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Carrie Ryan: The Forest of Hands and Teeth [Jun. 17th, 2009|01:29 pm]


In the moment between my mother’s death and her Return, I stop believing in God.


In the moment I read that line, I was ready to give up on this book. Fifteen pages in and I was having a “Joanna-Trollope-The-Choir” moment of extreme irritation (which come when a supposedly intelligent character randomly and dramatically throws out the supposed irrationalism of religion for the most spurious of reasons, but which basically reads like an immature fit of daring with no real reasoning behind it). It’s only partly the fault of soap operas: introduce a religious person and what more can you do with them than have them suffer the inevitable ‘crisis of faith’ with accompanying amateurish explanations? It's a bad cliche even if you aren't theistic.

The Forest of Hands & Teeth doesn’t give the impression of being a book that would do the OTT ostentatious religion-rejection thing so I persisted, hoping that there might be some further exploration of the role of religion in forging a community and its bonds and loyalties, or of life and death – this is a book about zombies after all. But no. It turns out this is a straight-forward ‘running from the scary dead people’ story, what you might call 280 Years Later and (another irritation, to be honest) entirely, deliberately, filmic – it has already been optioned.

Some spoilers ahead: For decades a religious order has sustained with its rules and rites a village in an immense forest, which is surrounded by protective fencing and by the ravaging insane forms of the dead who have Returned to unlife. Anyone bitten by straying too close to the fence is despatched into the Forest to join their new kin by an elaborate system of gated pathways and high-wired fences. In this setting the story takes its energy initially from the social determinism of the village’s society, of men choosing their life-partners and of the main female protagonist, Mary, whose romantics inclinations are mismatched against what the village elders decide for her. The plot contrives the Ultimate Great Disaster, a breach in the gate by an Unconsecrated (a zombie) who is unnaturally faster than the others, and Mary's only escape, with her two suitors and a few others, is into the Forest of Hands and Teeth, into a maze of narrow fenced-off pathways, only one of which might lead to a new place away from zombie-danger, or possibly even the legendary Ocean that Mary has been told of by her mother. It is a nightmarish excerpt from A Midsummer Night’s Dream with lovers' tensions and quarrels in the forest; other parts reminded me of the opening scenes of Princess Mononoke, the underground passages and dedicated servanthood of the priestesses in Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, the tree houses in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (or Tarzan, if you prefer) and the relentless chase-escape of 28 Days Later, complete with betrayals and inevitable sacrifices.

Shame to say, but considering the possibilities, it was pretty boring. The Unconsecrateed are nothing more than a nameless, faceless horror – no meaning, no understanding, even of the origin of the infection that caused their original existence; the love story is rendered trite by the endless musings of Mary on how she loves her true man, how much she dreams of the Ocean, and how no-one will believe her. She’s not the least sympathetic hero I’ve read – there’s far too much description of her feelings - tears springing to eyes, gazing, whispering, shaking of heads, sighing, almost too much to bear, realising that, impossible to think that... - in a way that seems self-conciously deliberate, whilst I was wishing Ryan would either get on with the story, or deal with the stuff that interested me: how had communities survived at all over a hundred years or more? Why was the religion ruled by a dictatorial Sisterhood but with the social rules imposed that favoured a man’s choosing, rather than women’s rights? Why and how were the Sisterhood involved in tampering with the nature of some of the Super-Zombies? Why wasn't there by now a methodical means of destroying the zombies by an organised army of volunteers/conscripts? If the zombies show intelligence to pursue a live human and trap it, where is the rest of their intelligence? If the zombies don’t need food (and persist fighting/chasing even with mashed-up/missing limbs) what is the science behind them – do they only die when decapitated and if so, why? The author is under no obligation to tell us these things but there must be some logic to it – even the zombies in 28 Days Later snuffed it eventually and naturally.

But for the filmic visualisation of the high metal-fenced narrow pathways through the forest, I was ultimately disappointed with this read. There are several books that deal with the mental and emotional effects of living in a closed community or travelling from a pursuing danger – Lois Lowry’s books, Jean Ure’s Plague 99 books, Jan Mark’s Riding Tycho/Voyager, the recent Patrick Ness The Knife of Never Letting Go (and sequel), The Road and many more – but this book never got to grips with the psychology of it all. The thrilling chase, the wrung-out love story (plus a bit of rebellion when the Sisterhood attempt to enclose Mary’s defiance by enlisting her amongst their order) are the main factors in play. There is an inevitable sequel on its way – The Dead-Tossed Waves – but I won’t be reading it.

