Thursday, 6 October 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I can still remember my first viewing of the original Planet of the Apes.  It was relatively late – well, everyone else had gone to bed – and I don’t think I was much older than twelve.  This meant I was young enough to not actually notice the hammy Charlston Heston (teeth!) acting; the pretty naff special effects; the 60’s William-Shatner-has-just-discovered-something-shocking! style soundtrack.  But most importantly, I was young enough to not know anything about the ending.

These days it’s right there, on the DVD cover, which rather spoils it for newcomers, doesn’t it?  Or perhaps the age of the average DVD buyer means that the twist can already be guessed halfway through the film, anyway, as Marc rather superiorly informed me.  But I’ve always been a little dense when it comes to twists.  I hardly ever see them coming.  Which means my twelve-year-old self was gazing, utterly shocked, at the final shot of the beach with the statue in the background:  You mean he was on Earth the whole time?  Really?  OH MY GOD THAT’S SO CREEPY!!

 Then I turned the TV off and crept up to bed, where I lay awake thinking about it.

A few years later I watched the sequel, which sucked.  And a few years after that, I watched the Tim Burton version, which also sucked.  I think my main problem with the franchise since the first one is that there’s nothing surprising about them; nothing that makes your jaw actually hang open, with a fantastic I-didn’t-see-that-coming! feeling, while everyone around you also attempts to digest what has just unfolded before their eyes.  It’s something which requires a very clever filmmaker to achieve.

I wasn’t too interested when I heard about Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Like I said, I was pretty fed up with the entire franchise.  But then I decided to go see it, as a result of two things.  The first thing was my brother-in-law raving about it.  This in itself wouldn’t have persuaded me – he also thought that Wolverine was the best film of 2009.  But then I read the Empire review, and decided that maybe it was worth checking out.  Even so, I went in with my expectations pretty low.

 Well.  It’s not often that I come out of a film thinking that perhaps, just maybe, it’s worthy of the fabled five star rating.  It’s not often that I come out of a film totally satisfied with it, either; no glaring plot holes; no bits I wished had been cut; nothing, in fact, that I would change about it.  Perhaps I need to see it again to make sure, but for now, I feel fully justified in saying that Rise is almost certainly a five star film.

The plot is actually pretty simple.  Scientists are experimenting on apes in order to find a cure for Alzheimer’s.  These experiments make the apes more intelligent, especially one, called Bright Eyes (yes).  Disaster befalls the facility and it has to be shut down, all the apes killed except for one – Bright Eyes’ baby son, Caesar.  He is taken home by James Franco’s character, and basically raised as a son – matters complicated by the fact that Bright Eyes’ genetic mutation seems to have been passed onto her son.  After protecting his foster grandfather from a vicious neighbour, Caesar is impounded, meets other apes and plans a rebellion.  It’s a credit to the fantastic Andy Serkis CGI that by this point, the audience really does think of Caesar as almost human, and that this impounding is utterly unfair as he was behaving merely as any boy would to protect a beloved grandparent.

Once impounded his story really starts – he realises that he has been pampered, treated as a member of the family, while other apes are not.  They are treated horribly – Franco’s character is misled as to the true nature of the place, and Caesar wakes up to the reality of his situation with a nasty bump.  He also has to find a way to deal with the other apes, who aren’t necessarily good guys…

One of the things I loved about this film is how closely related it is to the original.  I absolutely loved the oblique reference to the lost ship of the original film.  I also liked how the characteristics of the different apes are similar.  So we’ve got the smart orang-utan Maurice (question: can they really be taught sign language?); the peace-loving chimpanzees; and the brutal gorillas.  While the terrifying Buck is absolutely loyal to Caesar, he still needs to be kept on a tight leash.

 So let’s get to the moment when the collective jaws of the audience hit the floor.  This is what I loved about the film; just one genuinely brilliant moment, when you can’t quite believe what you’ve just seen.  And the build up to it was brilliant, too.  While Tom Felton might well have been Draco Malfoy, one thing he certainly is not is Charlton Heston; and his rendition of ‘Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” made the cinema grin in an ironic way; yes, I suppose they had to get it in somewhere.  But then, with the next bit, you actually could have heard a pin drop.  Very, very clever filmmaking, creating a scenario right up there with a twelve-year-old staring at the Statue of Liberty on the TV screen, late at night.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Kevin Brooks 'Naked'

The thing about book-selling is that there are few things more embarrassing than not being able to recommend something to a customer.  It’s like that scene in You’ve got Mail when Meg Ryan goes into the big soul-sucking chain bookshop and she overhears a customer trying to find something and the poor bookseller she’s collared has no idea what she’s on about.  A while ago it occurred to me that my knowledge of teenage fiction was a little lacking, so I started reading a rather large amount of it.  Then I discovered that contrary to my certain previous convictions, I was actually starting to like it!  But that’s another story.  Of course, now I never get asked about teenage fiction.  Now it’s all recommendations for eight year olds! Anyway, something I hadn’t got around to yet was Kevin Brooks, so when a proof came in of his new book, Naked, I said yeah, I’ll read it, maybe even review it if I like it.

 I was being flippant.  As it turns out, I like it very much.  It’s a fantastic read and definitely makes me wonder if I now have absolutely any excuse not to pick up a copy of IBoy or Black Rabbit Summer.  Mind you, the subject matter of this one – music – is one I’ll always read about, no matter the author, so it was kinda sold to me anyway, wasn't it? 

It’s the story of a fictitious punk band in 1970’s London who conveniently enough start their band just as punk is beginning to take off.  The scene is painted in painstaking detail, including everything from a popular shop hangout to Jordon, the model who basically created the look.  We see Sid Vicious bouncing around like a lunatic, and that’s before he even joins the Sex Pistols.  And we are told that Naked are a band who are contemporaries of the Pistols.  They are, in fact, better than them.  And, had things not ended in tragedy, they could have been far, far bigger.

Music is, after friends and family, probably the most important thing in my life.  There are few things more beautiful; few things that can evoke such a strong reaction, bring to mind past experiences, or simply being just lovely for its own sake.  I can be sitting on the bus in a wet and drizzly traffic jam and have tears spring to my eyes simply because of something that’s coming out of my headphones.  Similarly, there’s something imminently satisfying about nailing a very difficult piece of music – or actually being told that you’re pretty good!

Paradoxically, there are few things I hate more than a bad piece of music.  Well, bad is relative, I suppose, but there’s certain types of music I can never get on board with.  One of these is the late-seventies punk movement.  And the annoying thing about this is that I probably should.  Without it, I’m sure the pop-punk stuff myself and my friends listened to when we were eighteen wouldn’t have come into being.  We certainly wouldn’t have come up with the idea of black clothes, pink hair and dog collars by ourselves.  But the difference, I think, is that the attitude has changed.   The stuff we listened to was fun.  It didn’t take itself too seriously, and was mostly about growing up and teenage problems (until our – whispers – nu-metal phase, but the less said about that the better…everyone did it, ok…).  But seventies punk was about getting angry – even if you didn’t actually have anything to be angry about.  I guess I find that irritating.

