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.


Elliot Allagash - Simon Rich

Seymour is an isolated and lonely 8th grader who likes the quiet places at school - detention and sitting by himself at lunch. All this changes when the incredibly wealthy and amoral Elliot Allagash decides to relieve the boredom of school by transforming Seymour into the school’s most popular and successful student. What follows is a master class in deception, cheating, manipulation and the power of money. But as Seymour is transformed into something that he is not, he becomes more and more disconnected from his parents and himself.

This book is about money and power, what money can buy and ultimately what it cannot. Funny, thought provoking and slightly twisted, the book is a reminder of the agony of trying to fit in and be accepted as a teenager.

A little short on characterisation, the book more that makes up for it in entertainment and is a reminder to us all to beware what we wish for!

Obernewtyn - Isobelle Carmody

Obernewtyn is the first book of The Obernewtyn Chronicles. It is written by the successful Australian author Isobelle Carmody. Set in a world suffering from the effects of nuclear holocaust, it introduces Elspeth Gordie a young orphan who fears being executed because of her mysterious mental powers. The world Elspeth lives in is ruled by the corrupt Council with the help of a fanatical religious order called the Herder Faction. They gained a tight hold over the people after the holocaust, which is referred to as the Great White. The Herder Faction teaches that the holocaust was a punishment from God to the people who lived before it and artifacts from before the holocaust are considered dangerous and destroyed. Anyone who opposes the Council and the Herder Faction is burnt or used as slave labour. The after effects of the holocaust cause some people to be born with ‘mutations’ of the body and mind. These mutations are feared by the Council and anyone who shows sign of them is burnt. People who have mutations of the mind, like Elspeth, are known as Misfits. Elspeth’s parents were burnt for opposing the Council and she fears that her brother’s fascination with the Herder Faction will lead him to reveal that she is a Misfit.

She fears being sent to Obernewtyn, an institution in the mountains run by a mysterious doctor who claims to be trying to cure Misfits. Her friend Maruman, a cat she can communicate with mentally, predicts that she will be sent there. When an official from Obernewtyn comes to the orphanage where she lives Elspeth’s hidden powers are brought to light and she is sent to the institution. There she dreams of escape.

Since escape is almost impossible Elspeth gets drawn into the mystery of Obernewtyn. Who is the mysterious doctor and what is he trying do with his experiments? What happened to Selmar to make her so afraid of the disturbing child Ariel? And who is Rushton and why does he seem to dislike Elspeth so much? Elspeth wants to find out the truth behind what happens in Obernewtyn but will the people who run it find out about her first?

Obernewtyn is a gripping read. Elspeth is a powerful, independent character and her story is one you want to know more of. The world Carmody creates is disturbingly real. She insightfully explores the possibilities of a world after nuclear disaster. She convincingly shows how fear of difference and love of power can lure people to do terrible things. The underlying current suggesting more to come in the series is brought about by mysterious premonitions and gives the reader a strong desire to find out what happens next. It is available in shops now and is a great read for anyone in the 12+ age group.

Stella Etc - karen McCombie

Karen McCombie’s successful Stella etc series now has bright new covers. The doodles of flowers bring to mind the artistic abilities of the main character Stella. Each cover has a drawing of sea creature to remind the reader of the seaside setting of the books. Though I’m a big fan of the old covers, having originally read the books with them, the new covers are just as appealing. The series follows thirteen year old Stella and her efforts to make friends in her new home in the seaside town of Portbay. The series is cheerful and optimistic, while also touching on the harder aspects of life. Stella finds more self-confidence in her new town away from her outgoing friends from her old home in London. She makes new friends helped by the mysterious cat Peaches who seems to be an uncanny judge of character and the equally strange old woman who dishes out toffee and sweets to Stella whenever she sees her. Stella’s family consists of her mother, father and twin two year old brothers. Her brothers provide a lot of the humour in the books by being very mischievous and wreaking havoc everywhere they go! Stella’s father tries his hand at DIY to fix up their new house with disastrous effects.

As well as finding new friends Stella becomes interested in the history of Portbay, especially the beautiful old house near the local caravan park. The books have a hint of magic in them, which makes them a little mysterious. The first two books of the seven Stella etc books are now available in their sparkling new covers and the third and fourth books with be available in this format in August. Read a brief synopsis of each of the first four books here.