Two stars (out of five)
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B.R. Collins: The Traitor Game [Sep. 30th, 2008|08:21 am]
[Current Location |Home]
[mood |quixoticquixotic]

B.R. Collins: The Traitor Game
The Traitor Game is gathering speed as a word-of-blog “good thing” in YA circles: a book that is of delightfully middling length, without a threat of a sequel looming, with an intelligent story arc that deals with the emotional deathtraps and pitfalls that are the day-to-day punctuation of the life of mid-teens: what is cool and what is not, what can you trust to say or imply or understand, how do you act when under threat, physical or emotional? The Traitor Game plays to all these strengths with its two central motifs of the Judas Floor, an Indiana-Jones-style death-trap built for the amusing torture of captured rebels, and the Traitor Game itself, a chess-like figuration in which each side secretly inserts a ‘traitor’ peg inside one of their opponent’s pieces, to bring defeat and ruin from within at a moment of supposed victory.

If this all sounds medieval and intriguing, then you get your money’s worth in at least one half of the book, set in the imaginary land of Evgard, where a rebel youth Argent is captive in the castle of his enemy, the Duke of Arcaster, and befriended by his son and daughter, Columen and Iaspis. Loyalty and fealty to new friends or old family turn and turn about, and the world of Evgard (mostly set around Norfolk and Suffolk, I imagined) is lightly but skilfully built by the author, with seriously clever ideas I could have read more about (the lead-light glass that delays the light that passes through it).

But the reader is not allowed to remain in Evgard, and neither is its inventor, fifteen yr old Michael, who has been building and dreaming, living and creating this world for years. This world is more than Angria and Gondal: it has maps, poems and letters and intimate histories, co-created and shared in by Michael’s best and only friend, the rather cool and doody Francis. Where Michael struggles to express himself and assert himself, Francis is as noble and self-assured as the Latin-speaking Columen of Arcaster; where Francis is decisive and sure, Michael falters and fails and fails again. The reasons for this are more than hinted at but extreme bullying comes near it, and the reader is taken uncomfortably over the terrible convolutions of male friendship and antagonism at the private RC school the boys attend.

The book reads easily – I read it at one sitting in a couple of hours this morning – and yet I can’t give it full marks. The interweaving of the two stories and their meaning to each other is superbly done: the brutal yet enlightened culture of the Arcaster regime is fascinating, in particular. The wordlessness of Michael and his inability or decision to simply not say or ask the right thing becomes more and more exasperating in the latter stages of the book: lots of dialogue trailing off with ellipses or interruptions “thus- ”.
Another thing I noticed – just the once dead obviously as illustrated below but it put me on the alert – was ‘over-explanation’. This is a book with heavy suggestions of male rape and a degree of beatings going on: not for 12 yr olds, I wouldn’t have thought. Michael is showing Francis his room and explains it’s nothing special.

Francis glanced back at him, and shrugged. “I’ve got very low standards. I have to share with my brother. Belmarsh would be nice, if I was the only person in it.” He grinned.
“I thought you were – ” Michael stopped himself. He turned aside, hoping Francis wouldn’t notice he’d said anything. That was what happened when you let yourself talk: you started saying things you shouldn’t.

No-one should need an explanation of what Michael is thinking here, or at least, it is fun imagining what he might be thinking. But the reader is told, of course.

I don’t want a book that is a complete mystery or with characters whose motivation is never made clear but it would be good to have some murkiness around and it was a shame that we never saw further use of the Judas Floor after its first appearance. That said, this book delivers a pretty good exploration of the crippling effects of playing the traitor game.

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Philip Reeve: Starcross [Feb. 5th, 2008|07:51 am]
As the second volume of Mr Philip Reeve’s outstanding steam-punk novels ("decorated throughout by Mr David Wyatt") was gifted to my second son this Christmas, I betook me to read it before he did, and accordingly write a report, advantageous in the extreme, as to its great worth and as to the hearty amusement found therein.