Which is why Curtis Ray, Naked’s central character, is so very, very annoying.  The funny thing is, since the story is told from the viewpoint of Lili, his girlfriend, he doesn’t start out as annoying.  At first the reader sees him exactly as she does – someone who is very, very cool.  He has long hair, an earring and a leather jacket!  He plays the guitar!  He is, in fact, the person who everyone fancied at school.  So when he asks her to play bass in his band, she readily agrees, and the reader automatically thinks that this is going to be a very sweet love story between two young musicians.

Well, not so much.  The start of the relationship is a little disappointing – for the reader and for Lili, who realises immediately that there’s a difference between imagining falling in love, being with somebody you’ve dreamed about, and the reality.

“It just changed things so much.  It changed the way I saw Curtis.  It made me realise that – in one way, at least – he wasn’t any different to other boys.”

It soon becomes clear to the reader that Curtis is far fonder of music than he is of Lili.  Not that he should be judged too harshly for this – I was always more interested in music than I was in boyfriends.  But there are also hints that she doesn’t quite live up to his expectations of what his girlfriend should be.  She doesn’t dress as ‘extremely’ as he would like.  He certainly spends too much time drooling over girls half-naked in bondage gear.  He also slowly but surely becomes a drug addict, which is horrible to read about – there’s been far too many musicians over the years wasting incredible talents in this way.

Something that Brooks taps into extremely well is the very reason why seventies punk is so irritating to me – the fact that many of these musicians actually had nothing to be so rebellious about.  Curtis comes from a middle-class family.  He is passionate about punk music – there is absolutely no doubt about that – but he believes he doesn’t belong because of his background, and perhaps he has a point when you consider the Sex Pistols’ working class roots.

“It was almost as if he resented the fact that he hadn’t been born poor, so he didn’t really have anything to rage against.  He knew, deep down, that his rebelliousness had no cause, and he blamed his parents for that.”

So when the reader is introduced to William Bonney, it’s like a bit of fresh air – for both Lili and the reader.  He’s from Belfast.  His working-class – yet initially happy – childhood was blighted by horrendous conflict between Loyalists and Republicans.  When we meet him, both his parents are dead, and he, his brother and stepmother Nancy are living in this country slightly illicitly.  He actually has something to be angry about – but he never is.  While he will use violence when the band is threatened, and while he is IRA-sympathetic, he absolutely abhors the idea of harming innocent people.

“Part of me still believes in what my dad believes in, that it’s a war, and that we have a right to fight back…but the thing is…I don’t want anyone to get hurt.  I don’t want anyone else to get killed.  It’s just not right.”

There’s also the fact that while he is a natural musician, and loves the punk scene almost as much as Curtis, he loves his family – and, eventually, Lili – more.  While Curtis spends his band earnings on drink and drugs, William would rather spend his on paying Nancy’s rent.  It’s this conflict between his two interests which leads, eventually, to the end of the band – and tragedy.

If there is one criticism I would make with the book, it’s that of Lili’s character.  I’m afraid she suffers from Bella Swan syndrome.  I don’t actually know anything about her, other than her own terrible home life, and the fact that she likes music.  Which means she’s defined by the men she dates, really.  She never mentions other friends – or other interests – which is a shame as it means that, as a character, she’s rather one-dimensional.  But it’s still a fantastic read, and I would love to see a film made out of it.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Young Adult Dystopia

Something which has been showing up on my radar quite prominently recently is the volume of young adult dystopia available right now.  I am certain this is not a recent phenomenon, but it's something I'm finding myself reading more and more of.  It's science fiction, which I don't usually enjoy reading as much as fantasy (which is funny, as generally I prefer science fiction on film and TV more than when fantasy reaches these mediums!).  But there isn't as much (or, indeed, any) techno babble as there is in 'adult' sci-fi literature, which might be part of the appeal.  There's also the fact that unlike 'paranormal romance', the romance is secondary to the main plot.  It's there because it needs to be - teenagers are going to fancy one another - but the plot is always first and foremost the study of how human society might be in the near future.  And it's never a bright, shiny, happy place.  It's always dark, gritty, depressing.  And for some reason, it's very, very popular.

I, for one, absolutely LOVE it.  I would worry about what this says about my personality, but since I'm definitely not alone in this, I won't spend too much time fretting over it.

I think Suzanne Collins with The Hunger Games trilogy probably does it best.  The plot is simple - children are forced to participate in a yearly gladiatorial arena until there is one candidate left alive.  The entire thing is broadcast to the nation.  It's war meets reality TV.  And there is nothing, with the exception of the very end, which isn't bleak about every single page.  The only thing I didn't like about the plot is the unprecedented reaction provoked by the main protagonist Katniss volunteering to take her sister's place in the arena: surely anyone would do this for a younger sibling, yet we are told this has never happened before.  But this really is nitpicking, and I should apologise.

One thing Collins does exceptionally well is the romance.  It's utterly believable.  Katniss has two boys (almost, although it is never a love triangle - so prosaic!) competing for her attentions, yet there is never any doubt over who she will end up with.  It is stated that this will be the person she can't live without.  Peeta has kept her alive, but more importantly, has kept her sane.  He has endured countless horrors for her.  More importantly he is her exact antithesis.  Where she is filled with uncontrollable anger, he is calm, controlled and serene, despite the despicable society he is forced to live in.  Her immediate response to anything is to fight: he strives to find other solutions.  There's nothing romantic about their relationship; it's nothing less than a mutual necessity for survival.  They are meant for each other in a way which makes Bella and Edward seem like a couple on their first date.

The Hunger Games is very obviously an evil society.  But dystopian fiction works just as well when on the surface, everything seems good and right.  I recently finished Matched by Ally Condie.  Suzanne Collins doesn't do subtle.  Condie does, and to brilliant effect.  It's a society where the main feature is that the government decides who you should marry.  You're matched with someone because you share every element of compatibility possible, based on every statistic available.  I am not in any way endorsing arranged marriages, but this does make a lot of sense.  Generally, the society does seem happy.  The main character, Cassia, is happy with her match - more than happy.  It's her best friend, Xander, the one person she knows the best.  He is good natured, easy going, and can make her laugh.  But then she begins to develop feelings for someone else.

The trouble is, arranging (or controlling) marriages is not the only thing decided by the government.  The characters are also told where they should work, how many children they can have, how much they should eat, even when they die.  Even things like art and music are controlled - there are a hundred types of every sort, and this is the only choice available.  It is utterly prohibited for Cassia and Ky to fall in love - and yet they still do.  It is slow, delicate, subtle - it has to be - and yet utterly moving.

