Friday, June 29, 2012

The Bonehill Curse by Jon Mayhew

Necessity Bonehill is arrogant, a bully and trapped in Rookery Heights Academy for Young Ladies. Bored and aimless, she spends her time training with the retired, and slightly insane, Sergeant Major Morris or fighting with the local peasant boys. So when her Uncle Carlos sends her a seemingly empty bottle with the instructions, “Never open it,” she can’t resist the temptation and pulls the cork. 

But Necessity unleashes an evil genie, a demon of pestilence and a creature that bears her parents a terrible grudge. With only seven days to rescue them, Ness has to find out how to kill the genie. She begins a desperate quest that takes her through the dark streets of London and to the Oasis of the Amarant in uncharted Africa. If she fails, her parents die and the world will fall prey to the genie’s hideous plague.

Firstly, let me just say that I know Jon through SCBWI British Isles and have known him for a few years now, since I joined the society, but this is the first book of his that I've read.  I have no idea why, because it's made me realise that Jon genuinely writes what old time reviewers would have called "ripping yarns".

I've come to Jon's Victorian world quite late, but I think for me, that I chose the correct book to start with.  I'm all about myths and legends and weird fairy tales and The Bonehill Curse is very much a fairy tale / fable AND it has genies in it, and references to Arabian Nights, which dear readers, is one of my desert island books.

Necessity, when we meet her, is not a pleasant girl.  She's a bully.  She picks fights. She's rude to her teachers and sees only how she is wronged by other people's deeds. She has, basically, a massive chip on her shoulder. We are left wondering why she's not a Nice Girl for only a short while.  We learn her parents have basically dumped her at Rookery Heights and not been in touch for around five years.  Her best friend is an elderly, probably insane, ex-army officer SM Morris, who teacher her to fight and shoot.

After an incident involving her beating up a boy at a local farm, Necessity is sent back to school, where she is given this mysterious old bottle from her Uncle Carlos.  Of course the instruction is to never open it, but that's like telling Pandora not to look in the box, and Necessity does open the box and before she knows it, her room-mates are all lying severely ill at her feet and she's being blamed for unleashing some awful pestilence. She also seems to have brokered a deal with the genie from the bottle.  And it's not the best deal she's ever made.

She runs for help to the Major but he tells her to leg it back to London, to find her parents.  She manages to leave, just as he's being captured by the local police and the officials from her school.

Things don't go well for Necessity in London.  Big things she finds out about her dad leaves her feeling ill and worried - is he really as bad as his old friends make him out to be? Slowly but surely the story is played out and we are sent off on various chases across the world.

My biggest relief though is how the story is wrapped up and also how well Necessity comes through her ordeal.  She has a great character arc that she goes through and at the end of the story, she's still bossy but she's become a more thoughtful person and her boorish bully ways are far less noticeable.  Needless to say, I'm really happy I've read Jon's book!

The Bonehill Curse is a fun action packed novel for younger readers.  I read it pretty quickly once I got stuck in.  The language Jon uses is easy to digest and the concepts and exposition is handled well - we get smatterings of biblical and Arabic lore thrown in for good measure and it all forms a neat little package.

I think The Bonehill Curse is suitable readers up to the age of around 12 or 13.  As I said, the language used is easily digestible and it will make confident readers think they've read a far bigger book than they had and similarly, for readers who are less confident, it will feel they've accomplished reading a pretty adept adventure.  I would dearly love to see Jon write for Barrington Stoke as his work and writing style lends itself well to the stories they enjoy publishing for less confident readers.

I'm a big fan of H Rider Haggard's books, having had my dad read them to me when I was growing up (and now having most of them on my kindle) and I think that basically, Jon's stories is a toned down version of Haggard's, more digestible and easier to relate to for modern young readers. And what I liked about Bonehill too is that he uses all the world as his plaything and that Necessity and her new friends come from all walks of life.

