Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Greece in the age of heroes.  Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles.  Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shames prince, and as they grow in to young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess.  But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny.  Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.

I read Orange Prize winner The Song of Achilles as part the book club I attend, Bookplate, and I couldn’t wait to discuss it with the rest of the group when I finished it.  I was absolutely captivated by it!

I was already very familiar with some parts of the story, having been a big reader of Greek myths and legends when I was little, so I already knew how the drama would play out (in fact, I was a bit surprised that there were some in the book club who didn’t) but having this ‘spoiler’ information certainly didn’t spoil the book for me.  A lot of the story was new to me anyway, as Miller spends much time adding detail to the story of Patroclus, who is only a very minor character in the Iliad.

Miller was intrigued by the idea that the death of Patroclus causes the legendary ‘Rage of Achilles’ so wanted to explore the bond between the characters, and how that had come to be.  I think she does this with a fantastic eye for detail and a great sensitivity to creating realistic and believable characters but also to retaining the sensibilities of the original Greek myths.  In this, I think The Song of Achilles is a triumph; while Patroclus and Achilles seem three-dimensional, reactive and proactive, it is perfectly plausible within the world of the story, for a goddess or a centaur to appear.  The human characters are not overawed and accept these celestial interventions as a natural part of life, and this felt absolutely right to me.

Stylistically too, I think that Miller has capture the tone of the Iliad; she mixes delicate, subtle description with fairly short sentences and quite a lot of first-person-pronouns.  This can be a little repetitive but works well in terms of setting a tone.  I loved the way in which she describes characters and landscapes too.  Her descriptions of Thetis particularly are striking in their subtlety – Thetis’ appearance is not clearly described, but rather the way in which she speaks, like the grinding of the rocks on the sea bed. So evocative!

The only criticism I had of this book was that I expected it to feel more literary in style; I almost wanted it to be ‘harder’.  On reflection, I think it’s very impressive that Miller produced such a well-written book about this topic without creating something ‘hard’ and I’m sure this will have increased its readership.  I’d highly recommend this to anyone who fancies something romantic yet Classical.

Kate Neilan
@magic_kitten

Review: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, by Gideon Defoe

It is 1837, and for the luxuriantly bearded Pirate Captain and his rag-tag pirate crew, life on the high seas has become a little dull.  With nothing to do but twiddle their hooks and lounge aimlessly on tropical beaches, the Captain decides it’s time they had an adventure.

A surprisingly successful boat raid leads them to the young Charles Darwin, in desperate need of their help.  And so the pirates set forth for London in a bid to save the scientist from the evil machinations of a diabolical Bishop.  There they encounter grisly murder, vanishing ladies, the Elephant Man – and have an exciting trip to the zoo.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is the first in a series of four books by Gideon Defoe, which I read having seen the Aardman adaptation released earlier this year.  I was very glad that I did go on to read the book which inspired the film, because otherwise I would have had no idea about how different the storyline of the film was, compare to the original text.  I did enjoy the film but had a few problems with the plot – evil Queen Victoria? – whereas in Defoe’s book, the arch enemy of Darwin and the Pirate Captain is an evil Bishop, which fits much better with the early Victorian Gothic genre.

Defoe’s prose style is so dry as to be positively absorbent, heavy with irony and deliberate anachronism.  I also loved the frequent footnotes.  These techniques made me feel I was privy to a host a secret in-jokes, which won me over very quickly.

The characterisation is sparse; the pirates are not given ‘real’ names, but are instead referred to according to their most striking characteristics, which is on one hand distancing but on the other means you immediately know something about them.  Also, the book as a whole is deliberately not realistic, so this isn’t a problem.  I wondered if the lack of names was also aligning us with the Pirate Captain, who almost certainly wouldn’t trouble himself to learn the pirates actual names!

I don’t want to say too much more about Pirates, as it’s such a short little morsel that I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I highly recommend it for a quick read full of snorts and sniggers, and maybe even a piratical roar of laughter!

Kate Neilan
@magic_kitten

Review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Serena Frome, the beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop, has a brief affair with an older man during her final year at Cambridge, and finds herself being groomed for the intelligence services.  The year is 1972, Britain, confronting economic disaster, is being torn apart by industrial unrest and terrorism and faces its fifth state of emergency.  The Cold War has entered a moribund phase, but the fight goes on, especially in the cultural sphere.

Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is sent on a ‘secret mission’ which brings her into the literary world of Tom Haley, a promising young writer.  First she loves his stories, then she begins to love the man.  Can she maintain the fiction of her undercover life?  And who is inventing whom?  To answer these questions, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage – trust no one.

I was very excited to begin Sweet Tooth as I have great respect for Ian McEwan as a writer, having greatly enjoyed Atonement (*sob*), Solar and Enduring Love.  I was especially intrigued as I knew it had been discussed as a mixture of literary fiction with the spy thriller genre, which I love.

I can confirm that Sweet Tooth doesn’t disappoint.  Serena’s journey from slightly awkward teen to member of the British secret service, via a not-completely-satisfactory degree and affair at Cambridge, was fascinating.  I love reading stories set in places I’ve visited myself, so I found the passages set in and around Cambridge, and in London, particularly enjoyable – McEwan really captures the setting expertly without spending more than a few sentences on it.  He saves his words for his intricately woven plot.