The interesting thing, is eventually Cassia uncovers the truth - the government meant for her to fall for Ky over Xander.  It was all a horrible experiment using real people.  It is tragic, and yet, it makes you think - isn't this saying that yes, actually, you can find your perfect mate using statistics?  Is the society right all along? 

I'm looking forward to Crossed, the sequel, out in November, mainly because this is going to be narrated by Ky as well as Cassia.  It'll be good to read a different perspective on things - especially someone who was treated perhaps rather worse by the society than even she was.

I also read (a few months before publication!) a proof of Veronica Roth's Divergent, and then (very nicely) gave it to a friend & colleague to read.  It's been compared to The Hunger Games, but this certainly is not accurate, and I would strongly advise against buying it on this basis.  I think it actually owes far more to Harry Potter.  Society is divided into four factions, each based on a particular virtue, and children choose at the age of sixteen where they want to be.  For some, this means choosing the same faction as their parents and continuing life as normal.  For others, it means being true to who they are (or think they are), and choosing to go elsewhere, leaving everything they know - and indeed love.

It's a pretty neat concept.  You can see the Harry Potter similarity, where children also have to decide at a young age where they want to be in society, which often conflicts between who their family is, and who they want to be as individuals.  (What, you thought the sorting hat chooses the houses?  I don't think so.  I think in most cases, the young witches and wizards choose where they want to be...)  It's also a good read as Tris goes through her Dauntless training - they seem to have confused bravery with recklessness and physical prowess, and the new recruits do not have an easy time going through initiation.

The second part of the novel sees Tris and her love interest, Four, discovering a plot within the society - one faction is supposed to venerate intelligence but actually craves power, and manipulates Dauntless in order to destroy another faction - that of Tris' parents, who are currently in charge of the government (who else would be best to rule than the selfless?).  That's a clever set up - especially as Tris' brother is a member of this faction.  There's also a fair amount of tragedy and violence before the end.

I'm not sure how dystopian Divergent actually is, though.  The society does seem to function relatively happily.  Problems only start when a few people get power hungry.  Also: is it saying that intelligence - especially en masse - will lead to evil?  Should we be keeping an eye on those Ravenclaws?

One of the great things about being a bookseller is the chance to have a look at proof copies.  And so I'm going to tell you all about Legend, the debut of a new author called Mary Lu, which is out in December.

There are times, very, very rarely in the book publishing world, when very, very exciting things happen.  A book is snapped up by an agent.  It's then not only auctioned, but an auction which is highly contested!  Film rights are purchased by the producers of Twilight before the book's even published!  And, what is more, it is very, very heavily marketed.

Of course, it helps matters when the author is 'highly promotable'.  And as you can see, Marie Lu is, ah, very, very promotable.  She's also smart in a way which leaves most people wondering if they should even bother leaving the house.  She's set up a Legend facebook game!  And, from what I can deduce, an online forum where you can ROLEPLAY within the Legend world!  Even though the book isn't even out yet!!

This has happened before.  Didn't The Left Hand of God receive an extensive marketing campaign?  And yet, it is actually pretty rare for me to stop reading a book after the first few chapters simply because I'm bored by it, as I did in that case.  But Lu is clearly a very, very smart person who can easily promote her own material.

It doesn't matter.  It's going to be huge either way.

And deservedly so, certainly.  It's a great read.  It's not the best thing I've ever read, and there are better books out there which didn't recieve an extensive marketing campaign, but I would say it will probably live up to the hype.  Apparantly it is 'loosely based on' Les Miserables, but since I have neither read nor watched this, I can't comment.  It follows the basic premise that North America (question: are there any dystopias set in the UK nowadays?) has become a Republic, tightly controlled by the government, in a near constant war with an enemy simply referred to as 'the Colonies'.  There are also hints that the past has been forcibly repressed, and that it is, indeed, a myth to many people now.

The government also forces people to sit a trial at the age of ten, which determines their entire future.  How well you can advance in society is entirely dependant on how well you do in your trial.  June is a young prodigy.  From a wealthy family, she passed her trial with the highest possible score - almost unheard of.  She has also been somewhat brainwashed - she has been spoon-fed a tale of the glorious Republic she lives in, and even her acts of rebellion against her teachers are all to the good of her society.

However, she is a slightly tragic figure in that her parents are dead, and she is being raised by her older brother, Metias, a young man who also (appears) to support the Republic wholeheartedly, but manages to be caring, considerate and absolutely doting on his younger sister.  It is clear that everything in his life is devoted to caring for her, and it does bring a lump to your throat.

Meanwhile, Day, a young Robin Hood type justice seeker, failed his trial.  He was, like other failed candidates, sent to a work camp - or rather, this is the story told to his family, and indeed to society at large.  We are given hints as to where he was really sent before the reveal at the end - a particularly unpleasant scenario, if a little unoriginal (hint: Eoin Colfer had the same idea.  Along with lots of other authors).  Day is also from a poor family.  Funnily enough, it's the lower classes who are most likely to fail their trial.  Did we mention that June is from a wealthy family?

The story opens with Day finding out that his brother is possibly dying of the plague, an illness which crops up from time to time - among the working class.  The wealthy are immunised.  He plans a raid on a hospital in order to find some cures.  While escaping, he is stopped by a young soldier...called Metias.  Now, everything Day does to target the Republic is to cause chaos and confusion.  He never kills people.  He hurls a knife - at Metias' shoulder - and runs away.

June is informed that her brother is dead.  She is told to examine the body, and she cannot fail to notice the knife - sticking out of his chest.  She is then graduated from school early and told that her first assignment is to track down Day.  She readily agrees.  However, on this assignment she and Day both discover truths about the society they are forced to live in.

An especially effective writing method is the use of dramatic irony.  I love it.  I think it makes for fantastic reading.  The reader knows that Day cannot have killed Metias.  However, June is convinced that he did.  Why wouldn't she be?  And the reader believes she is absolutely right to want revenge against the person who took away everything she holds dear.

However, you also know that she's been manipulated and manoeuvred into her first assignment.  While it might stretch the imagination to believe that a sixteen year old new recruit would, as her first job, be told to track down someone who has spent years evading the Republic, you need to remember that the Republic probably doesn't really expect her to succeed.  They've spotted an opportunity to use her (and how horrible is it that, in her grief-stricken state, they expect her to examine the body?).  And who knows, she might pull it off.  Prodigy, remember?  It brings to mind a sixteen-year-old Draco Malfoy given an impossible task by Voldemort: what has he got to lose?

