Saturday, 30 July 2016

The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon

For the most part I really enjoyed this book, but there was one really massive thing that put me off and I'm not sure yet whether it's a dealbreaker or not. *Spoilers*

Since humans began developing clairvoyance some time around the turn of the 19th century, the government has sought to eradicate the 'Voyants', blaming them for all society's ills, campaigning for their destruction, enforcing the death penalty for those captured. 19year old Paige, a powerful type of Voyant called a Dream Walker (the top of the power tree) has made a living in the criminal underground, acting as a sort of out-of-body spy and information gatherer fro Jaxon Hall, her Mime Lord and futuristic Fagin. Clairvoyance works by various types of Voyant being able to access the "Ether" and thus see, sense or feel a person's Dreamscape, an area of a person's mind somewhere between an aura and a soul. A thriving underworld of Voyant syndicates exists under the dictatorial facade of future London. Her syndicate, based in Seven Dials, is the only place Paige has ever felt at home. Surrounded by other voyants of various types (Jax has quite the staff roll) she is an essential part of a highly successful team.

I thought the world building was really, really well done. The steampunk-esque Dickensian London of the Citadel of Scion London combined with 250 years' worth of technological advancement (it's 2059) was a fascinating backdrop for a familiar but well told story. Scion, the big-brother-esque government organisation that seized the city of London is a murky, tyrannical organisation whose rise we do not see. We learn that they have other cities under their control but are not witnesses to their rise to power. I'd love to have seen Scion's rise to power, what happened to make it possible in the first city that they occupied.

On a trip across town to see her father, Paige is spotted by a night patrol of Voyants in the employ of the government- she kills them accidentally and is forced to flee. Pursued across the rooftops of London by an unfamiliar red-jacketed squadron, she is caught. drugged and kidnapped. When she is revived, full of pain and poison Paige finds herself in the city of Sheol 1, a prison city run by a muscular humanoid race known as the Rephaim. Every 20 years, the Rephaim send Bone-Grabbers into Scion London and round up 20 clairvoyants to bring to their city. Voyants are assigned a Rephaim master and those that show a capacity for fighting are used to defend the city against the Emim, a mysterious kind of flesh eating space monster. It is apparently the threat posed by the Emim to the reast of Earth that give the Rephaim their power over Scion, an organisation that was founded when the Rephaim arrived on Earth as a source of human fodder for their defences. Those that fail to show combat skills or are deemed clairvoyantly useless are consigned to a life of poverty in the city slums as entertainers. The non voyants captured by mistake become slaves in service.

The book's core plot is the feisty, displaced Paige finding herself assigned to the Warden, the betrothed of the Rephaim's bloodthirsty leader. Training by night, wandering the city by daym she learns the hierarchy of the Rephaim's structure, immerses herself in the slums and the underbelly of the city, learns of failed rebellions and oppression. The people that she arrived with, other voyants and humans, are mistreated, abused and beaten by their masters. The voyants that failed to become bone grabbers live in humiliation and squalour. She means to get out of there as soon as she can- but how can she leave so many behind?

So. The potential dealbreaker for me (spoilers, FYI) is the idea of a slave of any kind, a branded, renamed, displaced, friends are occasionally murdered in front of her slave like Paige falling for her owner. He might be a nicer, more empathetic, liberal owner, but he is her owner nonetheless. I get that Warden is ideologically separate from the Rephaim. I get that he's a closeted rebel working to incite a human rebellion. I realise that it's not *quite* as bad as it could have been...But this book would have been 100% better for me if their romance had not happened. It would not have damaged the plot, not made the ending anti-climactic. I'm not saying Humans can't go in for alien species- just look at The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet, that pulled off the whole human/alien pairing OK- it's the slave 'falling for' the handsome, 'he's not like the rest of them' owner that bothers me. It's so unnecessary and so inappropriate. How can a piece of property be involved in any sort of consensual encounter with their owner? I don't think it would have detracted from the plot at all. We see Paige and the Warden build a shaky trust, each saves the life of the other repeatedly and they do genuinely seem to develop a partnership based on the same objectives. But romance? I can't get on with that. Yes, the Warden is kind of trapped by his situation as a rebel and fiancee of the ruling species. Yes his is beholden to Nashira, he hates her and rises against her- but that's different to being actually branded into actual servitude. 