Despite being described to me as a spy thriller, Sweet Tooth moves at a leisurely pace.  McEwan doesn’t hurry us, and spends plenty of time on Serena’s time at university and her affair with a lecturer, as, without that, we wouldn’t fully appreciate the later sections where he moves into the echelons of the secret service.  I really enjoyed this more literary take on the genre – it’s a refreshing change from the conventions of tiny chapters and cliffhangers.

I really enjoyed the way that the era was evoked; the petering out of the Cold War, the strikes,the gradual modernisation of London, and of espionage. And of course, it’s a book about books.  I love a book about books.

The only thing that didn’t win me over completely Serena herself.  At times, I found her rather cold.  I was totally convinced by the character and at times found myself getting quite cross with the way she talks about her ‘fat friend’, in a way that I hope most women wouldn’t.  I know that she’s supposed to be a bit spiky and awkward but I found it a bit tasteless to include those comments.  As a reader, I find it hard to enjoy a book if I don’t fully sympathise with the main character.  As a result, while I’d definitely recommend Sweet Tooth to others, I’m not sure I’d reread it myself.

Kate Neilan
@magic_kitten

Review: The Nosferatu Scroll by James Becker

Bohemia, 1741
On the northern banks of the Vltava River an extraordinary event is taking place.  Inside a private chapel a high-born Hungarian lady is being laid to rest.  But not before her heart is removed from her body and she is buried beneath a layer of heavy stones – lest she rise again to prey upon her victims…

Venice, 2010
Holidaying in the world’s most beautiful city, Chris Bronson and Angela Lewis discover a desecrated tomb.  Inside it is a female skeleton and a diary dating back hundreds of years.  Written in Latin, it refers to a lost scroll that will provide an ‘answer’ to an ancient secret.

Soon corpses of young women, all killed in the same ritualistic manner, start appearing throughout the city.  And when Angela disappears, Bronson knows that he must find her before she too is slaughtered.

But his hunt for Angela leads him to the Island of the Dead, and into a conspiracy more deadly than he could ever have imagined…

I picked up The Nosferatu Scroll with hopes for a fast-paced romp, maybe even a bit of so-bad-it’s-good cringey enjoyment, and, in general, I wasn’t disappointed.  Yet again, I’ve managed to join a series at the fourth installment; Bronson and Lewis have already starred in three popular thrillers, involving policework but also historical/archeological investigation, courtesy of Angela Lewis.  We’re reminded a number of times of her day-job at the British Museum in London.

The story was perhaps a little slow of kick off, at times reminding me more of a guide book of Venice, but that in itself was enjoyable – having visited the city myself, it was fun recalling the various locations, although perhaps they could have been introduced more subtly.  However, once the momentum began to build, the story zipped along, aided by the teeny chapters and normally well-used cliffhangers.  Occasionally, as with the location shots, these were a little clunky – there’s a question towards the end of the book which Bronson realises an Italian policeman didn’t ask that is made much too much of – but for the most part felt well dealt with, and in keeping with the thriller ‘formula’.

I will say that I won’t be recommending The Nosferatu Scroll to anyone for the beauty of its prose, but I don’t think anyone reads a book like this for delicate metaphors and lyrical description. This is a solid murderous thriller with a paranormal edge, providing a very different view of vampires to those twinkly Forks-dwellers from the Twilight franchise.  If you enjoyed the oeuvre of Dan Brown but wished he would stop splurging out information at start of each chapter like some kind of verbal Wikipedia, this may well be for you. And, for a next step up in terms of enjoyable writing style, why not try Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth or  Sepulchre, which merge historical fact with a hint of the supernatural and the beautiful landscape of the south of France.

The Nosferatu Scroll is published by Bantam Books.
The copy I’ve read is a BookCrossing book, and will be released back into the wilds of Colchester soon, if you fancy giving it a try.

Kate Neilan
@Magic_kitten

His And Hers: Skyfall Review

His:  “We will stand tall, Face it all together, At Skyfall…”

Adele’s lyrics from her rather divisive Bond theme seem hauntingly appropriate once the credits roll on Daniel Craig’s third outing as 007. With an unusually dramatic and profound ending to a Bond film, one with real consequences to the future of the franchise, director Sam Mendes has delivered a thoughtful, intelligent Bond film that mixes character development with rather stunning action scenes. After the dip in form of Quantum of Solace, the series is back on form and firing on all cylinders. 

First things first, as a self-confessed Bond nerd, I loved it. Ticking all the required boxes, this felt closer to the classic Bonds of years past, channeling Connery and Fleming himself with a modern twist. The hard, grittier edge of Casino Royale, badly needed after the bloated nature of the Pierce Brosnan films, is softened slightly with more humour and playfulness than any of Craig’s previous outings, yet never straying into the eyebrow raising silliness of the Roger Moore era. The pithy one-liners don’t feel out of place and show Craig’s Bond slowly getting back into the swing of things after a rather forced ‘time-out’ from MI6.  