Be sure to check out Jon's website here and probably, unlike me, you'll want to start at the first book in Jon's sequence of novels.  But I'm a rebel, as you know, and never ever follow anyone's directions.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Witness by Nora Roberts

Daughter of a controlling mother, Elizabeth finally let loose one night, drinking at a nightclub and letting a strange man's seductive Russian accent lure her to a house far away. The events that followed changed her life for ever.
Twelve years later, the woman known as Abigail Lowery lives on the outskirts of a small town in the Ozarks. A freelance programmer, she designs sophisticated security systems - and supplements her own security with a fierce dog and an assortment of firearms. She keeps to herself, saying little, revealing nothing.
But Abigail's reserve only intrigues police chief Brooks Gleason. Her logical mind, her secretive nature, her unromantic viewpoints leave him fascinated but frustrated. He suspects that Abigail needs protection from something - and that her elaborate defenses hide a story that needs to be revealed.
I've not read a Nora Roberts book for the longest time.  This one though, when it came through for review really did appeal.  I like crimey novels and the fact that the Russian mafia is involved and the witness is on the run...well, needless to say, my interest was piqued. 
It's a quick read, in the sense that it makes you turn the pages really fast, which is great.  The writing is good, not great or fantastic, but it's the characters that genuinely appeal.  In Elizabeth we have a more human version of Tempe Brennan from Kathy Reichs' books.  
Elizabeth has lived a sheltered life in the sense that, for all her vast intelligence, she is kept away from other kids.  She's on course to become a doctor, like her mother, and instead of having a summer off, for herself, she's forced to take part in a course her mum has decided for her.  She rebels, throws a proper strop and her mother, who comes across as a superb cow, leaves Liz to stew in her angry juices, packs her bags and goes off on a business trip. 
Liz finds herself in the mall and decides to go on a bit of shopping spree - buying jeans and t-shirts and make-up.  Stuff she is never ever allowed to buy or wear as her mother buys and approves her clothes.  At the mall Liz makes friends with a girl she recognises from high school, they end up doing a bit more shopping and Liz agrees to make fake IDs for them to get into a local nightclub. 
The girls dress up and set off for a night on the town.  It's when they get to the nigh club and they are chatted up by the owner and his manager that alarm bells start ringing.  Liz is only sixteen, a few weeks from her seventeenth birthday and although she is highly intelligent, she has no real concept of relationships and the bigger scale of things.  
She lets herself be dragged along for a party at the one guy's house and once there, she becomes violently ill.  She falls asleep on the patio and is woken by harsh words being exchanged.  And sees a murder committed.  Liz runs.  She rings the police, they find her, she tells them everything that's happened, they take her into protective custody because basically she's handed them, on a platter, the local Russian mafia's right hand man on a platter. 
Things progress from here quite rapidly and the story unfolds easily - Liz becomes more likeable as she is forced to deal with mundane people and her security team, a bunch of great sounding cops.  She is contrasted well but never held as truly odd - her remarks are taken at face value and soon the cops realise how clever she is, how completely isolated and how her mum had basically treated her as an experiment and not as a daughter. 
Bad things happen and Liz runs, leaving the house in flames behind her, two of her security detail dead and one more wounded. 
We skip ahead in time and place and meet Abigail.  Very soon we realise who Abigail really is.  She's a recluse, living with a giant dog for protection and she works from home in a small town in the Ozarks - it sound fantastic and I personally would love to visit there.  As a programmer she has no real reason to travel around a lot as all of her work can be done from home but it's when she goes into the local town to buy some ingredients for her cooking, that she draws the attention of the local chief of police.  He's intrigued by this young woman who lives on the outskirts of town who is so incredibly private and almost painfully shy.  Or so he thinks, at least.  
Slowly but surely he - Brooks - makes friends with her.  Then his mum turns up at Abigail's place and is kind towards her.  Abigail is thrown in turmoil - she doesn't know how to do the friends thing.  The small talk thing, the whole relationship thing. 
Part of the charm of The Witness is seeing how Ms. Roberts contrasts Abigail/Liz and Brooks and his insane family.  How she teases out Abigail's reticence to make friends, to be friendly to others.  We are given a whole picture of a  young woman who, although wonderfully successful and highly intelligent, is so socially inept she researches barbecue etiquette online and throws fit when she realises she's expected to take along a covered dish of food to the barbecue.  
The relationship that develops between Abigail and Brooks is so well done - I fell in love with them as a couple.  The small-town shenanigans that go on formed a strong colourful secondary story to Abigail's story and when she eventually tells Brooks of her past, how she's been running and hiding, he fully stands by her and together they decide to make work of the old unresolved case. 
The Witness is tightly plotted and it felt like I got to spend a great deal of time with the characters, getting to know them and like them.  The world Ms. Roberts created is rich and populated with strong well thought out characters. 
The conclusion was good too - I thoroughly approved of it and it made me close the covers with a smile.  I would love to see this book turned into a movie as it has some great moments which i think would translate well to the screen.  Abigail/Liz is a resourceful, charming, funny, intelligent and wise character and Brooks is just swoon-worthy and cool and honest and all good things you want from a hero.  
If Ms. Roberts' other books are as well written and as much fun as The Witness, I may have become a fan. I highly recommend The Witness as a great summer read.  It will make you forget about airport lounges, the annoying child screaming for his parents around the pool, and it will carry you off to have an adventure with Abigail and Brooks and some Very Bad Men indeed.  Sadly, the cover lets it down, as it is quite bland and says pretty much nothing, but if you look past the obviousness of it, the book is a lovely surprise.  Definitely recommended! 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