Part of the joy of reading Legend is that you know the twist.  The fun part is watching the characters come to realise it.  You also wonder who did kill Metias, and I have to admit, this one, I didn't see coming.

So: great set up.  I'm already looking forward to reading the next one, although it's probably too early to ask for a proof before a book's even been written!  I'd be interested in learning more about the Colonies, who are referred to but never appear on screen.  I'd also like to see more of the rebels, an organisation mentioned but never really seen on page.

I'd tell you to go out and buy it, but there's no point.  You'll probably see it everywhere.  And in a few years, you'll probably go and see the film.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

X-Men: First Class

Despite being a science fiction and fantasy fan, I am not a reader of comic books. The only ones I do own (and indeed read) are of the Buffy variety. While it would doubtless be something that would interest me, I have just never summoned the enthusiasm necessary to start. This is very odd, because I enjoy the films, especially the X-Men films. I even liked Wolverine!

Purists might complain that this is rather like professing a love for the Harry Potter films without reading the books. Actually, they would be right. Unfortunately, I don't care.

I loved First Class. I thought it was the best of the lot. But funnily enough, I don't think I would have enjoyed it quite so much if I hadn't seen the earlier ones. This is a shame for the film makers, who have called it a 'reboot' to, I suppose, justify the continuity problems (more on that later). Because, although I'm sure newbies will like the film, they won't get this feeling: the indescribable satisfaction that comes from the knowledge that, yes, James McAvoy is a young Patrick Stewart; and, what is more, Michael Fassbender is a young Ian McKellen! They've achieved something which the fans of Star Wars believed was promised to them by the prequels, especially with that trailer, 'Anakin Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi', but was never...quite...delivered. (Don't get me wrong. I like the Star Wars prequels. I think they're on a par with the originals. But I was never a big fan of the originals anyway. But I understand that the 'original' fans were somewhat annoyed, and so my point remains.)

I will be honest. I've been a little bit in love with McAvoy ever since he played that dude with the horns and a nerdy scarf. But I can be objective, and say that yes, his portrayal of Xavier made me believe that Patrick Stewart is capable of using the word 'groovy'. It's also the simple Britishness of the man I love (question: what was his family doing living in America?). The scenes set in Oxford were gorgeous - although they just cut out my place of work (all right, it was on the other side of the road). This is a man who uses his knowledge of genetics as a chat up line; worries about disturbing his hair when he first uses Cerebro; but is also capable of a head-masterly seriousness, combined with an ability to bring out the absolute best in others, because he is, first and foremost, a teacher. In this regard McAvoy is following in the footsteps of Patrick Stewart - a wise move, since he got it dead right (Stewart should have been cast as Dumbledore, but Xavier is definitely cut from the same cloth. Can you just imagine Dumbledore actually stopping time in order to teach his wayward fire-obsessed pupils a lesson?). The 'training' scenes were an absolute joy to watch. Yes, they were cheesy, but not clich├ęd. The split screens were a throwback, but a clever one.

"Hit the target and not me, there's a good chap!"

Fassbender is, easily, my favourite character from Inglourious Basterds; he was brilliant with what little screen-time he had.

"Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don't mind if I go out speaking the King's."

It's funny that there's scenes in First Class that wouldn't have looked out of place in Inglourious Basterds, but without the grim humour Tarantino excels at. Both the bar and bank scenes were brilliantly done - all justified anger with undercurrents of almost disturbing menace. When you consider how Magneto is played by McKellan, it's astonishing that Fassbender gives the character such sympathy. Here is someone you can almost root for. Almost.

His scenes with McAvoy are, really, the whole point of the film, and they're beautifully done. Here are two people whose backgrounds could not be more different, but both have access to a remarkable power; who have to forge a friendship if they're to be the 'good guys' in this entirely new world.

"More tea, vicar?"

I think my favourite scenes were when they were tracking down all the 'mutants', mainly for a cameo which actually made me squeal with excitement; enough so that my objection at it did not seem to matter: namely, that someone who has lived in a concentration camp WOULD NOT have given up so easily, no matter how many 'Go fuck yourself!'s were growled at him. It's best, I think, not to go down the road of, 'But they could have made such a difference to his life!'

Quibbles are very, very minor. Angel, for example. I didn't really 'get' why she would have changed sides so very easily, especially after one of her friends is killed. I also don't quite understand Mystique. While she was played very, very well by Jennifer Lawrence, now making me even more excited for The Hunger Games, I don't really see why she has such a problem with who she is. She has probably the coolest power out there, and yes, her real appearance is a little on the bizarre side, but it's not like she's stuck with it, unlike some others. In fact, who's to say that is her 'real' appearance? Surely whichever skin she's most comfortable in (mentally as well as physically) should be the reality? While we're on the quibbles, let's mention the discrepancies: if that really is Storm during the excellent Cerebro scene, she'd be quite a bit older by the start of the first film than Halle Berry really looks. Also, I'm fairly sure Xavier wasn't in a wheelchair for the flashback at the start of X-3.

However, quibbles are not something I'll focus on. It's a great film, and I'm already looking forward to buyinthe DVD.

Monday, 27 June 2011


Generally, my reading matter falls into two categories: my lunchtime book, and my bus/home book.  The former is generally something I have picked off the shelf in the shop, and sits on my desk, to be read during breaks from selling the things.  It usually takes me about a week to finish, and means I can read two books at the same time.

Sometimes, however, not often, I come across something which I have to buy.  I can't confine it merely to an hour a day, I need to own it, carry it around with me wherever (and whenever) I go, devour it at every waking opportunity.  Such was the case with Michael Grant's Gone.

Allow me to provide a little bit of context.  A few weeks ago my husband arrived home with a sheepish expression clutching the small block of flats which is The Wise Man's Fear.  If you know anything about fantasy, this is the release of the year, along with A Dance with Dragons and Republic of Thieves.  All three of these are written by authors who like to keep their readers impatiently waiting and guessing to the extent which might even make J K Rowling feel slightly guilty.  We arrived late to the party as far as The Name of the Wind is concerned, but we were still pretty keen to read the sequel.

I read the first few chapters, up until Kvothe resumes his narrative, before grudgingly handing it back over to Marc.  "It's OK," I thought to myself.  "He bought it, he should get to read it first.  And anyway, I still have Blood Magic to finish and review."

Marc finished it pretty quickly.  He's a fast reader, and anyway, if you've read either of his books, you'll know how very, very addictive Rothfuss' writing is.  Marc then passed it to me, and I spent a weekend reading the first hundred pages or so.

But then, the following Monday, I picked up a copy of Gone for my 'lunch time' book.  Big mistake.  "Aah..." I thought.  "It's going to be one of those."

Yes, you read that right.  Kvothe has a curse on him!  He's trying to find the sygaldry necessary for protection!  But, nonetheless, I gave this up in order to read Gone.

