11+age group. Gregor's tale is an introduction to the world of fantasy literature for the 9+ age range but is no less well written or absorbing just because it is for a younger audience.

Gregor is an average child who has suffered a traumatic loss and Collins is astute enough to realise that although Gregor's father can be rescued, he will have been changed by his experiences.

Gregor had thought he would get a parent back when he found his Dad. Then he could stop having to make hard decisions. He could just be a kid. But the man before him was even needier than Boots was.

Collins' portrayal of Gregor is real and vivid, Gregor is no all action hero he is just an ordinary boy in extraordinary circumstances - he even realises that even though he might want a sword, as his mum won't even let him carry a pocket knife and, as he is likely to be grounded for the rest of his life, a sword just wouldn't be worth the hassle!

The Underland is a fantastic world. From Alice's Adventures in Wonderland  through to the wardrobe in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe secret portals to other worlds have long been a staple of children's literature and Collins has done an excellent job of world building. Coupled with dangerous allegiances, treachery and battles this book is a must for young (and not so young!) bookworms.

There are four more books in the series and I assume these will be released in due course

At the back of the book children will find a note about the author, an interview with Suzanne Collins and for imaginative children a piece about how to go about constructing their own portal and underworld when writing stories - this is a great idea.

You can find an excerpt of the book here

For the teachers amongst you a teachers guide and book group type questions here.


Monday, August 16, 2010

I Am Number Four - Pittacus Lore

Penguin's big new release for the autumn is I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore, the pseudonym of James Frey ( A Million Little Pieces and Bright and Shiny Morning) and a new young writer Jobie Hughes. The book is also currently being filmed as a movie and clearly Penguin are hoping for great things from this projected 6 book series.

John Smith is a teenager new to Paradise, Ohio. His documentation says that he was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. John is not a normal teenager and his place of birth is far from Tuscaloosa, in fact its far from anywhere on Earth. John Smith was born on Lorien, a planet ravaged by the Mogadorian. He is a Garde, one of nine children that survived the Mogadorian invasion that destroyed his home world. Due to a charm placed on the nine they can only be killed in number order. Three of those survivors are dead, John is number four and he is next!

Whilst trying to come to terms with new powers that he is developing John must also try and blend in in the new school he is attending, difficult to do when your hands start glowing when stressed. Unfortunately not everyone in Paradise is friendly and as John's terrestrial problems mount it seems that his extra terrestrial problems are just about to explode with devastating consequences for friends and enemies alike.

This is a rip roaring read full of action and adventure for the 13+ age group, a plot driven story which will have the intended audience lapping up not just this book but it's sequels. It is also nice to see not only 'the love interest' but the introduction of, what I hope in future books, will be a kick ass girl - number 6.

The relationship between John and his guardian Henri is one of the best features of this tale. Henri has cared for and tried to guide John through 10 years of hiding on earth but, as with most teenagers, Henri's control over John is slipping as John moves closer to adulthood. As John makes more of the decisions on his own and Henri disappears we see just how frightening the adult world that Henri has shielded John from, can be.

Keep an eye out for two of my favourite characters Bernie Kosar and Sam Goode and for the sequel of this book which I am sure is going to be huge.

In the beginning we were a group of nine.
There are six of us left. The first three were killed in the order of their numbers.
They won't stop until they've killed us all.
I am number four.
I know that I am next.

Catch up with all the info on the book and movie here

My thanks to Penguin for sending me an advance copy of this book for review.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Odyssey - Homer (adapted by Tim Mucci, Ben Caldwell & Emanuel Tenderini

I have a confession to make - I have never read 'The Iliad' nor have I read 'The Odyssey' in their original form - I suspect that I am not alone. The thought of wading in to two epic poems of over 25,000 words in total does not appeal, however the stories that make up these poems, tales of heroes and Gods, have entered our cultural psyche.
I have another confession, I don't read graphic novels. Why? I think I am afraid that they will not be as rich an experience as immersing myself in a novel. I'm not sure I want the images that form whilst reading to be hijacked by someone elses idea of what the characters and their surroundings look like.

When the opportunity to read the story of The Odyssey as a graphic novel presented itself I jumped at the chance. This all action classic was a different experience to reading a novel, was it a satisfying one? Read on.