On Writing - Researching fairy tales & legends by Graham Joyce

MFB is really proud to have a guest blog from Graham Joyce today.  It coincides with the publication of his new novel: Some Kind of Fairy Tale. 

About the new book:
It is Christmas afternoon and Peter Martin gets an unexpected phonecall from his parents, asking him to come round. It pulls him away from his wife and children and into a bewildering mystery.
He arrives at his parents house and discovers that they have a visitor. His sister Tara. Not so unusual you might think, this is Christmas after all, a time when families get together. But twenty years ago Tara took a walk into the woods and never came back and as the years have gone by with no word from her the family have, unspoken, assumed that she was dead. Now she's back, tired, dirty, dishevelled, but happy and full of stories about twenty years spent travelling the world, an epic odyssey taken on a whim.
But her stories don't quite hang together and once she has cleaned herself up and got some sleep it becomes apparent that the intervening years have been very kind to Tara. She really does look no different from the young women who walked out the door twenty years ago. Peter's parents are just delighted to have their little girl back, but Peter and his best friend Richie, Tara's one time boyfriend, are not so sure. Tara seems happy enough but there is something about her. A haunted, otherworldly quality. Some would say it's as if she's off with the fairies. And as the months go by Peter begins to suspect that the woods around their homes are not finished with Tara and his family...

The first story I researched for Some Kind Of Fairy Tale was that of Thomas the Rhymer who, according to lore, was a Berwickshire poet and a prophet of the thirteenth century.  He is thought to be the prototype of the legendary Tam Lin, also a poet.  The ballads associated with Thomas and Tam tell how they either kissed or slept with the Queen of Elfland and either rode with her or were otherwise transported to Fairyland.

There are many versions, but the abductees always pay a price for this dalliance.  A key moment that confirms their fate is when they drink or eat the food of the fairies.  They are gifted with poetry but also with a terrible kind of insight or power of prophecy that puts them beyond humanity.   

Rip Van Winkle - art by Arthur Rackham

There is a strong tradition in other folk tales that time moves differently in Fairyland, and that this is part of its enchantment.  The inspiration for this was not the  Rip Van Winkle story but many Welsh and Irish folk tales that assert this feature of Fairyland, and when I came to investigate this supernatural lapse of time in Fairyland I also found it upheld in Lapp, Slavonic and German stories.

I did initially think that these traditions were largely Celtic but I was way wrong, as the above shows.   But before I found that out I was immersed in the Irish stories of Tir Na Nog.  It was an otherworld  - not an afterlife – a place of eternal youth and beauty.  Music, heroism and all pleasurable pursuits came together in a single place.  Oisin the hero is taken by invitation – you get there across the sea by horse – but when he wants to go home he is devastated to find that 300 years has gone by.

While all this was swimming around in my head I happened to go to Norway and I was in a cabin with some musicians and a woman stood up to sing an old folk song that made the hairs stand up on the back of my arm.  When I asked her what it was she told me it was the story of LittleKirsty, who went into the forest and was abducted by the Mountain King who appears on a white horse.  Same story, genders reversed.  The fairies give her a drink laced with “bewildering corn”.  I found there to be countless Scandinavian versions – tales and songs – of abduction by the Fair Folk. 