What a stunner, Mr Reeve!

I’ll drop the bad cod-Victoriana now, because I don’t do it half so well as these books: you are carried through on a delight of prose and sneaky witticism. Reeve has a good grounding in amusing names and references before now but the end papers of the book give us advertisements for “The Precocious Dane by Merrily Webb” and “Lembitt’s EnviroGlade – Combining the latest in Atmospheric Engineering”; and somewhere in the later chapters, as our heroes speed through the asteroid belt,

[they] let an unknown blue planetoid slide past, on whose surface small mouse-like beings were leaning out of lidded craters to shake their woolly fists at us, demanding to know if we were blind, and whether we thought we owned the aether. As their indignant whistlings and hootings faded astern….

All in all, it’s fantabulous rip-roaring aadventures in the Victorian space-age, with bewhiskered villains, adventuring youthful space-pirates, and our main protagonists Art(hur) and Myrtle Mumby. In the first volume – Larklight – there was danger and space spiders running amok in the Crystal Palace; and in this, parasitical creatures called Moobs who are spreading their mind-control of the human race by disguising themselves as highly desirable top hats. Control of the story is in Art’s hands mostly, although it occasionally passes to Myrtle, who though genteel, manages to discover a talent for putting the right mixtures in the alembic resulting in “the chemical wedding” which drives the space ship’s engine.

Of course the right wins through in the end. Art and Myrtle’s mother has her own mysterious part to play: she is an ancient being who created our Solar System, and is very much in the same lines as Mother Carey in Kingsley’s Water Babies (who says “I make things make themselves”. As JM mentions above, in the first book she explains she is a Shaper, who came into being at the dawn of the universe, to help usher forth life in the cosmos. The theology is slight, only a sentence or two, but interestingly included:

“If it is you Shapers who make everything,” Mr Munkulus asked, “what place is there for God?”

“Think, dear,” said Mother,” Who made the Universe and lit the suns? Who shaped the Shapers? For Shapers are not gods, just servants of that invisible universal will which set the stars in motion…”

Recommended: an absolutely fantastic and jolly amusing read for all ages – but especially those aged 9 and up.

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Philip Reeve: Here Lies Arthur [Feb. 5th, 2008|07:48 am]
A political leader needing a spin-doctor to help his career, to boost his image as the saviour of the nation; the stab of brutal fact glossed by the glitter of the decorations on the knife blade as it goes in; a man willing to out-tyrant the tyrants and subjugate all territories to his lazy rule: this is the ostensibly the figurehead of myth and ancient British history in Here Lies Arthur but he is not the hero we have read of before. Adding his own interpretation to the Arthurian mix Philip Reeve pulls in all kinds of contemporary resonances which don't jar at all in this Dark Age setting: here Merlin is Myrddin, the draggled bard who creates the ‘story’ of Arthur to people willing to listen and believe in a chieftain clouded about by magical happenings and great feats of battle. Old tales elide into one newone, crafted especially by Mryddin as propaganda which will allow Arthur, as uninspiring and thuggish a warlord as any other from the West Country, to dominate the region and (theoretically) beat back the Saxons to England’s eastern shore and away.

But Reeve gives us this story not from Arthur or Merlin's mouth, but from the sidelines, from Myrddin’s ‘tool’, an orphaned girl, Gwyna. According to her age and her master’s requirements, she spends her years in the book disguised as a boy, then as a serving-girl of Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), Arthur’s lovelorn wife. Gwyna’s is the slender hand that uplifts the legendary sword Caliburn from a wooded lake, staged by Myrddin to persuade the local warriors that the pagan gods, as well as Arthur’s Christian God, are on his side. The superstitious goes hand in hand with the new religion in these times, and their blunt savagery is superbly exposed in the writing. Reeve reworks some of the stories a little: Gwenhwyfar betrays her cold husband for a slip of a youth, Bedwyr (a prototype of Bedivere); and Gwyna finds her own Percival – Peredur – who, like Gwyna, has been brought up similarly cross-gendered, as a girl, to protect his life. There is no Round Table (although the notion is suggested by Cei (Kay), and very little nobility to be seen: Gwenhwyfar possesses a refined dignity until she is undone by her adultery; Cei (usually a bumbling figure in Arthurian tales) is more thoughtful and kind here; also the figure of Medrawt (Mordred) is more sympathetic and his putative rebellion against Arthur a valiant attempt to unseat a bullying tyrant.

