Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Suitably Scary Reads – All Hallow’s Read 2013

Autumn having settled in upon us and it being October, creeping steadily towards Hallowe’en, it seems like a fitting opportunity to mention All Hallow's Read here again.  Simply put, it’s the tradition that in the week of Hallowe’en or on the night itself, you give someone a suitably scary book to read. 

A Neil Gaiman phenomenon, traced back to this blog post, this provides an ideal opportunity for a festive gift to family and friends.  There are a number of recommended reads available courtesy of the All Hallow's Read website (all divided on an age appropriate basis), including Gaiman's own and others such as  Helpfully, a number of the lists are available for download in PDF format to allow them to be displayed in, for example, schools and libraries.  So, go on – treat someone to something beyond the usual for Hallowe’en this year and help expand on a holiday tradition of book giving.        

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Resurrecting the Zombie Apocalypse – The Days of Flaming Motorcycles (Selective Shorts Series)

It’s about time Catherynne M Valente got a lengthier mention here and where better to start than with one of her short stories – The Days of Flaming Motorcycles (available here to read for free).  At face value, The Days of Flaming Motorcycles is the tale of Caitlin Zielinski – possibly the last non-infected person in Augusta, Maine, living in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse.  Delve a little deeper, however, and, unsurprisingly, Valente’s story has a little more to tell for itself.  Taking a detour from the usual “them or us” style scenario, Valente suggests the inspiration for the short story came from the concept of the "quiet apocalypse" it was necessary to live through and suggestion of a scenario in which the need to “co-exist” or compromise was examined - something Valente highlights by virtue of Caitlin’s relationship with her infected father with whom she continues to live, having managed to “train” him not to try to attack her, simply by virtue of being faster on each and every occasion he tries.

Whilst the concept of family and emotional ties is a familiar theme for those acquainted with the genre, Valente’s story provides for a far more nuanced contemplation on the concept of adaptation, far beyond the usual “fight or flight” scenario we are more used to seeing played out within apocalyptic zombie film and thus follows a less familiar route.  Valente’s “zombies” are not of the “reanimated corpse” variety we are used as reader to encountering; nor are they “mindless” (to quote the point of view characterisation of the short story).  Instead, through observation of Caitlin’s father’s behaviour, we learn that the infected retain the ability to mourn their present state, like “lost children”, communing en masse amongst an increasing “tower of garbage” created from the physical vestiges of their previous lives; their “cathedral” of grief.  By the tale’s conclusion Caitlin too has been drawn into the vestiges of grief’s “religion”.  An original twist on the zombie scenario and thought provoking commentary on the concept of mental and physical decline.  

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Pieces In The Game

The Rook is Daniel O'Malley's debut novel and he sets out his stall out early.  “Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine.” is the opening statement from O’Malley’s protagonist, Myfanwy Thomas (a name she incorrectly and deliberately pronounces Miff-un-wee).  She wakes up holding the letter addressed to herself in a London park surrounded by dead bodies – all wearing latex gloves and no memory whatsoever.  Thus, she – and we, the reader – must follow the trail of instructions left by Myfanwy’s predecessor to discover her lost identity and uncover the individual responsible for leaving her in this state.

Soon enough, O’Malley segues from the woman who finds herself shivering in the rain to the reveal that Myfanwy is in fact a Rook, a high-level operative in a secret governmental agency known as the Checquy, who protect the world from known supernatural threats.  Unfortunately, there is a mole within the agency and this unknown individual wants Myfanwy dead.  So far, so compelling - and a pretty intriguing premise from which to spin what subsequently becomes a complex dual-tone/personality narrative from both Myfanwy and her previous personality.

As an aside, given Myfanwy engages in a form of intellectual play-by-play with her antagonist throughout the course of the narrative and fact that “the game” is even referred to specifically towards the conclusion of the novel, the title of the novel is arguably also a suitably clever way for the author to mirror its overriding theme and reinforce the extent of the author’s knowledge of the text intended to be provided to the reader.