Readers familiar with my writing will know that I’m not going to give the story over to the supernatural – or not all of it, anyway – and that there has to be a swing back to the natural rational objection, and that the tension between credulity and rational scepticism is a condition I like to work with.  So I started to research the most recent cases of claims of Fairy abduction – bearing in mind that this tradition has been usurped in modern times by the claims of UFO abductees.  I only had to go back a century to find an Irish court case in which an extended family were tried with the murder of Bridget Cleary, whom they believed to have spent time with the fairies and to have come under their spell.  The transcripts of the trial are quite shocking and I quote some of them in my book.  But this is comparatively recent – it all happened when my Grandmother was alive.

As you can see, the antecedent forms make a rich and tangled undergrowth.  In the end I only used a fraction of my research.  The use of epigrams at the head of each chapter was a device I used – in the end – to allude to the rich literary and folkloric traditions around this very subject without letting the material overwhelm the novel and steal energy and vitality from my own story. The background is massive.  The research of this subject can pull you in, like Fairyland itself, and consume half your life.  So be warned! 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Unrest by Michelle Harrison


Seventeen-year-old Elliott hasn’t slept properly for months. Not since the accident that nearly killed him. Sometimes he half-wakes, paralysed, while shadowy figures move around him. Other times he is the one moving around while his body lies asleep on the bed. His doctors say sleep paralysis and out-of-body experiences are harmless - but to Elliott they’re terrifying.

Convinced that his brush with death has attracted the spirit world, Elliott secures a job at a reputedly haunted museum, determined to discover the truth. There, he meets the enigmatic Ophelia. But, as she and Elliott grow closer, Elliott draws new attention from the dead. One night, during an out-of-body experience, Elliott returns to bed to find his body gone. Something is occupying it, something that wants to live again - and it wants Ophelia, too . . .

I don't think it's a secret that I'm a huge fan of Michelle Harrison's books. However, I'm also a terrible scaredy cat so I waited for a nice, bright summer's day (well, sort of summer) to sit down outside and open Unrest. The cover itself is enough to scare the hell out of me with it's browning edges and ghostly figure. However, Elliot has such a distinctive voice that I was hooked in the first few pages. The book starts with an account of his sleep paralysis, out of body experience and a haunting. We start to get to know post-accident Elliot and discover that he's nothing like the confident person he was before. All his previous interests have gone out of the window, he's not eating, sleeping or even washing. He certainly is a tragic figure but although all those around him are looking at him with pity I think the reader can tell that the fight is still inside him - just a hint of the person he once was.

Deciding that he doesn't want to return to college until the next year he gets a job, one that should bring him into contact with ghosts. His theory is that if he sees ghosts anywhere other than his flat then he can start to get a handle on what's going on with his life. He gets a job at a living museum and enters real life for the first time in months. However, it soon becomes apparent that his boss Hodge is seriously unpredictable and prone to fits of anger. His adopted daughter Ophelia is an enigma who draws Elliot's attention. He's not had any interest in girls for months but there's something about her that attracts him. Her previous boyfriend, Sean, ran out on her but she's being plagued by his friends and family wanting to know where he's gone. Ophelia and Elliot are thrown together by escalating events - I was a hundred percent loving their relationship. There are some seriously wonderful kissing scenes in this book. I think these two are my favourite couple of the year.

Unrest is non-stop action from beginning to end. Elliot can step out of his body but doing this means that his body is unguarded so when he returns to find his body gone he realises that he needs to find out more about his talent and quickly. The hauntings are incredibly atmospheric and creepy. I could feel his terror during his sleep paralysis. Little by little Elliot starts to gather his life back together again and part of this is accepting that he won't be the same person he was before. In terms of emotional arcs this one is particularly satisfying. Elliot's in such a low place at the opening of the book that it's almost impossible to see how he's going to get out of his slump. The secondary characters are all wonderful too - Hodge is deliciously awful but I also loved Elliot's dad and brother.

I'll stop now before I gush too much. Just to say that I did not see the twist at the end coming. Unrest is wonderful with a great main character - I urge you to read it!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Wahaca (Cookbook) Review by Liz and Mark

A mad divergent blogpost this - about FOOD and RECIPE BOOKS which I hope you won't mind tooooo much.

We've been visiting the Wahaca Mexican Restaurant for several years now.  We started off at their main branch on Chandos Street but now our favourite branch has to be the Soho branch.  We've also visited the Canary Wharf branch and although it's big, and spacious and has great views, it's not my favourite of the three restaurants as it feels "too new" - I know, silly of me! Regardless though of where you go though, you are guaranteed good food at great prices.

