Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category
Posted on August 24, 2013 - by katy
Walker Books, July 2013
Fifteen year old Mio Yamato is on her way to a party, and stealing an ancient ancestral Japanese sword from her parents’ attic to make her costume seriously fierce really does seem like such a good idea – but Mio and her best friend Jack soon realise that “borrowing” the katana was a mistake of quite staggering magnitude, releasing ancient forces of both good and evil on modern day London...
I will be honest: I was a little worried when our lovely former publicist Hannah sent me Zoë‘s new book, The Night Itself. Whilst I have reviewed other authors and become friendly with them afterwards, this is the first time it has happened in reverse. Zoë and I have never met in real life, but since Hannah introduced us over the ether about six months ago, we’ve discovered that we have a lot in common and I now consider her as my buddy (do I sound like a stalker yet?). Anyone who might have observed our Twitter feeds will know that we get along, and I really didn’t want to give the impression to the reading and blogging community that I automatically give good reviews to friends, so I’d already decided that if I didn’t enjoy the novel, I simply wouldn’t review it, but if I did, I would have to be clear about explaining my policy. I was worried about plunging into The Night Itself in case I *didn’t* enjoy it because then I wouldn’t write a review, and both Hannah and Zoë would know why – so much potential for awkwardness! I was also nervous because the novel deals with importing folklore from another culture into modern day London, and I think this is a really tricky and difficult area to handle.
I’ve read Zoë’s high fantasy in the past, and she has often written and spoken about her fascination with Japanese culture so I was very intrigued to see where she would take her new urban fantasy trilogy when I heard there would be a strong Japanese theme. For Zoë’s existing fans, all the usual ingredients are here – a multifaceted, strong and interesting female lead character and a gorgeous and fascinating love interest (in this case, Shinobu, a Japanese hero who has been trapped within the katana itself for hundreds of years) – but the addition of all this to a vividly painted backdrop of modern London really lifts the book into the realm of complete originality.
So, back to my concerns about importing folklore. Having recently been extremely disappointed in another YA title in which the appropriation of a myth structure from another culture really failed, in my opinion, I was slightly on tenterhooks wondering quite how Zoë would successfully manage to import her emigrees from medieval Japanese legend into London in 2013. This is definitely not a task easily done – myth and folklore are so very embedded into their original landscape that it can seem close to impossible to extract them without a degree of arrogance, which is exactly where I felt the other title I’d read recently had failed – the use of a mythological figure from another time, place and culture came across as the plundering of the cultural imperialist. But in The Night Itself, Zoë actually manages this with panache. Mio is British-born Japanese, and the tale spins outwards from her ill-advised borrowing of the katana, an ancestral family sword brought to England by her grandfather, and an item Mio’s grandfather had expressly forbidden her touch before her sixteenth birthday. This is exactly the way folklore and stories do spread across the world – when people themselves move, they take their own ancestral tales and culture with them. It works perfectly, and unleashes the action in such a brilliant way. Because Mio takes what has been forbidden, you just know it’s all going to go extremely pear-shaped for her and Jack, so the tension is well set up from the beginning, too. It also helps that Hikaru – a kitsune or fox-spirit – is such a gorgeously engaging character, and one of my favourites in the whole book. You just can’t help but love him and his tail! So Zoë manages this task of melding cultures and stories with great success, in my opinion, and I was very impressed by the way she did it.
Those familiar with Zoë’s work already will be expecting incandescent writing, and that’s delivered here, too – in fact there are sequences near the beginning of the novel which are so vivid they feel positively hallucinogenic, as if someone has sneaked something they shouldn’t have done into the chocolate brownies. My head was spinning, that’s for sure. As the magic makes ever greater intrusions into normal life, there are some glorious descriptions in which the London we know seems to melt away revealing a whole new world beyond, and you feel that if you only looked closely enough at the right time, this otherworld might also be revealed to you – this moment is a kind of sweet spot in the best tales of modern folklore, and one I first encountered in Pat O’Shea’s The Hounds of the Morrigan.