The use of Welsh for names and places serves to slightly distance the myth the reader knows from the story given here, but it was a distraction all the same and I found myself thinking “Merlin” when I saw Myrddin (and for the other names) because it was easier than pronouncing the Welsh in my head. The descriptions are truly lush and serve the book perfectly: not overdone at all; and what I found the whole experience reminded me of, was something like John Christopher’s Prince in Waiting trilogy: it had tons of early Briton atmosphere, it had character and depth and a slow pace that was not primarily concerned with ‘event’. A superb read, and especially good since it warns against the susceptibilities of people to believe whatever the political machine tells them.

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Jenny Downham: Before I Die [Aug. 14th, 2007|04:24 pm]
There are few spoilers needed for a book called Before I Die, few warnings either that you’re going to slowly become immured by the text until with the inevitable ending, you are choked by tears. Inevitable because the narrator is certainly on the last stages of her life’s journey and is meticulously planning what can and can’t be managed within the last limits of her days: a ticky list of experiences (drugs, driving, sex are the predictable ones at the outset), not least of which is “falling in love”. This list is both the most artificial and most authentic engine for the action in the book and never fails until 16 yr old Tessa leaves the pages.

The narration, as first-person, forces us up close with Tessa, breathing alongside her (even for her, at times), immersed in her head and alongside her incredibly adult thinking. Arguably this could be where some readers might find the credibility wanes – Tessa seems able to express some of the truths that are barely graspable in seventy or eighty years of life, and with a readiness that still struggles to understand more, know more, experience more.

The narrative voice is certainly that of a young woman but as the balance of life tips, the dispossession of it invites a counterpoint of self-possession in the narration. The words and spaces on the page become more spare and also more telling in the closing chapters, Tessa’ voice more distinctive and sharpened, but also less like herself as she sheds the world. Yet somehow we are kept emotionally connected throughout the slow disintegration of connections in Tessa’s life and body. Throughout Tessa searches for and finds life and death in miniscule – her best friend’s pregnancy, the arrival of winter, old holiday graffiti which has been painted over – and senses the full vibrancy and energy of life, tasting it herself. Rather predictably for these times, there is no mention of God or the afterlife, other than in a brief exchange with a nurse and references to the yawning emptiness of the cosmos – it is the life lived here and now that is being relayed, and that is where its truth can be found: in the friendships and loves Tessa has amongst her family and friends, the in-loved-ness too.

This is a tremendous book for any teenager to read (and any adult too): it is not sentimental or schmaltzy, not overburdened with words or explanations or introspection (which when it comes, comes in slivers that are not too laced with poignancy). It was well worth the rush into publication that made David Fickling contract two years into six months of editing and promotion.

***** (Five stars)
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Melvin Burgess: Bloodtide & Bloodsong [Aug. 14th, 2007|04:22 pm]
There are some very good reasons why Melvin Burgess’ books ought to come with Parental Advisory stickers: they’re a stand-out in the YA landscape for touching on 18 certificate material and blowing the more discreet or edgy teen fare out of the water. Junk told the story of kids bunking from home to live in a squat, and getting hooked on heroin, with all the expected attendant misery and trouble; Lady: My Life as a Bitch was the tale of a girl metamorphosed into a female dog, exploring teenage pack-dom and hormonal sex obsession via the means of a stray female dog on heat. Doing It was the controversial account of sex-obsessed teen boys, one of whom is having an affair with his teacher, describing their wants and needs and feelings in the most explicit terms.

In amongst these eternal themes of teendom, across seven years Burgess wrote his two-book saga – Bloodtide and Bloodsong – based on the Icelandic Volsunga saga which tells of Sigmund, his son Sigurd (Siegfired), Brunhilde, the dragon Fafnir and the interferences of Odin amongst the doings of men. Some of the modern ‘issues’ of under-age sex and drugs are left behind and in their place, Burgess puts blood-feuds, revenge, power-lust, incest, genetic modification and apocalypse: a far more vibrant and heady mix and utterly compulsive (if not a little queasy-making).

