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.