It’s very fast and tense, too, which I really liked – the use of differing viewpoints is particularly effective when we hear from Jack’s sister Rachel at a point when she is extremely vulnerable but doesn’t yet realise it. The action builds to a genuinely frightening crescendo set against the iconic London backdrop of Battersea power station, and in fact London itself is described with such love it almost feels like a character in the book – all the raw excitement of the city is perfectly captured.
I particularly liked the way Mio evolved throughout the book from an ordinary schoolgirl on her way to a fancy dress party into an entirely credible action heroine. Anyone who has ever hefted the weight of a sword of any description will know that such weapons are surprisingly heavy and unwieldy – Mio’s use of the sword in combat could have come across as really contrived and unrealistic, as most small, slight people would find a weapon of this kind almost impossible to lift, left alone use in a fight against a recently released and extremely furious cat-demon. Zoë makes a point of weaving into the narrative the fact that Mio has taken part in Japanese martial arts training for much of her childhood, which is entirely believable, and so learning to successfully heft the katana makes sense for her. It could so easily have been a case of “What, so now she can use a medieval sword? Really?” but actually Mio’s gradual mastery over the weapon was one of my favourite aspects of the book, and I hope it will make a new generation of teenage girls feel that they can do anything, just as Tamora Pierce’s Alanna in The Song of the Lionness quartet learns to master her sword and made me feel as if I could do the same back in 1992.
The Night Itself is a seriously exciting, richly imaginative and innovative novel, so beautifully written that it will haunt you long after you have finished the book. I am so looking forward to the rest of the trilogy.
Posted on August 9, 2013 - by katy
I am extremely excited to have an interview on the blog with Zoe Marriott, author of some of the finest high fantasy in YA today. Her latest book, The Night Itself, is the first in a fantastic new trilogy that sees Zoe taking off in a slightly new direction in her writing, deep into the realms of urban fantasy – with a glorious backdrop drawn from Japanese folklore. The Night Itself is totally original and I’m not exaggerating when I say it is one of the best YA titles I have ever read. I’m sure you’ve heard lots of good things about this book already, and later this month I will be posting a review myself, but to whet your appetite here is a series of questions and answers about this incredible world Zoe has created.
KM: I loved the London setting of The Night Itself – the city is painted in with such a loving touch and really captures the excitement and strangeness of the city – that sense that you might discover something extraordinary just around the corner. Have you ever lived in London. Would you ever?
ZM: Thank you so much for that lovely compliment! That’s exactly how I *wanted* the setting to feel, so I’m well pleased.
I’ve never been lucky enough to live in London, but I love the city, and I would move there in a heartbeat if I could afford it, cash-strapped pen-monkey that I am. The sense that the city is a bit magic, and anything could happen there, is exactly how I always feel about it. I just adore the way the truly ancient jostles shoulder by shoulder with the ultra modern – weathered stone next to steel girders, Gothic arches next to gleaming glass. London is a city that’s always changing but somehow seems timeless, too, and every time I visit I discover some marvellous new thing that all the Londoners take completely for granted. Did you know that the legendary London Stone is right there on the street, in the wall of a WH Smiths, for example? The legend goes that if it’s ever moved from the city, the city will fall, so I hope everyone’s keeping an eye on it!
Luckily two of my best friends do live in central London (they regularly torment me with stories of their big city adventures, and tales of the new Japanese/Turkish/Vietnamese restaurants that have just opened up down the street) and whenever I got confused about something, like what Underground route my heroine and her friend would take to get to a party, they helped me out. They were brilliant, and I really owe them!
ZM: That’s right, the hair came first! I saw this mad bleached-white, spikey ‘do, with pink and purple streaks, and just thought ‘Who on earth could pull off a style like that??’ And the answer came: Jack. It was like she’d been lurking back there in the back of my brain for years, waiting for the right story to hitch her wagon to. Her voice was so distinctive that I was coming up with one-liners and snark for her before I’d even really nailed the story down (in fact, several plot elements came into being directly because I could just imagine her reaction to them). What was strange was that – maybe because I’d just finished a book in which the gender of every character had changed at least once – Jack came into focus as a person whose gender could manifest either way. Her voice, her quirks, her name, everything about who she was would have been exactly the same if she was a boy.
