Monday, 24 March 2014

The Troop, by Nick Cutter

Imagine if Stephen King rewrote Lord of the Flies for the Internet generation, and then John Carpenter made the film of it...that's pretty much The Troop.

Scoutmaster Tim, the only doctor in town, takes five boy scouts of troop 52 to the uninhabited Falstaff Island (just off the Canadian coast) for a long scouting weekend of campfires, survival lessons and wilderness trails. There's supposed to be a big storm brewing so Tim's had to bring the radio, the only way of communicating with the mainland, just in case.

Just as he's settling in on the first night, an emancipated stranger staggers up to their cabin, thinner than a corpse, reeking of sweet decay and desperate for food. Any food. Things take an unexpectedly horrific turn when Tim realises that this stranger is sick, sick in a way that Tim hasn't ever even heard of before.

Firstly, I'm not a horror reader as a rule, but this book had me glued to the pages. Though it's gross in places, cringy disgusting in others and fairly stomach turning throughout, I couldn't help but make my bets early on about who would live and who would die, and I needed to know if I was right.

The book does an excellent job of exploring pack dynamics of adolescent boys, and how those dynamics change with the absence or acquisition of authority. It's interesting to see which characters become dominant, which respond to action and which to violence and how the hierarchy is established and where it gets them. Their early camaraderie is well written and believable, and their conversations (girls, the 'Would you rather?' game and their home lives) are familiar and realistic. The character types are recognisable from any school in the world; there's the intelligent but overweight lad, the boy that's angry doesn't know his own strength, the psychopath, the popular sporty boy and the nondescript passenger. The reader is guessing up until the final chapters which ones will have the mental strength to make it through and which will succumb to the deadly contagion. The reader's perceptions (and the perceptions of the boys themselves) change and evolve as the story progresses as each of the five show their true colours in the face of pressure, immense danger and responsibility. I found the character of Shelley to be the most disturbing. He starts off conspicuously vague, his sociopathic tendencies hidden behind his slack expression, but an absence of adult supervision means that he can let his disturbed fantasies run free. He makes the character from the Wasp Factory look intriguingly pleasant.

One of my favourite aspects of the book was the 14 year olds’ absolute conviction that adults have the answer to everything. That adults exist to advise, protect and shelter the younger generation. Teens and children are free to shrug off responsibility and consequences, because they are not yet at an age where they are duty bound to accept them. The dawning realisation that began to surface in several of the characters was really well done, and formed a pretty pivotal part of the plot. In some ways that was scarier than the contagion- the idea that nobody is coming for you. Adults cannot sort this. You are on your own.

The action on the Island is interspersed every so often with documents from other sources. Newspaper clippings, adverts, transcripts from tribunals, transcripts of counselling sessions that some of the characters attend to address their issues. All of this helps to build up a fuller picture of the events on the island from some unspecified time in the future. It provides some context and some explanations, as well as delivering a bit of welcome respite from the gore of the narrative. These sections were really effective, and it demonstrated what a dangerous, morally bankrupt enterprise the contagion was. It also made it seem horrifically real.

The Troop is confidently written with a wry, relatable narrative voice. It certainly doesn't hold anything back from the reader. It's not an easy read, but it is quite a lot of fun. Cutter's inventive use of language is impressive and it lends a really relatable and (occasionally) horribly recognisable edge to the events that happen in the story. There are some really effective but apparently everyday similes that take on horrendous new meanings in this book. It's darkly funny in places, and stomach churning throughout. The fear, the panic and the desperation of all seven characters swamps the reader, as well as the horrific smells, sights and sounds that the author ensures the his audience do not miss out on.

Cutter builds the tension well, though the reader is pretty aware of what the final solution is eventually going to be. Definitely not a book for the faint hearted or for anybody even remotely squeamish. It's a fast paced, old fashioned body horror, with all the splattering gore and grisly demises that tend to come with it.

The Luminaries, by Elenor Catton

Hokitika, New Zealand 1866- the end of the world, for some. For others a chance of reinvention and fortunes to be made through good luck and hard labour. Walter Moody, New Zealand's latest arrival steps ashore, irritable and luggageless, at the peak of the Gold Rush to stake his claim on the goldfield in search of his fortune.

