Friday, December 23, 2011

The Uninvited by Tim Wynne-Jones

Who is the uninvited? This new page-turner from a master of suspense plumbs the unsettling goings-on at a picture-perfect cottage in a Canadian backwater.

Mimi Shapiro had a disturbing freshman year at NYU, thanks to a foolish affair with a professor who still haunts her caller ID. So when her artist father Marc offers the use of his remote Canadian cottage, she's glad to hop in her Mini Cooper and drive up north. The little house on the snye is fairy-tale quaint, and the key is hidden right where her dad said it would be, so imagine her surprise when she finds someone living there - Jay, a young musician who doesn't even know Marc Shapiro. Jay is equally startled to meet Mimi, and immediately accuses her of leaving strange and threatening tokens inside: a dead bird, a snakeskin, a cricket soundtrack in his latest composition. But Mimi has just arrived, so who is responsible? And more alarmingly, what does the intruder want?

It was after the recent Walker blogger brunch that I hit Foyles with Darren from Bookzone and decided to pick up a copy of The Uninvited. It's been on my radar for some time now but after receiving a copy of Tim's newest novel - Blink & Caution - I wanted to see what he had been up to in the past.

We meet Mimi as she's zooming along in her little Mini Cooper, away from New York into Canada's wilds, to the house her father has there. She's a little bit over the top, a little bit selfish, a little bit manic pixie girl, but once she gets to the house and discovers someone else, Jackson, already living in the house her attitude changes perceptibly. Gone is the frivolity and we meet a more mature interesting girl who likes an ordered world, even if she doesn't really think she does.

In Jay we have a great male character. I genuinely liked him and thought that the author took great care to establish him as co-main character. He has depths and is as layered and lovely as Mimi.

Their first encounter of each other in the house is superbly written, with a lot of subtext and undercurrents and it is as their meeting continues and they put two and two together and get six, that I fell for Tim Wynne Jones' writing in a big way.

Before I go any further, I'd like to point out that this is not a contemporary romance, although it is very much about relationships and the shifting tides of relationships, family and friendship.

Jay shows Mimi his computers and set-up in the loft of the little house on the snye and has her listen to some of the music he's been recording. He explains to her how he thinks someone has been tinkering with the music, laying down tracks over it - crickets chirping and loud breathing. Not just that, but there have been weird "gifts" left for him too. They try and puzzle it out, blissfully unaware of the fact that they are being watched by the person who has been sneaking into the house.

Things worsen when they look at Mimi's video recorder and notice that someone had tampered with it, filming them as they were talking by the window of the house. The realisation that they were being watched so closely freaks them both out and they set about securing the house against intruders.

Mimi and Jay's relationship is so complex, within minutes of meeting and talking, that it forms the steady foundation of the novel. Mimi is invited to meet Jay's two mums and she gets along with them famously. They welcome her with open arms, accepting her into their small family. This too, I liked. The mums were equally well-written and the story of how they fit in with Jay and Mimi is done so well - just perfect. I did however think that I would have liked to spend more time with them as they formed such a dynamic couple.

I am obviously being very sketchy about the storyline because really, you want to read it and discover it for yourself. It does, with one of the last reveals, stretch the boundaries of belief quite a bit but in the end, because of the author being so good at what he does, you completely fall for it.

There are several elements of odd and creepy and there is a sense of the supernatural in several instances, but it is wholly a very contemporary story set within the here and now. There is enough shivery happenings though to keep thriller readers entertained.

There are so many components to this story and it so well plotted with rich storytelling and scene setting that The Uninvited has immediately become one of my favourite books of 2011 even though it's been published back in 2010.

I'd like to add that The Uninvited is aimed at the upper YA range. Both Mimi and Jay are out of high school and in university. Their story has a more mature tilt to the standard YA contemporary novels I've read but I hasten to add that it would be completely suitable for readers who are comfortable with bigger themes and concepts.

The Uninvited is out now and Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne Jones is out January 2012. Look out for online buzz about it and be sure to check out Tim's website here.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

2012 - A Personal Reading Challenge

I've always been an avid reader.  Or so I thought of myself, at least.  It was after a discussion with Sarah and Caro (@portraitofawoman) that I've come to realise that I have huge gaps in my reading, especially "foundation" books most people have read growing up.

After careful consideration, and fooling myself into a grandiose idea of doing this as research I've gone and bought myself a batch of these books to read and no doubt, enjoy.

Here they are, in no particular order (mostly as they came out of their Amazon box / Waterstones bag)

I have had The Weirdstone of Brisingamen on my shelf for a long time.  An embarrassingly long time.  I'm really looking forward to meeting Alan Garner via his writing.  I have a copy of his gorgeous Collected Folktales too, which I am keen to read.

The Secret Garden I nabbed from W'stones Oxford Street.  You will note that it says "Penguin Threads" on the spine.  That is because the cover is embroidered.  For real.  By this incredible lady.  How can books this beautiful not want to make you read them??

Sarah bought me a copy of The Dark is Rising some time ago - I read part of it and then got distracted by the movie which was awful.  And I'm a sucker for good vs evil and I know this is a seasonal read, so I'm tucking into this over the Christmas holidays.

The Giver is something I remember the girls at The Booksmugglers mentioned so that naturally went onto my list of classics to buy.

The Sword in the Stone by TH White - I know, I know - as someone who loves mythology and legends and fairy tales, how I've bypassed this classic is beyond me.

The Little White Horse - My friend Sue sang its praises and of course, I am an easy sell, so there it is, on my pile.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase - again Sarah being the enabler recommending it to me, along with half the people I speak with on twitter.

Tuck Everlasting looks like a snack-sized book but one that I suspect I'll fall in love with.

The Indian in the Cupboard - it's sort of always been on my radar, but I've never read it.  Now's my chance.

Storm Catchers - I can't remember why I bought this one, I think I just liked the sound of it...

The Phantom Tollbooth...mysterious packages in the post? A strange land...? Count me in on this ride!

The Children of Green Knowe appealed to me because I am fickle and I had to own it because of the cover.  It is so pretty.  But the story sounds good too.

And there we have it - these are my personal challenge for 2012.  I suspect I should be able to get to them all within a couple of months and I will no doubt bore you to tears by telling you how fabulous they all are.   Because most of you have probably read them all growing up and know this already.

I am keen to continue reading more books of similar ilk so please do leave comments here to recommend more books for me to look at.  I will honestly say that books you may think I've read, I probably have not read.  When I say I grew up reading cowboy books / Westerns, I'm not joking. Books of the classic bent for kids that I have read are:

King Solomon's Mines
Prisoner of Zenda
Journey to the Centre of the Eath 
Black Beauty 
Peter Pan

Uhm.  I think that's it.  See how much I'm lacking? Hit me with those recommends.  I've given myself a gift card for Crimbo so will be using that during the year to purchase more titles.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Drink, Slay, Love by Sarah Beth Durst


Pearl is a sixteen-year-old vampire... fond of blood, allergic to sunlight, and mostly evil... until the night a sparkly unicorn stabs her through the heart with his horn. Oops.

Her family thinks she was attacked by a vampire hunter (because, obviously, unicorns don't exist), and they're shocked she survived. They're even more shocked when Pearl discovers she can now withstand the sun. But they quickly find a way to make use of her new talent. The Vampire King of New England has chosen Pearl's family to host his feast. If Pearl enrolls in high school, she can make lots of human friends and lure them to the King's feast -- as the entrees.

The only problem? Pearl's starting to feel the twinges of a conscience. How can she serve up her new friends—especially the cute guy who makes her fangs ache—to be slaughtered? Then again, she's definitely dead if she lets down her family. What's a sunlight-loving vamp to do?

Firstly, I just need to say that this is the best cover ever and I did guffaw slightly over the title. Shallow stuff aside I've got some serious love for this book. I expected a humorous take on the vampire genre and yes, there's plenty of that but I was surprised by how taken I was by Pearl. She starts the book as a cold killing machine but while feasting on the kid who works at the Dairy Hut she's stabbed by a unicorn. When she wakes up at home with her huge family we start to get an idea of how horrendous Pearl's life really is. Always on guard, weakness is quickly punished by her mother whom the whole family is scared of. Even Pearl's boyfriend Jadrien is a waste of good (stolen) blood. Always goading Pearl by trying to make her jealous Pearl is forced into situations where she has to use violence to prove a point. Talking things through is not an option with her family.