After 10 years of war and destruction at Troy King Odysseus wishes to return home to his Queen Penelope who is besieged by prospective suitors eager to steal his wife and the throne of Ithaca. As Penelope spends her days sewing and every night unpicking her stitches to keep her suitors at bay, Odysseus must battle fearsome monsters and jealous Gods in order to make his way home to his Queen. Odysseus is protected by Athena (breaker of Armies) as he honours the Gods but the other Greeks are condemned to make their own fate, unprotected, due to Agamemnon's cursing of the Gods and defilement of the sacred places. It is Odysseus' job to try to get them home safely.

Tim Mucci's adaptation brings Odysseus to life, his intelligence and cleverness coupled with an ability for trickery and slyness lead him and those who follow him into and out of one adventure after another. From the Cyclops to the multi-headed hound Kerberos who guards the gates of Hades Odysseus outwits them all. The dialogue is contemporary and at times playful:

Hermes:    Where are you off to now, my unlucky friend?
                   To Circe's Palace your life to end?
                   She'll change you in to Ox or Crow...

Odysseus: Wh..Who are You?

Hermes:   Me? Oh...You know.

Ben Caldwell, the penciller, from which I take it he drew the cartoons, has produced strong pictures full of movement. Ghost lines can be seen throughout the book, which adds to the sense that the characters in the pictures are moving. Eyes are large, waists small. Men are square jawed, women have heart shaped faces. Where Caldwell excels is the depiction of the monsters, the mighty Cyclops with his one eye, the lotus eaters wasting away and Poseidon intent on revenge. If you want to see the genesis of some of the artwork for the book and other work by Ben Caldwell then head over to Art Cartooning to see more

Whilst Ben Caldwell may have drawn the pictures he did not colour them in! That task falls to colourist Emanuel Tenderini and 'colouring in' is far to simple a way of explaining his contribution. Colour provides depth and perception to the work, colour influences our response to the image and colour prompts us to make judgements about what we are seeing. When Odysseus travels to Hades to seek audience with the blind oracle of Thebes, Tiresias, the images are cold blues, greys and purples as befits a shadowy after world. Cerise is the colour of the devourer Scylla and aqua the sharp toothed Sirens.

This is a great read and one that is easily accessible to those who don't want to wade through thousands of words of ancient poetry. Is it  authentic? Not having read the original I can't compare but it does put into context and explain the story of The Odyssey for a new generation.

And how was the experience of reading a graphic novel? The experience is not the same as reading a novel but it is not, as I feared, a lesser experience just a different and equally rewarding one. It is to the pictures you return again and again to assess expressions on faces and replay visual jokes. I will definitely be returning to the world of the graphic novel.

The Odyssey is available now and is the third in the All Action Classics series.

My thanks to GMC Distribution Services for sending me a copy of the book for review.


Monday, August 9, 2010

The Reapers Are The Angels - Alden Bell

It is the end of days and the dead have risen and walk the earth.

Temple has only known this hard world in which she fights to survive. Finding Maury, a simple mute man, she decides to take him to Texas in search of his relatives as atonement for the things she has done and the mistake she made.

Pursued by a man intent on vengeance, both hunter and hunted travel the roads of this wasted America happier in the wilderness with the walking dead than in the last remaining places of civilisation.

Although life is hard there are miracles along the way and even when the earth is going to hell there is beauty to behold.

This is a fine debut novel with a distinctive voice reminiscent of the western. It is a call to savour the natural beauty around us even though we may be hard pressed with worry and asks that old question, are we bound to our fate or can we make our own future?

The devil has sown his harvest and it is the end of the world – but who are the angels, the civilised in their fortresses or the lone gunmen in the wilderness?

A post apocalyptic zombie novel worth reading.

The Reapers Are The Angels  will be published on the 3rd September.

My thanks to Bertrams and Tor for providing me with an advance copy of the book for review.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Blood Ninja - Nick Lake

UK Cover
It is 1565 and Japan is ruled by a boy Emperor. The political situation is only stable because the competing interests of the Lords, who rule the provinces of Japan, ensures that no one of them becomes too powerful. Whilst everything on the surface is cordial the Lords secretly scheme to obtain ultimate power. The Lords Oda and Tokugawa in particular seek to rule Imperial Japan.

Unaware of the political intrigue and machinations that flow and eddy in the palaces and great houses of Japan, Taro, the son of a fisherman and an amas (pearl diver) grows up in the coastal village of Nagoya. Taro does not look like his fellow villagers, he also prefers the bow and the hunt to the rod and the sea which sets him apart. His best friend Hiro is also an outsider, saved from a shark by Taro when a child.

