Monthly Archives: September 2011

Dark Inside by Jeyn Roberts

There’s been a lot of post-apocalyptic books recently, and this one intrigued me because it is set during the apocalypse.  While I found it too dark and dire for my taste, I suspect some might enjoy this new (quite violent) YA thriller (available November, 2011).

The disaster starts with an earthquake on the west coast of North America – not only does the quake rip buildings to shreds, it allows an ancient and pervasive evil an irresistible opportunity.  So this apocalypse isn’t from outside – it’s not through natural disaster, nuclear war, or disease – apparently it comes from the dark impulses that live in all of us.  As the book unfolds, it seems some people are turned into monsters through this evil (you can spot them by their black-veined eyes), who in turn rip civilians to shreds (quite literally – this is not a book for the fait of heart).   A few lucky (or unlucky?) survive – perhaps to carry on the species, or perhaps to provide future targets for the monsters.

I admit I found a lot of it very familiar – Buffy fans might have “from beneath you it devours” in your head for the whole book, as I did.  The monster-people reminded me a lot of the demons encountered on the TV series Supernatural, and I half expected two wise-cracking (and handsome) brothers to step in and deal with it all with their bag of salt and sawed-off shotgun.  Unfortunately for the teens in the book, this didn’t happen.  It also reminded me very much of the vampire-apocalypse novel, The Strain.  I read that one a year or two ago, and it was such a horror-style book, it ruined me for this kind of novel.  I couldn’t even read The Passage, which was supposed to be wonderful.  I just don’t have the stomach for this kind of literature.  So it’s not surprising that Dark Inside was a real struggle for me to finish.  The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that I was in the safe realm of YA fiction in which even if the ending isn’t happy, it will at least be hopeful.

Dark Inside follows four teens and their struggle to stay alive in this dangerous new world.  For very different reasons, they all find themselves on the road to Vancouver, hoping to find safety, or at least some kind of sanctuary.  I admit, I did like watching the apocalypse happen, especially seeing technology crumble as everything electric is rendered useless overnight.  The concrete details of dead cities and abandoned homes was poignant and could even have been expanded on.

Given my bias against this type of book, I find it hard to evaluate.  I certainly didn’t enjoy it, though I can almost imagine that some would.  I did find it genuinely creepy (a good thing for this type of book, yes?), and while the dialogue was sometimes quite stiff, the characters were pretty good.  I was nagged by some of the unanswered questions in this book: what is the source of this evil?  Why did an earthquake provide an opportunity?  Why are some affected and not others?  Will those not affected eventually become so?  If this has happened before (apparently this is how civilizations are destroyed), how does it go away?  Why do their eyes turn black? Is there going to be a sequel or is that really the ending?

But it didn’t drag, and it didn’t hold back, and it did make me wonder where I would be if all this was happening (probably in that first wave of people being ripped apart). I wish I knew where to place it in the genre – I liked it better than The Strain, but I’m not sure it would measure well against The Road or The Passage (why do they all have the same name?).  Makes me think I should break down and finally read those (shudder).  My problem is I’m already too paranoid about the state of the world – I already devote serious worry time to it, and I want my fiction to take me away from these worries.

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South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

An adult book!  I had to read one, or I thought I might just lose it after this long YA binge I’ve been on.  South of the Border, West of the Sun one was loaned by a friend a couple of months ago, so I read it this week as a personal treat for myself.  Now it’ll be back to the same old, same old kids stuff.

In my experience there are two kinds of people in this world: fans of Haruki Murakami, and those who haven’t read him yet.  I haven’t met anyone who has read something by this Japanese master (he’s been translated into over a dozen languages) and not loved it.  In fact, I avoided him for a long time because I didn’t want to not like him – I was afraid I’d have to go through life disagreeing with people I otherwise quite respect (this happened with Ian McEwan: I hated Saturday and only mildly enjoyed Atonement.  Everyone else seems to love him, which is a big puzzle for me).

I finally gave in and read Windup Bird Chronicle by Murakami about a year ago, and happily, fell in love.  It was beautiful, elegant, magical and mysterious.  I think beguiling is a very good word for Murakami’s writing.  I was fascinated with the blend of Japanese and Western culture, the parallels in theme and structure, the stories-within-a-story, and above all the mesmerizing tone he creates by having reality and common sense just around the next corner.

So my second dip into the Murakami cannon is South of the Border, West of the Sun, and I have to say, I didn’t enjoy this one nearly as much.  It’s definitely still beguiling – he specializes it seems in disconnected love stories, and women who refuse to make their past clear but who are inexplicably wealthy, vulnerable, and gorgeous.  South of the Border was quite similar to Windup Bird in many ways, but it did not have the magical element or the complexity of interwoven plots and character – it was more like a long, contemplative novella.