The concept of a “supernatural spy novel” forms a nice twist upon the burgeoning spec fic genre and one which is rich with opportunities to indulge in.  This is James Bond meets Doctor Who/Torchwood, with an additional sinister element added in by virtue of Myfanwy’s amnesiac status at the outset (and thus also a main protagonist reminiscent of Ludlum’s Jason Bourne in this respect). 

The concept of an amnesiac narrator also serves to ensure O’Malley’s debut breaks new ground from previous works within the subject area, such as Tregillis’s alternate history novel, Bitter Seeds, for one, and thus stands out from the crowd.  Further, by throwing elements of action, sci-fi, thriller, mystery and fantasy into the melting pot, O’Malley provides his audience with a somewhat subversive narrative which defies categorisation within purely simplistic terms and ultimately making it a more compelling read as a result.  Not only this but, cleverly, by providing his reader with this kind of set up, both reader and main protagonist maintain the same pace within their fact finding mission and encounter the supernatural world into which we are thrust from the same perspective, with a fresh pair of eyes – both down the rabbit hole together, as it were.  As such, O’Malley’s premise is afforded additional impact.    

Whilst it is true to say that there are a number of “familiar” elements present within O’Malley’s narrative – namely, a boarding school involving young “pupils” with differing “powers” they are encouraged to harness, in addition to the aforementioned amnesiac heroine (as opposed to hero) – it is also correct that they are given a decided twist so as to ensure they fit O’Malley’s purposes – thus, no superhuman strength or x-ray vision per se or overt comparison to X-Men applicable.  Instead, we see fortune telling ducks and individuals capable of exuding neuro-chemicals, for example; thus, more of a nod in the genetic mutant direction, as opposed to treading an already familiar path, in the strictest sense.  Added together, these elements remain fresh enough to ensure the plot is free to stand on its own merits, as opposed to feeling borrowed or weighed down by an inevitable sense of cliché.

Myfanwy herself is also arguably a character capable of definition within the somewhat familiar tropes of the speculative genre.  Whilst she may not be a Harry Potter or Buffy style “chosen one”, she is on one level an individual struggling to come to terms with the powers she knows herself to possess – and, indeed, choose whether to exercise them or not. 

The manner in which O’Malley chooses to address this dilemma is an interesting one, with Myfanwy’s predecessor and Myfanwy herself ultimately coming to differing decisions as to how to act.  Again, then, the narrative refuses to be pinned down in simplistic terms.  Here, O’Malley, whether by deliberate design or otherwise, poses an interesting question; ostensibly a slightly less distinct aspect of the age old “nature versus” nurture issue.  Effectively, what extent can we consider Myfanwy to be a product of her previous experiences in terms of reaction and is her behaviour post-amnesia the result of being freed from these and thus reacting without forethought or preconception?  Does this allow her to fulfil her supernatural potential at a more advanced level, although it previously lay dormant within the body which both versions of Myfanwy inhabit at differing stages?  Given the lack of overt answer within the print on the page, this may well be something O’Malley intends for the reader to reach a decision upon for themselves.   

This issue aside, O’Malley’s narrative is not one which takes itself too seriously – nor should it.  By throwing itself wholeheartedly into a plot which is resplendent with spores and slime, we are afforded the opportunity to enjoy a book which aims predominantly to entertain.  Quite simply, we are intended to have some fun; this being something O’Malley seems to have had whilst building his secret society and its surrounding environs.  With this in mind, we see power supplies cut to Liverpool to prevent a media broadcast concerning ghost animals within the business district and suggestions concerning an individual capable of secreting toxins through her fingertips. 

Whilst this might come across under a different author as overblown, O’Malley keeps us on side by ensuring his tongue remains firmly in cheek during these events and exploits the comic potential of his “fantastical” plotline.  This is aided in no small part by the irreverent voice of his main protagonist, Myfanwy, who makes no secret of her opinions in the face of the events she is forced to play a part in whilst she attempts to uncover her adversary.      