The major factor in making the character a girl was that I knew my Jack was gay, and there seems to be a serious dearth of female gay characters in YA fiction. Not that there are enough QUILTBAG boys, either, really – but there are even fewer lesbians whose sexuality isn’t really a factor in the story. I put it to my blog readers, and it was almost unanimous: they wanted to see girl-Jack. One reader promised me she’d love me forever if I just wrote a character ‘like her’ and that broke my heart a little bit. Jack had to be a girl after that.
ZM: Tough question, wow. I’ll answer the last part first: if I was in the same situation, I would have been up there in that attic messing with the sword the second that I was alone in the house. Inquisitiveness is my besetting sin. My parents (although they don’t know it!) never managed a single surprise Christmas or birthday present for me. I snoop. I wouldn’t have been able to resist the katana for a week, let alone all those years.
As for Mio… well, she’s got a lot more self-control than me. But she’s also more reckless; taking the sword out as part of her fancy-dress costume was really a mad thing to do, and soooo many things could have gone wrong even if nothing supernatural did. She could have been arrested for walking around with a deadly weapon! I think in a sense that she was doomed, though. All the odds were stacked against her. Because it wasn’t just that she wanted the katana. The katana wanted *her*. It was meant for her, and if she had denied its call, she would have been denying a part of herself.
The consequences, of course, were (and are! And will be!) terrifying. But as we learn in Darkness Hidden, the sword is part of an immense battle that has been going on for centuries, between incalculable forces who see humans as nothing more than pawns. That battle would have come to a head at some point, and at least by making the choice to claim the sword when she did, Mio armed herself and gave herself the means to protect as many people as she could.
ZM: Aw, thanks. The Kitsune were basically a given for me when I started working on this story. Firstly, I happen to be very fond of foxes. I live on the edge of a nature reserve, and when I take my dog for a late night walk, or when I look out of my window before bed, I often see them running and playing. My favourite is a sighting of a glorious coppery fox with his tail at a jaunty angle, trotting casually out of the darkness of the trees into the orange glow of the streetlights and then down the road towards the shops, as if he’s just nipping off to get a pint of milk. I knew The Name of the Blade was going to be set in London, a city famed for the population of urban foxes. I knew that I was going to be drawing on Japanese mythology, famous for its mischievous fox spirits. The Kitsune *had* to be in there.
Initially I thought maybe the fox spirits would be antagonists for my heroine – folklore shows that they can be tricksy and capricious, and when they feel they’ve been wronged by humans they don’t hesitate to take revenge. But it felt wrong. I couldn’t imagine the kind of pure evil that I wanted coming from these trickster spirits, who were often shown to be quite fond of mortals. So then I started to imagine them as allies, and how they would get involved with my human crew. Now… I can’t *exactly* give details about my mental process here because SPOILERS. But I will say that Hikaru, beautiful, cocky and slightly sexually ambiguous, just exploded onto the page and took over. I fell in love with him. Maybe that’s why everyone else seems to love him, because I didn’t really do anything special to make him into a fan favourite – in fact I worried, with recent headlines over urban foxes, that people wouldn’t like him at all. But it’s clear that he’s captured everyone’s heart! Even my steely editor is rooting for him, and keeps wanting to give him kisses on his foxy face. He’d enjoy that, I think…
KM: Mio is a girl who seems so ordinary on the surface, and yet she finds herself in an extraordinary situation. Obviously, she has special skills and talents which she learns to explore and exploit as the novel progresses – I’m thinking of her skill with a sword in particular. You drop in just enough background information about Mio’s Japanese ancestry and her upbringing that her ability to wield a sword just seems logical rather than contrived. How easy was this to do?