South of the Border is about Hajimi, an only child born in 1951.  When he is twelve, he becomes good friends with a new girl in his class, Shimamoto.  Shimamoto is an only child like him, and their loneliness brings them together.  Their intimate, pre-adolescent relationship lasts a few months before his family moves away and they lose contact with one another.  Hajimi grows up always feeling the absence of Shimamoto.  She doesn’t re-enter his life until he is thirty-six, happily married with two daughters, and the owner of two successful jazz clubs.  Though Hajimi is very content with his life, he cannot resist Shimamoto, and the deep intuitive connection they share.  Shimamoto refuses to reveal anything about herself or her past to Hajimi, and she remains a mystery to him and the reader: elegant, lonely and with a deep aura of sadness.  Through many encounters, the two develop a relationship that goes beyond friendship and love.

Murakami has a knack for creating characters that are both highly visible for the reader, but that always remain unusual and disconnected.  The dialogue seems to constantly wander around the point, giving the whole novel a feeling of unreality.  Perhaps this obtuseness is partly due to the Japanese culture Murakami writes from – but I am quite sure he also creates it deliberately to lend an odd, surreal feel to his books.

I enjoyed this surrealist tone in Windup Bird – but that was a longer, more complex novel.  In South of the Border Shimamoto’s refusal to reveal her past drove me a little bonkers, especially as it remained a mystery even at the novel’s close (though her fate was guessed at by the main character).  I admit I became frusterated and a little petulant, thinking that maybe it’s just mystery for mystery’s sake.  Maybe Murakami doesn’t know what the mystery is – he just wants a mysterious character.  And I resented that a little, especially as I had already encountered it in another novel by him that I liked more.

I can’t say I would recommend this book – though I would still recommend the author.  That said, I have heard that most people like the first Murakami book they read the best.  I’m hoping that’s not because they are all composed of the same elements again and again (as I find with John Irving, Miriam Keyes and Jodi Picoult – authors who I enjoy, but who are best on the first read as there is a significant repetition in theme, style, and character type).  I will have to give him another chance to be sure.  He is certainly a complex and sensitive writer who leaves you with many thoughts and ideas to tease out long after you are done reading.

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Odd Ball by Arthur John Stewart

Odd Ball is a new book set in my hometown, Victoria BC.  It’s actually set in a real school – Central Middle School – though Stewart does change the school’s age range from grades 6-8 to 7-9, and presumably lots of other details as well.

So I was bound to read it at some point, despite the tragically Canadian cover.  I picked it up now because it has just been nominated for the Victoria Book Prize (in the children’s category).  Seeing as I had already read and enjoyed last year’s Death Benefits, and I was still looking for a good YA book to put in my teacher newsletter, I picked up Odd Ball over the weekend.

I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  It’s a slim volume and a quick read, but quite quirky, and I caught myself chuckling out loud more than once.  It reminds me most of Gordon Korman’s Schooled (a fantastic novel, as so many of his are) or Origami Yoda.  But it isn’t a rip-off: it’s got a character all of its own.  Like the two books above, it is told by many characters, particularly three middle school students: Kevin (the “coolest” geek of the school who refuses to accept this label because he can talk to girls unlike real geeks); Stephanie (a girl concerned about the deteriorating atmosphere of her school); and Paula (who is getting deeper and deeper into trouble at home and at school).  Other chapters are descriptions of past or present events by an omniscient narrator, and contributions by Victor, a first-year university student and former Latvian.

The plot really centres around Jobbi, a recent immigrant from Latvia who is target number one for bullies at Central Middle School.  While most students ignore or mock Jobbi and his thick accent, Stephanie and Kevin find something special in this kind and mysteriously insightful boy.  Unconsciously and effortlessly, Jobbi demonstrates that he might just have the abilities to solve the school’s social problems and bring the student body together.  It takes Stephanie, Kevin, a school dance, a trip to Latvia, some fancy skating, a sarcastic fortune-telling ball, and Jobbi’s unique sixth sense for matchmaking, but they make it happen.

As with Schooled and Origami Yoda it was fun learning about a very quirky character through the eyes of other people.  The Baltic connection reminded me of Holes, particularly the way problems and solutions were passed down through the generations.  Stewart also includes some good hockey scenes – you can tell he loves the game (though I can’t think of any middle school that actually has a team).  And the themes of bullying and gangs were handled quite well – the stakes were real and worrisome.  Occasionally there was a hint of a lesson-of-the-week kind of voice, particularly from the do-gooder Stephanie, but it didn’t harm the story in any serious way.  Overall, I thought it was unexpectedly delightful and I’m looking forward to recommending it, particularly to teachers.

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Witchlanders by Lena Coakley

I didn’t have high expectations for this book, though the beautiful cover immediately grabbed me.  But it has blown me away – this is my favourite YA fantasy in quite a while.  It is insightful, smart, innovative, and well written.  I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have found it.  From the ending it seems there will be sequels, and I am looking forward to following more of this story.