"You mean all the adults?  They're gone?"
"Poof.  They ditched.  They blinked out.  They vacated.  They took the off-ramp.  They cut a hole.  They emigrated.  Adults and teenagers.  Nothing left but kids."

Comparisons can, of course, be made to Lord of the Flies:  this is a study of just how cruel children can be to one another once adult influence has departed.  There's also an X-Men element too, as some of the children begin to develop strange powers.

There's certainly a Lord of the Flies-reminiscent central couple.  Sam is the charismatic natural leader who everybody looks to in a crisis, mainly because he is the only person capable of responding immediately to a crisis.  He has at his side Astrid, who is the smart, rational voice of reason.  Their relationship is brilliantly written - sweet, tender and always believable.

"You're not the others."
"No?  Why?"
"Because I love you."

Not that Ralph and Piggy had quite this relationship, but judging by the sheer volume of slash fanfiction that's out there, you could be mistaken for thinking otherwise.

Meanwhile, Caine is also charismatic.  He also displays many of the symptoms of a psychopath.  Sam becomes a leader because he has to; Caine uses the bizzare, terrifying situation they're in as a clever excuse to seize power.  He's excellent in a crisis: he has the cold, calculating ability to instantly come to terms with a situation, and twist it to his advantage.  He has at his side Diana, who is just as cold.  She's almost as smart as Astrid; they even share a very similar power.  Diana and Caine's relationship is in fact the very antithesis of Astrid's and Sam's.

"You're scared of me after all, Diana.  All your attitude, and underneath it, you're scared.  Well, I don't want to seem like a pathetic little kid going for his first kiss, so how about you just give me what I want?"

Not that Jack and Roger had quite this relationship, but judging by the sheer volume of slash fanfiction that's out there, you could be mistaken for thinking otherwise.

(Look, we all read and indeed write fanfiction at some point in our lives, OK?  Even if it's the tale of how your fifth level ogre barbarian became a vegetarian*, it's still fanfiction!)

The scariest character however is Drake, Caine's primary henchman.  This is someone who takes cruelty to a new level.  He comes up with ideas that other people simply can't.  The most disturbing scenes in the book come from him.  Genuinely frightening, however, is when the children become aware of the Darkness.  It's not really explained or described; it's something hiding in the dark, terrifying both animals and people.  Drake, however, manages to make a deal with it.  Not even Lord of the Flies' Jack went this far - although he did come close.  More to the point, the Darkness realises that it can use Drake, too.

"Ah.  I have found a much better teacher for you."

The story of Gone is principally setting up a situation, and the immediate fallout from this situation.  All the adults are gone, and the whole town has been cut off by a spherical forcefield, just to ram home the point that they're entirely on their own.  There's also the fact that animals seem to be mutating, developing special powers alongside the children.

"What is it?"
"A flying snake."
"Oh, that's good, because I was starting to think we didn't have enough to worry about." 

It's a situation which can bring out the best in people.  I wouldn't want you thinking this is just a story about children being nasty to one another.  Mary and her little brother John immediately recognise that the very young children will need looking after, and appoint themselves to this tremendously difficult task.  Of course they're too young to really know what they're doing, leading to the utterly tragic scene whereby the result of not making sure everyone was accounted for comes to horrible fruition.

I also have a soft spot for Albert, who sets himself up in the MacDonald's very early on, as a way to make sure people can always have something to eat.  But it's more than that - he recognises that in this new society, nobody has any goals; nobody contributes.  Children are just sitting around doing very little.  There is no economy.  One of the few wry scenes in the book contains Albert going along to the library and doing research in order to explain his disquiet to himself:

"This was just like following hyperlinks, but slower."

There's also the central friendship between Sam and his best friend Quinn, which suffers as Sam spends more time with first Edilio, another person good in a crisis, and then Astrid.  Quinn is someone I have a lot of sympathy for.  He's brave, but unfortunately has a high level of self-preservation which prevents him from intervening in situations where Sam and Edilio have no such qualms, despite the risks to themselves.  This leads to him being isolated from his friends, as they look down on him for cowardice.  Perhaps this is justifiable, but it certainly makes for uncomfortable reading - what would most people do in these situations?  If a bully is given the power to essentially beat somebody to unconsciousness, it takes a very strong person to intervene. 

I'm absolutely desperate to read Hunger, the next book in the series.  I must finish The Wise Man's Fear first, though.  This is rather like being told I have to finish my Ben and Jerry's ice cream before I can have my Haagen Daz!

*I don't think I need to give credit where it's due...there are only five other people in the world who know to which I refer!

Sunday, 26 June 2011

CRYPT: The Gallows Curse

First of all, let's get one thing out of the way.  Yes, Andrew Hammond has a brother who happens to be a presenter on a car show, with a fondness for leather jackets and motorbikes.  Yes, his main character, Jud Lester, is a dark-haired young man with a fondness for leather jackets and motorbikes.  There is no point in making these sorts of comparisons, but I suppose it is inevitable, human nature being what it is...

Ahem.  My ineloquent point, is let's judge something on its own merits, rather than its connections.  At least, we shall try.

There is a lot to like about 'The Gallows Curse', the first in a new series.  A millionaire is devastated by the loss of his wife at the hands of ghosts, and the subsequent arrest and incarceration of his son, wrongly accused of the crime.  In response he sets up an organisation designed to investigate paranormal activity, comprising of teenage agents, because they can detect things which adults can't.  To be perfectly honest, I'm not entirely sure why this is.

Comparisons have already been made to the CHERUB series, which I'm not entirely comfortable with.  Firstly, the agents of CHERUB are children.  They start basic training at ten years old.  Even by this point, most of them have a good understanding of martial arts.  Some have the basics of a second language.  In contrast, CRYPT agents are recruited at age sixteen.  They are legally adults.  However, the main difference is that Muchamore is rather more gifted at world building.  He has stated that he dislikes the quote on the covers which reads, 'You'll completely wish it was true.'  But the truth is, this is because it is completely believable.  Muchamore has put so much thought into his secret organisation - the basic training, the mission briefs, the headquarters, the history.  There's even an ethics committee!  He makes it as easy as possible for the reader to suspend their disbelief.
CRYPT?  Not so much.  There's a mention of visiting schools in order to find the brightest, most promising potential agents.  There's not much mention of the training received - just a reference to 'poring over books' and 'simulations'.  Agents are not given full briefs, simply told, 'this has happened, go check it out'.  There's mention of MI5, but not quite on the level of CHERUB.  However the thing that bothered me the most is the element of secrecy.

There is none.  Muchamore builds a world where officially, his agents do not exist.  Only two people are automatically aware of it - the prime minister, and the head of the security services.  MI5 agents go through rigorous security checks before they are told about it, and only then when it's absolutely necessary.  The reason it works is because it lacks credibility.  James Adams is told very early on, should you leave, who would believe you?