We've taken Sarah and her hubby there a few times now.  We recently introduced our good friend Darren, from Bookzone, to Wahaca.  Matt the Librarian revere Mark and I for taking him there a few years ago.  We had a massive table at the Covent Garden branch a few years ago after the signing at Forbidden Planet where we met Guillermo del Toro.  It's become a place to go for us to chill out and relax and we love the food.

Wahaca is always busy - mostly because the food is so good.  Today sees the publication of Tommi's new cookbook but Mark and I thought we'd tell you how much we love their existing cookbook:

Our tattered copy of the first cookbook by Tommi

 Our copy is falling apart.  We have bits of paper sticking out of it.  It's got dirty finger prints all over it and we use it at least once a week.  Some of the recipes (refried blackbeans) is so embedded in our minds, we merely cast an eye over the recipe but do everything from memory.

We use our cookbook to entertain our friends - both Alex Bell and Amanda Rutter love the quesadillas and the tacos Mark makes when they visit.  And as Alex is vegetarian, there are some great no-fuss recipes in the cookbook we can use to cater to her dietary requirements.

And the best thing about Wahaca's recipes: you are the boss of how spicy you want to make it.  And at their restaurants you can ask the waiter for advice as to what food you should steer clear of if you aren't too keen on the spice.  But even so, the spice is spice and not there to blow your mind - the recipes are all about taste experience and if your taste-buds are flaming, then where's the sense?

At the back of the Wahaca cookbook is a list of suppliers and I think what people tend to forget is once you've bought a few ingredients, they keep on your shelf for a while, and that you won't be restocking on a  weekly basis, unless perhaps you fall for the recipes in a big way.  Like with all good recipe books, there is advice on how to prepare various salsas, sauces, condiments.  Tommi gives a good write-up on chillies, what to use, the types available and the important bit is: always wash your hands thoroughly after chopping them, right Mark?

A lot of the things described can be bought easily enough in supermarkets but making them from scratch, if you have the time is so great.  It gives you a sense of accomplishment and complete bragging rights.

I can't urge you guys enough to give any of the restaurants a try or if you don't come to London often, and you feel the urge to buy a new recipe book, give the Wahaca cookbooks a try.  My copy of the new one should be waiting for me when I come back from my holiday to Morocco.  This is the official Wahaca blog that's packed with the occasional recipe and general news.  And if you like spicy food, head over to the Chili Fiesta taking place later this year.  Mark and I go every year - the last time we went, I ate far too many chillies and I thought my face was sliding off.  Thankfully I was saved by delicious ice-cream, packed full of chillies.

The shiny NEW one that will soon become tattered and loved up!

Happy eating, friends!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Feed by Mira Grant

The year was 2014. We had cured cancer. We had beaten the common cold. But in doing so we created something new, something terrible that no one could stop. The infection spread, virus blocks taking over bodies and minds with one unstoppable command: FEED.

Now, twenty years after the Rising, bloggers Georgia and Shaun Mason are on the trail of the biggest story of their lives – the dark conspiracy behind the infected. The truth will out, even if it kills them.

After sitting here at the table, staring at my slightly battered copy of Feed I’ve come to the conclusion that’s it a bit tricky to sum up. It’s got zombies, but it’s not an out-and-out zombie survival or dystopic setting. It’s got politics, intrigue and betrayal, but it’s not a politicial drama. It’s somewhere in between.
In the world inhabited by the main characters, Georgia and Shaun Mason, much of the world remains a no-go, zombie-infested no man’s land. Civilisation has made a comeback following the spread of the lethal, zombifying Kelis-Amberlee virus along the periphery of these areas, closely monitored and patrolled by the reborn government (just imagine health and safety given free reign -and guns). 

Traditional news sources lost their power and following after their ineffectual and censored coverage of the initial outbreak, when only bloggers (go us!) and the likes of twitter got the message across that these weren’t drug addicts (bath salts, anyone?) or a cult or terrorists. Suddenly Romero’s zombie trilogy became educational material, studied by the army and police.