ZM: It felt really natural to me – I’ve been writing high fantasy for years, and about half of my heroines have been warriors, so creating a heroine who was a martial artist with a gift for swordwork wasn’t a stretch. I needed her to be able to wield the katana, rather than have it wield her. That element of choice, which you (rather cleverly!) brought up earlier, was very important to me. Clearly the katana has its own agenda, but in The Night Itself, at least, Mio is in charge. Her journey from a girl who slides out of responsibility for everything, to someone who could walk into battle at the head of an army, required that she draw on her own skills and hard work, rather than receiving some convenient magical power that would make her an ace-brill fighter with no effort.
What I found more difficult was the different demands that a contemporary setting places on credibility. Even though many young women in Britain train in martial arts and compete in them at a very high level (look at the marvellous Jade Jones, Gemma Gibbons and Katrina Bryant, all medal winners in the London Olympics!) for some reason the idea of a modern girl who is also a competent fighter, who could defend herself, could fight back, met quite a lot of resistance. Mio begins the story as a reckless person, and gradually she learns to be brave. That’s a very common story arc, but not for girls. While fourteen-year-old Alex Rider can foil international terrorists without anyone questioning it, my fifteen year old heroine really had to struggle even to display basic self-defence skills, because it wasn’t considered ‘believeable’. There was an implication that she would be unlikeable if she began the story as a tough girl who took no cr*p from anyone. It would be more acceptable she started out as weak and afraid. I fought really hard to keep Mio’s character intact, because it’s important to me to reflect the real strength, the real courage and toughness that real young women display in the real world every day. Many young girls, like Mio, look ‘ordinary’ on the surface. But underneath, none of them are. That’s why I like writing stories about them so much.
Posted on July 27, 2013 - by katy
Published by Random House Children’s Books, August 2013
“Hauntings are our business…”
Lockwood and Co. the well-known Pyschic Investigations agency, requires a new Junior Field Operative. Duties will include on-site analysis of reported hauntings and the containment of same. The successful applicant will be SENSITIVE to supernatural phenomena, well-dressed, preferably female and not above fifteen years in age. (Taken from back cover blurb)
This book has a first sentence to rival the famous beginning of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
“Of the first few hauntings I investigated with Lockwood & Co. I intend to say little, in part to protect the identity of the victims, in part because of the gruesome nature of the incidents, but mainly because, in a variety of ingenious ways, we succeeded in cocking them all up.”
Lockwood’s new employee, Lucy, is one of my favourite fictional heroines – practical, brave and mostly impervious to the behaviour of her colleagues. The trope of using children and teenagers to fill roles usually reserved for adults, often in spy novels, works well in the case of these ghost hunters – I think we’re all probably familiar with the folk memory of children retaining the ability to see and sense paranormal goings-on whilst adults gradually lose their sensitivity to such spooky behaviour. I love the way the plot builds with such delicious tension to a climax that had me genuinely terrified. It’s not just a thriller, either: yes, there are ghosts to be exterminated, but I particularly liked the way Stroud makes the ghosts themselves into three dimensional characters – not only do we usually find out who they were, but when the injustice bound up in their deaths is uncovered it adds another layer of real complexity to this book. It’s pretty obvious from that brilliant first line that Lockwood & Co are going to be winging it for a large amount of the book, and I loved that aspect – they’re completely acting on a wing and a prayer for large amounts of the book. I do love a set of fictional characters flying by the seat of their pants. I am starting to wonder, though, if anyone else has noticed the obsession with food in so many children’s books – the droolsworthy suppers in Harry Potter and the salivation-inducing descriptions of gourmet delights in Damien Dibben’s History Keepers series are all matched here in Lockwood & Co. What is it about kids’ books and dwelling on delicious scran? Or is this just me – maybe I’m just making the mistake of reading whilst hungry, but I really keep noticing it!
All in all, Stroud is really an exceptionally talented writer for children – he always writes exciting books with genuine heart, which is one of the reasons they are so successful. Stroud never skims along the surface, and always goes deeper than the superficial excitement of a simple thriller. LOCKWOOD & Co is a fabulously enjoyable read, and I did appreciate Stroud seeding plot threads that look as if they will unwind with thrilling tension over the course of the series. I am looking forward to the sequel so much.