CRYPT has none of this.  The public are told that paranormal investigators are on the case.  Jud's face even turns up on the front covers of the papers!  Now I don't know anything about the security services, but even I know that this should be the end of his career!  Something like this is even referenced to have actually happened in the CHERUB series.

While we're touching on the negativity, I'll mention Jud's back story.  He's accused of the murder of his mother, and is sent to a young offender's institution.  I'm sorry, but I don't buy that a fourteen-year-old would be accused of something like this without a shred of evidence beyond the circumstantial.  I also didn't really like the attempt to give ghosts a scientific explanation.  I didn't understand it, or the 'ghost busting' equipment used.  Perhaps I'm being thick.  Or perhaps I just prefer the idea that ghosts cannot be explained in a rational sense.  They're not, they're spiritual.  They are here for a reason, but it's personal to them.  I understand what Hammond's trying to do - appeal to the Young Bond fans with fancy equipment which only the science nerds fully understand.  But I don't think it's needed.  It's explained that CRYPT agents already have a sensory perception which is the most important item in their arsenal.  For the most part, James Adams got by on his brains and sheer nerve.  I'm struggling to remember if he ever had fancy equipment.  The only thing I can think of is that (admittedly very clever) stab-proof clothing.  But even then we weren't given long descriptions of how it worked...

I think that now might be a good time to move on to the positives.  The central plot is cleverly written, and I like the way in which the story lines of the ghosts all come together.  Questions are raised and answered in a manner imminently satisfying.  The main villain, Zakis, does stray into comic book territory, but he's perfectly boo-able (are there really people in the world that unpleasant?).  There's also political intrigue in corrupt politicians and bent police officers.  Well done to Hammond for having humans, not ghosts, be the real villains in the story.

Not that this should suggest that the ghosts aren't villainous.  They are.  One of the best things about the book are the descriptions of the ghosts.  They're gruesome, terrifying beings.  Hammond certainly does not stint on the blood, gore and gross-out factor.  Others are immeasurably sad.  One manages to be quite charming.  But one thing's for sure - something or someone has caused their unrest, and it is this mystery that principally kept me reading.

I also like Hammond's characterisation.  He gives lots of detail into people's thoughts, feelings and motivations.  Even people introduced at the start of a chapter only to be killed a few pages later give the reader some idea of their life and personality.  This is something Stephen King excels at - I would say it's the best thing about his writing.  Along with the plot, the same applies here.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

'Mr Creecher'

When does fan fiction cease to be the somewhat flattering plagiarism of someone else's genius, and become a work of literature in its own right?  How many years has to pass before copyright no longer applies; when authors can recognise its existence without worrying about legal issues?

I think, 'after their death' is the phrase which applies to the latter.  Fifty or a hundred years to be precise.  So those writers of Harry Potter fan fiction will have to continue to do so in secret, under the bedclothes, publishing only to online communities under an alias.

While we're on the subject, what about Susan Hill's 'Mrs De Winter'?  Sebastian Faulk's 'Devil May Care'?  Pretty much anything written by R A Salvatore?  All could easily be a school English assignment: what happens next in the story?  What if this happened?  They're hardly using original ideas.  What they are doing is using their own imaginations to make it DIFFERENT.

Go back a hundred years.  It's probably best if your 'fan fiction' is the sort that gives a new take to the Classics, rather than something that could be too fresh in people's minds.  I thoroughly enjoyed 'Mr Creecher'.  I liked the story, but mostly I admired its cleverness.

Billy is a young boy living on the streets of London, mainly by his wits, those of which he has, picking pockets when he can.  He is haunted by vicious street gangs, hunger, and loneliness.  He is rescued from thugs by a huge, scarred monster of a man - terrified at first, he soon realises that befriending someone like this could be beneficial to him, and a wary friendship develops.  Mr Creecher needs his assistance in heading North - in search of somebody called Dr Frankenstein.

What's interesting abut what Priestley's done here is that this really is the tale of how somebody has become a monster, but it isn't who you think.  He sufficiently pulls the wool over your eyes so when you finally read the name 'Bill Sikes' on the last page, you nod, smile, and think, 'Well done, Sir.'  (Well, I didn't, because I'd already read the 'Author's Note' at the end, but had I not, I would doubtless have thought this.)  You then realise that Billy has indeed displayed the characteristics of Dicken's villain: manipulative and ruthless.  He doesn't spend  too much time thinking on the murder of a street thug at Mr Creecher's hands.  He never understands Mr Creecher's discomfit and humiliation from being the main attraction in a freak show.  He almost sees Mr Creecher as a weapon which he can use in order to undertake bigger and nastier robberies.

Fagin, too, is very cleverly written.  He is never mentioned by name, just as the nephew of Gratz, who is someone who will buy suspicious goods without asking too many questions.  Oh, and did we mention he's Jewish, too?

I love Chris Priestley.  I love his anthologies especially - they keep you guessing, and can be genuinely disturbing.  Even the end of 'The Teacher's Tales of Terror', his World Book Day contribution, took me  completely by surprise.  'Mr Creecher' is not scary in the same sense.  It's not really a ghost story.  But it is disturbing on a human, psychological level; how a 'monster' can show greater heights of kindness and moral clarity than most humans.  It is slightly more 'adult' than his previous works, if you can't find it in the bookstore with his other books.  (Although that might also be because it's not out until October.)

In conclusion, he's written something clever.  Very clever.  It's a bit of fan fiction which manages to keep the identity of its main character a secret.  But it makes me want to re-read 'Oliver Twist'.  And 'Frankenstein'.  Hell, perhaps even some of those pretentious romantic poets...

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Blood Magic

The trouble with teenage paranormal fiction is that, all too often, it mutates into different territory: that of romance.  You could argue that this is inevitable, and is indeed true of any teenage fiction.  Hormones dictate that romance should be there.  However, it is also true that often the romance becomes the primary genre of the book, instead of the paranormal.  Stephanie Meyer herself admits to this.

I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised by Tessa Gratton's 'Blood Magic'.  Of course there's romance.  They're teenagers.  But it's secondary to the main subject - that of magic, and the use of blood to make it happen.

This is, of course, not a unique concept, but it remains an interesting one.  I have always liked the idea that magic requires a sacrifice.  Animal blood will not suffice; it needs to be that of a human - specifically, your own.  And it is this that makes the book extremely bloody.  This magic is not for the faint hearted.  While a simple prick of the finger will create the simpler spells, the more complex the magic, the greater the sacrifice required.  The three main characters are, on occasion, steeped in blood.  Their friends suspect them of self-harm.  It's dangerous, difficult, gory stuff.

