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“How did you become a boy, Corinna, and a Folk Keeper?”

“I changed my name on the Foundling Certificate. It’s been four years now.”

But I said no more. He needn’t know I was sent to the Rhysbridge Home with a shipment of other ophans, including one boy who had apprenticed to become the Home’s new Folk Keeper. He needn’t know I took advantage of being unknown to them all to steal a pair of breeches, cut my hair, and turn myself into Corin. I will never tell anyone how I frightened the new Folk Keeper so dreadfully his very first night in the Cellar that he fled. I do not like to think of what I did – of how he screamed! – but I force myself to write it. I cannot let myself go soft.

A month ago I put out a general call through Twitter for book recommendations. As fast as fingers could type I got a series of great recommendations, including Franny Billingsley‘s Chime (which unfortunately my library did not have a copy of), so I tracked down this other title by her. If folks out there have any other Young Adult fiction books to pass on, please drop me a line here, or on Twitter.

Corinne is the Folk Keeper of Rhysbridge, disguised as an orphan boy (absent the last two letters of her name). The role is of extreme importance to the community. The Folk are an implacable species of carnivorous phantoms, that can only be appeased by the provision of certain sacrifices by a ‘Keeper’. Corinne has tricked and deceived her way into learning the trade of the Folk Keeper and through her status is enabled to maintain the pretence of being a boy. While she was never apprenticed and directly taught knowledge of how to protect the inhabitants of Rhysbridge, ‘Corin’, has talents of her own. Her hair grows to an extraordinary length during the night and she can call to mind the exact time to the minute.

Then one day the Lord Hartley Merton arrives at Rhysbridge and changes her life, even as his ebbs away. Corinne is adopted by his family and made the Folk Keeper of their estate Cliffsend – much larger in scale, with many secrets in its long history, including that of the Lord’s first wife, the tragic Rona. The Folk who reside there are also much savager. Corinne’s simple tricks will not be enough to hold them off and for all her stolen insight into the business of Keepers, she finds her skills are not sufficient.

In order to survive she will need to learn more about the Merton family. She develops a friendly relationship with the son of Hartley’s second wife, Finian, but as her feelings for him change, the Corin persona becomes harder to maintain. Also Sir Edward, the thwarted heir to the estate, seems to be plotting a coup that somehow involves Cliffsend’s new Folk Keeper.

Billingsley book is filled with subtle magicks, dark supernatural presences and hints of Celtic folklores. The Sealfolk in particular resemble Irish myths about selkies – in fact, a friend of mine was told growing up that she was a selkie by her brother. There is even a personification of death referred to briefly named Soulsucker, who is said to be warded off by black satin. I really enjoyed how the author introduced these local folk tales into her fictional world, adopting a darker hue with the blood sacrifices offered up to the Folk to prevent the bespoiling of crops.

The slow thawing of Corinne’s worldview is also delicately portrayed, which builds to a gentle romance with the perceptive Finian. In fact midway through this book, the high concept finally hit me between the eyes – this book is Yentl with added murderous ghosts!

Thoroughly enjoyable, with a neat line in supernatural horror and an entertaining mystery. I must follow up on Twitter recommendations more often.

Tark peered through the undergrowth at the cave.  All seemed peaceful and quiet. But appearances could be deceptive, especially in the Forest.

Tark had never taken on a dragon before. He’d never even seen one. He was just a common thiever and dragons were well out of his league. No one below a knight, second class, would attempt such an encounter. And yet, here he was.

‘Oi!’ Tark shouted as he approached the cave.

‘Dragon! Ya in there?’

Years ago when people still spoke about the Matrix films with an air of awed respect, I tended to be the one curmudgeon in the room who would pronounce Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon the far better film. Actually, now that I think about it, I am still saying this, except exchange The Matrix for Inception and it is pretty much the same argument.

Anyway, the reason I chose the more obscure film about characters attempting to escape from a virtual gaming world, was because I felt Oshii was far braver in his approach. In keeping with the Cartesian split between what is and what is fantasy, sf stories that deal with unreal worlds often insist that it is possible to return to an original ‘real world’. Oshii turns away from that and presents us with an infinite series of virtual worlds. ‘Reality’, is nothing more than a different perspective.