However, a miracle has occurred and Pearl can suddenly withstand the sun. This gift opens up a new world to her and she finds herself at high school on the orders of her mother. The vampire king of New England is paying a visit and it's up to Pearl to find the feast - her new friends are just the things to feed visiting royalty. Gradually though, like her appearing reflection, Pearl starts to feel for her human companions and isn't as keen as she should be to feed them to the king. I admired Pearl and her ability to withstand the pressure from her family to deliver. She also fits straight into high school and cuts a swathe through the cliques with her own brand of humour and idea of justice.

She gets to know the chivalrous Evan who certainly shows Jadrien a thing or two about how to treat women. She starts to feel for him despite her determination not to. In fact, this book has just about everything I enjoy with snappy dialogue, romance, humour but with an underlying finger on the pulse of high school and what it takes to fit it - plus what to do if you don't. I was pleased to be surprised by Drink, Slay, Love. Pearls journey from smooth killer to vampire who just doesn't fit in was a wonderful read.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Hidden Kingdom by Ian Beck

The young prince Osamu is dragged from his palace bed in the dead of night and told to flee for his life. With only his nurse's daughter, Lissa, to help him survive, he is thrust from his pampered existence into a hostile, snowy world - where the secret armies of the hidden kingdom are waiting for him to lead them . . .

I've said it before, I'm a seasonal reader, so The Hidden Kingdom set during a tough winter really let me curl my toes and luxuriate in the heating on the train and at home in the lounge as I read it.

The scene is set very quickly. We meet the spoilt, stubborn, slightly clueless young prince Osamu as he's tumbled out of bed by his servant, dressed hurriedly and ushered out of the palace at top speed in the company of Lissa, a young woman only a bit older than himself, who had been trained for one thing only: to keep him safe.

As they flee he realises that the palace is coming under attack but he has no idea who it is that's attacking or what's going on. Mostly he's grumpy as he's being treated roughly by an inferior person and resents that tremendously. Lissa is unable to tell him more about the attacks. He should have an inkling as to what's going on and she's to keep him safe, but more than that, she's not prepared to do.

Simultaneously we meet a young apprentice potter, Baku, who is travelling with the master potter Master Masumi, who is en route to meet the young prince Osamu who admires Masumi's delicate workmanship. But things go very wrong. As they travel, winter closes in and the master potter reveals to Baku that there are bad things afoot when they come across stories of the palace being attacked. When his master dies in his sleep, it is up to Baku to make sense of the world and follow the mysterious snow maiden that came to him, urging him to be strong and follow her guidance. Baku is the everyman in this story, through him we see the developments but we also realise that even though he is the everyman, he has courage and honour. He is not high born, and it is abundantly clear that his destiny and task is more than what it seems.

As Lissa and Osamu struggle onwards through the snow and cold, Osamu keeps rejecting the legends of the demons that his tutors and ministers pressed on him as he grew up. He thinks that is all they are: legends and stories to tell small children to keep them quiet and scared. He refuses to believe that it can be real, refuses too to believe that they are responsible for the attack on his palace, for the reason he's on the run for his life.

Slowly, ever so slowly, it dawns on the spoilt awful princeling that the legends are no mere legends. That he is the one to face up against the Emissary, to fight the battle to decide the fate of the world. That it is his destiny, his fate, to do this.

Ian Beck uses very strong imagery throughout the novel - both visual and sensory, which I found very pleasing. I apologise if that sounds pedantic and a bit toff-like, but when you can sit under a blanket reading about snow and ice storms and lift your head and almost smell the scent of the army's meal they are cooking before their final confrontation with the forces of darkness, you know you are on to some good writing.

The author uses a pared down language that is still quite descriptive and lyrical, bringing to mind Across The Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearne. The world The Hidden Kingdom is set in is not our world, but it could easily be our world. It has hints of Japan and China about it but it is wholly it's own thing and I liked it - it was strange enough to lift it out of the mundane and yet comforting enough for me to not feel that I've been cast adrift across the world I know nothing of, have no point of reference.

I would highly recommend The Hidden Kingdom to read now, in winter. It's going to be one of those books I want to re-read often because of setting and story.

This is the superb video they created for The Hidden Kingdom and I do think they've managed to find the most gorgeous girl to play Lissa. Just perfect.

The Hidden Kingdom has been out since October, and although it is quite slender (my only sadness as I wanted it to last longer) it goes to prove that epic writing does not have to be seven hundred pages long.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Lost Christmas by David Logan

Eleven year old Goose is lost. It's Christmas, his parents are dead and now his dog Mutt has gone missing. Those around him aren't doing much better: his Uncle Frank's wife has walked out on him and his nan is losing her mind.

But then Anthony appears - a man who seems to know everyone's secrets but nothing at all about himself...

I'd been keeping Lost Christmas aside until mid- December as a pre-Christmas thing. Maybe it was a subconscious premonition that work was going to leech any kind of Christmassy spirit out of me as the usual Christmas deadlines loomed. Even just looking at that gorgeous, glittery cover is enough of a Yuletide palliative.

But what's it like? Is it fun? Is it Christmassy on a scale that Buddy would approve of? These were all important questions that needed to be answered

LC opens with Goose waking up on a crisp Christmas morning in Manchester to discover that his parents have bought him a puppy for Christmas; for a bitterly short time it's a perfect morning. Then his dad gets called in, and one cruel twist of fate later both he and Goose's mother are killed in a car accident as she's driving him to work.

The story skips a year ahead, and we meet a very drunk Frank as he staggers home from the pub that's become his home away from home. As he weaves his way down the street even he can't miss how the lights around him are acting strangely, and as they clear he sees an oddly dressed man in the street. A man he would've sworn wasn't there a moment ago, and who seems as perplexed as he is about this. After a brief meeting, they part ways.

While Frank is stumbling through his first meeting with the mysterious Anthony, a very different Goose is breaking into a house, from which he steals a gold bangle, adding it to the stash that he's going to show his fence- Frank. It's the first link in a chain of events that will bring the three of them together and in the process reveal how one person's actions can impact on the lives of those around them.

David Logan is a screenwriter, something which is apparent in the how lean the writing is and how quickly the characters are established (and happily they remain distinctive throughout). Take Goose's nan as an example- she doesn't play a particularly large role, but even so she's such a sweet and lovely character that you can't help but feel sorry for her and cheer when she helps Goose out of a bind with the local cops. Goose and Anthony are the stars of the show though. Goose with the tough, uncaring wall he's built around himself, through which we're allowed glimpses of the wounded boy beneath, none more so than when his beloved Mutt vanishes- his pain and the whirlwind of emotions that it drags to the surface are very real. And then there's the enigmatic Anthony, a man with no recollection of who he is or how he came to be in a snowy Manchester on Christmas eve, but who discovers a gift for seeing into the lives of anyone he touches, but at a terrible cost.

The story's set in Manchester, but it's a fairly neutral flavour of urban landscape that comes through. But I think that's actually a good thing, as it means most of us will be able to identify with what is described, most of which have become standard features of contemporary British cityscapes.

The story gallops along at a fair pace (it all takes place on Christmas eve- huzzah!) once Goose and Frank have a glimpse of Anthony's strange talent, which also raises the question of who, or what, is he? I had my theories (none of which were on the money, as it happens) and as things started coming together and building to the finale I wished I was reading this at home rather than on my commute as I suspected I'd be missing my stop.

I had been scratching my head at how David was going to wrap this all up, although I'll happily admit I was having too much fun reading it to worry too much. That's the thing about Christmassy themes- you know it's going to end well, and you're happy to buy into it, to suspend the cynical disbelief that you've armoured yourself with throughout the year, and enjoy the gentle torture of seeing things seemingly getting worse until it's time for the Hell Yeah. It's part of the tradition and the magic- it's a time when you're allowed to watch a movie you might have seen half a dozen times already, or re-read a dog eared old favourite just to get a fix of guilt free feel-good.

