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 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