The producers must find it hard to deliver the required elements of a Bond film in new and interesting ways –the pre-credits sequence, girls, cars, stunning locations and stunts, villains and gadgets – but they manage it successfully, breathing new life into the series. The stunts and set pieces are impressive, in particular the opening section in Istanbul, where the chase escalates and escalates as it hurtles towards its bloody conclusion. Despite MI6’s brief to only operate on foreign shores, Skyfall is the first Bond with large sections of the film set on home soil, with Britain becoming Great again under Mendes’ excellent direction as many famous British locations, in and out of London, are used as the plot unfolds. 

Acknowledging the history of the series, Craig’s Bond is a hero with a past – even if it is now a little muddled – with dead parents, a family home and Sean Connery’s car. With the fiftieth anniversary of Bond on the big screen there are plenty of subtle references and nods to films gone by but thankfully none are as excruciatingly blatant as the winks and nods that littered the last anniversary in Brosnan’s Die Another Day.

With the supporting cast, Ben Whishaw’s Q is no longer there to merely supply some well thought out gadgets and a little light relief – here he plays an important role in the film assisting Bond while Javier Bardem gets closer (ahem) to 007 than any other Bond villain, at times even channeling Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter. Naomie Harris’ Eve and Berenice Marlohe’s Severine have small but intriguing roles, but the main Bond girl here is Judi Dench. Her M is one who is plagued by bureaucrats and politicians wanting her to retire yet vowing to stay in office as MI6 comes under attack. 

Some critics have pointed fingers at the plot, calling it boring or lacklustre in its ambition. But for a series celebrating its anniversary, it seems appropriate for it to be based on M’s actions and decisions made in her past. It becomes about the legacy that one leaves behind while also looking forward to the future. Javier Bardem is no longer simply a megalomaniac villain with a private army trying to take over the world one more time. Instead he comes across as truly damaged by his past and becomes all the more dangerous because of it.

With its blockbuster box office and rave reviews, James Bond will definitely return and not soon enough. – Rob Chilver

Hers: As a relative novice when it comes to the Bond canon, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the film released in Bond’s 50th anniversary on screen.  However, I was looking forward to seeing Daniel Craig’s third outing as Britain’s most famous spy, having really enjoyed the way he inhabited the role in Casino Royale and the much maligned Quantum of Solace.

For me, Craig is Bond; alongside Connery, he’s the definitive portrayal of the agent, exhibiting brutality and violence where needed, as well as humour, strength, charisma and a cool head under pressure. As well as this, particularly in Skyfall, Craig shows us Bond’s self-destructive side, tempered only by his love of country.

Watching the film, I felt that Bond had, in some ways, come full circle, back to the quips and cold-blooded murders of the first films, albeit without the all-pervading misogyny. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Skyfall is feminist – M is cast very much as a mother figure rather than a boss, Bond suggests to Eve that he’d feel safer in the field knowing she was behind a desk, and Bond girl Severine is incapable of escaping the clutches of her male captors, despite her obvious intelligence and ample charms. However, these women are all strong figures whose talents are acknowledged, even celebrated, which is infinitely preferable to, for example, the treatment of women throughout From Russia With Love.

Sam Mendes clearly wanted to draw from and build on the wealth of heritage from the last half century when making Skyfall. Nothing illustrates this respect for history better than the opening sequence of the film, a chase through Istanbul, a classic Bond destination combining the familiar with the exotic and unknown. We begin in familiar territory – a car chase with plenty of jostling and some exchange of fire through a busy marketplace – but Mendes quickly ups the ante. Soon, Bond and his quarry are on motorbikes, riding through alleyways and then, spectacularly, over the roofs of the old Bazaar, until finally they make a seemingly impossible leap onto a moving train. This, to me, is textbook Bond, yet I didn’t feel it was cliched or tired – the action is fast, fresh and grittily real.

Throughout the film, there are echoes, tributes and references to Bond film history, balanced by dialogue and events that could only come from 2012. When Bond visits the casino in Macau, I particularly enjoyed the hissing Komodo Dragons awaiting their next meal, and what Bond villain would be complete without a secret island base? And, of course, later in the film, the ultimate Bond car returns and certainly makes its presence felt. But Skyfall lives in the now too – M is subjected to a Leveson-style enquiry into her department’s performance and the world of cyberterrorism looms over proceedings. This reflection of modern concerns, as well as the film’s unsentimental treatment of Bond himself, saves Skyfall from descending into a nostalgiafest unpalatable to all but fanboys.

There has been some criticism of the plot is Skyfall, especially with regard to Bond’s antagonist, played exquisiteness by Javier Bardem. It turns out that Raoul Silva is not out to blow up the land and force us to live underwater, irradiate Fort Knox, or just plain old take over the planet. He doesn’t even want a ransom. He just wants revenge. What could be a more basic motivation than this? With Bond’s apparent death and resurrection via the rushing river and the underworld of the beach bar, and Silva’s Oedipal “Mommy was very bad”, perhaps Mendes was thinking of Classical Greek archetypes, rather than Bond versus Blofeld.

Despite my newbie status, I thoroughly enjoyed Skyfall. The pace, plot, and balance of old and new were perfectly judged. In my opinion, Mendes has given us the ultimate incarnation of 007, synthesising heritage and innovation to produce the strongest Bond offering I’ve seen. – Kate Neilan

Review: Fear Not by Anne Holt

We all have our secret rooms.  That’s the way it should be.  That’s the way it will always be.