I'm still having thoughts about this. I'll give the second book a go.
It's such a shame because the rest of the book is so richly layered. The locations are teeming with life and intrigue, the characters are complex and engaging. The worldbuilding is so, so good and I love the idea of the menacing, tyrannical Scion being a puppet government for the depraved, power crazed Nashira. But I just wish the slave/slaver romance trope would stop creeping into otherwise compelling, well crafted novels. It belongs in the book sin bin with the teenager/adult relationship, the pupil/teacher and the Nazi/Jew or the Guard/Concentration Camp prisoner romance. Less please.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Radio Silence, by Alice Oseman

I loved this book so much. It’s vital and vibrant, heartbreaking and emotional. It’s hard to isolate a main storyline in Radio Silence; it’s more of a web of stories and events that sort of tie together. The novel covers themes of identity, the pressure of living up to expectations, friendship, family, fandom and creativity. It also emphasises that it’s wrong and exhausting to force yourself into a role that you feel society, adults, whoever have guilted you into.

Frances, as a gifted student has been guided towards University, groomed Dumbledore style for the academic echelons of Oxbridge. Throughout the course of the novel, Frances comes to realise that there’s much more out there, more options, more opportunities than her blinkered path has suggested until now. Radio Silence reminds readers that though it is scary to find that your hard-won path is in fact the wrong one, it’s never too late to change, so long as you are brave enough to make your own decisions and trust yourself.

I absolutely loved Frances and, despite our 10 year age gap, I identified with her so hard. She refers to ‘School Frances’ the study machine, the one who everybody assumes will ace her A Levels and go to Cambridge and go off to something complicated and important in adulthood. Clever, boring, quiet Frances who has no connection or anything in common with the people she hangs out with and has a constant inner monologue about not giving away her weirdness. Because ‘Real Frances’ is someone else entirely, a person known only really to her mum. Real Frances dresses like a giant child, creates fan art for her favourite podcast in her spare time and is an absolute social hermit. She essentially wears a mask 24/7 and presents a totally different persona to the word outside her home. Her safe space is Tumblr, where she is a prominent member of the Universe City fandom she posts her art as Touloser.

The “Big night out” scenes could have been stolen straight from my own life. AO captures that feeling perfectly of allowing yourself to be coerced into an activity that everybody else is mad for that you simply Do Not Get, mostly just to fulfil social obligations. That sense of looking around at all the normal, happy teens having fun doing something horrendous like shots and clubbing and genuinely wondering if you might belong to another species altogether. It’s on this night out that she meets Aled Last for the first time (properly). Rather than being the beginning of a lame romance, it’s the start of the first real friendship that Frances has ever had, the first time she can be Real Frances to another person. It also just happens that he is the creator of Universe City and has lived across the street from her the whole time.  A naturally reserved person, Aled is not particularly forthcoming about his home life, save for Frances’ prior knowledge of his runaway sister. It will unfold in the most harrowing way, poor Aled.

A beautiful, heartwarming friendship blossoms between Aled and Real Frances- one based on a mutual love of the others’ work, a shared creative passion, a mutual love of goofy clothes and almost certainly on loneliness too. They work on the podcast together testing new stories, they help each other study and become generally inseparable. Two shy, nerdy creative types have found each other and it’s a gorgeous thing to read, not least because of the total absence of romance. I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to read a YA novel where none of the characters are pining, secretly or overtly, for any of the other characters.

Their friendship is tested in the most modern way when some Facebook and Tumblr detective work outs Aled as the Creator of Universe City and his hordes of demanding, kind of scary fans demand a kind of ownership of his creation, something that they as listeners are so invested in that they feel they have a stake in it. It raises interesting discussions about the role and distance of fans and fandoms in the creation of art, but that’s kind of a whole other thing in itself.