Sigmund and co. are translated to a post-apocalyptic London, infested with poverty and disease and its gang-wars walled in both literally and also by a fifty-mile exclusion zone in which live the Half-Breeds, predominantly mutant human-pig, human-dog and human-monkey creatures that savage anything that comes in their path but who we discover have more humanity to them than is initially presented. Science is at work in both books, creating Womb Tanks which can grow adult clones within months or rebuild wrecked bodies, and whole living cities that live underground, but gods also walk this earth, one-eyed Odin fixing the sword of destiny from where only its true owner can draw it, as well as mystical daughters of Loki who can shape-shift. It is the darkest sci-fi films and magazines, and fantasy sagas, all rolled together with the force of the strongest epic poetry. And the blood-loss is unstinting and frequently grotesque (did I say how much I loved these books?) – Sigmund’s brothers are eaten alive by an insane porcine hybrid, his sister Signy’s hamstrings are sliced by her new husband so that her legs wither and she cannot escape the marriage bed of the warlord to whom her father sacrificed her in a vain attempt at a peace treaty.

Bloodtide is a more straggling read than its sequel, which is more focussed on the tighter storyline of Sigurd killing the dragon and forsaking his beloved Brunhilde. When I was young I never got over the confusion of trying to understand the Nordic myths and legends, and the complicated variations on names that arise, so along with Wynne Jones' Eight Days of Luke (for younger readers) and Patricia Elliott's inferior Ice Boy, this drew me into a mythological landscape I have avoided until now, and which was all the more fascinating for its futuristic slant.

***** (Five stars)

Edit: this is the kind of YA book that interests me - they are a rarity - where it demands an older readership than 13 yrs; this is also the age/territory of the YA stuff that I attempt to write.
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Whew - I don't pass by often enough... [Jun. 14th, 2007|01:52 pm]
To start off with, I can at least jot down the YA reads I've done this year so far:

Hitler's Canary - Sandi Toksvig
The Snakestone - Berlie Doherty
A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle
Aquarius - Jan Mark
Centre of My World - Andreas Steinhofel
Fly By Night - Frances Hardinge
Artemis Fowl & the Lost Colony - Eoin Colfer
Peter Pan in Scarlet - Geraldine McCaughrean
The Ennead - Jan Mark
The Book of Three - Lloyd Alexander
The Twelve & the Genii - Pauline Clarke
Gathering Blue - Lois Lowry
The Divide - Elizabeth Kay
The Greengage Summer - Rumer Godden
Set in Stone - Linda Newbery
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - John Boyne
The Amulet of Samarkand - Jonathan Stroud
The Eagle of the Ninth - Rosemary Sutcliff
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - CS Lewis
Twilight - Stephenie Meyer
Journey to the River Sea - Eva Ibbotson
The Silver Donkey - Sonya Hartnett
Endymion Spring - Matthew Skelton
Borderland - Rhiannon Lassiter
A Pure Swift Cry - Siobhan O'Dowd
Goodnight Mister Tom - Michelle Magorian
The Game - Diana Wynne Jones
Black Maria - Diana Wynne Jones
Nightrise - Anthony Horowitz
Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson

Obviously Aquarius is winning hands down as the best read. But The Greengage Summer and The Eagle of the Ninth (both lacking, though hunted for in my own childhood reading) were excellent reads, as is Treasure Island as usual. I was disappointed by The Divide, and by Endymion Spring and there was much about The Amulet of Samarkand I didn't like.

Roll on the next six months - but I might actually write some reviews from now on.
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Firsty Posty - again! [Apr. 23rd, 2007|02:04 pm]
[mood |sadsad]
[music |Buffy - Give Me Something to Sing About]

After a long attempt to get a YA forum off the ground, the Athenaeum has finally met a natural demise. A shame, seeing as what an absolutely fabulous parent site it had: Palimpsest Anyone looking for a warm and friendly book-reviewing community need look no further. Any YA book reviews I do will be posted there, as usual, along with all the other book/film/cultural talk.

Nethertheless, I'm hanging onto my Colyngbourne LJ hat, and will probably use this LJ for posting YA-related reviews etc.

*waves to Lizzy and Hazel and any other Palimpsesters lurking hereabouts*
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