The snow-covered streets of Oslo are the very picture of Christmas tranquility.  But over the tolling bells for Christmas Day, a black note sounds.  As first light breaks, Bishop Eva Karin Lysgaard is found stabbed to death in the quiet city centre.

DI Adam Stubo heads up the police investigation, but it is Johanne Vik, criminal profiler, who infers and unlikely pattern from this shocking murder, and who suspects that a bitter and untempered hatred has been unleashed upon the city of Oslo.  A hatred that is not yet satisfied…

I picked up Fear Not from the ‘Scandi-Crime’ stand in my local chain bookshop on a whim, having previously read 1222, the last in Holt’s other series, about a female police officer, which I’d really enjoyed – it’s a great example of a locked-room murder mystery in a snowy setting.  Again, my it’s-not-the-first-in-the-series curse struck again.  This is in fact ‘Vik and Stubo #4’, according to Goodreads.  Never mind, I thought, I might as well give it a try.

In fact, I didn’t feel I’d missed out on previous installments when I began to read.  The characters of Vik and Stubo were drawn so clearly that I felt I was the beginning, even though they’d had three prior outings. I think one of Holt’s strengths is her details characterisation; Johanne was so well described as to seem completely rounded and believable, as a profiler, as a mother, and a woman.  Adam also seemed totally real, doing his best under difficult circumstances, and I really enjoyed the way their relationship developed during the narrative, with all the tensions of modern family life as well as working to solve crimes.

I thought Holt picked up on an interesting idea in this book too; rather than a traditional revenge or money motivation, there’s a strong theme of religious extremism leading to victimisation of minorities, in this case Norway’s gay and lesbian community.  It was an interesting conceit to explore whether liberalisation can in fact prompt extremism, and of course Holt has more insight into this than most, given her time in the Norwegian government.

Despite my enjoyment of the journey with Fear Not’s main characters, the novel didn’t grab me in the way that 1222 did.  The plotting is not as tight, and key clues and revelations were a very long time coming, compared to a lot of cold crime.  Vik and Stubo, while very real, are far less gritty than Nesbo’s Harry Hole, less charismatic than Mankell’s Wallander and less dramatic than Falck and Hedstrom in Camilla Lackberg’s Fjallbacka series.  Perhaps, despite my liking for them, they’re a bit too real! I found myself longing for something a little more gruesome, or a little more fast-paced, with a little more mystery and tension.

I wouldn’t say than Fear Not has put me off going back to book one of the series, but I think perhaps I won’t be trying it any time soon.  I’ve got a Mankell on the shelf that’s calling my name, and I don’t think I’ll be able to resist for long.

Fear Not is published by Corvus, translated by Marlaine Delargy

Kate Neilan
@Magic_kitten

YA Review: Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean by Justin Somper

Before he died, the lighthouse keeper taught his children, Grace and Connor Tempest, a strange sea-shanty, telling the story of the terrifying Vampirates.  Only to them, the song is a comfort and a tantalising taste of the unknown.  Now he’s passed away suddenly and, without a mother – is she dead too?  They never knew her – the twins are all alone in the world.  They can’t stay in the lighthouse and their only other options seem to be the orphanage or allow themselves to be adopted by the local mayor.

These, for the twins, are both fates worse than death so they cast off in their father’s small boat and head out to sea, towards…who knows where.  A storm rolls in, capsizes and destroys the little craft and the pair are separated in the wreck.  Connor is dragged aboard The Diablo, a pirate ship full of the most affable and polite pirates I’ve ever read about, especially Connor’s bunk-mate Bart, the deputy Cheng-Li, who does everything ‘by the book’ (she’s fresh out of Pirate School) and of course, the charismatic Captain Wrathe, complete with a living snake hair accessory.  Grace washes up somewhere rather different, aboard another ship, rescued by a handsome young man called Lorcan, with piercing eyes, very shiny teeth and a dislike for sunlight.

I found Demons of the Ocean a fun, light, unchallenging first installment of a series; some readers have commented that the story seems unfinished and, sadly, I think that’s a common factor with YA books planned to be parts of a series from the outset.  In this case, there’s at least a measure of resolution, unlike some YA first-books I could mention *cough cough* Zom-B *cough cough* so I didn’t find it too off-putting.

I enjoyed the characterisation of the pirates; they were positive, sympathetic, comic characters, in the mode of Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean, or The Pirate Captain, from the series by Gideon Defoe.  Again, some readers have found this a poor choice, but I quite liked the idea of the pirate code taken to the extreme of having a training academy, organised distribution of piracy ‘sea lanes’ and so on.  The Vampirates are also relatively sympathetic, although generally misunderstood by normal humans. There is of course a vampire baddy, and indeed all the Vampirates have an air of danger about them, but many are also charming and just doing their best to survive, in the mode of modern vampire tales.

I did feel more effort could have gone into the twins, Grace and Connor Tempest.  There’s obviously something strange and unusual about them, which I’m sure will be explored further in later books, but I felt more could have been done to establish them as three-dimensional characters, rather than just to mention that Grace is the clever one and Connor is the sporty one.  Also, the death of their father is never explained and nor is anything about their missing mother, only that their father reappeared with them one day, no mum in sight.  I think a little more foreshadowing would have increased the tension, complimenting the gentle comedy and brief action sequences.