Frankie, Peaches and Me: In the first book in the series Stella is coming to terms with having to move away from busy London and all her friends to quiet Portbay where she knows nobody. She is upset at leaving just when the boy she has a crush seems to like her back and angry with her parents for making her move. Things get worse when her friends in London seem to be ignoring her calls and texts. The silence from Frankie, the daughter of her old childminder, is most worrying. They have known each other since they were babies and have never been out of touch for this long before. What has gone wrong? With the help of Peaches, a local cat who has decided to adopt her and a strange old lady Stella begins to get interested in the town she lives in and get used to the change in her life.

Sweet-Talking TJ: In the second book in the series Stella is determined to make new friends in Portbay. TJ, his little sister Ellie and his huge dog Bob appear in her life but she is not sure if he is friendship material. The group of older guys he hangs around with are not very friendly people. She seeks advice from her Auntie V on whether TJ could be a possible friend for her. She also learns more about the beautiful old house across the bay and the family who used to live there.

Meet the Real World Rachel: Rachel is spoilt, stuck-up and rude. She is unwelcoming to Stella and Stella never thought she would consider her as a friend. But things change when Rachel passes out in the local pool. Her equally rude friends start shunning her and Stella wonders if she has potential beneath her nasty exterior.

Truly Madly Megan: it is the Portbay Gala Week and Stella and her friends are enjoying themselves. Megan is one of the visitors enjoying the fun, or so it seems. Stella soon finds that Megan is covering up her older sister’s summer romance with an older boy and is spending the whole holiday on her own. Stella hopes to spend time with her while she is here on holidays but is sad that Megan will be gone by Saturday. The week is equally exciting as the last few Stella as spent in Portbay. There are talent contests, new friends and Stella also has a few more glimpses into the history of the old house that she has fallen in love with.
Any fans of Karen McCombie’s Ally’s World series will enjoy reading ‘The Raspberry Rules.’ Just published this May, it is Rowan’s secret diary. Like Ally’s world and the Stella etc books it is a great book for anyone in the 10+ age range.

'Frankie, Peaches and Me' and 'Sweet Talking TJ' have both just been released. 'Meet the Real World Rachel' and 'Truly Madly Megan' are due for rerelease with their new covers on the 2nd August.

I would like to thank Scholastic books for providing me with copies of the Stella etc books.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Poisoned House - Michael Ford

Michael Ford's new book, to be published on the 2nd August, is a Victorian ghost/murder mystery for the 9 - 11 yr old market. It opens with a note from the Assistant Curator of Victorian Manuscripts informing the reader that the following papers were discovered in a locked drawer of a bureau in the attic of a house formerly known as Greave Hall. The papers tell the story of Abigail Tamper during 1855, a servant at Greave Hall.

Turning the page the reader is immediately plunged into Abigail's world as she tries to flee Graeve Hall through the freezing streets of London, she does not make it and is returned to the house to face the wrath of it's housekeeper, Mrs Cotton. As Abigail's story progresses it becomes clear that Mrs Cotton's power within the house is increasing as the health of it's master, Lord Greave, fails.

But the staff are playing with Mrs Cotton, who believes that the ghost of her dead sister, Lady Greave is haunting her. She invites a medium, all the rage in Victorian times, to try to contact her sister. Abigail hears everything as she is concealed behind a screen to obtain information for the staff. What she hears causes Abigail to try discover who murdered her mother, a servant at Greave Hall before her death, and who her real father is.

This is a fast and well paced murder come ghost story. Michael Ford has obviously researched the period well and that research is incorporated into the novel seamlessly, giving small insights into the lives of the Victorians, probably without the reader even noticing:

'I spread damp tea leaves on the floor, then brushed them across the carpet to fetch up the dust.'

All of the characters are well drawn, the grades of servant and their relationships with each other are believable and do not feel strained. Ford has managed to make each character an individual within their specific servant class and job title, from Cook (who likes a little tipple), Rob the footman to Adam the coal boy

" 'That'll be the coal man,' said Rob. 'Tell him we only need a couple of sackfuls to keep us to Monday. And mind he doesn't wipe his hands on the door frame.'

