Monday, 27 August 2012

Picking Your Team

“Just because Mel lives in New Whitby, a city founded by vampires, doesn’t mean she knows any of the blood-drinking undead personally.  They stay in their part of town; she stays in hers.  Until the day a vampire shows up at her high school.  Worse yet, her best friend, Cathy, seems to be falling in love with him.  It’s up to Mel to save Cathy from a mistake she might regret for all eternity.

On top of trying to help Cathy (whether she wants her to or not), Mel is investigating a mysterious disappearance for another friend and discovering the attractions of a certain vampire wannabe.  Combine all this with a vampire cop, a number of unlikely romantic entanglements, and the occasional zombie, and soon Mel is hip-deep in an adventure that is equal parts hilarious and touching.”

Team Human is a collaborative novel from the pens of authors Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan (who blogs here), produced as a result of a mutual love of vampires and romance, both of which feature largely within the plot of the aforementioned work.  More than this, it is also a tongue in cheek look at the vampire literature genre post Twilight, when the species must automatically be both attractive and sparkly.  Not only is account taken of the world-wide spread of Meyer’s work, there are also sly references to the attraction of high school for the undead which are seen within television programmes such as The Vampire Diaries (and L J Smith herself) and a dedication to the works of John Ajvide Lindqvist, Tanya Huff, Stephen King, Bram Stoker and Charlaine Harris, amongst others.  It is also a lot of fun, being a self-confessed parody.  For Bella and Edward, read Cathy and Francis; without the addition of a Jake character or love triangle.  Vampires walk in broad daylight – encased in Hazmat suits.

Starting out as a Team Vampire versus Team Human standoff, Team Human becomes more than this.  Mel makes for a spiky, yet plucky heroine, equipped with the ability to produce a quick quip where needed.  Cathy demonstrates that her determination to become a vampire is more considered than simply a need to be with Francis for eternity.  Ultimately, this ensures Mel is forced to confront her initial pre-conceptions concerning “Team Vampire” and understand the choices made by others – even if these are not the choices which she would make for herself.  It is also a narrative about love for others and the nature of friendship, clearly demonstrated by the nature of the changing (yet unchanged) relationship between Mel and Cathy.

Team Human is also a book which centres around the issue of emotion – something highlighted by the fact that, for the purposes of this narrative, vampires are incapable of laughter or crying.  Emotional ties are also a central part of the “mystery” sub-plot introduced by Larbalestier and Rees Brennan and form an important aspect of Kit’s (Mel’s love interest) ultimate decision as to whether to become a full member of his “Shade” or to remain human.

Despite being written by two separate authors (or perhaps because of it), the narrative within Team Human flows.  Ultimately, what starts out as a mix of parody and satire becomes more than the sum of its parts and holds a certain charm of its own.  

Thursday, 16 August 2012

A Monstrous Undertaking

“The monster showed up after midnight.  As they do.  But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting.  He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster, though, is something different.  Something ancient, something wild.  And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.”

A Monster Calls comes complete with a number of accolades, being both the winner of the CILIP Carnegie Medal for children’s literature and its companion prize for illustration, the Kate Greenaway Medal – these within the same year, no less.  It is a deserving winner on both counts and marks a second Carnegie Medal win for Patrick Ness; also second year running in terms of recognition via the award. 

On this occasion, however, Ness cannot take the entire credit for the novel, nor does he make any attempt to do so.  As has been readily acknowledged, the premise for the novel (written by Ness) stems from the final story idea of Siobhan Dowd, a previous Carnegie Medal winner herself, who died of breast cancer in 2008.  She provided the name Conor for the novel’s main protagonist and the concept of the storytelling yew tree giant who materialises in Conor’s bedroom from which the narrative develops.  These had been set out within e-mails to her commissioning editor.  The concept of the novel’s opening had also been produced in draft.  When Dowd died sooner than had been anticipated, Ness was asked by Dowd’s editor to produce a novel inspired by the original idea.  This he describes as having been “handed a baton” which he invites the reader to “run with”.  He dedicates the finished novel to Dowd, noting this would have been her fifth book, had she been afforded the time to complete it.