If I’m honest, it’s hard to write a review of this book, because it hasn’t evoked a very strong response in me, either way – I think this sits squarely ‘in the middle’.  It’s probably best suited to younger YA readers, maybe as young as 10, but will probably not pack enough punch for mid-teens onwards.  That being said, I enjoyed it as the first part in a longer work, and may well pick up the next installment if it happens to cross my path.

Kate Neilan

@Magic_kitten

YA Review: Crusher, by Niall Leonard

The day Finn Maguire discovers his father bludgeoned to death in a pool of blood, his dreary life is turned upside down.  Prime suspect in the murder, Finn must race against time to clear his name and find out who hated his dad enough to kill him.

Trawling the sordid, brutal London underworld for answers, Finn exposes dark family secrets and faces danger at every turn.  But he’s about to learn that it’s the people who trust who can hit you the hardest…

I’m not sure where to start with this colander of a young adult ‘crime’ novel.  The back of the review copy yells “The most talked-about debut thriller of 2012” but that might not be for the reason you think.  Niall Leonard is in fact the husband of E L James, of Fifty Shades fame/infamy; he wrote Crusher in response to a challenge from his wife to write a book, during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, an American initiative to encourage people to write creatively).  The clue’s in the name there, I think – if you write a whole novel in a month, there has to be a reason it takes such a short time.  Crusher illustrates this in abundance.

Let’s start with the narrator, 17-year-old Finn.  We learn, later in the book, that Crusher is his nickname, due to his boxing abilities.  Well, I’m pleased he’s good at boxing, because he seems to have a talent for precious little else.  Leonard paints a picture of a hopeless drop-out to the point where it’s a little hard to sympathise with this young man.  A lot of Finn’s problems seem to have come from the fact that he’s dyslexic – he is portrayed, at times, as almost illiterate and it’s implied this is why he’s stuck working in a burger bar, with zero in the way of qualifications.  What lazy stereotyping here.  It’s really anachronistic to write about dyslexia as such a crippling problem in 2012; a quick chat with any teacher would have told Leonard that young people can now use computers, have readers and scribes to enable them to get the grades they deserve at school.  Finn seems like an intelligent boy so why he wouldn’t have taken advantage of these things is inexplicable.

As well as this problematic backstory, Finn’s a very cold fish.  Early in the book, he discovers his (step)father, murdered, in the living room of the house they share.  His response is basically to shrug.  As the story progresses, he decides to find out who murdered his dad but his motivation isn’t fury or revenge but apparently a sort of lazy curiosity.  Surely this would be a highly traumatic event but Finn just carries on, emotionally unaffected.  He stays living in the house where his dad died, gets romantically involved with a girl without any qualms, bluffs it out with gangsters… It just doesn’t ring true.

This isn’t helped by the impression that most of the other characters are cardboard cut-out stereotypes: the Lahndan East End hard-man gangster, the bent copper, a smarmy jobsworth boss, a slutty school girl.  At one point, his ‘real mum’ pops up from nowhere with a cartoon Latino-American criminal in tow, and hovering in the background is a psychotic ex-social worker; we know she’s crazy because she’s a redhead.  I don’t think Mr Leonard likes women very much.  Plus there’s even a celebrity chef thrown into the mix.  Did Leonard have a Character-Pick app when he started writing this book?

My final big problem was the language Leonard uses; the prose is leaden, to say the least.  Occasionally, there are flights of metaphorical fancy so bizarre as to be laughable.  Finn’s boss at the burger bar coming out of his office is likened to a hermit crab emerging from its shell, and later he is described as waving his “little crab antennae”.  Hmm.  Some of the slang Finn uses is really incongruous for a 17-year-old – he calls someone a “wag” for giving him the nickname Crusher, and describes being hit as getting “clobbered”.  I can’t think of any teenagers who use words like that.  Finally, he swears.  All the time.  For no apparent reason.  A lot of teenagers, contrary to popular belief, are capable of speaking without swearing all the time.  Finn’s constant profanities mark this book out from a lot of other YA fiction, and not, I think, in a good way.  It’s another example of lazy stereotyping, and a lot of teen readers, and their parents, may not appreciate it.

“At no point did I feel any particular sense of thrill, of peril, of suspense or excitement”

Having read quite a bit of young adult male-protagonist thriller fiction, this falls well short of my expectations. At no point did I feel any particular sense of thrill, of peril, of suspense or excitement.  There was a big action ‘set-piece’ involving a car-crusher, but I’ve read a vastly superior version of that scene in an Alex Rider novel.  Equally, in YA, I tend to look for a subtle moral steer by the writer; here, the lesson seems to be, if you are the hardest hitter, and the faster runner, that’s all there is.  The character who seems to be the big villain at the outset never gets his comeuppance, and the twists at the end are frankly ridiculous.  If Leonard wants Finn Maguire to make another appearance, he really needs to think about how he’s going to engage his readers more effectively.

Crusher is published in hardback and ebook by Doubleday, from 13th September 2012

Kate Neilan @magic_kitten

YA Review: The Panopticon, by Jenni Fagan

Anais Hendricks, 15, is in the back of a police car, headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders.  She can’t remember the events that led her here, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and there is blood on Anais’s school uniform.