That's what Lost Christmas delivers- a warm and touching message of hope and salvation without being schmaltzy. It forced me to swallow a rather embarrassing lump in the throat to stop myself from panicking fellow commuters by blubbing like a lost child. I walked home from the station buoyed by an unexpected sense of bonhomie and then proceeded to drape fairy lights across the lounge and dining room. 'Nuff said, really.

It is logical? Nope. Are the why's and how's answered? Not really. Did I care, and should you? Hell no. Would Buddy approve? Hell yes. Go pick something off one of those interminable literary prize lists if you want deep and meaningful.

This is Christmas, and I like it just the way it is.

Lost Christmas is the novelisation of the movie (starring the marvellously talented Eddie Izzard) which will be airing for the first time on Sunday 18th December on BBC 1 at 17h30.

You can follow David Logan on Twitter and visit his website here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Every Dead Thing by John Connolly

Homicide cop Charlie "Bird" Parker was drunk when the killer known as the Travelling Man dissected his wife and his daughter. Parker's guilt and obsession with revenge have taken him well beyond the law, causing him to beat a pimp to death and accept the friendship of a notable hitman. Yet his old colleagues know that any one of them might have gone down the same path, in the same circumstances, and they and FBI man Woolrich still find him and his obsessions useful. Leaving mayhem and destruction in his wake, Parker finds every private investigation he takes leading him back to his family's killer--is this an obsession, or is he treading a maze of murder built just for him? And can the obsessed Parker accept the love of a bright woman pathologist without wrecking her life as well? Small Virginia towns with guilty secrets, the drugs deals that unite smart New York society with the madness of a decadent Mafia dynasty, the very different gang wars of New Orleans and the mysteries of the Louisiana swampland--this is an intelligent book packed with puzzles, characters and brilliantly visualised locations that most thriller-writers would have spun out for a series.

The above write-up is straight from Amazon by Roz Kaveney and you know, I couldn't have summed this book up any better.

What I am however going to say is that this is my first ever John Connolly novel and I was blown away by the writing, and the intricately layered plot, bearing in mind this was his debut novel back in 1999.

I genuinely came to like Charlie Parker as a character. He is messed up, a bit mouthy, yet honest enough with himself when he's in crappy situations, knowing that invariably he's put himself in those situations through his direct actions. His motivation for doing anything is transparent and although he is a bit terrier-like when it comes to focussing on a goal, he's clever enough to see the wider picture...and then still going ahead and doing what he feels is the right thing. I like that he thinks outside the box and is a bit of a loose canon and that through all of this, he is still such a solid dependable presence.

What I also thoroughly enjoyed is Connolly's writing style. He writes, for the lack of a better description, deeply. When Charlie and his FBI mate Woolrich head for New Orleans, I had no doubt in my mind that there is where we were. We live and breathe Orleans and the swamp and the meetings with the various locals. It gets under your skin, you can feel the oppressive heat and you can see the magic of the place just under the skin. What I also liked about the writing is that Connolly gives Charlie this something extra, almost a sixth sense, a deeper understanding of what's going on. I know, it sounds odd, but there are moments that I read Every Dead Thing and it gave me chills, for instance: Charlie is travelling back to New Orleans to meet with a witch, a soothsayer, as she's asked to see him urgently.

Then, just as it seemed my head was going to explode from the pain and the pressure, I heard a voice, the voice of an old, black woman in the Louisana swamps.

"Chile," said the voice. "Chile, he's here."

And then my world turned black.

It is so well balanced, these slight almost supernatural links, throughout the story, along with the growing legend of this human killer The Travelling Man, that I utterly fell, hook, line and sinker, for Charlie's story and Mr. Connolly's writing. Reading this there is definitely a sense of "more".

Charlie isn't the only character. He has a supporting cast and they are very much all worth a mention.  Favourites are Louis and Angel who stole stole my heart - these guys may not be on the right side of the law, but you know you want them on your side when bad things go down. And through loyalty and friendship and honour, they are by Charlie's side when he asks them for help. They step up to the plate, do what's been asked of them, then quietly disappear. Genuinely, my reading experience was made richer for these two characters' appearance.   Also, they are so bloody cool!

I have no idea what happens in the other Charlie Parker books and I am content not to, because I will be savouring each one in the next few months as I've come to realise that I can't not read them. I mentioned that I was reading John Connolly on twitter and how much I was enjoying the writing, the action, the characters, just all of it, and had a tranche of friends and strangers talk to me about John Connolly and Charlie and how great his books are. As if I needed more convincing!

I hate doing the "if you like x you will like y" but in this instance I think I can confidently say that if you like Lee Childs and Jack Reacher, you will love John Connolly and Charlie Parker. And similarly, if you like John Connolly and you've not read SJ Bolton, you should. Both very complex writers with a good eye for detail. Also, no one does creepy the way SJ Bolton does creepy, although Mr. Connolly comes pretty damn close.

In other words, cutting to the bone of the matter: John Connolly's Every Dead Thing is definitely worth the ££. Satisfying and clever writing. I'm putting the rest of the books on my goodreads and Amazon wishlist.

There is an excellent Q&A on John Connolly's site about Every Dead Thing.  It's a bit spoilery but I had to go and read it to find out what made him write the book and what went in to creating Charlie Parker.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Ghost and the Goth by Stacey Kade


Alona Dare–Senior in high school, co-captain of the cheerleading squad, Homecoming Queen three years in a row, voted most likely to marry a movie star… and newly dead.

I’m the girl you hated in high school. Is it my fault I was born with it all-good looks, silky blond hair, a hot bod, and a keen sense of what everyone else should not be wearing? But my life isn’t perfect, especially since I died. Run over by a bus of band geeks—is there anything more humiliating? As it turns out, yes—watching your boyfriend and friends move on with life, only days after your funeral. And you wouldn’t believe what they’re saying about me now that they think I can’t hear them. To top it off, I’m starting to disappear, flickering in and out of existence. I don’t know where I go when I’m gone, but it’s not good. Where is that freaking white light already?

Will Killian–Senior in high school, outcast, dubbed “Will Kill” by the popular crowd for the unearthly aura around him, voted most likely to rob a bank…and a ghost-talker.

I can see, hear, and touch the dead. Unfortunately, they can also see, hear and touch me. Yeah, because surviving high school isn’t hard enough already. I’ve done my best to hide my “gift.” After all, my dad, who shared my ability, killed himself because of it when I was fifteen. But lately, pretending to be normal has gotten a lot harder. A new ghost—an anonymous, seething cloud of negative energy with the capacity to throw me around—is pursuing me with a vengeance. My mom, who knows nothing about what I can do, is worrying about the increase in odd incidents, my shrink is tossing around terms like “temporary confinement for psychiatric evaluation,” and my principal, who thinks I’m a disruption and a faker, is searching for every way possible to get rid of me. How many weeks until graduation?

Wow, huge synopsis for this one. I was going to cut it down but it emphasises a point I want to discuss later so please forgive me. This, like Anna and the French Kiss is another book that I seemed to see everywhere. It was looming at me from the shelf at Foyles, constantly on my recommended list on Amazon and I saw some great reviews too. I finally picked up a copy and it wasn't long before I was kicking myself for leaving it so long. In fact, this is going to be a resolution for next year - to stop ignoring books that are obviously written for me!

Alona is a cheerleader and pretty much the top of the pack when she gets run over by a bus. Will is the school freak, he can speak with the dead but obviously it's a skill that doesn't really help his social standing at school. It doesn't take long for Alona to realise that Will can see her however neither Will or Alona are fans of each other. Both of them have their own set of prejudices about the other and I enjoyed watching them get gradually broken down. Will is sure that Alona is an airhead, a bitch and pretty pointless - both alive and dead. Alona is fairly confident that Will is deliberately socially inept, crazy and determined not to fit in. Once she discovers his odd talent she has a new found respect for him and also organises for the crowd of school ghosts to leave him alone for a while. Will has to grudgingly admit that Alona is more than just popular and pretty.