Witchlanders very much has a classic fantasy feel to it.  There is magic, peasant technology, and age-old enemies.  Ryder is a young man trying to hold his family together following his father’s death.  His mother’s increasingly erratic behaviour and dependence on Maiden’s woe – a flower that gives the power of prophesy, but is addictive and poisonous – is destroying the family balance.  When she foresees terrible events, Ryder refuses to believe in her or the magic of the witches who claim to protect his people.

The second point of view is the voice of Falpian, a young man sent into exile along the border by his disappointed father.  Falpian is one of the Baen, the old enemy of Ryder’s people.  The Baen’s magic is in song, though Falpian seems to have no skill in this art.  As Ryder and Falpian draw closer, an intangible connection between the would-be enemies grows stronger, and becomes a powerful bond that neither expected to find.

I won’t give away any more of the plot – but the themes of this book are incredible.  The brutality of war; the nature of difference, prejudice and ignorance; the necessity of challenging those in power who would lead without question; the subjugation of women; the importance of faith; and the connection of living things are all strong themes running through this book.

Witchlanders does what fantasy and sci-fi should do best – take us somewhere unfamiliar to remind us of our own world and its problems.  Unlike many YA fantasies that I have read, it doesn’t just skim the surface of magic/action/adventure – it digs deep and poses questions for the reader.  Here are two quotes that stopped me in my tracks:

“‘No,’ he said. ‘He is not on our side.  But Skyla, are we only allowed to care about people who are on our side?'”

“Do you think anyone is born a killer?  Do you think I was?  Trust me, I know what I’m asking.  An assassin’s first murder is himself.  He kills the man he was.”

[My apologies to Simon and Schuster – I’m not actually checking these quotes against the finished manuscript as I’m supposed to.  I’ll just have to hope they’re in the finished copy!]

Added to the complexity of ideas is the complexity of the characters.  Not only are the two main characters well-drawn, they have very conflicted but believable loyalties and impulses.  And the range of other character is satisfying. Most are a mix of bad and good: some intent on following orders; others follow an inner sense of what is right or a loyalty to a particular loved one; others are wrong-headed and misguided, but again are doing what their experience and world view tells them is right.  I don’t think anyone is truly evil, though many evil actions are performed.  Nor does everyone gets what they deserve – innocent or kind people are harmed and some awful people are never punished.  Some readers may find this frustrating; some might see it as simply an open door for a sequel (which I’m sure it is); I again found it a nice reflection on the unfairness of life and the unique ability of those in power to stay in power whatever their actions.

Though I clearly loved it, I recognize that Witchlanders is not for everyone.  It is high fantasy (though there are no dwarves or elves), and there is almost no hint of a love story.  Most won’t have the same reaction as me, and might experience only luke-warm enjoyment.  That said, I think the action and voices are strong enough to interest most people who are well-disposed to fantasy.  I sincerely hope that many people do give it a try, and that it is not lost or neglected in the mass of dystopian fiction making its way through the market right now.  Lena Coakley has created a gem, and it deserves a few moments to shine.

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Almost True by Karen David

This is a sequel to a YA book that absolutely blew me away, When I was Joe.  This is a British series, about a teen boy named Ty living in London.  In When I was Joe Ty is put into witness protection because he witnessed a violent crime.  Most of the way through that book, you don’t know what happens – the crime and Ty’s past is revealed slowly as he works through problems in his present.

In the present he is Joe.  And while Ty was quiet, shy and small (he only had one friend Aaron, who is the fellow that got him into the trouble in the first place), Joe is tall, fit and tough (in part because Ty is put in a lower year at school, and in part because he is from the city and comes off as tough in a gentler neighbourhood).  The voice in this book was amazing – I loved the way Ty developed his Joe personality as a shield, and used it to explore aspects of himself that he hadn’t before (his talent for track and field in particular).  The novel also didn’t flinch away from the problems of gangs and urban violence and the consequences they have – Ty’s life didn’t get easy or rosy, but he did find some decent people who helped him deal with his emotions a bit.

When I was Joe ends on a cliffhanger, and Almost True begins right where that one left off.  I really enjoyed the beginning and end of this sequel – Ty has to pick up and run once again.  This time he finds himself with a family he has never met and finds himself in unfamiliar surroundings.  The tough guy persona he’s developed clashes with a sedate, upper class home where his grandparents live.  But for all his rough edges, there are things about Ty that make you love him no matter what – he is surprisingly tender at times; totally accepting of cultural differences; comfortable with women (he grew up with his mother and grandmother); and has a fondness for ironing, which is so touching.  I also loved the characters of his cousin, his grandparents, his father, as well as learning more about his mother.