Silla is a damaged young woman.  Prior to the opening of the book, she had discovered the dead bodies of her parents.  Her father had shot her mother, and then himself.  But unlike the rest of her small town, she is determined not to see her father as a monster.  She needs answers, explanations.  Inexplicably, she receives them, in the guise of a spell book sent from a mysterious figure called the Deacon, claiming that her father had written it.

Silla's brother Reese, having come to terms with their family trauma, is sceptical at first.  He almost begs Silla to leave well alone.  But as they begin to experiment and discover that magic really does exist - along with such things as possession spells - he, too, begins to doubt their father's guilt.

Nicholas is, on the face of it, a typical teenager, but it soon becomes evident that an intentionally moody exterior - towards his father, stepmother and classmates - is a shell to hide his own personal trauma.  He has grown up with a mother who also practised blood magic, and this has left him distrustful and full of hate towards the whole thing, for reasons I won't reveal.  When he discovers Silla's use of it, therefore, painful memories resurface, and he is forced to remember things which he had been rather successful in hiding.

Silla and Reese persuade him to see otherwise - that magic can be used for good - and eventually he realises that he can't hide from something which is a part of who he is.  Meanwhile, as a dangerous enemy is revealed, Silla changes her own mind about its use.

The relationship between Silla and Nicholas is very well written.  An initial attraction develops into something more as their investigations reveal their two family histories, and the way in which they are entwined.  It's actually a  very clever plot which kept me guessing.  Things are hinted at sufficient to make you think you have the answer, while later are revealed to be something completely different.  The Big Bad is also well written - her history and motivations are hinted at throughout before the final conclusion.

In conclusion: I thought this was going to be the story of a young woman who doesn't realise how pretty she is, falling for someone dark and dangerous who actually has a sensitive side.  It's not.  It's much more than that.

I'm afraid you can't buy it yet, because it's not out yet.  You can in July, though.  I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

A Game of Thrones: Part One

I think that, perhaps, I should stop making muttered disgruntled comments about how a show with a largely British cast is only available to those in the US, or with Sky, as, with Khal Drogo's frankly disturbing (yet long-awaited) declaration of love, I have now seen all episodes, and consider myself up to speed.  (Glances guiltily from side to side.)  It's a valid point, though; why is it that people generally imagine fantasy characters - whoever they're written by - speaking in the good old Queen's?

Anyway.  That's neither here nor there.  On the whole, I'm rather impressed, although to be honest, the first book is arguably the Fellowship of the series - a small (ish) cast and a relatively simple plot.  I wonder how they're going to proceed, when things start to get confusing.  Are they even going to keep the same name for season two?  

I would suggest that even at this stage, things are a little complex for the viewer who hasn't read the books.  To be fair, most of the questions that my husband needed to ask in the first episode have now been answered - just a little too late.  He made it about ten minutes in before saying, 'Meh,' and turning back to 'The Wise Man's Fear'. 

I'll start with the Starks.  Ned is perfect, although that's not a surprise.  Casting Sean Bean was surely a no-brainer; he's played this role many times before, hasn't he, really.  I am upset that they cut his 'I dishonoured myself, and I dishonoured Catelyn' line, as it shows so much about his character.  Although, I suppose, the viewer doesn't really need it.  They only need look at Sean Bean's face to realise that this is one of very, very few characters in this show who 'does the right thing'.  Anyway, it's not a huge problem for me, as I'm of the school of thought that Jon Snow's parents are actually Lysanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen...but it's a good line to throw at Robert.  Have a bit of respect for your wife, you old letch.

I've read some negativity about Michelle Fairley as Catelyn.  Principally, people seem to think she's not pretty enough.  (This could suggest something rather superficial about fantasy fans, couldn't it?)  Well: I'm not sure I would be very pretty after raising five children and living in a place where even in the summer, it snows.  As it happens, I don't think she's unattractive, but this just shouldn't matter.  It makes no difference to how she captures the character, which is brilliantly.  I absolutely loved the scene when she arrests Tyrion.  I loved that in the book, too.  It doesn't matter how highly Tyrion ranks on my 'favourite characters' scoreboard - which is, certainly, in the top five - there is just something about this line that resonates with me:  'She did not know what was more satisfying: the sound of a dozen swords drawn as one or the look on Tyrion Lannister's face.'

One thing cut from the book which I am very, very happy about is the scene where she gets the letter from her sister.  And she's naked.  And it's OK for Maester Luwin to see her thus.  With her husband present.  In a post-coital glow.  Because?  'He's delivered all five of my children.'  No.  No no no no no no NO.  Women do not act like this.  OK?  We don't.  But let's not visit the Martin-is-a-bit-of-a-pervert train of thought today...

Maybe I'm wrong.  I've never experienced childbirth.  Does it turn you into an exhibitionist?  I'm curious...

It's difficult to say what I think of Robb, because we've barely seen him.  But you could say that about the book, too.  I've read them all, and I still don't really know all that much about his character.  Similarly, I don't think I've seen Rickon either.  I've gone through IMDb pretty carefully, too.  Have they even cast him?  Well, the above image would suggest they have, but...

The other three are pretty good, though.  They found just about the cutest child actor they possibly could to play Bran, didn't they?  He doesn't even need to act, much.  Just gaze at the camera with that adorable innocent little expression and those diagonally-inclined eyebrows.  Aw.  Love Arya, too.  The scene when she's having her first 'water dancing' lesson was funny and uplifting all at once.

I was unsure at first about Kit Harington as Jon Snow: who are you to play my favourite character.  He's won me over, though, mostly from his scenes at the wall, and I should admit to the very smallest of crushes.

I'm not massively happy with the way they've done the direwolves.  When they found the first five, they didn't really show what a massive wrench this is for Jon; I know what these creatures symbolise, and it don't include me.  Similarly, you don't really feel his happiness when he discovers Ghost.

However, what I'm really disappointed about is the lack of screen time they've been given.  I'm not just talking about shots of adorable little puppies, although that would, admittedly, have been nice.

I think, for example, I've seen Ghost three times: his discovery, the threatening of Jon's fellow recruit at the wall, and when he takes his vows.  Yet I got the impression from the book that Ghost is always  by his side.  He's a ranger, and Ghost is his animal companion.  You don't even need to look at the amount of fan art that's out there to realise that this is the distinctive image of Jon Snow in every reader's mind.

When you consider how important these animals are, not just to the plot but also the characters, I think they've been done an injustice.  Having said that, I did feel a very small tear developing when Arya throws stones at Nymeria, and when Lady is executed.  It's also lovely when Summer rushes to Bran's defence, although they didn't follow that up with Ned's realisation - I've just killed my daughter's probably principle protector.  Whoops.