Adam was waiting outside, hopping from foot to foot,with his hands in his armpits. His face was almost black from coal dust, which made his eyes seem to glow white.....Both Adam's parents were dead too, and he'd been plucked from the workhouse by a coal higgler and grocer with the unfortunate name of Crook, to help him on his errands. behind him in the lane was the coal cart and Archer the carthorse, head bowed in his nosebag.

'Morning Adam,' I said.

'Bloody freezing!' said Adam, looking past me longingly. 'What's it like in the lap o'luxury, hey?'

'Well,' I replied, putting on a posh voice, 'the caviar jelly we had last night was ruined by the presentation. You know I can't eat except off a gold-plated spoon.' "

The consequences of transgression are also highlighted in the sub plot of Lizzy, Abigail's friend and fellow maid, who is banished from the house despite having no family and nowhere to go following an unplanned pregnancy.

As Abigail delves deeper into her mothers death and Mrs Cotton's spite becomes more dangerous the various elements of suspense, the sense of menace emanating from Mrs Cotton, Abigail's investigation, the other servant's disbelief in her theory and the use of the Ouija board by Abigail to try to find out what really happened are handled well.

I have to admit to being able to guess the end but I am not the book's intended audience.

I suspect that this novel will have the 9 - 11 year olds, both boys and girls, hooked right from the first page. 

My thanks to Bloomsbury for supplying me with an uncorrected proof copy of the book for review, as a result some of the quotes above may alter slightly in final publication.

'The Poisoned House' is published on 2nd August.


Monday, July 5, 2010

Candor - Pam Bachorz

Welcome to Candor, the town where everything is perfect.

Everything you need is in Candor. Conformity is beauty.

Families move here because there is no graffiti, there is no litter, there is no loud music, their children study hard and Saturday night is family night.

Academics are the key to success. Parents always know what's best for their children.

Any problems with their children from before they move to Candor are put behind them.

The past is best forgotten.

In fact Candor is the ideal town - as long as you obey the messages because if you don't you could be taken to the Listening Room where you will be erased and you will become a model citizen.

The only way to survive Candor is to leave.

Arranging to leave Candor is what Oscar Banks does, he has invented his own messages and for those kids who believe him and have enough money, he can get them out - at a price. He is the model citizen, hiding in plain sight. Until Nia arrives with her skateboard and painted nails and her talent for art. She likes graffiti and Oscar Banks gives in to an impulse which leads to all sorts of problems.

Bachorz has created a dystopian novel that many teenagers are going to connect with immediately. Written in simple prose this book explores ideas of individuality and conformity for a new generation. This is a story of rebellion, about that old phrase 'teenagers today!' and what some parents are prepared to do to put an old head on young shoulders.

Oscar Banks is not a likable character, he is superior - The great are never late - self serving and exploitative. He has no real friends, everyone is just 'cover' for his real activities, even his girlfriend. He is too much like his father who built Candor. When he sees Nia however, despite the way she looks and the way she talks and the danger she represents, he falls in love. Bachorz uses Nia's talent for art in an interesting way as it is a form of expression which is generally encouraged but graffiti is of course frowned upon. Bachorz is not above playing with the ideas in the book, such as the concept of TAG (Teens Against Graffiti):

" 'today we are putting pride Messages on our sidewalks', she says. Like she's told me this part before, too. Not that I remember. That might have been when I was wondering what it looks like when a girl skateboards naked. What's the better view? Front or back?

Whoops. There I go again.

Pull it together, Oscar.

'You're writing on the sidewalks?' I ask.

'I have eighty catchy phrases right here.' She taps on her clipboard.

It's too funny to be real. 'Isn't that graffiti?'

She pulls the clipboard tight to her chest, which is regrettably shrouded in a loose shirt. 'It's a statement. It's anti-graffiti.'

'I guess if we cover the sidewalks, there's no room for graffiti,' I tease.

But she takes me seriously. Acts like I just came up with the cure for cancer. 'Good point, Oscar! I never thought of that. We'll need to think about how we can protect the lamp poles, too.' " 

but there is the heartbreak of stifling creativity too, in the TAG drive for kids to hand in their crayons for a free calculator.

'Candor' exposes the worries of the adult world for their children, if you study hard you'll get a good job and you will be protected. The by product of this is that you will end up just like your parents.