Where I got bogged down was all the running away Ty did in the middle of Almost True, particularly to meet up with his love interest from the first book.  I found the whole sequence slow and a little besides the point.  For a good two hundred pages, Ty seems to make one stupid decision after another, based on drastically flawed interpretations of situations and people.  He apparently suffers from post-traumatic stress, which is understandable, but he does come off as being a complete idiot.  Once he slows this down and we actually get to the book’s conclusion, the story became compelling once more.  The revelations about his past were fascinating and unexpected, but believable.  And (not to give too much away) I really enjoyed how the court scenes were portrayed.

Overall, I did get annoyed and bogged down partway through and I think it could have used another draft.  But thinking back, I really did enjoy Ty’s story.  I’ve tried not to give too much away here, as these books (at least the first one) are really worth the read.  Some of the best teen suspense/action I’ve read in a while.

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Forgotten by Cat Patrick

This is another one of those quasi-sci-fi books aimed at teen girls in the tradition Twilight, Hunger Games and Numbers.  While I kind of enjoyed Forgotten, it had some major issues that bothered me the whole way through.

I couldn’t quite get over the absolute impossibility of the premise in Forgotten – especially because the whys and hows were in no way explained.  London is a young woman whose memory works forward rather than backwards.  She can only remember the future, not her past.  As a result, she leaves herself notes every night so she can catch up on what is happening in her life.  While she can remember the next day, somewhere around 4am her memory resets, and she forgets it by morning.

Ok, interesting enough.  But – what the hell??  Memory doesn’t work like that – it’s just impossible.  And if you’re going to make me believe something impossible, I need a little bit more explanation for it all.  I mean, we’ve got some back story, but only vague references to how it started.  Really – she’s seeing the future – which I might be able to believe… but it’s a big stretch to call it memory and pretend it’s registered in her brain like normal memories are.  As if it’s something she’s already experienced.  Nifty idea, but please take some more effort to account for it.  And how is it that just her, her mom, and her best friend know about it?  Why haven’t they taken her to tons of specialists?  Why isn’t the government (or some other nefarious body) looking for her?  The best that could be said is that some of these things have happened, but she’s forgotten and hasn’t bothered reminding herself.

(A side note: in the book she apparently has beautiful auburn/red hair, but on the cover it’s just light brown? Why not check these things for continuity, publicity department?)

Another problem with the premise: she writes herself these notes every night, then every morning she has to catch herself up.  So presumably she’s reading hours of notes every day (sometimes she mentions this)… surely it’s increasing all the time and she has more and more and more to read.  How is it even possible to read through all the stuff she needs on a daily basis to function?  And why is it so important that her outfits are listed?  Can’t she go with what’s clean and what isn’t?  And how can she possibly ever pass a course, or a test?  By the time of the final review, she’d have no memory of the course at all.  But then, maybe she leaves a note as to what the questions will be… Oh, and one other thing: when reading these notes I was honestly very confused about whether she was talking about things that will happen to her that day (I think the wardrobe comments fall into this category) and what had happened the previous day.

What I did like was the thought experiment that is the concept – given adequate explanation, it could be really thought-provoking (and was a bit).  If you think about it, it’s a very sad life: as she gets older she has less and less to “remember”.  Her past disappears, and all she has left is a shrinking future.  By the time she’s old, she’ll be in a confusing present, without any memories to comfort her or guide her in the world.  That is endlessly thought-provoking, though the author doesn’t really delve into this at all.  In a way, I would have liked a more traditional sci-fi novel with this premise – it could have covered much more about her life and how it all happened, and how she manages to live it.  (or how a whole group of such people manage… makes you miss Philip K. Dick, even though I find a lot of his writing painful to read) As it was, I found it had a lot of the typical teen romance stuff re-hashed.  But, then, many readers are going to love that.

In terms of the re-hash: it’s got the usual parent stuff.  The usual friend stuff.  The usual school stuff. A very tall handsome boy named Luke who likes her.  Here the relationship reminded me of Twilight.  He’s the only person in London’s future that she can’t remember – so much so, that for a while she thinks he isn’t in her future (see Edward not being able to read Bella’s mind).  Their relationship is so immediately deep and close that it also reminds me of the vampire stuff.  Though of course it’s got a little of Fifty First Dates in it as well. I also think it is very similar to Numbers by Rachel Ward, about a girl with a strange and unsettling ability.  However, London is not a delinquent, and Luke is not nearly so hygiene challenged as Spider from that novel.  But it might be the closest match, genre-wise.

While well written and with some decent (though not very original) characters, Forgotten‘s main draw is it’s interesting premise.  If the gaps in explaining her memory issues don’t bother you, you’ll probably love this book.  If they do, I recommend finding some more serious sci-fi – like Philip K. Dick, Vonnegut, LeGuin, or maybe Asimov (if you like androids like I do).

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