Shaun and Georgia run a news blog, one with a good reputation, and are both zombie-savvy and wise to how their world works; growing up in that kin d of environment doesn’t leave much room for unicorns and glitter. Their big break comes in the shape of being chosen to cover one of the presidential hopeful’s campaigns, gaining them unprecedented access to both the senator and the behind-the-scenes workings of their campaign. They and their cynical, self-promoting parents are equally delighted and things get off to a good start as the story gains momentum. Mira Grant does well to flesh out the background of ‘the Rising’ and the nature of the zombie virus, the latter doing a very effective job of raising the threat posed by the zombies over and above the usual shuffle-and-bite fare, and does all this without interrupting the flow of the story (most of which comes from Georgia’s first person perspective). The way that the nature of the zombies and the virus at the root of the problem are presented makes that crucial suspension of disbelief so much easier to achieve and makes Feed maintain it’s ‘grown up’ fell even while zombies are moaning and marauding across the pages.

Things start taking a more exciting turn as the campaign starts suffering zombie flavoured acts of sabotage, and as the bodycount climbs they become aware that they too are in the conspirators’ sights, and their only hope of maintaining their lives and integrity is to unearth the truth.

Feed is punctuated by excerpts from personal blogs, mostly Shaun and Georgia’s, which blends in nicely with the story and also gives it a bit of extra ‘breathing room’, letting Mira add an extra angle on events and the characters’ backgrounds outside of Georgia’s sole perspective.

I really enjoyed this- the writing and the characters are solid, the setting is believable and well thought out as are the action sequences. There’s no such thing as ‘just another zombie’ here – they’re all walking, single minded virus incubators and dangerous in more than just one way.

I’ll freely admit that I was a bit hesitant at first, but I was firmly hooked before very long and, importantly, Mira made me care about the characters. Taken together with the no nonsense approach to the zombie virus, Feed stands out as an intelligent and captivating take on life after the zombie apocalypse and one that I will happily recommend to anyone looking for something fresh and gripping.

Find Mira Grant's website here.  The talented lady also writes urban fantasy as Seanan McGuire.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Golden Lily by Richelle Mead


The second thrilling installment in Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy spinoff series

Tough, brainy alchemist Sydney Sage and doe-eyed Moroi princess Jill Dragomir are in hiding at a human boarding school in the sunny, glamorous world of Palm Springs, California. The students--children of the wealthy and powerful--carry on with their lives in blissful ignorance, while Sydney, Jill, Eddie, and Adrian must do everything in their power to keep their secret safe. But with forbidden romances, unexpected spirit bonds, and the threat of Strigoi moving ever closer, hiding the truth is harder than anyone thought.

Populated with new faces as well as familiar ones, Richelle Mead's breathtaking Bloodlines series explores all the friendship, romance, battles, and betrayals that made the #1 New York Times bestselling Vampire Academy series so addictive. In this second book, the drama is hotter, the romances are steamier, and the stakes are even higher.

Bloodlines was one of my favourite books of last year; Sydney's self-control makes her a fascinating heroine. I was interested to see how she would react as she grows closer to the Moroi and continues to question the Alchemists teachings. In book two we're straight back into the action at Amberwood Prep. Sydney has a great deal to cope with already. Angeline is suspended, Jill has a designer determined to get her to model for a nationwide campaign, Ms Terwilliger is continuing to attempt to teach Sydney magic and then of course there's Adrian. Aside from all of this Sonya (the ex-Strigoi Moroi) is being followed by strange people and then threatened.

This odd and sinister group form the basis of the plot. Apart from following Sonya and Sydney around they make veiled threats. Soon it becomes apparent that they have a very definite and terrifying agenda. Golden Lily is as action packed as book one but it's the character development that grabbed my attention. I touched briefly on Sydney's eating disorder in my last review and it becomes more obvious to those around her now that she's started to make friends. She's still trying to compare her body image with that of Jill - a naturally tall and thin Moroi. Her obsession with diet drinks and deserts are highlighted but it's her fledgling relationship with Brayden that starts to make her realise that perhaps her relationship with food and body image is skewed. As an aside, I loved that no one could get Brayden's name right throughout.

As ever, the most fascinating person for me is Adrian - magnetic, perplexing, infuriating Adrian. He was always my favourite character in the Vampire Academy books and I'm loving how important his role is in this new series. His emotions mostly ruled by spirit he struggles not to self medicate himself with alcohol. Now he's linked with Jill he tries his hardest not to get too intoxicated. He's also found a new passion with his art and obviously is drawn to Sydney. As I read, willing them together, I loved seeing how much he's grown emotionally. There's a touching scene where he meets his father who clearly hates him. I defy anyone not to want Adrian to conquer his demons after reading it.