The scene is therefore set for one of the oldest and one of the newest plot lines in history - boy with destiny grows up in obscurity only to find out that he is not who he thought he was. This is a pretty well used story line but where Nick Lake makes things interesting is that he introduces a whole new class of undead warrior - the Vampire Ninja. This means that throughout the book we are given awesome swordplay (from both boys and girls) with some major martial arts (from the boys and the girls) and some pretty gruesome scenes (do I need to mention the finger and the leprosy!).
Nick Lake has brought 16th Century Imperial Japan to life in a real and vibrant way. He has clearly researched his period, including the myths and legends of the time, which all make for a full, three dimensional experience. Japanese words are used throughout the book ( I would have appreciated a glossary of terms to help me keep up) and time and distance are again dealt with as if you were Japanese (again an introductory explanation would have been useful).
This book is not however one fight scene after another poorly linked, there are whole sections of the book that do not involve fighting. As Taro and his companions travel through Japan to the Ninja secret hideout Taro is shown to grow both emotionally and in his awareness that the world is not a black and white place, that the reasons people do things are complex. The book ends with two great scenes that I wish I could tell you about but which set up book two to be as exciting and thrilling as this first one.
Blood Ninja is the first in a planned trilogy and Nick Lake has said that there is a very definite end point for the series. The book very much felt as if we are being given an introduction to the characters and their lives and I expect the sequel ( The Revenge of Lord Oda) to be fast and furious as both the characters and readers will have hit their stride. As with Blood Ninja expect swords, changing allegiances, throwing stars, hideouts, sellouts, revenge, sacrifice, beheadings, body parts - and vampire ninjas.
This is a book that boys and kick ass girls will love.
US Cover
Before leaving the review however I would like to mention Blood Ninja's UK cover (above). One of the best that I have seen this year, very different to the book's American version  (right) and a work of art. The illustrator is Hydro74 otherwise known as Joshua Smith. If you like the cover art then you could do worse than log on to his website ( here ) and view his other creations.
You can find an interview with Nick Lake here.
Read the first chapter of Blood Ninja: The Revenge of Lord Oda here (out 7th December).
Blood Ninja was published on 2nd August and is available to buy now.
My thanks to Corvus and Grove Atlantic for supplying me with a copy of Blood Ninja for review.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Last Light - Alex Scarrow

Having read Alex Scarrow's teen/YA offering Time Riders in June ( review here ) I was sufficiently impressed by his plotting to sample one of his adult thrillers. Last Light looks at what would happen if the worlds supply of oil were to be cut off, how would governments and individuals cope?

The Sutherlands are a family in crisis. Dad Andy is an oil engineer in Iraq, he has bored his friends and family with his predictions of what would happen when the oil runs out - to the point where his wife Jennifer is in Manchester for a job interview, putting the final pieces in place to move out of the family home and out of Andy's life.
Daughter Leona is at university in Norwich and son Jacob is at his boarding school in London. It is through the lens of this family and their efforts to be reunited after a religious war kicks off in the middle east (helped along by a secret cabal) that Scarrow explores the, frankly scary, likely response to an oil crisis.

As the effects of the ash cloud earlier this year showed, we are all interconnected. Take away one element of this interconnectedness, in that case air travel, and all sorts of problems occur from interrupted holiday plans to shortages of certain types of foods. But what would happen if multiple connections fail? Without oil there is no means of energy production, no way to clean and pump water and no way of moving food from A to B. What would you do if no water came out of the tap and the only food you had was what happened to be in your fridge and cupboard the day the oil stopped?

As Andy struggles to get home from Iraq and Jennifer is holed up at a motorway service station, Scarrow describes a world in chaos in which only the fittest and the most ruthless survive. The most memorable scenes in the book are being played out in the residential streets of Shepherds Bush, London where Leona and Daniel have managed to make it back to the family home. Gangs of teenagers terrorise the homeowners as law and order breaks down and people begin to realise that no one is coming to fix the problem and it's every man for himself. Food and water become worth dying for.

It can be argued that Scarrow has over egged the pudding with the inclusion of a secret cabal who are masterminding things however this does not detract from a strong thriller that would be perfect for a summer read on holiday. But beware, this is a book that you will not be able to toss aside when you have finished and move on to the next one. If on holiday you will be itching to get back home and to an Internet connection to research the phenomenon known as Peak Oil, you will want to look through your cupboards to asses how much tinned and dry food you have, you will want to find out where your nearest water source is and how clean it is and you will want to look in your tool shed to find out just how many tools you have that don't rely on electricity to work and whether - in an emergency - they will be enough to help you survive the oil crash.