In return Alona needs Will to explain how to be dead and help her stop disappearing. As time progresses it becomes obvious that they should work together. In fact, they both need to start getting on rather than merely tolerating each other. I loved the strength of Alona and Will's voices - they were both so distinct and I could have told them apart even without the chapter headings as you can see from the synopsis. The book fairly zips with humour too from both main characters - really, it was a joy to read. Principal Brewster is so completely odious that I defy anyone not to be immediately rooting for Will to overcome his problems. Alona could have come across as a little cold and brittle but as she watches her best friend get together with her boyfriend and spends her nights curled up on her dad's sofa I felt an urge to protect her. Her levels of concentration and organisation that has kept her covering up a family secret are impressive and I knew that once she had decided to help Will she'd be unstoppable.

I loved this book - the school politics, elements of romance and mystery meant that I whipped through it and can't wait to read the next two.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

What is YA?

There have been a lot of questions about YA on twitter these last few weeks.  A lot of people in my twitter stream are talking about it, wondering what it is.  Sniffing about it and arguing about it.  Some people think it's a gimmick, a way to re-label books that have gone before and calling it YA.  Or creating a niche market where there isn't really one.  That YA is a genre.  A new thing.  YA is not a genre.  It is also not a new thing.  It has been around for some time.  But it's always been categorised in bookshops as part of children's books. 

Until recently, YA books weren't shelved separately. It was only when more and more of these teen centric books started coming over from the States and publishers and booksellers realised that there is a distinct new category being created here, that they opted for the Young Adult name, or YA as it's been shortened to.

Young Adult books have risen to prominence on the back of people like Stephanie Meyer, Judy Blume, and Suzanne Collins, to name but a few.  Growing up (I'm 38) there was no "YA", but there were a lot of children's books that were deemed not age appropriate for me to read as say a ten year old.  These were teen books, or books for older, more confident readers.  Books that were more complex and dealt with growing up, stuff I had no clue about as a ten year old.

Young Adult readership can be anywhere from 11 to 12 years upwards to 60+.  Kids always read UP.  But adults read up, down, sideways. YA novels are rarely over 80,000 words and then it's usual for the bigger novels to have a fantasy / paranormal element.  Contemporary novels in the YA category are sometimes far shorter.  these are the "general" rules of size, but it always depends on story.  Story and characters are key, as is voice.

Books for kids and teens were a revelation to me when we first came to the UK and a friend of mine introduced me to Inkheart by Cornelia Funke.  Then I started haunting the shelves in Waterstones Piccadilly and I'll never forget the day I picked up a copy of Tithe by Holly Black.  I read it.  And re-read it.  I could not believe my eyes.  Gone were the overly sweet adventures of the stories I grew up with.  Here was a spiky main character, who swears, smokes and hung out with her mum's crappy band.  She wore combats and she turned out to be a bloody fairy!  Her new friends were rough kids, and the one boy was...GAY! I could not believe my eyes.  Here was a story written for ME for when I was a teenager.  These were the stories I craved. Gritty urban fantasy where molestation, issues, drinking, smoking were a thing but not the ONLY thing.  Because there was the danger of the unknown. 

I fell for Holly Black, harder than I care to admit.  But through her I discovered a raft of other writers, both young adult, middle grade and adult, and on the back of them I started reading wider and wider, casting my net of reading to include practically everything that even slightly piqued my interest. 

The thing about YA books is that it speaks to its readers on a deeply emotional level.  It connects with teens and their journey, about changes, about being a freak, or a perceived freak, or the IT girl who would love to be anonymous or the sports star who really has issues with is dad pushing him to fulfil his dad's dream. The thing about YA and reading kids books: the journeys you go on are limitless, the possibilities are endless and the only thing stopping you is your imagination.

The really great writers can take the girl you hated most in school and spin her story and make you fall for her and believe in her and identify in her.  It makes you question, it makes you think.  All good fiction should make you think, no matter what age-group you fall in to. A lot of YA writers say they write YA because they so deeply remember what it felt like being a teen, of being in flux and set at odds with the world around them. 

Teen protagonists in YA books often ask the questions of - who am I? And tied in with that question is: who am I going to be?  Another nightmare question: how am I going to get to where I want to be? I know adults who don't even know the answer to any of these questions at age 30.  Or older.  It's YA that allows teens a glimpse into the world of others to show them that everyone has these questions plus a hundred thousand more.   YA deals with intense emotions, nothing is ever half-hearted.  Man, I remember throwing a strop and swearing never ever to do xyz.  And then, two days later, there I am doing xyz.  It's a tough time and YA helps, it answers, it guides, it asks more questions. 

Taken from Lake City Public Library

And then of course, people think that adult novels that have young protagonists should also be called YA? Well, the thing is, like in The Lovely Bones, the protagonist is a teen, she is horrifically murdered by a neighbour, and the story is about her afterlife and how her murder affects her family.  The characters knows stuff, she's aware of everything and is on her path to learn more.  Unlike in YA where teens often feel they aren't playing with a full set of cards, that the world knows more than they do.  It's a struggle.  Young characters in adult books are wise beyond their years and they realise the impact of the story they are telling on their reader and on other characters in the story.  This is very rarely the case in YA.  Another book I've reviewed in the past, where the main character is a teen, but the book is definitely adult, is Mice by Gordon Reece. Mice has to be one of the scariest books I've read from a psychological point of view.  It builds slowly with an ending that is dark and awful and inevitable and completely right for the story.  A book I loved, who has a protagonist in her early twenties, which I felt YA readers would connect with is Hailey's War by Jodi Compton, yet it was only marketed to adults.  The main reasoning was that it dealt with some very mature themes and they felt that the main character was maybe a bit too old to appeal to younger readers.  That is probably the truth, but Hailey's struggle, her quest to make sense of her life, is perfect reading for confident teens who aren't too worried about strong violence and a bit of swearing.

YA also deals with first love, first kiss, heartbreak.  All of that.  But it also deals with quests and journeys and fights and hatred and bullying and murder, crime and death.  Ultimately, YA is about hope.  Hope to survive, to make sense of it all, to be a better person, to get the guy or girl.

People ask: if a book has no sex in it, why isn't it marketed as YA?  No sex.  Well.  Shockingly, sex isn't the beginning and end all of a teen's life.  A book where sex is handled superbly is Into the Wild Nerd Yonder.  It's brought into the open that the main character's friend gave her "almost" boy friend oral sex.  The main character is shocked, not because of the oral sex, but because her friend would do something like that with a boy she doesn't really know, clearly thinking that the oral sex will make him like her more.  When the main character tells her brother's girlfriend this, the girlfriend hits the roof, for the same reason, but also saying why should the boys always be the ones gratified, what about the girls?  So, you know, sex does happen in YA and there are consequences, as shown in Malorie Blackman's astonishing YA is a no holds barred novel about responsibility and life-changing choices:

What if YOU were left holding the baby?

You’re waiting for the postman – he’s bringing your A level results. University, a career as a journalist – a glittering future lies ahead. But when the doorbell rings it’s your old girlfriend; and she’s carrying a baby... Suddenly, your future starts to look very different.

YA is, not just one thing. And it is far more than the sum of its parts.  And I genuinely find it strange that people questioning the integrity of YA and the motives of those who write YA are the ones who have never read it.  They see what they want to see.  Within YA, the scope to find something that suits you as a reader, is so vast.  All you need to do is talk to someone who knows the category to advise you.  That's why we blog.  That's why booksellers sell and why publishers publish these books and why more and more superb books are being published by writers.  It's not just another market for a mid-list author to try and break into as this C4 segment implies (yeah, it took me a while to get riled up).  Writing for kids is hard.  I know, I'm trying to do it.  Everything has to be spot-on.  And it is hard work and it doesn't get easier.  I'm not the only one saying that.  Every author I've ever spoken to who writes for kids say it is hard - voice has to be spot on, and messages have to be clear and never preachy because teens and kids are savvy.  Man, they should sit on the truth commission as the chaff will soon be divided from the wheat because they know when something has been "dumbed" down for them to read or when something starts getting preachy.  And they won't stand for it. They know what they like and they aren't scared to go after it.

Don't dismiss YA as a marketing ploy.  It is far more than that.  It's believing in magic, in yourself, your friends, finding yourself, losing yourself.  It's about hope and love and hatred and looking beyond the tiny world you find yourself in.  It's about questioning and getting answers and facing up to reality and making sense of life.  Don't write off YA as just "Twilight" or "Hunger Games" or "whatever book you think is the flavour of the month" because you're showing your ignorance.  And really, how can you be ignorant if you're a reader? Is fantasy just Tolkien? Is horror just Stephen King? Is crime ONLY Jo Nesbo? Think again.