It’s a scary thing to realise that the thing you’ve conditioned yourself in to wanting, that main, glorious life goal- is actually not what you want at all and then having the bravery to admit that. The book asks some important questions about identity, about the projection of different versions of yourself and choices. As teens, you’re offered limited choices- it's really not a good time to be making big life decisions. Sheltered for so long in school, the adults that surround you have mostly gone down the same path; university and then teaching. Obviously schools and teachers want the best for their pupils- but to what extent do they get it wrong in the paths that they steer their young people towards?

There is so much to love about this book. Frances has one of the best narrative voices I’ve encountered in a long time; the reader really becomes close to her. The relationships are all beautifully explored, even amongst the supporting characters. Frances’ relationship with her mum is brilliant, all sarcasm and razor sharp but realistic dialogue. Aled’s relationship with his mother is enigmatically creepy. Everything feels so absolutely realistic and developed. It’s incredible. I've just got to squeze in, one of the many, many reasons to marvel at this book is the incidental mixture of characters. A total mixture of ethnicity, gender and sexuality; but it’s not a story about any of that. Not all novels with a POC protagonist have to be thematically linked to race. Sometimes gay people exist in narratives that are not soley about coming out. I feel like Alice Oseman is really leading the charge on representation and love her slightly more for it.

It is pretty much a flawless book and it is, evidently, very difficult to write thoughts about it in a comprehensible manner. Read it immediately.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

The Great Dragon Bake Off, by Nicola O'Byrne

At the Ferocious Dragon Academy, dragons-in- training learn the arts of bone crunching and teeth sharpening. But there is one dragon who harbours a passion for a most unlikely Dragon pastime…
Meet Flamie Oliver.
To look at, Flamie is as terrifying as a dragon can get. But behind closed doors, Flamie is...
...a stupendously spectacular Star Baker! That's right – choux, rough, salty, sweet and puff – Flamie loves it all. In fact, he loves baking so much that his studies at the Ferocious Dragon Academy are starting to suffer, and there's a chance he won't graduate! Flamie's going to need a real showstopper to get out of this one.

It's no secret that I'm partial to a picture book- ESPECIALLY ones about dragons or crocodiles. So. Imagine how pleased I was to discover Flamie Oliver- the dragon with an abundance of baking skills and nobody with whom to share the fruits of his confectionery labour. He's studying at the Ferocious Dragon Academy, learning to rustle sheep, fight knights and kidnap princesses- but Flamie's heart isn't in it. All he wants to do is bake.

With the return of the immensely, inexplicably, unstoppably popular Great British Bake Off returning to our screens soon (it's normally the first or second week in August- can't find a *specific* date) this books could not be more timely or more effective in building that spongey suspense. Personally, I'm an awful, awful baker, so am always insanely impressed by the absolute kitchen wizards on the show, and obviously, of course, with Flamie too.

This is absolutely my favourite page. BIG FAN of bread and this is my dream buffet.

I loved the little in jokes for Bake Off viewers (and for Harry Potter fans too)

It's not just me thinking that this scene bears a striking dragony resemblance to a very familiar
quidditch pitch, a scaly McGonagall and a tower-full castle in the background?

It's a lovely, characterful book filled with brief but funny characters, a cannot-emphasise-this-enough message about how it's ok if you don't fit in with everyone else, share the same hobbies, interests and enthusiasms- because we are all different and have our own unique skills. I know this is a popular message with picture books and always has been, but there is literally no such thing as overdoing this message.

I loved the joyful, rainbow illustrations too. I'm an absolute sucker for colouring pencil illustration. You can see the work that goes into every single line and every little speck of colour.

I think we just need a reminder of Luis' 2014 creation here. It feels right.

Many thanks to Lizz Skelly at Bloomsbury Children's book for the review copy

Monday, 18 July 2016

Songs About a Girl, by Chris Russell

Songs About a Girl is the debut novel from Chris Russell, and also the title of the debut album from hot new superstar boyband Fire&lights. The book opens with Olly Samson, a formerly ordinary 18 year old from Reading, who went to school and liked singing and had a lot a friends. Olly Samson has just got in touch with protagonist Charlie Bloom; a shy, retiring nobody, a year 11 student and amateur photographer that is invisible to the majority of the school population. That’s fine by her because she prefers to go unnoticed. Olly Samson is also a member of Fire&Lights and he’s just messaged Charlie on Facebook asking her to attend one of their sell out arena gigs as a backstage photographer.