This is exactly the wake up call that society needs, forget global warming - will you survive Last Light?

Not an official book trailer but one that illustrates exactly what Last Light is about here

After Light the sequel to Last Light is now available and deals with the world 10 years after the crisis. How have the Sutherlands and society fared?


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Man Booker Prize 2010

The Man Booker Prize longlist was announced yesterday and with two of the thirteen nominated titles from Irish authors, Irish interest in the prize will be strong. The twelve books on the longlist are:

Peter Carey Parrot and Olivier in America (Faber and Faber)
Emma Donoghue Room (Pan MacMillan - Picador)
Helen Dunmore The Betrayal (Penguin - Fig Tree)
Damon Galgut In a Strange Room (Grove Atlantic - Atlantic Books)
Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)
Andrea Levy The Long Song (Headline Publishing Group - Headline Review)
Tom McCarthy C (Random House - Jonathan Cape)
David Mitchell The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Hodder & Stoughton - Sceptre)
Lisa Moore February (Random House - Chatto & Windus)
Paul Murray Skippy Dies (Penguin - Hamish Hamilton)
Rose Tremain Trespass (Random House - Chatto & Windus)
Christos Tsiolkas The Slap (Grove Atlantic - Tuskar Rock)
Alan Warner The Stars in the Bright Sky (Random House - Jonathan Cape)

An overview of the contenders can be found in todays piece by Eileen Batersby in The Irish Times here
You can join the fun on the Man Booker website by joining the discussion on the various books (and side topics - have a good root around the site) here
For a roundup of what the critics have to say about the books head over to The Omnivore here
For information on who the judges of the prize are here
The thirteen will be reduced to just six on the 7th September when the shortlist is announced, with the overall winner being announced on the 12th October.

The Farseekers – Isobelle Carmody

The Farseekers is the second book in The Obernewtyn Chronicles, the successful series by the Australian author Isobelle Carmody. It continues the story of Elspeth Gordie and the fate of the inhabitants of Obernewtyn. Now run by the Misfits that had been taken there to be cured of their curious mental abilities, Elspeth now sees Obernewtyn as a haven. She and her fellow Misfits have extraordinary powers of premonition and mental communication. Now their home is under threat and Elspeth must set out on a journey with a small group of companions to fulfil three very different tasks. A premonition has warned that if any one of these tasks is not completed before winter then Obernewtyn will fall. The team must rescue a Misfit near a far-off town, collect books from an ancient library in the same area and send a spy to infiltrate the Council headquarters in the capital of the country.  The journey will be fraught with difficulties as Misfits are not accepted by the Council, the rulers of the land, and so they cannot allow their true identity to be revealed.

Elspeth is further troubled by a strange premonition made through the cat Maruman, an old companion of hers. When Elspeth enters Maruman’s mind a strange voice tells her that she must destroy the machines that caused the holocaust in the world many generations previously. It tells her that she must be ready when the time comes to go on this journey. The prediction is enigmatic and she pushes it to the back of her mind while she travels. The journey throws up difficulties, many of which are unexpected and leads to new friends and allies. Ever aware of the time constraints on their journey, Elspeth and her companions must use every power at their disposal to make it a success.
The Farseekers is a powerful book and a worthy successor to Obernewtyn, the first book in the series. Carmody reveals more of Elspeth’s world and the oppressive system that governs it. It is a book about fighting for freedom and equality for all and the bravery of the people who fight for it. It also shows the corrupting influence that power has on people and how the world needs people who are able to resist this. Carmody has created a wonderful series and I eagerly await the publication of the remaining books on this side of the world! Suitable for anyone aged 12 and over, The Farseekers will be available in Ireland in August.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors-Francisco X. Stork

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is Francisco X. Stork’s fourth novel. The book is set in New Mexico in the United States of America. After the death of his closest family members seventeen year old Pancho is being taken to live in an orphanage. His mother died when he was five. He lived with his father and older sister Rosa in a trailer for the majority of his life. His father died in a work related accident and Pancho was left to take responsibility for his mentally disabled sister’s welfare. Soon after her father’s death she is found dead in a motel room in what Pancho considers to be suspicious circumstances. However, the police do not listen to his concerns and her death is put down to undetermined natural causes. The police informed Pancho that his sister had had sexual intercourse before she died. Pancho is sure that the man who was with Rosa is responsible for her death. He is determined to hunt the man down and make him pay for Rosa’s death.