A Monster Calls is, at the outset, the story of Conor, a thirteen year old boy, whose mother is seriously ill and who is visited by a figure in the shape of a yew tree, who tells him stories.  It is, however, much more than this.  Similarly to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Conor is informed he will receive three visitations, following which the yew tree will extract one “truth” from him himself.  Again, similarly to Scrooge, Conor will be changed by the experience, for “stories are the wildest things of all”, according to the monster.  “Stories chase and bite and hunt”.

A Monster Calls is indeed a dark and haunting novel, dealing with a troubled teenager brought face to face with his mother’s battle with cancer (although the illness itself is never named at any stage during the narrative).  He is the subject of school yard bullying and the offspring of divorced parents; issues which are also seen to have an effect upon him within the body of the novel. 

Conor is shown to be both isolated and frightened as a result of his mother’s ill health – he struggles socially, becoming noticeably withdrawn, save for his dealings with the yew tree monster; a figure he tells himself he is simply imagining, although his floor is covered with red yew tree berries and spiky leaves when he wakes post visitation.

The nightmarish quality of Conor’s dealings with the yew tree monster are highlighted by Jim Kay's black and white illustrations throughout.  Here, the lack of colour adds, as opposed to detracts from their power, making them shadowy and affecting – in some cases they span a double page within the hard copy format of the novel or completely surround the words upon the page, adding to the broody and ominous overtones within the artwork.  (Do yourself a favour – opt for the physical version of this one, as opposed to the e-book format on this score; similarly, make your way across to Kay's website to sample other examples of his work).

Ness utilises clear and simple language throughout, the result of which is that the emotional intensity of the narrative is communicated to the reader without ceremony.  Nor is it needed – the direct nature in which the story is addressed and its simplicity emphasise its subject matter.  Concise prose aside, however, Ness refuses to let his readers off lightly.  There is plenty of food for thought for both younger and older readers alike.  The parables with which Conor is regaled by the yew tree monster are shown to be deceptive in their conclusions and ambiguous in terms of interpretation.  As such, they lead Conor to question himself and to enter into questionable behaviour.  This makes him both human and a similarly shadowy individual to that which visits him at 12.07 on each occasion - and all the more compelling for it.  Black and white become murky and populate the grey “somewhere in between” which is also illustrated within the yew tree’s stories.
This brings matters back to the concept of storytelling and the power it can create.  Stories can prompt change; the truth, palatable or otherwise, is capable of making a difference.  Thus, Conor must face his own truths and tell the hardest story of them all – the fourth story of the novel; his own.  His struggle to do so towards the conclusion of the narrative is described in the blurb on the back cover as both “harrowing” and “transcendent”.  Unsurprisingly, this means A Monster Calls does not make for what might constitute a comfortable read on occasion.  Nevertheless, it is one which should not be missed.  It is one which will linger beyond the concluding prose and illustrations.    

Sunday, 12 August 2012

On Your Marks...

It being approximately halfway through the year and also summer season, I thought it was about time to collect together a list of a couple of the books I’ve read so far this year and haven’t had chance previously to post a comprehensive review for.

Michelle Hodkin's The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer – the story of a girl calling herself Mara (although that is not her real name) who wakes up in hospital with no memory of how she got there following an accident she can no longer remember which resulted in the deaths of her friends, although she herself remained unharmed.  A spooky supernatural mystery with a romantic sub-plot.  (YA/fantasy/horror/romance/spec fic.)

Margo Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island (known as Sea Hearts in Australia) – a novella about an island community prone to intermarriage with selkies who are “persuaded” into their human form by the witchcraft of the local seal-witch, Misskaella.  Bleak and compelling.  The narrative is provided from multiple perspectives.  (Fantasy/spec fic.)

Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Drowning Girl – a complex first person narrative by India Morgan Phelps (“Imp”), a schizophrenic woman, who struggles to unravel her encounters with what may be mythical creatures or, alternatively, symptomatic of her illness.  Intricate and raises as many questions as it answers.  A study of an unreliable narrator and mental illness, as well as being a consideration of the nature of truth.  Ambiguous and haunting in its conclusion.  An adult read. (Horror/spec fic.)

Stephen King's Full Dark, No Stars – a collection of four novellas, all dealing with the issue of retribution.  1922 is the murder confession of Wilfred Leland James; Big Driver deals with a mystery writer’s encounter with a stranger during a back road shortcut on her way home.  Fair Extension documents a deal with an individual who sells a variety of differing extensions – for which there is always a price.  A Good Marriage queries the extent to which we can know another person – “even those we love the most”.  Darcy Anderson discovers a box under a worktable whilst her husband is away on a business trip and realises he isn’t the man she had thought he was – just as he is heading home.  Harsh and thought provoking, grisly and graphic illustrations of human behaviour.  Fair Extension represents the most overt reference to the supernatural here. (Horror/novella/collection.)

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall – which scarcely needs any introduction.  The fictionalised biography documenting the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell within the court of Henry VIII of England which has now been followed by a second part within what is intended to be a trilogy, Bring Up The Bodies.  Winner of the Man Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award.  (Historical fiction.)

Donna Tartt's The Secret History – one I’ve been meaning to get around to reading for a while, given I’d seen a number of positive reviews.  A novel concerning a group of classics students at an elite Amercial college and a Bacchanal which ultimately resembles a Greek tragedy in some respects.  To say much more would compromise the impact of the narrative.  One to experience yourself.  (Contemporary fiction.)

Jo Walton's Among Others – another one I’d heard quite a bit of buzz about before I had the opportunity to read it.  This is one written for anyone who has ever sought consolation or solace between the pages of a book – the narrator, Morwenna Phelps (“Mori”) finds her haven via a local library’s science fiction book club.  Play count the insider references on your way through the narrative – there are an impressive number to note.  This aside, Mori advises us (via her diary entries) she is a girl capable of talking to fairies.  Similarly to The Drowning Girl, it is for the reader to decide whether this is a psychological tool designed to offer comfort from the narrator’s less interesting “real” life or represents a true account of Mori’s suggested powers.  (YA/fantasy/spec fic.)

Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger – a ghost story set in post-war rural Warwickshire in which a doctor is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall, home to the Ayres family for over two centuries.  Slow building, subtle narrative centred around poltergeist activity.  (Contemporary fiction/supernatural.)

Saturday, 11 August 2012

A Delusion of Princes

A Confusion of Princes marks Garth Nix's return to the sci-fi genre post Shade's Children and a welcome return to the field it is.  Whilst Nix is perhaps best known for the brilliantly inventive Abhorsen Trilogy, Confusion revisits a genre within which Nix had already set a high benchmark with his tale of a not so distant future in which a set of evil Overlords have ruled for a period of fifteen years due to a catastrophic “change”.  (Whilst this set up is now relatively familiar within the YA sub-genre, Nix can arguably be credited as somewhat of a trend setter for providing us with a clear example of post-apocalyptic dystopia prior to the popular and recent emergence of the genre).

Genre similarity aside, however, A Confusion of Princes provides us with an altogether trickier protagonist for consideration and one who causes Nix to have to work harder as an author to convince his audience to engage with. 