Initially freaked out, she declines and shares the news with her computer nerd best friend Melissa (incidentally a hardcore Fire&Ligts obsessive) who talks her into changing her mind. Charlie attends the gig with her battered, second hand camera and bonds with the band. They get friendly, her candid shots are good, they go down well with the fans and the management. She becomes something of a regular at their shows, travelling around the UK to different cities, growing closer to moody Gabe and nice guy Ollie. But when a photo of her and Gabe is leaked onto a fan blog, her identity is revealed by online trolls and Charlie gets plunged into the paparazzi filled world of celebrity and anonymous, online abuse.

There’s also a bit of mystery thrown in when Charlie realises that a lot of Fire&Light’s lyrics bear a striking resemblance to snippets of poetry in her dead mother’s notebooks, lifted word for word from the pages. How can that be? Are the songs about her? Are her and Gabe connected in ways deeper than rock star and a girl ‘not-like-other-girls’?

I must guiltily confess, as bad and as awful as it probably makes me, that I really did not get on with this book. I’ve thought hard about whether or not I should review it or just let it go- but I want to be properly honest. It falls into quite a few of the YA pitfalls (Kooky best friend, at least one deceased parent, love triangle, not like other girls) and I found the prose style quite disjointed and bitty and a bit too propped up by adverbs.

Firstly, I found the characters incredibly one dimensional. As the reader, I wanted to get in Charlie’ s head more, really connect with her insecurities and fears. I love the introvert character type, identify with it hugely. But there was nothing here. I wanted to go with her on a journey somewhere, be there when she realises her true worth. Unfortunately she is characterised mostly by a beanie hat. Her only worth seems to come from having lads punching each other in the face over her. I was just wistfully remembering Toria from Juno Dawson’s All of The Above and what an EXCELLENT hipster loner weirdo she is.

The members of Fire&Lights were also flat, stock characters that were more annoying than anything else. Yuki was immature and irritating, throwing food literally ALL THE TIME, engaging in lame, cringey banter that I guess was supposed to be funny and endearing but just made him seem like an overgrown child. Aiden, the blonde Irish one (wonder who that’s supposed to be?) was just straight up dull. The sensitive one, has a guitar, the one that seems really normal. Gabe and Olly. Fire and light. One a lean, intense feisty bad boy, the other a muscular nice guy and impulsive protector. Points two and three of the love triangle.

Speaking of which, the Young Adult audience has had more than its fair share of love triangles, and this book just delivers another average arc. The steamy, volatile bad boy; dangerous, exciting, sexy. Or the guy who’s just really nice. The one that treats you well, is there when he says he will be, and doesn’t let you down. Lots of to-ing and fro-ing, while still quite being convinced that *neither* of them could possibly like her.

I get that I’m not the target audience for this. I know that Boy Band Lit is alive and well, and that this will almost certainly be a welcome and much enjoyed addition to that genre. Fans of Girl Online are going to love it; girl with camera forms unlikely relationship with sex god rock star. Internet fandom launches hate campaign against girl. Girl regroups.

This book will probably be very popular, and I hope that it is a success. It’s wish fulfilment fame fantasy of the highest, most fulfilling order. It’s Cinderella for the tumblr generation. I just really didn’t like it- but I’m going to assume that won’t have any impact on its popularity.

Thank you to @HachetteKids for the review copy- I'm sorry I wasn't feeling it on this occasion

Monday, 11 July 2016

Gerald's Game, by Stephen King

This was recommended to me by a colleague and I was very honoured to get a lend of her 1992 original paperback that was very much falling apart (it's 4 years younger than me). I love the feel of well read books, they're so pliant.

Stephen King raises the odd eyebrow every now and again for his portrayal of women. Yes, sometimes they're not very good characters. Sometimes they are a bit crazy and monstrous. Sometimes they exist purely to be alluring. Jessie Burlingame is one of his most nuanced and complex creations, holding down a whole book single handed.