Posted on July 25, 2013 - by katy
Published by Puffin, February 2013
Everybody knows Cate Cahill and her sisters are eccentric. Too pretty, too reclusive, and far too educated for their own good. But the truth is even worse: they’re witches. And if their secret is discovered by the priests of the Brotherhood, it would mean an asylum, a prison ship—or an early grave. (Summary taken from Goodreads)
I will admit that I had a proper set of preconceptions all ready and waiting before I cracked open BORN WICKED. I’m rubbish at posting images, so I’ll have to describe the cover instead for those who haven’t seen it. It’s not a bad cover, not at all, but it does contain a slender blonde girl in a romantic dress pictured against a dramatic skyline with a huge full moon and some dark-winged ravens. It’s your classic cover for a paranormal romance, in fact, but BORN WICKED is so much more than that.
I loved the historical setting – Victorian or Regency? I couldn’t figure out which, and we’re in the realms of fantasy, anyway – and the gorgeously depicted small-town backdrop is just so well done. This is really magic realism at its best, used to accentuate the deeply sinister aspects of what at first might seem like an idyllic combination of old-time manners, church tea parties and unnervingly glamorous governesses. This novel is really quite subversive, and at times I found myself reading it as a subtle but powerful criticism of our own society, or contemporary US society, at least. Yes, there is a romance (not the one you might first expect), but the love triangle isn’t really a love triangle as such, so that didn’t feel predictable, either, if you see what I mean – it’s more just that Cate doesn’t fall for the boy she herself expects to love. What really struck me about this book was the way it brought misogyny to the forefront as such a powerful theme. Women are hated and feared in BORN WICKED, and you can’t help but ask questions about women’s place in our own society after reading it. This really wasn’t what I expected after taking my first initial glance at that cover, when I thought I would simply be reading a good old fashioned paranormal romance.
Highly unexpected, and highly recommended. I am very much looking forward to the next installment in this series.
Posted on June 10, 2013 - by katy
Published by Puffin, March 2013
Thanks so much to my fantastic guest reviewer, journalist and blogger Judith Evans! Here is her take on the latest novel by this hugely talented and controversial writer.
Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks
It is a small act of compassion that takes 16-year-old Linus Weems from a life of drifting and pondering to one of horror. Homeless since he fled his hated boarding school and rich but embittered father, he is wandering in a London station when he goes to help a blind man apparently struggling to place his luggage in a van. But the man is neither blind nor struggling; he ambushes and drugs Linus, who wakes to find himself alone in a concrete bunker, kidnapped for unknown reasons by an unknown assailant.
“I felt like nothing. Existing in nothing,” says Linus as he endures his first days of captivity, living in one of six tiny cells in the apparently purpose-built prison. But he soon discovers he is being watched through cameras in the ceiling, and receives supplies and strange, oblique messages in a lift, his only link with the outside world. Soon enough, the lift starts delivering another cargo: his fellow prisoners, also snatched from the streets apparently at random.
It’s hard to say more without spoiling this tense story from the prolific and often disturbing author Kevin Brooks. This novel is no less gripping for taking place in a tiny space. But part of the book’s power comes from a shift in emphasis: we start off seeking reasons for Linus’ abduction but become absorbed by the relationships between the bunker’s inhabitants, forced to work together for survival and a slim chance of escape. What could be a psychological thriller is taken into “Heart of Darkness” territory by the author’s refusal – like the kidnapper himself – to directly answer the questions to which we and Linus so desperately want answers. The deliveries arriving in the lift instead become weirder and weirder.
Bunker Diary is a grim, adult read, setting out a young man’s struggle to remain human in extreme conditions, while counterpointing people’s squalid and occasionally heroic behaviour in captivity with the huge, nameless evil that has put them there. The characters can sometimes be too roughly sketched, and the book’s refusal to engage with a traditional structure can be frustrating, but that frustration only pulls us more urgently towards its savage conclusion.
This is not a book to be read late at night; indeed, it’s a book which may well give you sleepless nights, mulling over Linus’ fate, his attempts to take back control from the ugly forces that have captured him, and the strange part of your own mind which can’t put this book down, even as it piles on the horrors.