Give YA a chance.  Figure it out.  Read widely.  You may be pleasantly surprised.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Deliverance Lost by Gav Thorpe

As the Horus Heresy divides the Imperium, Corax and his few remaining Raven Guard escape the massacre at Isstvan V. Tending to their wounds, the bloodied Space Marines endeavour to replenish their numbers and return to the fray, taking the fight to the traitor Warmaster. Distraught at the crippling blow dealt to his Legion, Corax returns to Terra to seek the aid of his father – the Emperor of Mankind. Granted access to ancient secrets, Corax begins to rebuild the Raven Guard, planning his revenge against his treacherous brother primarchs. But not all his remaining warriors are who they appear to be… the mysterious Alpha Legion have infiltrated the survivors and plan to destroy the Raven Guard before they can rebuild and threaten Horus’s plans.

The Raven Guard and the Alpha Legion in one book. Yes please.

Deliverance Lost picks up from the groundwork laid by the Raven’s Flight audio drama, and while they compliment each other, both work equally well on their own. It begins in the aftermath of the infamous Dropsite Massacre, when those Legions who had sided with Horus turned their guns on their erstwhile brothers in open combat for the first time. The Raven Guard were there, and suffered enormous, traumatic losses in the opening battle. The few thousand who survived fled across the mountains of Isstvan, harried by the traitor legions at every turn until a daring rescue is enacted, their remaining ships braving the stellar blockade to snatch the survivors and their primarch Corax away.

This is the story of what happened after Corax and his surviving legionaries escaped- and the escape itself is a well crafted bit of interstellar cat- and- mouse. The effect of that shocking betrayal isn't glossed over, and Space Marine or not, those who survive can't escape a measure of survivors guilt and it's clear enough that had they not been Space Marines, chances are that they would have have spent the years ahead getting over varying degrees of post traumatic stress rather than plotting their revenge. While their armoursmiths work around the clock to bring them back to battle readiness, Corax turns their remaining fleet towards Terra to report to the Emperor in person, and seek his counsel. It’s not an easy meeting, for this is in the wake of Magnus the Red’s sorcerous intervention and the Emperor is fighting his own war against the denizens of the warp. If you’ve read The Outcast Dead, you’ll benefit from having an understanding of the mood on Terra when the Raven Guard arrive. Having been granted access to a carefully guarded secret, Corax and his survivors return to Deliverance to prepare the Raven Guard for a new generation of Space Marines. Corax’ origins and the history of Deliverance is drip fed throughout, which works quite well as it doesn’t clutter up the main plot. I would have liked to have seen more of the Raven Guard in action myself- I like their hit and run philosophy and general attitude, but it's not a deal breaker.

When we attended Black Library Live last year, one of the question posed to the authors was what was your favourite Horus Heresy novel so far; the answer was Legion, the story of Alpharius, Omegon and the Alpha Legion. Masters of deception and misdirection, the Alpha Legion follow their own agenda, and this mission is no exception. Having adopted the faces and memories of fallen Raven Guard, they’re simply waiting for the right moment to act. Most of their ‘screen time’ is from the perspective of one the infiltrators (called Alpharius, oddly enough), and while his loyalty to his own Legion is unquestioned, he can’t help but feel a camaraderie with the squad he’s part of. He’s a likeable character, even though you know that at the end of the day he’s going to have be a real bastard.

Knowing that Alpharius and his fellow Alphas are closing in creates a nice undercurrent of tension as Corax forges ahead with the technology that the Emperor has granted him. When the Alphas play their hand, it’s a cleverly orchestrated setup that really exemplifies their ‘outside the box’ approach to warfare.

Despite the relative paucity of blazing bolters, DL reads very quickly and doesn’t suffer for the lack thereof. There’s more than enough anger, revenge betrayal and honour going on in there to hook you and keep you turning the pages, and it ends on the same kind of note as the “Let’s hunt some orc” scene from the Fellowship of the Ring. I really enjoyed it- it’s a solid, all round addition to the Horus Heresy series, which only seems to be getting better with each instalment.

You can read an extract here and visit Gav's website there.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Young Adults Book Boom

Last night on Channel 4 there was a segment on how YA book sales are booming, compared to other book "markets" - please, YA is not a GENRE.

It makes for interesting watching - the school kids they talk to utterly hit it on the nose about why you want to read and why people continue reading and it is exactly the same thing I heard time and again when I spoke to kids in the past at the school I've visited giving talks about reading and writing.

And importantly - gods, I hope this was not staged - the boys they showed spoke enthusiastically about reading for pleasure.  My heart soared.  Can we have more of these kids, please?
Apart from the fact that a part of the segment was shot in Foyles, of course, it has a great interview with Charlie Higson and it made me grin about how truthful he was: his books are about zombie adults eating children.  Cheeky beggar.

The segment ends, with a boy holding the most loved and tattered copy of Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl.  I know how that kid feels.  I have a lot of books who are that loved and that tattered.

It's an interesting segment and one that really can quite easily be expanded on into a full programme or even series. Or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part as a geek girl who loves reading?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern

Punks, Poseurs, and Pervs—Just Another Day at High School

Jessie is so excited to start her sophomore year of high school, with her carefully planned outfits and her ample stash of school supplies. But things take an unexpected turn when everyone in her life changes. Her two best friends have gone poseur-punk and are both flirting with her longtime crush. Her beloved older brother is about to go off to college—and he shaved his Mohawk and started dating the homecoming queen. Jessie is suddenly clique-less. When she starts chatting up a girl in homeroom, she’s surprised by an invite to join the Dungeons and Dragons crowd! Will hanging out with them make her a nerd? And when she sees how cute one of their members is, does it really matter?

I have to applaud Sarah for spotting this one on one of our Foyles trips. The storyline appealed to me hugely, what with being a nerd, a gamer and being one of the clique-less girls at school back in the days of yore, I suspected that I'd enjoy the book far more than I had the right to.

Jessie is such an utterly awesome character. Honest, sweet, caring, a bit confused yet so much her own person, you can't help but will her to come out ontop. Her relationship with her brother Barrett is so real and I wholeheartedly fell for him. In a rock band, with a mad mohawk, he is a bit of a bad boy but his grades are ace so not only is he cool, and in a band, he's also a clever kid. A great and potent mix. When her two best friends decide that they are changing their look and style over the summer, Jessie is utterly non-plussed. Why would they want to change from who they were to pseudo-Goth wannabes and hang out with Barrett's band? Jessie's big crush is what Scott Pilgrim would have called "the talent" in Barrett's band. The guy Van is a bit of a player and plays loose and fast with Jessie's heart, knowing that she has a crush on him.

When her best friend starts dating Van, she realises what all the changes have been about. Slowly but surely she carves out a niche for herself without Char and Bizza, her ex-best friends. She spends all her spare time making funky skirts from crazy bits of fabric. It's her "thing" and she loves doing it. She gets invited to a Dungeons and Dragons game by one of the girls she knows from school and after quite a bit dithering, she agrees to sit in one a session.

Her introduction, through Dottie, to the world of Dungeons and Dragons is superb. The way she explains things, her impatience and the things she says, I'm sure every gamer has actually been there starting out. It rang true and I loved it. Jessie is shocked to find herself fitting in with the group and wonder of wonders, she enjoys it. As her friendship with those in the group strengthens, she really finds that it's easier to face her erstwhile friends. And whilst she enjoys the gaming group's friendship she feels a bit self-conscious about hanging out with them. But being Jessie, she tackles things head on and before long, you are nodding and laughing and agreeing with her actions and the general hilarity.

If I gave starts to books I'd give this four and a half out of five. Why not a full five? I would have liked for it to be longer. I didn't want to say goodbye to Jessie and her friends and especially her family. Her family is so excellent - too often we see family pushed aside in teen novels, but in Wild Nerd Yonder family is front and centre and alarmingly frank and hilariously honest and cringe-makingly real.