Pleasingly, the secret society agency itself, the Checquy, is realised in a suitable level of detail during the course of the narrative via numerous letters addressed from Myfanwy’s predecessor to herself (“Dear You”), even down to the monarchy-reminiscent crest adorning the black and white cover to the novel.  We also gain a sense of the bureaucratic manner in which any such organisation might be forced to operate and the levels of seniority and power play envisaged by the chess playing piece designations for which its members are named during the course of the discussions by its members with one another.  Thus, O’Malley maintains a delicate balance between realism in his depiction of the supernatural branch of the secret service versus the field work his agents are required to enter into when facing down threats.  Not only are there super-powered foes to face down, there’s a supreme amount of paperwork involved in the process too!
Further, we are introduced to the American Bishop, Shantay, expanding our national horizons.  Thus, we gain an impression as to the potential scale of the global supernatural network and O’Malley provides himself with a larger backdrop against which he can stage his narrative in the event of a future sequel.

The level of description, on geographic levels both domestic and international, ensures not only that the supernatural spy “world” of the Checquy is sufficiently well established to convince the reader of its potential plausibility but also that we are provided with the necessary clues for the purposes of the “mystery” element of the narrative which will keep the reader engaged in the quest towards discovery of the truth.  Thus, O’Malley serves to achieve two aims via a singular means.

Thankfully, O’Malley ensures the “mystery” is suitably resolved prior to the debut’s conclusion, as opposed to leaving things hanging for a second or third instalment – also a relief in light of the apparently increasing trend within genre fiction towards “story by instalments” and the prevalence of the “novel via trilogy” within fiction generally.    

Despite the eventual "reveal" of the identity of Myfanwy's nemesis within The Rook, however, matters are sill left suitably open at the conclusion that a return to the world of the Checquy and the Rookery is a distinct possibility.  I understand the author is working on a further instalment and I suspect there may already be a ready market for it on the basis of his opening gambit into the urban fantasy market.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Starring - London Life

"The day Louisiana teenager Rory Deveaux arrives in London marks a memorable occasion.  For Rory, it’s the start of a new life at a London boarding school.  But for many, this will be remembered as the day a series of brutal murders broke out across the city – gruesome crimes mimicking the horrific work of Jack the Ripper in the autumn of 1888.

Soon “Rippermania” takes hold of modern-day London, and the police are left few leads and no witnesses.  Except one.  Rory spotted the man police believe to the prime suspect.  But she is the only one who saw him.  Even her roommate, who was with her at the time, didn’t notice the mysterious man.  So why can only Rory see him?  And more urgently, what is he planning to do about her?

In this edge-of-your-seat thriller, full of suspense, humour, and romance, Rory will learn the truth about the secret ghost police of London and discover her own shocking abilities."

The Name of the Star is the first of Maureen Johnson's novels I’ve read and one which I saw mention of on Twitter.  On my reading it’s an interesting combination of both the familiar and less familiar which affords it a measure of originality in terms of premise and overall effect.

Johnson takes on previously explored territory with her main protagonist, Rory, a teenager who must adjust to newly acquired powers which mark her out as different from her fellow classmates.  In this, the layers of “difference” which ensure Rory stands out from the other students who reside at the Wexford boarding school become multiple, given she has also travelled from America to study there.  Thus, we see British school life very much from the “outside looking in” and Johnson provides a realistic sense of teenage insecurity in the face of the unfamiliar. 

Change during adolescence and exploration of or the sudden onset of supernatural powers as a metaphor for physical change is also a notable concept (Ginger Snaps comes to mind in this regard, for one), however, Johnson concentrates predominantly on emotional territory for the purposes of her narrative, save for the occasional attack of hormones in connection with an on-going romantic subplot.  This is apt in light of the overreaching story arc, which concentrates on a Jack the Ripper “copy cat” killer who must be unmasked by Rory and the members of the team of “ghost police” working within London and with whom Rory becomes familiar as a result of being the only key witness to the continuing investigation.