Sydney also has an interesting journey. Initially resistant to magic that seems to reside in her blood she starts to relax and the story progresses and some of her Alchemist inhibitions are broken down in this book. However, she stays true to her cautious nature and I found her as intriguing as ever. I have high hopes for the next book after an explosive closing scene!

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

I first met my demon the morning that Mum said Dad had gone.
Alex Broccoli is ten years old, likesonions on toast, and can balance on the back legs of his chair for fourteenminutes. His best friend is a 9000-year-old demon called Ruen.
When his depressive mother attempts suicide yet again, Alex meets child psychiatrist Anya. Still bearing the scars of her own daughter’s battle with schizophrenia, Anya fears for Alex’s mental health and attempts to convince him that Ruendoesn’t exist. But as she runs out of medical proof for many of Alex’s claims, she is faced with a question: does Alex suffer from schizophrenia, or can he really see demons?

The Boy Who could See Demons is a surprise find – I stumbled across it at Waterstones a few weeks ago and the sound of it really appealed to my random reading muse.

I didn’t recognise the author’s name although once I visited her site I realised she’d written the very well received The Guardian’s Angel which I did not read. I admit it: I was hesitant. I was uncertain if I would be able to cope with melodrama, (which I made up about the book in my head after seeing the Guardian Angel thing) but I closed my eyes, and settled in, and immediately found myself thoroughly drawn into Alex’s richly created world.

Alex’s voice is wonderfully clever, direct and fresh. He’s a young boy, ten years old and he has his own demons that he sees. Naturally no one else sees them which is awkward for Alex. Alex lives with his mum in Northern Irelandand let’s face it, he’s poor and not at all well taken care of. He lives off bread and fried onions and dresses eccentrically like an older man. He has no real friends and basically occasionally acts as his mum’s carer who in turn struggles with reality, drug addiction and depression. Ruen, his demon, appears in different guises to Alex and has told Alex he is there to study him. Alex allows Ruen to do this as he is so lonely, that a demon, a nasty piece of work, is better than not having anyone to talk to.

Things get out of hand though when Alex’s mum is taken to hospital after she attempts suicide and Alex is the one who finds her. In walks in Anya Molokova, a child psychiatrist who has been assigned to Alex’s case.

Anya has to be one of my all timefavourite characters I’ve read about. She is singularly smart, genuinely touching, logical, a bit dreamy but solid and firm in her beliefs. So much about her is what makes this book work. She is Alex and Ruen’s foil, she listens to Alex talking to Ruen and never ever talks down to him, which I utterly approved of. She’s intrigued by Alex’s case of seeing demons. She sees past the odd neurosis Alex displays and is determined to help him, no matter what.

As the story is set in Northern Ireland, there is quite a bit of background information about the Troubles and it was fascinating to read – for me personally as coming from South Africa, we never really learned about Troubles. Anya is curious about the odd behavior Alex displays because a lot of what she sees is usually related to someone whose been through the Troubles or has been through a severely traumatizing event. And yet there is nothing in the paperwork or story that they know about Alex, or his mum Cindy, that indicate that they had ever experienced anything violent.

The story is told from both Alex and Anya’s point of view and so neatly intertwined that with each new page, something new is revealed. Although the subject matter is dark and frightening and at times confusing (who do you believe? Alex is so sure he’s seeing this creature Ruen and other demons whilst Anya is so logical and clear about what she thinks is wrong with Alex) it is beautifully written, with sections of lyrical prose that lifts the heart.

I’ll make no bones about it, I cried towards the end of the book. I had so much invested in both Anya and Alex, I wanted things to work out for them both, but also, I didn’t want to say goodbye to them, because they had managed to get under my skin.

The amount of research the author must have done is staggering – not just about child psychology, but about the awful things that happened in Northern Ireland, and also thinking up Ruen and the other demons’ religious mythology.

There are a few genuinely disturbing moments in the book where I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading. It broke my heart, but then the author just went straight ahead and lifted me up again.

The Boy Who Could See Demons has been likened to The Curious Incident etc. but honestly, this is far far better. Alex’s voice is so pure, so utterly un-made-up and charming, I lost my heart to him. This is solid storytelling – a book that makes you think, but also a book that makes you cry and grin. I’m a fan, for sure, and I may even go and give that Guardian’s Angel book a try!