I think ITWNY really does have to be on several Christmas wish-lists this year. I cannot remember the last time I read a novel and identified so strongly with a main character and just generally felt comfortable in the world the writer created for me to experience. Julie Halpern has done a great job putting me back there, in my awkward confusing teen years, but she does it with such humour and honesty, that it makes you forget all the rubbish bits you went through growing up.

Very highly recommended. Into the Wild Nerd Yonder is published by Square Fish in the US. Find Julie Halpern's website here.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins


Anna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris - until she meets Etienne St. Clair: perfect, Parisian (and English and American, which makes for a swoon-worthy accent), and utterly irresistible. The only problem is that he's taken, and Anna might be, too, if anything comes of her almost-relationship back home.

As winter melts into spring, will a year of romantic near - misses end with the French kiss Anna - and readers - have long awaited?

I don't read much contemporary YA which is something I decided to remedy this last month. I saw so many people raving about this book in particular that I decided to start with it. The basic premise is full of conflict - Anna's forced to attend a private school in Paris instead of the perfect year she had planned in her beloved Atlanta. Back home she had a job, the perfect best friend in Bridgette and budding romance with Toph. Because her dad has become a best-selling novelist their circumstances have changed and he's keen to broaden her horizons.

I was so caught up in this book from the first page. Anna's voice is spot-on perfect, loveable despite her obvious upset of being left on her own in a strange city. She doesn't speak French and knows no one whilst everyone else have been together for years. However, she doesn't sound whiny just lost and vulnerable which is a tricky balancing act. She soon meets Meredith, Rashmi, Josh and Etienne and although not everyone makes her feel instantly welcome I loved watching her friendship with these guys grow as the book progressed. Etienne is a pretty cool guy, kind to Anna and obviously loyal to his friends. He has a girlfriend who also used to be part of their close-knit gang but she's moved to another school in Paris and this puts a strain on their relationship. To be fair to both Anna and Etienne they try to keep their relationship on the level but as the months fly by it's clear that there's more going on than it appears.

The breaking point is Christmas and I loved how this period apart really changed their relationship. Anna has been hanging on to relationships at home, Etienne's mum is ill and he's been desperate to see her and they both have to spend time with their divorced parents. They exchange emails and phone calls that illustrate how much they have in common and how close they've become. Back in Paris their relationship is hot and cold, push and pull. I wanted to reach into the pages and shake them.

Aside from all of this, the hot and cold relationship and the will-they-won't-they shenanigans I haven't even touched on the amazing emotional journey that Anna goes on. To begin with she's too scared to approach the chef at school so spends her time eating apples and bread. However, she loves films and soon discovers that Paris is full of cinemas. She sets herself the task of learning how to ask for one ticket in French. Eventually she's ordering food, a coffee connoisseur and travelling across the city with confidence. I think it's this, alongside the friendships and relationships that make this book so wonderful.

After reading Anna and the French Kiss I will read anything that Stephanie Perkins writes. Lola and the Boy Next Door is first on my wish list!

Monday, December 05, 2011

13 Bullets by David Wellington

Laura Caxton thought she was just a State Trooper working highway patrol. Tonight she’s going to find out her true destiny: hunting down the immortal, nearly invulnerable predators that haunt the night searching for our blood. Her only ally is Jameson Arkeley, a US Marshal who has devoted his life to hunting down vampires, long after everyone else thought they were extinct. The two of them are our only chance—assuming they can survive the night.

I really like this cover. It's striking, edgy, and hints at the carnage that lurks within. I had an urge to read some vampire fiction recently, and this was one of the titles suggested to me. By happy coincidence we had a copy lurking on the shelves and I jumped straight in.

13 Bullets opens with a transcript of federal agent Arkeley's report on the incident in which he apparently killed the last vampire back in the mid 80's, a feat that nearly killed him several times over. This bit's in first person perspective, as befits a copy of a report, and quickly lets you know a) how ruthless and inhuman the vampires in this world are and b) that Wellington isn't pulling any punches when it comes to the action.

The story skips ahead after that, and we get to meet Trooper Laura Caxton, a seemingly normal, dedicated State Trooper who's dragged into Arkeley's orbit when a routine traffic stop opens a can of distinctly vampire flavoured worms. From there on Wellington really puts her through the wringer both mentally and physically- there are few books I've read recently where the main character is given such a rough ride, and the combination of that vulnerability and tenacity is what keeps her real and someone you care about. You can feel her aches and her exhaustion radiating from the page as she and the hardbitten Arkeley set about trying to stymie the vampires' resurgence and the rapidly increasing bodycount.

There's little subtlety en route but that's no bad thing. It's full throttle from start to finish, packed with punchy action scenes, gallons of blood and some cracking set pieces. Shiny :)

13 Bullets is the first book in the Laura Caxton series and I'm looking forward to picking the others up (oh look, it's almost Christmas...)!

You can visit David's website here

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Magick 4 Terri

This amazing auction came to my attention earlier this week after I saw Neil Gaiman tweet about it.  One of my favourite writers, editors and artists, Terri Windling is going through a genuinely tough patch at the moment, both health-wise and privately due to some on-going personal troubles.  Friends and colleagues of Terri have all banded together to try and help Terri and her family out.

Root Tribe, artwork by Terri Windling

I wish I had money to put up for some of the auctions on the Magick4Terri website.  Sadly, I do not.  What I do have is some great blog followers and twitter readers who may be able to do so.  What I can do is tell you guys about the auction, but also tell you to go out and buy the books edited and written by Terri as every bit of earnings will help her and her family. 

This is Terri's blog.  If you are an old MFB reader you will know how mad we are about magical writing and wonderful bits of art.  Terri does both, and she is an inspiration to us on a great many levels.  She does a series called "On your Desk" and it is one of my favourite features on her blog, featuring artists, creatives, writers writing in from all over the world, showcasing what is on their desk and their creative areas.  Incredibly inspirational.

Also, if you are interested in buying one of Terri's books, I highly recommend The Wood Wife.  Simply one of my all time favourite books and a comfort read I go back to time and again.

Find the Magic4Terri website here and have a look at what you can bid on:

A signed watercolour by Brian Froud!
Neil Gaiman / Charles Vess signed editions of Instructions!
A signed chapbook by Charles de Lint!
A signed copy of Emma Bull's seminal urban fantasy novel: War for the Oaks!!
And a vast amount of more stuff that geeky readers and writers would love.

There is artwork, jewellery, critque services, books, bags...too many pretty things for my shiny eyes to absorb all at once. The way the community has come together to support Terri is so heartwarming and I hope they make enough to help her and her family through this difficult time.  I'm off to go and see what item I can bid on and realistically afford! Where did I put that credit card again....

Friday, December 02, 2011

Legends of Literature - Melvin Burgess & David Almond

Team MFB could not attend this fantastic event hosted by Puffin at their offices in November, so I kindly asked SCBWI chum and aspiring writer and reviewer, Caroline Hooton, if she'd be interested in attending it on our behalf.  I love Caroline's reviews and think highly of her as a writer and she is one of the funniest people I know.  She agreed to attend on our behalf and wrote us this interesting and comprehensive report:

As part of the 70th anniversary celebrations for Puffin Books, Puffin Towers hosted legends of literature, David Almond and Melvin Burgess in conversation with Claire Armistead (literary editor of The Guardian) on Wednesday 16th November.

The event started with each author reading from their latest work – THE TRUE TALE OF THE MONSTER BILLY DEAN and KILL ALL ENEMIES, moved onto questions from Claire Armistead and concluded with questions from the crowd.

Melvin Burgess said that KILL ALL ENEMIES was based on the people he spoke to in pupil referral units around the country. The kids he talked to were the kind of kids usually regarded as ne’er-do-wells and thugs by society, but he found them to be real heroes in other parts of their life.

The extract that Melvin read out from KILL ALL ENEMIES involved the character Chris who he said was based on a kid who decided that while he was happy to work in school, his free time was his own and he was not going to fill it with homework. Kids loved Chris but adults wanted to slap him.

One of the other characters in the extract, Rob, is another POV character in the book who was based on a kid who hung around the Leeds Corn Exchange and was in a death metal band called Kill All Enemies with his brother. They had a violent step-father and used death metal to deal with their emotions and the fall out after they were abandoned by their mother.