It is with the Ripper investigations that the narrative begins to build pace and a true sense of menace.  Rory is forced to assist, given it is her life which is ultimately on the line, for reasons which become clear at an early stage in the novel.  Furthermore, time is running out.  The “copy cat” nature of the crimes mean the reader has a clear sense of timescale as the team seek to “out” the killer. 

Johnson concentrates on the so-called “Canonical Five” Ripper victims for the purposes of her narrative, meaning the events which form the basis of the novel take place within a timeframe of just over two months.  During this, we are also treated to re-envisioned forms of the “Saucy Jack” postcard and “From Hell” letter, which formed well documented aspects of the historical police investigations and add to the sense of fully realised world building in this speculative modern day thriller which deliberately mirrors the events of the autumn of 1888.  

In connection with the investigation, the manner in which Johnson highlights the power of the media and manner in which this is responded to by the public is worth noting.  Similarly to 1888, “Rippermania” spreads throughout London and the murders committed by the “copy cat” killer are sensationalised. 

Historically speaking, Johnson has done her research.  The crimes are known to have caused somewhat of a frenzy at the time they were committed, particularly in light of recently instigated tax reforms which resulted in the production of cheap mass circulation newspapers.  For this, Johnson substitutes television press coverage.  Aspects of the crimes are also captured via CCTV footage.  (It is here that the speculative element of the plot becomes particularly important in establishing the extent to which this both helps and hinders police investigation.  This makes for an interesting twist on the concept of the crime thriller - here there is no forensic evidence on which the police can concentrate, notwithstanding technological advancement).      

Characterisation is strong throughout and we get to know the members of the “ghost police” team to a reasonable degree prior to the final confrontation with the unmasked killer, whose motives for the killings is clearly explained.  The “worlds collide” scenario and short timeframe for the race towards the showdown (and 372 pages of the hardback version of the novel) do not afford quite as much opportunity to get to know additional secondary characters, notably Jerome, Rory’s love interest.  Slightly more is documented concerning Jazza, Rory’s roommate.  However, arguably, this would have detracted from the sense of urgency we encounter as the developments within the investigation take on an ever increasing sense of urgency.  Equally, the distinction between Rory’s “school” life and “ghost team” experiences also serves to emphasise the sense of separation she experiences when first becoming aware of her new capabilities.

All told, The Name of the Star has much to recommend it and, noting a sequel is forthcoming shortly, I will be on the lookout for it. 

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Don't You Dare

“Beth and me wedged tight, jeaned legs pressed against each other.  The sound of our own breathing.  Before we all stopped believing a tornado, or anything, could touch us, ever.  Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy are tough, inseparable, invincible.  No pair more charismatic or sophisticated.  No pair more dangerous.”

Megan Abbott's Dare Me is a psychological thriller poised at the edge of the insecurity which accompanies adolescence.  The narrative centres upon Addy Hanlon, a sixteen year old girl and her cheerleading squad, who have just been introduced to their new coach, Coach French.  It is with this introduction that everything changes and the structure which had once seemed to secure begins to dissolve.

Abbott’s second novel revisits similar territory to her first, The End of Everything, concentrating on adolescent girls as it does.  In Dare Me, however, the author ramps things up, producing a subtle and nuanced tale of what can happen when life as we know it starts to take on unfamiliar characteristics.

Beth Cassidy, leader of the cheerleading squad has been used to ruling the roost and manipulating her fellow team members until Coach French arrives at their school.  Almost immediately, the coach disrupts this, removing the recognised leadership structure which has been in place and substituting girls within the team for one another, causing them to strive to prove themselves worthy of their new and unfamiliar positions. 