The book begins with Jessie Burlingame and her husband Gerald in the bedroom of their summer cabin in lakeside Maine (where else? I ask you). They have decamped to the lake for an impromptu weekend in the interests of romance. Gerald, a successful lawyer but otherwise ordinary man has been able to reinvigorate the couple's sex life by handcuffing Jessie to the bed. Initially Jessie enjoyed the game, grateful of Gerald's renewed interest in her and the rejuvenation of their love life. On this occasion however, the cuffed Jessie changes her mind. She sees understanding and realisation in Gerald's eyes, and with horror, sees him shake them away, pretending that he thinks her protests are part of the game. Blinded by the panic that her dull, ordinary lawyer husband is preparing to rape her, she kicks him in the stomach and groin with all her strength. Gerald keels over, turns red, has a heart attack and dies, cracking his head on the floor for good measure. Jessie is alone, chained to the headboard with two sets of police issue handcuffs, on a deserted lake in the off season.

Gerald's Game reminded me of those sitcom 'capsule' episodes where the characters never actually leave the set and the whole episode takes place in one location. I'm thinking the classic The One Where No One's Ready ("I'm Chandler, could I be wearing any more clothes?"). Jessie, obviously, cannot move and her entrapment forces some very creative writing devices and some incredibly intricate plotting. Over the course of the next 3-4 days, Jessie wages a one-woman war of survival on her own mind and body.  She battles thirst, muscle spasms and desperation. She hears voices in her head; offering advice, bickering, encouraging or discouraging. Each one seems to be based on a her or person in her life, "The Goodwife AKA Goody Burlingame" (a kind of puritan Stepford Wife version of herself), Ruth Neary (a wild college roommate that she ghosted) and Nora Callighan (her  former psychiatrist). The voices all clamour for attention and appear to represent different parts of Jessie's fractured mind. She hasn't spoken to Ruth or Nora in years, but what they do have in common is that they both came dangerously close to uncovering a buried, traumatic childhood memory that Jessie has suppressed for years.

The only other characters that occur in the novel are the Former Prince, a hungry and skittish abandoned dog that risks entering the cabin to feed, to Jessie's horror, on Gerald. The other is a horrific deformed apparition; leering, hideously elongated and reeking of death, it's not clear initially if this is a physical reality or a figment of Jessie's dehydrated mind- but the terror it inspires is real. Interspersed with visits by these two beings, the plot is made up of tiny victories on Jessie's part; lengthy, gradual tasks like obtaining a drink of water, easing her muscles, lifting the headboard, interspersed with flashbacks to college, to a particularly harrowing solar eclipse in the 1960s and to her subsequent periods of trauma. 

It's a really thought provoking book that examines the contrasting expectations that society has of women and the emotional weight that such expectations accrue over a lifetime. Jessie is a silenced, dutiful, manipulated daughter. A trophy wife.  Forced out of a job she loved by a too-successful husband, she begins to take stock of her life, realising for the first time how unhappy she has been in her marriage. She's a plaything, a decorative commodity to first her father then her husband. Her ordeal at the lake forces her for the first time to confront and then reject the roles she has been expected to play. She is forced to save herself from the cycle of abuse at the hands of the men in her life. It's only when she resorts to digging up and accepting the hidden memory that she can start the process of freeing herself from it.

I have to add also that I was utterly heartbroken for Prince, the dog left to languish, starving, afraid and covered in burrs by some Massachusetts asshole in a Mercedes that couldn't be bothered to pay for his licence. The parts where the narrative switches to a Prince-eye-view are so sad to read. Poor prince.

Though I struggled with this book initially, it gripped me shortly after Jessie's first flashback. It's a brilliant character study and an impressive exercise in fiction writing. King can create unbearable suspense in a novel where the protagonist doesn't move, there are no conversations, a single location and a solo character. It's an interesting examination of the strength of survivors, the damage that repressed abuse can wreak on a person's life and the lengths that an individual will go to to survive. It's a lone, desperate woman refusing to give up and to claim her life back from the men that have hurt her.