The third POV character in the book, Billie, was based on a psychopath in the Wirral who was always getting into fights. Her mum had suffered with depression and alcoholism, leaving Billie to bring up her four siblings on her own, doing whatever she could to keep her family together. Her mum went into detox and when she came out she wanted to take back all of her children except Billie.

Melvin said that simply talking to people was a way of obtaining truth, voice, character and circumstances that you can then fictionalise and turn into a novel. He told Claire that the kids he spoke to all knew that they’d be in the novel and Melvin showed them the manuscript at every stage and they all seemed to be proud that their stories were being used.

Speaking about THE TRUE TALE OF THE MONSTER BILLY DEAN, David Almond described his novel as being about a boy whose father only visits him at night and who lives with his hairdressing mum in a house within a destroyed city. Billy is a person who feels driven to tell and record his own story but he can’t write so the story is told phonetically. David described Billy’s approach as being that of taking words and turning them back into objects. Billy learns how to write at the same time as he learns how to grow up and it’s through the act of writing that Billy ultimately learns to be himself.

When pushed into giving more details of the book, David revealed that Billy’s mysterious dad is actually a priest who essentially abused Billy’s mother. Billy himself was born in the middle of a war or similarly cataclysmic event. Billy is alone in seeing beauty in the ruined world, mainly because he’s spent so much of his life hidden by his mother.

Claire Armistead suggested to each author that their books both looked at what “goodness” might be.

Melvin said that the kids he based his characters on in KILL ALL ENEMIES faced tremendous pressure in terms of what society expects from them and although they fail to live up to that their core values remain recognisable and they behave as they do for good reasons. Melvin said that he wanted to give a voice to that because a lot of kids like this don’t have one – for example he pointed out that when it came to the London riots in August 2011, no-one really spoke to the actual rioters. He said that his characters all have good qualities about them and they’re acting on instinct to the problems around them rather than making continuous moral judgments.

David said that in THE TRUE TALE OF THE MONSTER BILLY DEAN, Billy has to show courage in order to become himself. His guiding point is his mum and his desire to live, but that doesn’t prevent him from being used by other characters for their own ends.

Melvin believed that what THE TRUE TALE OF THE MONSTER BILLY DEAN and KILL ALL ENEMIES have in common is the fact that they feature characters who become nice folk by the end of the story – i.e. they transform into kind and generous people.

Claire asked David about the influence of Catholicism on THE TRUE TALE OF THE MONSTER BILLY DEAN. Having grown up Catholic he said that the religion does have an influence on his work, mainly because Catholicism isn’t something you believe in so much as something that you do and because he can’t get rid of it he allows it to enter his fiction and finds it a relief. In THE TRUE TALE OF THE MONSTER BILLY DEAN, Billy reconstructs the religious statues blown up in the war because he finds Catholic statues to be filled with tenderness. To chuckles from the audience, David admitted that he had a thing for angels but doesn’t really know why. Growing up Catholic in the 1960s he heard stories from people who said they’d seen angels and he believes that they’re a potent force throughout history and across cultures.

Claire pointed out that in KILL ALL ENEMIES there are similar symbols that take on mythical status. Melvin said that the significance of a Metallica tee-shirt in the book came about because he’d been speaking to a quiet lad who’d been given a Metallica tee-shirt by his mum and couldn’t bear to take it off because it was filled with his sense that his mum loved him.

Claire described how the Metallica tee-shirt becomes both a symbol of vulnerability and of aggression because the character insists on wearing it, which results in him getting into fights. Melvin agreed that the character does get beaten up because of the shirt and that there’s a certain irony to the fact that as the tee-shirt gets torn and muddy and battered, he thinks that it’s more metal. The shirt becomes the character’s way of coping with being deserted by his mum and beaten up by his mates.

Finally, Claire noted how neither David nor Melvin is kind to parents in their books. Melvin said that this is because there’s a perpetual problem in fiction of getting right of the parents so that the kids can show their mettle. David pointed out that in THE TRUE TALE OF THE MONSTER BILLY DEAN Billy does in fact find substitute parents – particularly in the form of the local butcher – because he’s searching for a father figure and trying to construct a family who will love him.

Many thanks to Puffin for the invitation to this event.

THE TRUE TALE OF THE MONSTER BILLY DEAN by David Almond and KILL ALL ENEMIES by Melvin Burgess were each released on 1st September 2011 and are available from all good bookshops.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Research can be a sweaty business.

As some of you may be aware, somewhere around this time last year I came to the decision that classical/ sports fencing just wasn’t floating my boat anymore. I was still enjoying it, but nowhere as much as I wanted or expected to. I'd taken it up partly as an alternative to gym, but also as research to help me get into the mind of the main character of my fantasy novel (first draft done, edits underway, thank you for asking :) ) and to hopefully infuse my action scenes with a dynamic, credible realism.

Anyway. My eye began to rove and fixed itself on a class offering lessons with the longsword. Intrigued, I crossed my fingers and plunged into the strange and fascinating world of historical martial arts. To be brutally honest, having been poisoned by a near miss with the SCA I wasn’t expecting much beyond a few beardy part time re-enactors. What I found instead was a group of largely intelligent people with an infectious enthusiasm and passion for what they were doing, and none more so than the head honcho, Dave Rawlings. He threw me in the deep end, which was perhaps the best thing he could have done, and blew my preconceptions of medieval combat out of the water by the end of the first lesson. I'm looking at you here, Hollywood.

So there I was, barely a year later, agreeing to take part in our first club longsword competition. Dave runs a number of classes across London under the banner of the London Longsword Academy, but most of us rarely get to interact with the other classes on anything resembling a regular basis due to the constraints of modern life. Hence the competition- a chance to meet the rest of the mob.. and then fight them. A bit of competition is healthy, and sparring against someone new really forces you to raise your game.

And so it was that this Sunday past I found myself packing my stuff into my kitbag and heading out the house to cross swords with who knows how many strangers when by all rights I should instead have been ensconced on the sofa finishing Deliverance Lost. It’s a strange world I live in.

Having squeezed the car into a quasi legal parking space I joined about 30 others at a gym in Hither Green and jotted my name down on the roster. There were a few faces I recognised, having met a few others at other classes I’d gone in on when I’d missed my regular Tuesday night slot, as well as some I’d sparred with at Fightcamp and other events. Everyone seemed to be equal parts excited and nervous, but the atmosphere was friendly. We filed inside and quickly thawed under the rather large, chipshop like heaters (which were soon switched off when the fights started!).

Dave had enlisted the support of the School of the Sword to help with the scoring, but they’d been delayed by the evil machinations of their SatNav, so a few of us took the opportunity to do some light sparring while the circle was being chalked out, a good way to shake the Sunday lethargy from our limbs and generally loosen up, even if it did cost me a small but annoyingly painful bruise on my knuckle within the first few seconds (thanks Toby). However, soon enough our guests arrived and we divided into pools under Dave’s directions, each one a mix of both sexes and folk from each of his classes. Then it was time to take a seat while the first pool readied themselves for the opening bouts.

The fights progressed smoothly, with Dave doing most of the refereeing and the line judging shared by a selection of members from other pools. The scorekeeper kept things blessedly clear and simple and there was little delay once things got moving, with plenty of hands willing to help people in and out of the coloured shirts and various bits of protective gear. The fights themselves were as much of a mix as the participants and were generally a pretty good match in terms of ability. The one thing they had in common was fantastic sportsmanship- there were no egos butting up against each other as we were all there of our own choosing and because we enjoy what we do.

My pool was last to fight, and my stomach instantly knotted itself into a pretzel when we moved into the staging area and started getting ready, courtesy of that primal part of the brain that refuses to recognise a friendly fight and prepares for the worst even if you don’t want it too.

It all changed as soon as I stepped into the circle though. No more worries, no more nerves, just the game at hand. The fights were only two minutes long- to those outside the circle anyway. Inside, it felt far longer. Suddenly it was over, and the nervous grin that had been there before was gone. It’s like the build up to a theme park ride you’ve never been on. You’re beset by doubts as you inch closer to the point of no return, but once it’s over you’ve got a fat smile across your face and all you want to do is get back on and do it again. And that’s what it was like.