Anyway.  That went on a bit, so I think I'll save the rest of my thoughts for another blog.  Although, I would like to share this:

Made me smile.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

'You Against Me', 'Entangled', 'Forbidden'

It can easily feel as though teenage fiction can be divided into categories.  There's the paranormal romance, where a young woman falls in love with a vampire/werewolf/angel/zombie.  There's the coming of age story, usually set around a significant summer holiday.  There's a few science fiction dystopias.  And finally, there's the 'real life' story.

The characters are usually young, pretty, with so much going for them, often beyond their realisation.  They live on South London estates.  They have a wide variety of problems.  And something they certainly have in common, is that they are let down by the adults in their lives.  It's bleak, gritty, often shocking.  It's an episode of Eastenders. It is, simply put, Jacqueline Wilson for a slightly older audience.

I'll start with 'You Against Me', by Jenny Downham.  Mickey is 19, and lives in a council flat with his two younger sisters.  A father is never mentioned, and their mother is an alcoholic with a tendency to go missing for days at a time, leaving Mickey and his sister Karyn to care for the youngest sibling.  However, after suffering from a rape, Karyn is traumatised by both the crime itself and the hypocrisies and injustices of society, and refuses to leave the flat.  This leaves Mickey trying to deal with everything - small things like buying food and making sure his youngest sister goes to school become huge, especially with both the threat of social services interfering, and the need to emotionally care for Kayrn.  He swears vengeance against the perpetrator.

Ellie is 16, and seems much luckier than Mickey.  She is from a 'good' family.  She lives in a nice house.  She does well at school.  But her older Tom has been accused of a rape, and now she is torn between loyalty to him and the rest of her family, and telling the truth about what she witnessed of the crime.

When Mickey and Ellie meet, they both initially make the decision to manipulate the other in order to help their siblings.  However as they get to know one another a sweet, yet tragic, love story develops.

It is interesting that a story about rape is not told from the perspective of the victim, but societal hypocrisies are dealt with very well.  Karyn is often seen as a slut; many people believe that an initial attraction and flirtation towards her attacker somehow justifies the crime.  Mickey's friend Jacko, while full of righteous indignation fuelling his assistance in Mickey's revenge, nonetheless sees nothing wrong with harassing two young women; when advised to desist, his response is, 'They do want to, they just need persuading'.  With such double standards so prevalent in society, it's no surprise that so few rape defendants are found guilty.

The class prejudices are also very well written.  Tom's family, having convinced themselves of his innocence, do everything in their power to help him.  Solicitors are fired.  A big party is held when he is released on bail, one of the book's more disturbing chapters.  Karyn is seen as lying trash; when she drops out of her exams due to the trauma she suffers, the family seems to think that this is no surprise for a person from a council estate.  At no point do they entertain the thought that Tom might be guilty, which means they are neglecting their other child.  It's really no surprise that Ellie starts to rebel against them after meeting Mickey.  I also wonder if their insistence that Tom is innocent might not be blocking himself from facing the truth of what he's done, and the consequences he now should face.

At least there's a happy ending.  Ish.

Which is a good time to move on to 'Forbidden', by Tabitha Suzuma, following the theme of both 'taboo' subjects and disappointing parents.  It follows the story of Lochan and Maya, who are two young, beautiful and talented siblings.  Their father now lives with a new family on the other side of the world; their mother is too young, irresponsible and selfish to have children, again with a high dependency on alcohol and a tendency to stay with her boyfriend for days, sometimes weeks at a time.  It falls to Lochan and Maya to care for their three younger siblings; again, the fear of social services is paramount in their minds as they attempt to keep up with school runs, buying food, cooking meals, trying to interest their siblings in eating properly, and being there emotionally for them.  Their lives are made just that bit more difficult with their mother often getting upset over the idea of handing over money to pay for food and bills.  Yes, you read that right.  She would rather spend her money on clothes to impress her boyfriend than on essentials for her family.  Nonetheless, Lochan and Maya work as a team, depending on each other to do whatever is necessary for their siblings.

There is slightly more complexity in the case of their 14-year-old brother Kit.  Too old to be treated as a child, too young to be an adult, he also suffers from 'middle child' syndrome.  He is a typical adolescent, using late nights and alcohol as a way to deal with his emotional issues.  Unfortunately this is something the older siblings simply can't cope with as well as everything else, and vicious arguments ensue.

Lochan and Maya are essentially parents at the ages of 16 and 18.  Something like this has to bring people closer together - too close, in the eyes of society.

Incest is just as much a taboo as rape, probably even more so, especially since the two are so often synonymous with each other.  However Suzuma manages to create a relationship which is tender, loving and completely understandable.  Almost inevitable.  Lochan and Maya fall in love because circumstances have thrown them together.  They have had to be there for one another when nobody else could possibly suffice.  But this is a relationship that could never have a happy ending.  It's probably one of the most tragic endings I have ever read.

I thought I'd mention 'Entangled' by Cat Clarke as well.  On the face of it this is just another teenage love triangle, a pretty simple storyline with various 'twists' I could see coming right from the start.  But there's a good few issues dealt with too.

Grace is 17, again very pretty, again does well at school.  She is also suffering.  Her father is dead, and her mother doesn't really know how to deal with a teenage daughter.  They are effectively estranged from one another; the mother spends several days at a time shopping in London, leaving Grace on her own, and Grace retaliates by being a typical moody teenager.  The don't know one another.

The story starts with Grace explaining the immediate events leading up to her desire to commit suicide.  She comes very close to actually doing it, but then meets a stranger, Ethan.  After rather a lot to drink, she wakes up in a white room with nothing there but pens and paper.  She thinks she needs to write about why she wanted to kill herself, and does so.

What follows is the simple story I mentioned - she falls in love with a boy.  She also has problems with her friend Sal following some drunken untactful remarks and an unwanted pregnancy.  The deeper issues are that Grace blames her mother for her father's suicide, hence their strained relationship, and also seems to blame herself on a very deep level.  This leads her to self harm; although she can't explain why she does this, it's something the reader understands.  Her self loathing also leads her to far too many drunken one-night stands with boys she doesn't even know, let alone like.  She treats her friend Sal badly, too, insisting that Sal share things which are too hurtful and shameful to talk about.  She also makes rather horrible remarks about Sal's virginity; it is as though she needs other people to be as hurt and damaged as she is.

Yet Grace is never unlikeable.  She is also caring, warm and funny.  Everyone knew someone like her as a teenager; perhaps everyone shared elements of her character.  She is the way she is, and she is not entirely to blame.

So who is to blame for these 'problem', damaged teenagers?  Their parents, or lack thereof?  I would prefer not to judge, but one thing's for sure; I can't read too much of it.  It's just too depressing.  Perhaps I need a bit of Jacob versus Edward to detox...

Or maybe not...