Interrupting a tense and secretive meeting between 12 local men at the Crown Hotel, Walter becomes the accidental audience for their complex narrative. As they take turns to impart their stories, he learns of the unsolved mysteries that have baffled the residents of the burgeoning town- gold lost and found; the dead body of a luckless drunk; a Politician; a suicidal and opium ridden prostitute; a missing wealthy prospector; a shifty sea captain and a conspicuously absent shipping crate. Each is implicated and connected in different ways. Piecing together the testimonies from the 12 stingers, Walter begins to immerse himself in the lives of the Hokitikia prospectors. Catton builds the layers of the plot steadily, using the inner and outer voices of the characters one by one, until the reader is truly the only person with the full picture. Or as full as the picture can be.

I absolutely loved the way that the lives and stories of the 12 characters were wound together in increasingly complicated knots and loops. The descriptive19th Century style that the author uses ensures that the reader has a comprehensive understanding of each of the characters- we understand their moods and motivations, their history, their innermost thoughts and their anxiety at their involvement in an increasingly complicated business. Each character's outlook, prospects and safety depends on their ties and their connections to each other. It's a 12 way dependency and the shifting dynamic of the group is fascinating. The plot winds and loops in increasingly complicated circles. Sometimes it will backtrack and depict and already-seen scene from another perspective. Sometimes from several. But with each loop the reader gains a new perspective on the event, a new insight into a character and another look at the motivations and the loyalties of each of the characters.

The usual reason that I dislike historical fiction is because contemporary authors usually fail spectacularly to recreate the atmosphere and the tone of the era that they are writing about. Just one of the incredible aspects of this book is the skill and accuracy with which Catton manages to replicate Victorian-era style storytelling. It does not feel forced, pretentious or superficial. The pace, the choice of language, the dedication to description and the story within a story technique is perfect. The speech, habits and attitudes of the characters are spot on. If the reader didn't know better, it would be easy to think this was written in 1866, not 2013. The pages just melt away, the beautiful, sweeping descriptions and the intricate thoughts and actions of a complex and diverse cast- it's an absolute pleasure to read: an intricate mystery story of murder, betrayal, revenge and justice.

Hokitika is such a vibrant setting, and it comes alive through Catton's writing almost without thought. Though there are certainly no accidents in this novel, everything is minutely crafted; Hokitika seems to exist already, almost without the need for description. It leaps off the page so easily that it’s hard to believe it's the work of an author at all. The lively bustle feels so effortless: the taverns, the opium dens, ships, offices, brothels and the hotels that they come alive almost on their own, full of smells and sounds and unimportant crowds. It felt like a real place with a true population that continued to exist, to drink and pan for gold after the narrative finished.

Astrology plays an important part in the structure and direction of the novel, and each character is representative of one sign of the zodiac. The twelve sections of the book dwindle as the plot and the moon wanes...each is half the length of the one that came before. However, I chose to place this astrological aspect of the book on a bit of a back-burner and did not consider its significance throughout my reading, being an absolute non-believer in astrology and all types of Zodiac. I'm sure that the addition of this layer simply adds more to the mind blowing complexity of the book for those that choose to pursue it and I wish I could include myself in that group. The plot does not use astrology as a crutch though, and it stands up incredibly well without it. At least for the first 800 pages...

My only disappointment is the singularity of the ending. The only possible explanation that fits the location, actions and injuries of all parties is disappointingly celestial. The idea of celestial twins in present as an idea throughout the latter sections of the book, but when it becomes a fact, the only way to account for everybody, it becomes a disappointment. I would have preferred a choice between this ending and a more corporeal one. It shatters the delicately constructed reality of the rest of the novel.

My muddled thoughts and opinions can't really do justice to the immense and beautiful spectacle of the Luminaries. I read it in 4 sittings in 5 days, such was my desperation to see the mystery unfold and for this amazing web of characters to untangle. Its pace is astonishing, the style is flawless and the plot is spellbinding. I'm lost now I have finished it. Lost and sad that I can never read it for the first time, but itching already to read it for a second.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Tiger Wars, by Steve Backshall

Saker, a highly trained and dangerous teen warrior is on the run from the only life he has ever known. When an attack of conscience during a 'job' causes him to question the motives of the mysterious "Clan" to which he has always belonged, Saker must flee for his life. Riddled with amnesia and pursued by mercenaries and assassins, hunting dogs and other Clan members, they will not stop until he is caught- and his former friends are every bit as trained and as deadly as he is.

After accidentally kidnapping Sinter, the feisty daughter of a tea plantation owner, Saker's memory begins to return in lumps and patches. As he shares his history and his reasons with Sinter, her hostility and haughtiness begins to melt away. Aligning herself to his cause, their shared mission takes them both from humid India to the magnificent Himalayas and the highest settlements of Tibet. Using all the survival skills, knowledge and bravery they possess between them, Saker and Sinter must risk everything to save Asia's most fearsome and majestic (not to mention unfortunately valuable) of predators- the Tiger.