To find similar themes in a work of Young Adult fiction was certainly a great treat for me.

Tark and Zyra are thievers, trapped in a game-world that mixes medievil monsters with hi-tech artistocrats. The opening has Tark stalking a company through a dark forest, confident that the guards he sees protecting the company of travellers are little more than holograms. Instead his attack quickly goes wrong. Turns out the guards are quite real, their swords equally so and instead of the hoped for chest of gold, they are protecting a spoiled princeling named Galbrath. Through a combination of sheer luck and a refined ducking ability, Tark survives the encounter and even makes away with a powerful weapon – a power sword of pure light.

Meanwhile his partner Zyra is engaged on a job of her own, stealing a much-prized ‘key’, to Designer’s Paradise from a rival thiever named The Cracker. The key allows players within the gameworld to escape and can usually only be afforded by the very rich. Tark and Zyra have been stealing gold in order to purchase one, but now they have a key of their own they can leave this dangerous world of treacherous assassins and dragons behind.

Except little do they know, but both thievers have intruded upon the plans of the evil Fat Man. Sending his agents in pursuit of the two, they discover there is no safe place for them to hide, even beyond the borders of Designer’s Paradise.

I was mightily impressed by this book and am eagerly looking forward to the upcoming sequel, Gamer’s Challenge. Yes this is a book for teens, but it does not stint on its own ambitious themes as a result. One aspect I loved was the near religious worship of the Designers, who instilled certain moral laws into the games these characters are trapped in. Tark and Zyra are in love, but the rules prevent them from any physical contact.

The story is quite fast-paced and introduces a series of increasingly outlandish villains and monsters as it progresses. An early stand-out is the ‘rat-mage’, a hivemind of underground tunnel rats who can create convincing illusions. The Fat Man himself is a diabolical force within the game, attempting to corrupt the gameworld to his own designs.

What I most enjoyed about the book is how Ivanoff has presented his readership with ideas and fictional concepts that they are no doubt familiar with due to the gaming industry – but they have perhaps not encountered before in books. Tark and Zyra even speak in the same kind of pidgin Old English familiar to those who have played any of the generic Fantasy RPGs of recent years. The closest comparison to this book in literature that I can think of is Charles Stross’ Glasshouse which was reviewed early on in this blog and dealt with similar material.

Exciting, imaginative and forward-looking, a real treat.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

She turned. When his hat came off, his hair had come off too. In the confusion all she had seen was a chalk-white scalp, so she turned expeting to see a bald albino maybe. But no. With his sunglasses gone and his scarf hanging down, there was no denying the fact that he had no flesh, he had no skin, he had no eyes and he had no face.

All he had was a skull for a head.

Ok, I’ve got my writing music playing (Pat Boone’s cover of Enter Sandman, if you must know) and am in the mood to celebrate. See I get happy when I find an Irish writer I had not heard of before. 2009 was the year of Eoin Colfer for me, whose Artemis Fowl novels I blitzed through in a fortnight. I was excited to find a contemporary author who could take the mythology I had been raised with and update it for modern times.

It appears Derek Landy is of a similar calibre.

This book opens with a mysterious will and ends with a young girl set upon a very peculiar destiny. In between we have skeleton detectives, cthonic gods, wars of magic and a murder mystery.

The death of Gordon Edgley, known as a popular author of portentous horror fantasy novels, comes as a surprise to many but occasions little grieving. Edgley had an uncommon ability to get under people’s skin and was known to move in very unusual circles. His twelve-year-old niece Stephanie had grown quite close to him, being one of the few interesting individuals in the coastal town of Haggard near Dublin. When the reading of the will reveals that Gordon left her both his home and fortune the assembled Edgley clan is left in shock, most notably her aunt and uncle who strongly resent her incredible inheritance.

Yet her sudden good fortune is not the only thing that Stephanie came into that day. She also made the acquaintance of Skulduggery Pleasant – mystical detective. When her inheritance earns Stephanie a powerful enemy, Skulduggery comes to her rescue and introduces her to a world of magic and wonder that exists side-by-side with our own. His talk of ancient weapons, councils of sorcerors and elemental magic all sounds quite plausible to her. After all, Skulduggery is a talking skeleton who can shoot fire from his hands.  

