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.