Tiger Wars is the sort of book that combines pretty complex emotional themes seamlessly with moral themes, all wrapped up in action, suspense and interesting characters. The plot is full of peril, danger, terrible decisions and breathtaking escapes but also makes a huge effort to celebrate the power of friendship, the strength of overcoming adversity and bravery. It also has a really vital conservation message that focuses on the protection of the last of the world's wild tiger population from the illegal Asian medicine trade. So all in all it has a lot to say, a really engaging voice with which to say it.

Firstly, I loved the setting of this novel. It's an arm-chair tour of some of the world's most hostile but beautiful territories. Saker and Sinter's flight takes them through dense forests, dusty cities and impassable mountains into some of the most inhospitable and isolated areas of the world. The reader learns a little of the culture of these places and the challenges that their inhabitants face. The unusually exotic locations make a really welcome change to the Victorian London or the English Secondary School setting that feels so prominent in Middle Grade fiction. Reading it, I felt I had been somewhere new.

Another of the book's strengths was the detailed and intricate characterisation of the two main characters. To begin with they are thrown together by circumstance and bad luck, nobody is particularly happy and both want to scarper as soon as possible- but a mutual respect and understanding soon develops. Eventually, Saker and Sinter prove to be a formidable and unbreakable team- each bringing their own skills and unwavering loyalty and determination to the duo. Both are displaced and alone; Sinter is fleeing an arranged marriage and a future of unfulfillment and servitude and Saker has known nothing but life in the Clan, which until recently seemed fun but now is filled with deadly enemies.

One of the most appealing aspects of the book is the sheer enthusiasm of the author. Steve Backshall's love for nature, for the environment and for the wilderness is infectious. What's more he knows his stuff. Backshall skillfully sprinkles the story with facts and information about survival skills, ecology, geography, Asian spirituality, geology and natural history, so I think this book will also appeal to fans of non-fiction- there's plenty of quiz friendly trivia in here. These additions are genuinely interesting, they work within the context of the narrative and add weight and authenticity to the book. It also proves you're never too old to learn new things!

In conclusion, I was immensely impressed with this book and look forward to the rest of the series. It has good characters who share a strong, genuine bond, loads of action and danger and a really pacy story. It's an inspiring tale about doing the right thing even when it seems impossible and about caring for the natural world, as well as the transformative power of friendship. Top stuff.

The Carnegie Shortlist 2014

Carnegie Shortlist Short List 2014

This year was the first year that the organizers of the award published a long list. Previously it has been just the 8 finalists. Ordinarily I would be all over it (as it featured a slice of my TBR pile too), but this year I've been involved in reading and selecting the books given out as part of the BookTrust's BookBuzz programme and y'know- 72 middle grade titles aren't going to read themselves.

But that's almost done now. So I will be all over this like a rash. The whittling of the long list to the short one has been controversial I believe. The predictions of librarians, readers and the like were compiled, curated and arranged at acaseforbooks.

I must say though, despite having read none of the long list, I had expected the short list to look quite different. Based only on hunch, obviously. Liar & Spy and Rooftoppers were, I was sure, dead certs. I am surprised at the omission of Ketchup Clouds, which I have been enthusiastically recommended by stuents, and by the omission of Brock, which I expected to see based on the positive Twitter buzz that it created.

Looking forward to getting a shadowing group together at work, and looking forward to shadowing on Twitter again (#tweetCKG if y'fancy it).

They've just arrived!! Eeeee! BRB, unboxing.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Dragon Frontier, by Dan Abnett

Jake's family is part of a wagon trail heading from the East towards Oregon, preparing for a fresh start on the frontier and a chance to escape failure and tarnished reputations. Jake's a bit of an outcast though. His horse allergy means that he's not able to ride up front with the other boys his age, so must stay with the waggon and the Oxen and keep an eye on his Ma and his sister. Jake's only real friends are in his adventure books, but he's only been allowed to bring one with him on the road.

When the travellers' camp is besieged one night by sky-borne fire, Jake becomes separated from his family during the panic and destruction. Rescued by the mysterious natives, Jake's wounds are treated and bound and the tribe do their best to nurse Jake back to health, but his illnesses are too advanced for their remedies. Jake is delivered to the nearest town where he is expected to stay, adopted by the Blacksmith. Here he meets the Smith's children, the headstrong Eliza and her younger twin brothers. The latter are very keen on Jake, enthusiastically adopting him as a replacement older brother. Eliza is thoroughly less keen. She's heard the delirious Jake spouting nonsense about dragons and thunderbirds and has decided he's insane.