When he arrives at the orphanage he meets a terminally ill boy. D. Q. is his age and is dying of brain cancer. As there is no summer work for Pancho, his job for the summer will be helping D. Q. to get through his treatments in the hospital in the city of Albuquerque. D. Q. is writing a book called The Death Warrior Manifesto, which is about embracing life. He is determined to make Pancho into a Death Warrior but Pancho does not care what happens to him after he has found his sister’s killer. He assumes he will be in prison for the rest of his life. In Albuquerque Pancho meets Marisol, the girl whose heart D. Q. is determined to win. Can the new people in Pancho’s life divert his thoughts from revenge?

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is a great book. It is an unsentimental treatment of the lives of those dealing with death. Pancho’s is suffering from the loss of his entire family and D. Q.’s has to face his own impending death in the best way he can. D. Q.’s mother’s reaction to his illness is as strong as Pancho’s desire for revenge. The book shows the intense emotions that the loss of love ones inspire. Stork writes with sympathy even when the emotions felt cause the characters to act in ways that could hurt themselves and those they care about.

I would like to thank Scholastic for providing with a copy of the book for review.  The book was published in June and is suitable for teenagers in the 14+ age group.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Maze Runner - James Dashner

Thomas is in a box, he can't remember his name, where he came from, how he got into the box or why. When the doors open he finds himself in The Glade, at the centre of a giant maze, with other boys who all arrived the same way and none of them can remember who they are.

One boy a month for 2 years.

Thus begins James Dashner's thrilling new series for 10+ boys and girls who like their fiction post apocalyptic and thrilling.

In The Glade the boys have to fend for themselves, whilst doing this they struggle every day to find the answer to why they have been sent to the maze and to find a way out. But as the walls of the maze move every day, the game changes every day, and you don't want to be caught in the maze overnight - that's when the Grievers come out to get you!

Dashner's book is a novel take on 'The Lord of the Flies' theme of children having to make and maintain a society in order to survive. In the first of a planned 3 books series we are introduced to the boys who form part of the Creators experiment. We are also introduced to the lone girl Theresa, who I hope will have a greater and more feisty role in future books in the series. It is clear that as the book draws to a close (no spoilers I promise!) that the maze is only phase 1 of what the band of comrades will have to endure before reaching a safe haven.

Whilst Dashner's characters might be regarded as 'stock' ie the new kid who is way smart, the troublemaker, the potential love interest, the quirky friend, they are believable and well fleshed out. The maze itself is a fantastic concept, I spent half the book wondering if the kids were on a holodeck (think Star Trek) or if it was 'real'. As Thomas pieces together what is going on and how the boys can escape, the tension in the second half of the book mounts as the boy's world falls apart around them.

The boys also have their own language 'Shuck-face', Klunk' which is an interesting way of allowing the kids to swear without them actually doing it. I am not totally convinced that this device worked, a few mild swear words are words that any 10 year old would hear in the playground, and worse, every day. The made up stuff was mildly distracting and affected the flow of the dialogue but did not diminish enjoyment of the book.

Dystopian fiction is all the rage in the children and teen market at the moment with a slew of books dealing with the topic, think Michael Grant's 'Gone' series, Suzanne Collins' 'Hunger Games' series and Pam Bachorz 'Candor' (reviewed here earlier this month). Dashner's book deserves to be read along with these cult oferings and I for one will be keeping my eyes peeled for the next book in the series.

The Maze Runner will be published on the 2nd August.

My thanks to Chicken House for providing me with an uncorrected proof copy for review.


Appaloosa - Robert B. Parker

I have long been a fan of Robert B. Parker's 'Spenser' novels, his series about a private detective. When I saw that 'Appaloosa' was finally to be published in the UK (originally having been published in the US in 2005) it went straight on to my wish list. I do not read westerns so this is a first for me but I was not disappointed as Parker's prose remains as spare and lean as ever.

The novel is narrated from the viewpoint of Everett Hitch the friend and partner of Virgil Cole. The two are itinerant lawmen in the American west of 1882, hired to sort out the problems of the town of Appaloosa in New Mexico Territory by the town's Board of Aldermen. Rancher Randall Bragg and his hands have taken effective control of the town having murdered the Sheriff and one deputy, his men take what they want, they do not pay, if you object you will be shot. Cole and Hitch are sworn in as lawmen and set about applying the law - as written by them.