Confusion concerns itself with the story of Prince Khemri, a genetically enhanced individual trained to become a Prince of the Empire and one who is engaged in a battle for supremacy as one of ten million princes, only one of whom can ultimately succeed in becoming Emperor.  The remaining candidates will find themselves eliminated one way or another…  So far, so promising.  Nix also takes the trouble to ensure his language is spot on sci-fi specific and we are soon drawn into a Heinlein-esque environment in which the Imperial Mind, Bitek agents, Mektek armor and Psitek force shields are par for the course.  (Nix even credits Heinlein within his own Acknowledgments at the outset of the novel). 
Clearly, however, Nix is not content merely to provide a convincing backdrop within which for his characters to run rampant or to revisit old ground in his provision of a sci-fi premise for his narrative thread.  In providing us with Prince Khemri as his main protagonist, Nix seeks to up the ante further.  The Prince is a youthful narrator, “not yet twenty in the old Earth years by which it is still the fashion to measure time” and, thus, it might be presupposed one with whom Nix’s intended YA audience might engage.
This assumption is challenged quickly and by deliberate design.  Despite being made aware at the outset of events that Khemri has been separated from his parents as a baby at the specific instructions of the Emperor, he spares little thought for them, suggesting there is “no point” in doing so.  He is convinced of his “special” nature and the certainty that he will one day become Emperor.  This persists even once he has become aware he is one of the millions of Princes who are to compete for the honour of ruling the Empire.  As such, it is difficult to find any initial sympathy for Khemri, even once we become aware his supposed security cannot be depended upon, as an initial attempt is made upon his life as part of the candidacy process.  True to form, Khemri is supplied with a Master of Assassins, Haddad, who successfully foils the assassin’s attack.  Additionally, we are advised within the very first sentence of the novel that he has died three times and been “reborn” on each occasion, which reduces the overall sense of threat which might logically follow any reference to death.  Still, Nix is quick to ensure the reader is aware matters are not as clearly cut as they might at first appear and utilises a number of devices to do so.

Despite Khemri’s initial arrogance, Nix ensures this is undercut at the outset by the Prince’s recognition of his own “wilful misapprehension” at his sense of importance, thus ensuring we are aware his overall outlook has changed somewhat since the occurrence of the events presently charted.  Similarly, later, the Prince freely admits when he is slow to react to a potential threat, which directly contradicts the posturing we witness elsewhere.  Further, we are shown that the mouthy candidate has learned at least a modicum of tact whilst he is subject to the discipline of the Naval Academy as part of his path towards eventual rule of the Empire.

Nix keeps events pacey throughout, zipping through Khemri’s naval training and the various Princes with whom he may find himself in more serious competition as their numbers dwindle in their race towards the finishing post.  This works both ways, ensuring pages turn quickly and we are hard on the heels of Khemri’s own urgency to prove his overall worth but also serves to prove that, in some instances, we are aware it would be interesting to spend additional time with those we encounter along the way to explore in-depth analysis of characterisation.  (This is also arguably true in the context of the subsequent burgeoning love story).

The primary focus being Prince Khemri, Nix engineers a scenario in which he finds himself required to rely entirely upon his own “smarts” without the back up of his genetic engineering and it is here that the narrative proves most interesting.  The specific events of the scenario aside, it is once Khemri, or “Khem” as he is dubbed, is separated from the underlying support of the Empire that the character really comes into his own.  None of the situations in which he finds he himself are “standard”, causing him to have to think “outside the box” and reflect upon what constitutes social interaction.  Ultimately, Khemri is forced to contemplate what it means to be human and to confront the concepts of loss, life and death.  For a 337 page book (paperback version), this is no mean feat, considering the manner in which Khemri is first presented to us.  That Nix pulls it off in the main is just further evidence of his “chops” as a writer, if we still required to be convinced.

By the point at which we are advised of Prince Khemri’s impending third death and the narrative has effectively caught up with itself, the outcome for him is no longer clear.  Nix keeps his readers guessing right up until the last few pages as to whether there will be a happy outcome for the Prince and whether he will ascend to the lofty heights of Emperor.  Given Khemri’s thought process throughout these events, the final couple of paragraphs of the novel provide a suitable note on which to end matters and yet leave the reader with something to ponder beyond the words set out upon the page.  Again, this speaks for what Nix is able to achieve within what remains a reasonably slight volume by modern standards, with the themes addressed much wider in scope than initially envisaged at the outset.  As such, the audience, much like Khemri, encounters more than first bargained for upon their journey.