Both the team and its coach are rife with issues, with teenage drinking and bulimia proving to be the least of their problems as the narrative progresses.  Whilst initially seeming standoffish, Coach French makes the mistake of letting the girls in her squad become too familiar with her life outside of the school building and the discoveries this leads to are what lead to a tense power struggle between Beth and the coach, as Beth becomes privy to secrets her coach would rather she had never discovered.  Meanwhile, Addy is struggling to work out what is going on and who she should trust, balanced between her previous friendship with Beth and new understanding with Coach French – the biggest question being who is responsible for murder, the aftermath of which the novel commences with.

Dare Me delves into the darker side of human nature, exploring marital difficulties and their potential side effects, as well as providing a realistic portrayal of adolescent bullying and the vulnerability of teenage girls and dangers of unspoken attraction.  Abbott takes care to ensure Beth Cassidy does not simply come across as sociopathic in her wilful destruction of the lives of those around her – she displays vulnerability in her interactions with Addy, her former best friend who has been side tracked by her visits to Coach French’s house.  Ultimately, it is this loss and not that of her cheerleading position which wounds her severely.

The narrative also exposes the competitive nature of teenage girls, both in the context of their cheerleading capacity and otherwise.  We see the training and physical demands of the sport and manner in which this can destroy those it seeks to empower via injury or substance misuse.  Ultimately, this also reinforces the underlying message that life has a competitive edge to it and the struggle for survival of the fittest.  This is no more poignant than in the case of Beth, who is borne aloft to the heights, only to be cast down with force.

Despite the murky depths the narrative plumbs, it ends in a more salutary fashion, with the decision to “live by choice” not “chance”.  We do, however, see recognition from Addy concerning the losses encountered in reaching this position of strength – those of Beth, from whom Addy has taken something she refuses to name; knowing if she does so she will be forced to confront it fully and appreciate its significance in a realistic manner.  In this instance, it is the individual who appears to be strong who is ultimately confirmed to be the more vulnerable, hiding this beneath an apparent brittle exterior.  As with a number of instances in the overall narrative arc, matters are more complex than they appear to be at first instance, leaving us with a lasting sense of the complexity of human emotion, psychology and behaviours.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Dark Spaces

Having read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl fairly recently, I was keen to sample some of her earlier work and availed myself of a copy of her second crime thriller, Dark Places, to see whether it stood up to scrutiny, notwithstanding the significant interest which has surrounded Gone Girl post publication (caveat - albeit with good reason!).

Libby Day is a mere seven years old when her mother and two sisters are murdered in what is subsequently termed by the press as “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinakee, Kansas”.  She flees their farmhouse, the scene of the crime, through a window into freezing weather conditions.  Despite losing a finger and a number of toes to frostbite as a result, she survives to testify at the trial of her fifteen year old brother, Ben, who has been accused of the killings.  It is her testimony which ensures a successful conviction.  The narrative commences twenty five years later, as Ben Day serves his prison sentence and the deeply troubled Libby seeks to eke out the last remaining remnants of a trust fund created from public contributions for the victim/survivor whose situation has now been overtaken in the minds of society by more recent crimes.

Much like the more recent Gone Girl, Dark Places utilises fluctuating narrative points of view and swings between both past and present to clarify the events which have led to the situation within which the remaining siblings find themselves – the key question being was Ben Day in fact responsible for the murders of his mother and two sisters and what precisely took place on that eventful day?  The dual narrative is key to the slow reveal, emphasising the potential fallibility of memory and recall – particularly when subject to significant trauma; demonstrating the gaps between what Libby has convinced herself constitutes the truth and what actually took place.  Unsurprisingly, the two do not always marry up and we therefore find ourselves in the familiar company of an unreliable narrator – a technique recently seen to have been utilised to superb effect within Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl

Whilst initially Libby asserts first-hand knowledge of the identity of the killer of her family, we soon learn she was hiding when the murders took place – thus, her only knowledge of them stems from what she heard, as opposed to saw.  This contrasts starkly with what she revealed within her testimony at trial and her assertions within the decades which have followed.  Soon enough, she has agreed to investigate the murders substantively at the request of the self-named “Kill Club”, a secret society obsessed with discussion surrounding notorious crimes – for a fee.