Unfortunately I didn’t make it into the next round (insert excuses here!) and the fights that followed between each pool’s top scoring competitor were well fought, with flurries of good techniques exchanged until a winner emerged to collect his well deserved laurels and prize. Once the congratulations and thank you's were done, a vote was taken as to whether we should we do this again- the answer being an uncontested YES.

I can’t wait.

If you’re interested in finding out more, why not contact Dave and arrange to visit one of his classes?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Wolfsbane & Mistletoe; edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L P Kelner

The holiday season can bring out the beast in anyone - literally! Fifteen werewolf tales from an all-star line up.

Charlaine Harris, Keri Arthur and Patricia Briggs bring you a Christmas present to remember!

We all know the holiday season can bring out the beast in anyone - but it's especially hard if you're a lycanthrope! Gathered here together is a veritable feast of fears and tears: fifteen of the scariest, saddest, funniest werewolf tales, by an outstanding pack of authors, best read by the light of the full moon, and with a silver bullet close at hand.

WOLFSBANE AND MISTLETOE, the perfect antidote to Christmas mawkishness!

Thanks so much to our good friend Jamie "Wordweaver" Ambrose for reading and reviewing Wolfsbane & Mistletoe and for her sterling review.


When this book arrived from the kind folks at MFB, I have to admit I was fairly sceptical. I mean, c’mon: a collection of 15 werewolf short stories is one thing, but one with a Christmas theme seemed a bit, well, mismatched, somehow.

Until, that is, I got started on them.

From the first page of the first tale, ‘Gift Wrap’ by Charlaine Harris, whose Southern Vampire Mysteries have been turned into TV’s True Blood, I was hooked – and delighted. Here are stories with comic turns, dark imaginings, new takes on old myths, and genuinely haunting themes, and all of them wonderfully and imaginatively well-written by authors such as Patricia Biggs, Keri Arthur and Kat Richardson. They feature good weres and not-so-nice weres, by-accident weres and on-purpose weres, successfully integrated weres and desperate loner weres, and each has a holiday-related tale to tell (or should that be tail to wag?).

Richardson’s ‘The Werewolf Before Christmas’ is one of the cleverest things I’ve read in years, effortlessly weaving global legends and folklore into a seamless and unexpected twist on ‘a visit from Saint Nicholas’. If nothing else in this book appeals to you, please, please give this one a try.

Harris’s ‘Gift Wrap’, set in the bayous of Louisiana, features her well-known Sookie Stackhouse character, whose matter-of-fact, Southern dialog makes the perfect narrative voice for a story that wanders in and out of magic and ‘real life’ as effortlessly as stepping from one room into another.

Being a rather timid soul, I was a bit apprehensive by the title of Alan Gordon’s ‘Fresh Meat’, not to mention the first line, which mentions newly slaughtered beef carcasses ‘…so fresh they were mooing yesterday’ (ick!). But by the end of it, I was firmly on the side of Sam Lehrmann and his telepathic pack – just as I became a big fan of Patricia Biggs’ ‘The Star of David’ werewolves, whose decency (or agenda) wasn’t immediately apparent.

Obviously, I enjoyed some of these stories more than others, and although there are a few I found a bit ‘much’ on the gratuitous bloodlust front, each one is well worth reading – not something I can often say about anthologies. And many are certainly worth reading over and over, which, given the season, is something I’m just about to do.

So kudos, Ms Harris and Ms Kelner, and thank you MFB, so much, for introducing us. Wolksbane and Mistletoe is a great collection of imaginative writing, one that’s had the effect of making an overworked and slightly jaded fantasy reader sniff the air, hear a far-off howl – and be thrilled by it again.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Coyote Road - Trickster Tales, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Coyote. Anansi. Brer Rabbit. Trickster characters have long been a staple of folk literature—and are a natural choice for the overarching subject of acclaimed editors Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s third “mythic” anthology. The Coyote Road features a remarkable range of authors, each with his or her fictional look at a trickster character. These authors include Holly Black (The Spiderwick Chronicles), Charles de Lint (The Blue Girl), Ellen Klages (The Green Glass Sea), Kelly Link (Magic for Beginners), Patricia A. McKillip (Old Magic), and Jane Yolen. Terri Windling provides a comprehensive introduction to the trickster myths of the world, and the entire book is highlighted by the remarkable decorations of Charles Vess. 

Datlow and Windling are two of my all-time favourite editors when it comes to putting together anthologies of mythic nature, and The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales anthology is one of my all time faces.

The Coyote Road - TCR - like its companions The Green Man and The Faery Reel makes great reading for anyone interested in myths, legends and folk tales.  Some are new stories, some are old and are being retold, but they are all fresh and unique and great to dip in and out of for tired minds in need of inspiration.

I am a great big fan of trickster tales and am therefor the one who loved Loki's duplicity and interesting character in the newest Thor movie. This collection of short stories and poems, with artwork by Charles Vess, is one of my desert island books.

In The Listeners by Nina Kiriki Hoffman we meet Nysa, a young slave in ancient Greece.  She is fourteen and pretty enough to draw the attention of her owner's one friend.  After overhearing the men speak after too much to drink one night, Nysa discovers that her owner has agreed to sell her, for one night, to his friend.  The thought of having sex with this odious man does not appeal to Nysa and she mentions it to a friend of hers, at the well as they draw water together.  Her friend hands her a small cake of incense to burn and assures Nysa that it may not be that bad after all.

Nysa ends up burning the incense and saying a prayer to Hermes, the god of thieves, travellers and guardian of roads and boundaries, begging him for help, to set her on another path.  And miraculously, Hermes does appear and places his mark on her...changing her path and life irrevocably.

It is a great story - a strong heroine bargaining with a god, yet she remains humble enough to accept his grace and guidance. The story is set in ancient Greece and a lot of terms are unfamiliar to the english reader yet the author takes great care to explain what each of these words mean through making use of context.  It is a trick that works really well and she has a light hand giving us lots of info about ancient Greece and the way women were treated (not nice) without us realising it.

It is a thoughtful story and well written.  The author is new to me, which is silly as she's been around for some time.  I had recently bought a book of hers which I'm reviewing in December and would like to say thank you to Kaz Mahoney for putting the ear worm about this writer in my brain.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Sabbat Worlds - edited by Dan Abnett

So what the hell is ‘Sabbat Worlds’ I hear you ask.

Well, gather round, make yourself comfortable and I’ll tell you. No, that’s my chair.

In it’s simplest form, the Sabbat Worlds is the name given to a small corner of the Warhammer 40K that forms the backdrop for Dan Abnett’s hugely popular Gaunt’s Ghosts series of novels. As with most things, it started small, then grew and grew, acquiring its own history, legends and heroes with each instalment – there are 14 books in the series so far (well, 15 if you count Iron Star, which was printed as a limited edition short story but is now included in this anthology), and it now stands as a fully fledged and recognised corner of the universe. Until recently it’s pretty much been Dan’s personal playground, but now he’s invited a few select friends over for literary sleepover, and the result is this anthology.

The anthology features eight stories, and pole position goes to Apostle’s Creed by Graham McNeill.

Apostle’s Creed revisits a squadron of elite Thunderbolt fighter aces called the Apostles, who made their debut in Double Eagle back in 2004 (so long already? Where’s our sequel?). Graham’ story revolves around Larice Asche, a capable and experienced ace in her own right who’s still trying to find her place amidst the emotionally distant brotherhood of the Apostles.

With her Thunderbolt damaged in a savage dogfight, Larice is escorted to the nearest airbase by an army pilot, who she discovers is an ace in his own right. Impressed, she approaches the rest of the Apostles to put him forward as a candidate to join their ranks. But her peers know there’s a cruel but unavoidable truth that Larice has to face up to, one that she will have to confront sooner than she expects.

That journey is the crux of the story, and it works because Graham really does well to bring her character to life in such a relatively short time- by understanding her, we understand more of the campaign they are fighting and the nature of what she is -and will be- going through, which gives it a good emotional resonance. Not only that, he’s also recaptured the exhilarating feel of high speed, life or death dogfighting with a distinctly 40K flavour. And there’s plenty of it too, which is ace.