Underlying all of the events of the novel (and the impulse to control in the real world) is fear, the fear of loosing what or who is important. If  I control you, you will not leave and I will never be hurt but as this novel demonstrates, if a parent is successful in exercising total control all that is left is a hollow person.

Bachorz novel is therefore a call to cherish the total teenager. Yes, they may be loud, obnoxious, challenging, ill-disciplined and disrespectful but they are also thought provoking, creative, free thinking, uncompromising, questioning, vital and alive. Ready to sample and question the world around them and challenge accepted modes of thought. Yes, they will leave but, if you are very lucky and have parented even reasonably well, they just might come back and appreciate you.

'Candor' is published on the 2nd August by Egmont Press.

My thanks to Egmont for supplying me with an uncorrected proof for review, as a result the quotes above may differ from the final published version.

The town of Candor has it's own website.

Pam Bachorz's website is here where you will find all sorts of info including a playlist.

And just for those who are teenagers or who cherish their teenagers, a reminder of why we might want to brainwash them!


Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Moth Diaries - Rachel Klein

This novel, originally published in 2002, has been recently reissued on foot of the resurgence of interest in vampires and an expected movie release later this year. But is this a Vampire novel? Certainly if you are expecting anything like the 'Twilight' books of Stephanie Meyer then you will be disappointed but what you get instead is a claustrophobic, intense look at female adolescence, obsession and possible psychosis.

The unnamed narrator has been asked by her former therapist to consider the publication of the diary she wrote during her junior year in a girls boarding school. From the preface to the diary, written by the diarist 30 years later, we are told right at the beginning that she was diagnosed with "borderline personality disorder complicated by depression and psychosis" we have been directed therefore to regard everything that she says with suspicion, to analyse her words because what she says can not possibly be true - can it?

At the beginning of our narrator's diary she warns us of the intensity of emotion generated by the boarders:

"She knows what it's like to be shut up in a place like this, where all your emotions are focused on the girls around you, where you dream of a boyfriend but only feel comfortable with your arm around another girl's waist."

In this case the narrator's emotional focus is on her roommate Lucy a blond WASP to the narrator's dark Jew, and across the corridor is Ernessa Bloch, another dark haired Jewish girl. When Lucy becomes more and more friendly with Ernessa, a girl who never seems to eat or sleep in her bed, our narrator becomes suspicious of Ernessa and her motives. As girls begin to die and Lucy becomes ill and listless the diarist is convinced that Ernessa is responsible:

"She goes where she pleases. She appears unhoped for, uncalled for. She moves through walls and doors and windows. Her thoughts move through minds. She enters dreams. She vanishes and is still there. She knows the future and see through flesh. She is not afraid of anything."

The narrator tries to tell the other boarders and the school authorities of her suspicions but her warnings are dismissed as the product of her obsession with Lucy and paranoia at Lucy's growing friendship with Ernessa but Lucy is fading away and only seems to recover from a diagnosed blood disorder when away from the school and therefore away from Ernessa.

Following a final death, the narrator decides that she must take drastic action to destroy the vampire that is feeding off the girls, she discovers Ernessa's travelling trunk and from her description of it's contents there is clear evidence of Ernessa's true nature however all of this is destroyed by the narrator's final actions. The only item that survived those final few days is a razor blade given to the narrator, so she says, by Ernessa and which is used by her doctor to later form part of her "clinical picture". The narrator has destroyed any evidence that her accusations may be true.

Is Ernessa a Vampire? Does the narrator suffer from a personality disorder? This is what is so intriguing about this novel, there is no right answer to these questions and while we work our way through the school year we are treated to an intelligent and dark version of female adolescence filled with questions about adulthood - which attracts and repels the girls.

After we close the diary the narrators also adds an "Afterword", also written 30 years later. Does it paint a picture of hope? I have my doubts, she has given up on the girl who was the diarist despite that person being "excruciatingly alive, as if she had been born without a skin" but she has survived. Perhaps this is Klein's final message, that adolescence, however dark and intense, will come to an end and there is life on the other side, however dull and grey it may seem in comparison.

Although tagged for teens this is a book that adults will find satisfyingly Gothic, it is a welcome thought provoking, intelligent read, a million miles away from the safe domesticated vampires currently enjoying popularity.