Smart, funny and fierce, Anais is also a child who has been let down, or worse, by just about every adult she has ever met.

The residents of the Panopticon form intense bonds, heightened by their place on the periphery, and Anais finds herself part of an ad-hoc family there.  Much more suspicious are the social workers, especially Helen, who is about to leaver her job but is determined to for Anais to confront the circumstances of her mother’s death before she goes.

Looking up at the watchtower that looms over the residents, Anais knows her fate: she is part of an experiment, she always was, it’s a given, a fact.  And the experiment is closing in

In dazzling energetic language, The Panopticon introduces us to a heartbreaking young heroine and an incredible assured and outstanding new voice in fiction.

So says the blurb, but I’m not sure I was quite as bowled over as I could have been by this undoubtedly astonishing novel, published earlier this year with great fanfare.  I was interested to see that the book is recommended as “Perfect for readers of Pigeon English”; having just read that for my book club, I can understand the link but, if I were Heinemann, I’d be trying to distance this from Kelman’s Booker-nominated offering.  It may have been up for a prize but, in my view, it failed to do anything of merit in terms of lifting the lid on the social issues faced by young people in deprived areas of the UK.  In contrast, I thought Fagan did a much better job here; the picture she paints of the youth offenders system, and the experiences these young people face, is genuinely chilling.

I started reading The Panopticonwith the idea that it was a young adult novel.  I definitely revised this view over the course of the book.  As someone who works with young people, I’d hesitate to recommend this to anyone under the age of 15 due to the extremely strong language, and very frank discussion of drugs and sexual abuse, which run throughout the story.  That being said, I thought the way in which Fagan approached these contentious issues was unequivocally responsible; at no point were we allowed to think that Anais’ use of illegal substances was without potentially dangerous consequences.  Equally, promiscuous sex or sex for money is almost always linked to danger, unhappiness or even death in the most extreme example.

I can’t say I enjoyed the experience of reading The Panopticon; the whole thing was far too uncomfortable from start to finish.  The tone was occasionally lightened by a little humour as the ‘inmates’ of the home engage in some high jinx but these moments were brief at best, before the threat and menace descended once more.  Perhaps it’s just me but I could have done without constant swearing – I’ve never read a book with so many ‘see-you-next-Tuesday’s, and that includes Trainspotting.  However, I defer to Fagan’s firsthand experience of the Scottish justice system.  She may well just be adding authenticity to her novel.

Over all, I would recommend The Panopticon with caveats on the language and content, and a warning not to expect a ‘fun’ read.  It does expose the seedy nature of the life that may lead young people to end up in institutions like this, and it makes a point about how it’s especially easy for young people with mental health issues to become sucked into criminality.  Get ready to be unsettled.

The Panopticon is published by Heinemann.

Kate Neilan @magic_kitten

Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

November, 1920.

Jack and Mabel have staked everything on making a fresh start for themselves in a homestead ‘at the world’s edge’ in the raw Alaskan wilderness.  But as the days grow shorter, Jack is losing his battle to clear the land, and Mabel can no longer contain her grief for the baby she lost many years before.

The evening the first snow falls, their mood unaccountably changes.  In a moment of tenderness, the two are surprised to find themselves building a snowman – or rather a snow girl – together.  The next morning, all trace of her has disappeared, and Jack can’t quite shake the notion that he glimpsed a small figure – a child? – running through the spruce trees in the dawn light.  And how to explain the little but very human tracks Mabel finds at the edge of their property?

Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairytale from which it takes its inspiration, The Snow Child is an instant classic – the story of a couple who take a child into their hearts, all the while knowing they can never truly call her their own.

I have always enjoyed magic realism and fairytale stories, but I wasn’t expecting to be as immersed in this story as I became.  The journey into Frontier America was magical in itself, with beautiful descriptions of landscape, wildlife and the hardships faced by those brave souls who chose to live there.  To combine this with the tradition Russian story of a snow girl who can only remain until the Spring thaw was inspired.

I found the characters Jack and Mabel really engaging – Ivey has done a brilliant job creating these intricate, loving personalities, with their bittersweet past.  I also loved their neighbours – loud, brash but incredibly kind and generous, embodying everything about the pioneer spirit.  I especially enjoyed the fragile love story that develops in the last third of the book between the snow girl Faina and the boy Garrett; once I understood the fairytale, I thought I’d worked out the only possible way the story could end for Jack and Mabel, but this twist kept me hooked right up to the bitter end.

I’d highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys Americana, magic realism or just a family drama and a good adventure.  Get the hardback if you can – the cover is delightful.

The Snow Child is published by Headline

Kate Neilan @magic_kitten

Review: Some Kind of Peace, by Camilla Grebe and Asa Traff

Siri Bergman is terrified of the dark.
She lives alone, an hour outside Stockholm where she practices as a psychotherapist, her nearest neighbour far away. Siri tells her friends that she has moved on since her husband died in a diving accident. But when she goes to bed at night, she leaves all the lights on, unable to shake the feeling that someone is watching her.
With the light gone, the darkness creeps inside.
One night she wakes to find that the house is pitch black, and the torch by her bedside has vanished. Later, the body of one of her young patients is found floating in the water nearby. Thrown headlong into a tense murder investigation, Siri finds herself unable to trust anyone, not even her closest friends. Who can she turn to for answers?
The truth is hidden in the darkness.