Jake knows he does not belong in this town, that he needs to find the purple-eyed creature that set his camp alight. He needs to locate his family. The only people that can help him are the natives, so that is where he is going to go- back into the wilderness for some answers. Setting out alone, Jake's mysteriously acquired directional instincts lead him back to the hidden settlement of the Natives. They have some answers for him, but it's not the ones he's anticipating. Life is about to get much more interesting for Jake, suddenly he's very unique and important, and horse hair allergies are not going to interfere with his new ride.

Dragon Frontier is a Wild West fantasy adventure series for lower aged secondary pupils (I'd say) that is a bit of a cross between Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption. There's the search for lost family in the barren and dangerous West, coupled with unexpected magical powers and responsibilities where dragons (and control thereof) are concerned. The frontiersman action and the dragons themselves make this an ideal book for fans of the Beast Quest series, and it would also be enjoyed by readers of the How to Train You Dragon books. There's a lot of action, an epic quest and feelings of isolation or exclusion, which I think a lot of readers will relate to. I also liked that Jake, the main character was a big reader and frequently talked of the immersive power of books and stories, so it get's a nod of approval for secretly promoting reading....

However, personally I found this book a bit of a struggle. Ordinarily, I love a Western. Red Dead changed my life. Cowboys, frontiers, covered waggons and lots and lots of sand- can't get enough. What I found difficult about this was the slightly jarring combination of Western and dragonish Fantasy. It just didn't do it for me. It's unique, certainly, but something about the book left me wanting more. I was disappointed by Eliza and Jake's relationship too. Though they went from enemies to allies to genuine friends, I didn't feel like they ever had any real chemistry- there was never any believable connection made between the two of them. I never really felt that I was invested in Jake's character in any way.

Interesting concept, compotently written, but lacking in dynamic characters and a little bit underwhelming I felt.

Harvest, by Jim Crace

"What starts with fire will end with fire, it has been said".

Shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize Harvest is certainly an intense, slow burner. A painfully claustrophobic narrative detailing the tragic consequences of suspicion and mob mentality. Set in an unnamed English farming village in an unspecified period in time, narrator Walter Thirsk documents the decline and collapse of the village, his home for the last 12 years, throughout a 7 day period.

When a fire at the manor house coincides with the arrival of three strangers, the suspicion of the village residents is quickly aroused. Their hostility quickly escalates into violence and their actions set into motion a chain of events that will lead to the destruction of the village, their community and the way of life of the farmers and their families. To further heighten the already fraught atmosphere, an unknown town cousin of the master arrives to claim ownership of the farm. The cousin's presence and his thirst for modernity and progress means that the Harvest that has just been completed will be the last and unimaginable changes await the grain growing community. 

Harvest is certainly an incredibly atmospheric novel, with malice and violence bubbling just beneath the surface of rural life. The threat and the fear of unexpected outburst dominate Walter's narrative. The descriptions are immersive and evocative- the farmer's life is not exactly idealised, but the sense of gentle community and mutual respect for neighbour and nature comes across well. Narrator Walter paints a picture of simple people with simple pleasures and honest lives, though it is clear to the reader that there is more to the residents than the desire for a quiet life.

The plot is skilfully shaped and crafted, despite not being extensive. I was impressed with the way in which Walter had a unique perspective on the events that unfold within his village. He has not witnessed some of the things he is speaking of, so he can be considered unreliable in his reportage. This adds an extra layer of uncertainty to the reader's perceptions in a narrative that's full of unexpected events and unforeseen consequences. He may also be the only character with a true understanding of all preceding events, so the only one with the power to have saved the village from ruin. Walter is conflicted too in his narration, not quite an outsider but not village-born either.

Whilst I enjoyed reading this, I can't say as I was blown away by it. I found Walter to be a bit mopey and wondered what his true motivations were sometimes. I'd have liked to have known more about him. To say he is the character to whom we are most exposed, the reader never gets to know him. The prose is beautifully and skilfully written, haunting and evocative and Crace creates an incredibly strong sense of place. However, I did feel that it was at the expense of characters and plot. The lasting impression that I took away from this narrative was that the land that has been ploughed, sowed, harvested and grazed would probably go on forever, whether there was anybody there to see or care or not. I felt I knew the character of the fields better than anybody that worked them, which may or may not have been the intention all along.