Dark Places is clearly an evocation of small town life in Midwest America.  It is, however, much more than this.  Flynn utilises the deaths of familial members as a catalyst for closer examination of a supremely dysfunctional family and its constituent parts.  In this, no aspect goes unconsidered.  The reader becomes privy to the troubled marriage of the since separated parents and the money worries which have led to the disintegration of the family farm and business, as well as the isolation experienced by their son, Ben, at school and within his own predominantly female family unit, which leads him down the path towards becoming the eponymous “troubled teen”.  Ultimately, the reputation he gains himself leads to serious accusations, even prior to the charges levied against him for murder.  Further, one of the daughters takes pleasure in collecting gossip which can be utilised for potential blackmail purposes to bolster her sense of self-importance – despite her pre-teen age.  Clearly, this raises some interesting questions concerning how much of the manner in which matters play out results from the dysfunctional family life we have been privy to and how much the family becomes subject simply to happenstance and the “wrong place wrong time” scenario, also opening up scope for debate. 

Libby Day herself is a similarly damaged individual; both physically and figuratively, scarred by the experience of the night from which she escaped as survivor and its psychological effects.  She has become a petty thief and hoarder of objects garnered from others.  She is also someone who appears to be incapable of holding down a “normal” job – hence her reliance upon the “Kill Club” fund for her survival.  We are informed she has displayed childhood aggression in the aftermath of the murders.  As such, she resembles the “dark” individuals Flynn chose to examine in her preceding novel, Sharp Objects; something she appears to take interest in as an antithesis to more typical female heroines encountered elsewhere.  For some, this will make her difficult to empathise with, notwithstanding her childhood trauma.  (How much of Libby’s inability to move forwards in life results from the wilful decision not to confront her past and reiterate the “truth” she knows to be subject to question?)  Conversely, for others, this will render her more realistic, as someone who struggles to overcome the events which have, ultimately, shaped the individual she has become.

Ultimately, family becomes important in more ways than one, once it becomes clear that it is not merely the money produced by the “Kill Club” which motivates Libby’s continued investigation concerning the murders.  Latterly, she admits she would have continued without the incentive of payment in her search to confirm the truth surrounding the events of “that night”.  Despite it being clear that her brother is reticent during discussions with her to reveal the true extent of his knowledge surrounding “that night”, Libby is also willing to believe in his innocence, if proven – despite her prior testimony.  The contributory information provided by Libby’s – now homeless – father is also vital to the continuing investigation.  This, too, points to further evidence in connection with the issue of family which comes to the fore at the denouement of the novel.

Arguably, events take a turn towards the slightly less believable in the manner in which the ultimate “reveal” plays out.  However, loose ends are suitably well tied up and the main protagonist, Libby, has demonstrated a move towards a slightly more functional way of living, having confronted the events of her past. 

In conclusion, a satisfying, well-constructed thriller which delves into the reality of a small town family and the secrets this may hide.  Dark Places also delves into the psychological darkness which may be left in the aftermath of violent trauma and struggle not to succumb.  Both chilling and thought provoking.               

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Why I Write

I write because I always have done.  The habit crept up on me early on in life and seems to have stuck – whether I like it or not.  Sometimes characters whisper their dialogue to me at inopportune hours of the morning.  Now, I know it’s easier if I humour them and write it down with the pen and paper I keep handy for such moments.  If not, the low level whispers have a habit of becoming more insistent until their point is made and their story is told.  This makes me their conduit.  I appreciate the magic carpet ride each narrative creates; the opportunity to associate with individuals I would never otherwise have the opportunity to meet.  I am a fan of stories, whatever their guise.  Sometimes I’m lucky – sometimes the stories address themselves to me directly.  If I listen hard enough, I’m fortunate to hear them; irrespective of whether they whisper or whether they shout.  I spread their word; casting a line for an audience.  Once upon a time, someone lends an ear.