Some Kind of Peace is the debut offering from Swedish pair Camilla Grebe, an audiobook entrepreneur, and Asa Traff, a psychologist specialising in CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), and is translated by Paul Norlen. From the first sentence, I found myself immersed in the world of the Swedish countryside – the description of the landscape, and the summer, around Siri’s cottage was beautiful and very intricate, and I was immediately drawn in, wondering what could go wrong in this idyllic setting.

Of course, I know exactly the sort of things that could go wrong. I’m a big fan of Scandinavian crime writing. My first experience was the Martin Beck series, by Sjowall and Wahloo, then I worked my way through the works of Mankell, Nesbo, Holt and Lackberg. As a result, I know only too well that the pastoral scenes of Sweden and Norway can hide the most appalling, bloody and baffling crimes. Luckily, these countries seem replete with dogged, imperfect but determined policemen and women, who can’t rest easy until they have caught the perpetrator.

However, Some Kind of Peace presents the reader with something a little different in Siri Bergman. Siri is a psychotherapist, not an investigator. She is a victim, not only of intimidation, stalking, threats, but also of her own damaged psyche. She cannot understand why anyone might want to hurt her in this way, does not want to be a burden to her friends and family by talking about what has happened, doubts her own perception, wondering if she has imagined the whole thing… She is by no means a reliable narrator, making the novel tens and mysterious.

Siri is accompanied by an array of friends trying to help discover who is out to get her: her friend and colleague, Aina, Marcus, the very friendly policeman, Vijay their university contact who specialises in criminal profiling. She’s also surrounded by her patients, who display more or less disturbing thoughts and behaviours, and her lecherous practice-mate Sven. As the plot thickens, Siri starts to wonder who she can trust – who really does have her best interests at heart? And her own insecurities multiply too, as she dwells on her husband’s death. Was it an accident? Siri is forced to reevaluate, and gradually loses control over her life.

I found Some Kind of Peace a really fascinating read, with great insights into the psychology of the criminal mind, as opposed to the traditional police procedural a la Beck or Wallander or rogue-cop of the Harry Hole books. I also found the characters extremely well-drawn, particularly Siri herself. Finally, I found the prose style highly engaging; this is not always the case with books in translation, but I think Paul Norlen has done a very good job expressing the finesse and intricacy of the original. This book has already been a great success in Sweden and I hope it makes a big splash here very soon.

Some Kind of Peace is published by Simon & Schuster

Kate Neilan @Magic_kitten

YA Review: Hollow Pike by James Dawson

She thought she’d be safe in the country, but you can’t escape your own nightmares, and Lis London dreams repeatedly that someone is trying to kill her.

Lis thinks she’s being paranoid – after all who would want to murder her?  She doesn’t believe the local legends of witchcraft.  She doesn’t believe that anything bad will really happen to her.

You never do, do you?

Not until you’re alone, in the woods, after dark – and a twig snaps…

Hollow pike – where witchcraft never sleeps

Hollow Pike tells the story of Lis London – victimised and bullied at her old school in Wales, she’s moved hundreds of miles to live with her grown-up sister in Yorkshire, Hollow Pike to be precise.  But when she arrives, to her horror, she recognises the place she’s seen in her dreams, or rather her nightmares.
And things only go from bad to worse once she arrives at her new school, to find the cliques and outcasts even more pronounced, and a girl called Laura Rigg ruling the school.
On top of all this, Lis is sure there’s something strange going on.  Could some of the local tales of witchcraft be true?

I really enjoyed this debut novel from former teacher (and ‘Queen of Teen’ nominee) James Dawson.  It was immediately obviously that Dawson has worked with young people, and that he’s got a really good understanding of teenage relationships – much more so than some YA authors – as the dialogue and school situations were realistic, within the context of the supernatural/paranormal genre that Hollow Pike inhabits.  

I would say that I think this book is aimed at mid-to-older teens, given the age of the main characters (Year 11, 16 years old) and some of the topics covered (relationships, drinking, a bit of light swearing), but I really think the level of that content has been well-judged and shouldn’t put off any parents thinking of buying this for their daughter.  I say daughter because it’s very rare for boys to read books with a female protagonist.  I think that’s a bit of a shame, but I also think Dawson was aware of that when he chose his main character.  Many teenage boys would drop the book in horror at the mention of a tampon on page 316!

Dawson has also made good use of his own background in Yorkshire to create a really believable setting in Hollow Pike and Fulton.  Many people may know of the Pendle witch trials, which also, in part, inspired Raven’s Gate, the first in Anthony Horowitz’s The Power of Five series.  These real historical events, along with references to the Salem witch trials via The Crucible, add to the ‘is it real, is it teenage hysteria’ mystery of the book, helping the reader to empathise with Lis and her feeling of confusion and disorientation.