Parker is reworking an old theme, even I have heard of 'The Seven Samuri' and The Magnificent Seven', but into the mix he throws Mrs Allie French a single woman with an eye for a strong man. That eye falls on Everett Cole who is not used to being the object of affection of a woman such as Mrs French and who gladly succumbs to her charms, even if she does play the piano badly. Allie is however a deeply flawed character who becomes Cole's Achilles Heel.

Parker's sense of dialogue is as sharp here as in all his books, he does not need to bore us with needless details about the character's surroundings, we can all imagine the wild west, the dust streets, the wooden boardwalks and the swing of the saloon doors so why spend time describing it. What Parker does best is dialogue, the interaction between his characters, the cadences of speech. He is the only writer I know who can write silence into his dialogue and force you to go at his pace.

" 'Bragg's got some water up around his place, but they ain't raising many cows. Mostly they steal them. And pretty much everything else.'

'How many hands,' Cole said.

'With Bragg? Fifteen, maybe twenty.'

'Gun hands?'

'They all carry guns,' May said.

'They any good with them?' Cole said. 'Anybody can carry them.'

'Good enough for us,' Raines said. 'We're all miners and shopkeepers.'

'And we're not,' Cole said

'That's for certain sure,' Olson said. 'I heard after you and Hitch came in and sat on Gin Springs one summer, babies could play in the streets.'

'That's why we sent for you,' Raines said. 'We're ready to pay your price.'

Cole looked at me.

'You game,' he said.

I shrugged

'It's what we do,' I said.

A smile like the flash of a spark spread across Cole's face.

'It is,' he said, 'ain't it.'

Whilst Cole and Hitch deal with the problem of Randall Bragg perhaps the real story is the effect of Allie French on Cole, Cole's 15 year relationship with Hitch and his ability to do his job. Whilst Allie may have an eye for a strong man, the other women are none to impressed. Hitch takes up with a local prostitute Katie Goode who voices her opinion of Allie early

" 'You think she's a sweet thing,' Katie said. 'All you men. Girls know better. She should move up to the north end with the rest of us.'

'You think she's a whore?'

'She's wiggling her sweet ass for money just like the rest of us'

As the events in Appaloosa unfold Allie French winds her way into Virgil Cole's life until Cole is faced with the extinction of his way of life.

Parker has seduced us into thinking he is writing a western when in fact it is a love story, a story about two flawed people, and the story of a friendship that comes asunder. Everything unnecessary has been removed from the narrative so that we are left with the bare bones of men's motivation and their inability to understand what motivates women. This is as true today as it was in the old west.

This is terrific, page turning stuff not to be missed by lovers of westerns, crime novels and love stories.

'Appaloosa' is the first in a series of novels centred around Cole and Hitch, I can only assume that the others 'Resolution', Brimstone' and 'Blue-Eyed Devil' will be published in the UK and Ireland in due course.

'Appaloosa' is currently available in hardback and will be published in paperback on 1st August. It has also been made into a film.

Robert B. Parker died unexpectedly whilst at his desk in January of this year. He wrote over 70 books and has been credited with influencing the work of such authors as Robert Crais, Harlan Coben and Dennis Lehane.

My thanks to Corvus books for providing me with a copy of 'Appaloosa' for review.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

C - Thomas McCarthy

Tom McCarthy's C brings us through the strange life of Serge Carrefax, brought up in a home of the first electrical devices, coded signals and his father's obsession with sound and communication. Caught up in his own world of morse code and chemistry experiments, tragedy at an early age soon changes life for the young boy.

Time spent in the health spas of Eastern Europe leads Serge on to a life as an observer high above enemy trenches where, through a hail of bullets he first begins experimenting with drugs.

Tom McCarthy, for the most part, brings us brilliantly through this intense life to London in a haze of drug-fuelled madness. Although his writing at times brings the most life to even the most banal of subjects, McCarthy does, however, drag us through some unnecessary passages. Unsure of why some parts are even in this book and as much of a struggle as they are to read, the knowledge that you will soon find yourself completely drawn into a skillfully crafted story brings you through.

In all not the easiest of reads due to its uneven nature, this book does though still have the ability to make you stick with it and follow it through to the end.