Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Gates - John Connolly

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 10, 2011

Zombie Apocalypse created by Stephen Jones

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

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

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

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

The Memory Cage-Ruth Eastham

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