Find Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s website here, where your can also read an extract of TBWCSD.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Cave of Secrets by Morgan Llywelyn

When Tom feels rejected by his father, he finds a secret second family among the group of smugglers who trade in and around Roaringwater Bay. Though Tom doesn't know it, his family in the Big House is under huge pressure. His father has had savage losses in business; his mother is always sad and worried, and his sisters have no hopes for a good future. This is seventeenth-century Ireland when cut-throat interests control everybody and everything, and land-grabbing is the order of the day. Friend turns into foe, and loyalty counts for nothing. From his new family, Tom learns all about boats and smuggling -- and secret treasure. And then Tom discovers the best-kept secret of all ...

This is my first Morgan Llywelyn book in a very very long time.  It is through Ms. Llywelyn's books that I sated my curiosity and thirst for mythic storytelling based around Irish sagas when I was in high school and before we moved to the UK in 2000. 

When O'Brien Press asked if I would be interested in reviewing Cave of Secrets my jaw dropped.  Yes, I said, of course! I'm a big fan and I have to say, I still am, especially now that I've read Cave of Secrets. 

Written for a younger audience, the writing is spare but lyrical.  We meet Tom who is utterly miserable - his dad is a very unpleasant towards him.  He brings gifts for his wife and dotes on heavily on his daughters and he sees very little good in young Tom.  Tom is quiet, unassuming and initially we think a bit of a sissy and gormless, but then he's never really had much of a life, cloistered in the big house on the hill with his close family, he's never run around and acted out. 

Things change however when he by chance meets Donal as he's hiding in the cave he discovered by accident (he fell down the cliff!) to get away from his father's shouting.  Meeting Donal is the big change Tom's been waiting for.  He is soon roaming the beach with Donal, teaching himself to swim, and learning how different Donal's life is compared to his own.  Donal insists his father is a King and I loved his fiery temper and utter disdain for "soft foreigners", which, I think he initially counts Tom as being.  But Tom is a fast learner and soon he's gathering food from the shore along with Donal and his little sister, the irrepressible and very cute Maura.

Tom fits straight in with Maura and Donal and has the time of his life and soon he meets Donal's father and the man comes to admire Tom for his honesty and level-headedness.  Soon Tom is offered the opportunity to go out with Muiris (Donal's dad) and some others from their small clan, at night to relieve some ships of their cargo.

Muiris and his men are smugglers, hiding precious cargo to prevent it from being heavily taxed when it arrives in port.  Instead they hide the cargo in the caves and then it gets transported overland and sold at ridiculous amounts.

I know nothing of this period in history at all and found that Cave of Secrets was set so firmly in this era that by the end of the story, I knew quite a bit, but not because it was crammed down my throat, but because it was so integral to Tom's journey of self-discovery.

Set in the 17th Century it deals with the rumours of uprising against the King of England and the repercussions that faces Tom's family when his father makes a series of bad decisions or rather, decisions he thought would benefit his family, only to discover otherwise.

Cave of Secrets isn't really a big book by any means.  It packs a lot of wallop though, as it's a well written historical novel dealing with a period in English and Irish history few enough people I assume know very little about.  Ms. Llywelyn has a light touch, setting the scene and time period for us, and it never clutters the story.  Tom is a likeable main character and in the end, we are so keen for everything to work out for him.  The secondary characters don't blaze off the pages, except maybe for Donal and Maura whom I loved to bits, and the focus remains strongly on Tom and his family's predicaments.

It also does a bit of social commentary and contrasts well what Tom is used to living in the big house on the hill, compared to Donal and his family.  It also shows how, even though the Flynn's are minor gentry in their part of the land, as soon as Mr. Flynn gets to Dublin we see how he's treated without much respect, in direct contrast to how he's treated at home.

I enjoyed Cave of Secrets - it intrigued me and it's made me want to research this era more.  I'd recommend it for readers 10+ and definitely to those who like a smattering of history with their adventure.  The use of language is great, there are a few Irish words thrown in, but they are explained, so reluctant readers will definitely feel they've accomplished a great deal once they've finished reading it.

Find Morgan Llywelyn's link over here at the extensive O'Brien website and here is her personal site.  Cave of Secrets is available now in all good bookshops and online.