I was pleased to see that Hollow Pike won’t have a sequel.  It feels like a really well-rounded narrative, and I felt happy to say goodbye to the characters at the end of the book.  However, Dawson has written a second, which, according to his website is with his editor now; it is a thriller for young adults, but won’t have a supernatural element this time.  I’m interested to see what it might be able and will definitely be keeping an eye out for a publication date.  In the mean time, I’m certainly adding Hollow Pike to my list of recommended YA fiction.

Hollow Pike is published by Indigo/Orion Children’s Books
James Dawson is on Twitter – @_jamesdawson

Kate Neilan @Magic_kitten

Review: Zom-B by Darren Shan

Can you love a bullying, racist thug if he’s your father?
Where do you hide when killer babies invade your dreams?
How do you react when confronted with your darkest inner demons?
What do you do when zombies attack?

B Smith is about to find out!

So says the blurb on the back of the advance copy of Zom-B, Darren Shan’s new YA Horror thriller.  I was interested to see how Shan, who normally deals more in the magical/fantasy type monsters, would deal with his first big foray into the world of teen zombies.  This is a subgenre that’s really expanding at the moment, on the back of a number of popular films – the rebooted Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, the ‘zomromcom’ Shaun of the Dead – and of course Charlie Higson’s bestselling The Enemy series.  However, Higson’s terrifying books have set the bar very high, so the question for me was, would this match up?

Sadly, I wasn’t a big fan of this book.  My main issue is with the structure of the plot.  The way in which the book is ‘sold’ is as a zombie-horror.  However, other than in the prologue, that’s exactly what the story is very light on!  In fact, the majority of the plot is taken up with the relation between B and dad Todd, a rightwing activist.  The story seemed to take a very long time to get going; I felt like the whole thing was really the exposition of something much longer.  This is the first book in a series – apparently planned to consist of twelve parts – but I feel it’s not really treating your readers well to leave so much to a second installment.  That being said, there are some fun twists which I really didn’t see coming at the end of the book, although they felt perhaps more like cliffhangers to set up the next book than revelations in their own right.

I do think this book suffered in comparison to Higson’s zombie trilogy (soon to be quartet).  I didn’t find the dialogue as naturalistic, there were inaccuracies in regard to the school settings and, while the time spent getting the reader to sympathise with the character of B was generally well-spent, there was little enough for us to admire and quite a lot that was still off-putting.  I’m also unsure as to whether it was necessary to spend so much time on B’s family here, even if Todd is a ‘interesting’ character.  It seemed that the book couldn’t decide whether it was a teen family drama or a horror/thriller; if Shan wants this to stand with his Cirque du Freak series, he may need to up his game and resolve this confusion in book 2.

Despite my reservations, I expect this will be a very successful book for Darren Shan; he already has a massive fan base of dedicated readers who I’m sure will enjoy Zom-B.  I’m not sure, however, if newcomers to Shan’s writing will enjoy this as much.  I don’t think it’s really fair to sell the beginning of a story as a book in itself, and I’m not sure I’ll be rushing out to get the next installment when it’s published.  Especially because the fourth book in Higson’s The Enemy series is coming soon…

Zom-B by Darren Shan is due to be published on 27th September, by Simon & Schuster

Kate Neilan @Magic_kitten

Review: Smut by Alan Bennett

Forget E.L. James; Alan Bennett brings us two tales of a smutty nature, told in his inimitable, dry yet tender style.

Smut consists of two ‘unseemly’ stories, The Greening of Mrs Donaldson (first published in the London Review of Books in 2010) and The Shielding of Mrs Forbes, in which Bennett presents us with scenes of recognisable British day-to-day life, tinged with erotica and sexual intrigue.

The Greening of Mrs Donaldson focusses on a late-fifties ‘respectable’ widow, with an unappealingly arrogant daughter and a part-time job impersonating ill people for the benefit of students at a local teaching hospital.  She decides to take in lodgers, partly to supplement her income but partly for the danger and young company.  However, she gets a lot more than she bargains for when her lodgers suggests an alternative arrangement when they fall behind in the rent.  Mrs Donaldson accepts their offer and it transforms her life, allowing her to reflect on the nature of relationships, her ‘respectable’ reputation and ultimately what it is to be in control of ones own life, although Bennett is careful to say there is no moral to the story.

The Shielding of Mrs Forbes really deals much more with her son, Graham; Graham feels that his mother must be shielded from the truth about him, or, more precisely, his sexuality.  However, it seems that in fact the women in this story – Mrs Forbes and the woman he marries, Betty – are in fact more perceptive than he realises.  It turns out that Betty is shielding Graham and he, Betty and Mr Forbes are all attempting to shield Mrs Forbes – Bennett draws out the British obsession with appearing to behave in the way that society expects, while all sorts of exciting, risky and salacious things occur beneath the surface.

I very much enjoyed reading this little gem; Bennett is effortlessly funny and knowing, his wording subtle enough to be inoffensive given the subject matter, but also cheeky, giving us a very clear idea of exactly what might be happening.  Erotica is all the rage at the moment, with the Fifty Shades of Grey revolution, but this shows us how so-called mummy-porn really should be done.  This is all about real life, real people and real concerns, not some bizarre anti-feminist S&M fantasy.  If you’re looking for a quick, well-written read with a few ever-so-slightly naughty bits, this is perfect.

Kate Neilan @Magic_Kitten