On the run from museum vampires and the malevolent Hollow Men, Skulduggery and Stephanie can count on few allies – such as the tailor-cum-boxer Ghastly Bespoke and London monster-slayer Tanith Low – as a malevolent force sweeps through Dublin’s magical community, threatening to tip the world into a mystical apocalypse. All Stephanie has to do is find the key to a magical artifact that can summon gods, prevent the villain from obtaining it first and try to make sure no one learns her real name – as in the world of magic, names have power. Oh and hide all of this from the watchful eyes of her parents. 

This book is a delight from start to finish. The plot races along, the banter between Stephanie and her undead companion is hilarious and Landy utilises his experience as a black belt in Kenpo to describe some fantastic fight scenes. When detailed descriptions of blocks and kicks don’t suffice, he’ll then have Tanith perform feats such as run along a ceiling to hack at the heads of attackers from above. 

On a related note, I was pleased to hear that Landy practices Kenpo, as when I was just a little nipper in 80′s Ireland I had the pleasure of meeting Ed Parker (and yes, this is a photo of him training Elvis Presley).

On top of being very funny, thrilling and filled with monstrous creatures such as the unstoppable White Cleaver, Landy also throws in some nods and winks to Lovecraft fans. The ‘Faceless Ones’, are a homage to the New England fantasist’s ‘Old Ones’, and are even credited as such  by the book’s antagonist. There is even a hint that Stephanie’s adventures could all be the result of a form of family dementia. Perhaps all of what she is experiencing is a grief-stricken hallucination inspired by Gordon Edgley’s writings. I was briefly reminded of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Normal Again - an association encouraged by the Buffy-esque Tanith, who shrugs off major wounds and even has a catchphrase ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough, great fun all round.

Walking up the driveway to the house, she spots her mother’s face disappear behind the curtain.

‘Spying on me now?’ she says slamming the door.

‘Evie!’

‘I’m going up to my room.’

‘How was your day?’

‘You mean, did I do anything weird?’

‘Evie!’

‘I’m going up to my room. I’ve got stacks of work.’

My dad used to embarrass my mam by talking about how her mother had psychic abilities. He never phrased it like that of course. He would say she had a gift. I was always curious about that as my family is devoutly Catholic. How was the paranormal accomodated?

Then again I have been to where my family is from in Co. Roscommon. It is a quite isolated part of the countryside, not much to do. Whatever would serve to alleviate the boredom of dark evenings with nothing to do I imagine.

Evie does not have the luxury of my blithe scepticism unfortunately. She is a psychic and feels it is a curse. Growing up in Sydney’s inner suburbs she would occasionally see strange things, or hear people’s thoughts, only realizing when she was older how uncomfortable she made people when she spoke of her extrasensory perception. Her own mother treats her with fear and suspicion. Evie is made to feel even more freakish when an incident at school reveals to the other students just how different she is. Bullied and mocked as a witch, Evie retreats into herself, refusing to go out at the weekends, desperately clinging to the few sympathetic friends she has.

What is worse, with Year 12 exams coming up, Evie needs to produce an art project in time for assessment. Instead she finds her drawings becoming warped and transformed, with a face of a girl she does not know emerging on the canvas. She cannot trust her own body to obey her and begins to notice unusual changes. Her left eye becomes infected, even her hair starts to feel different. It is as if a stranger’s body is replacing her own. Then there are the dreams that leave Evie haunted, her unconscious mind invaded by warnings and premonitions she cannot understand.

Estranged from her own family, her friends and feeling isolated at school, Evie despairs of ever being normal. Until she receives a phonecall from a family friend she never met, who has a secret to tell her that changes everything.

J.C. Burke captures a teenager’s feelings of alienation perfectly in the first half of this book. The  testosterone fueled punch-ups between schoolboys, post-weekend gossip about friends’ lovelives and obsessing about what clothes look good nail the adolescent experience as well. I also enjoyed the glimpses of Glebe Markets that are introduced, with Evie and her two friends Poppy and Alex play-acting around in the vintage clothes stores on a Saturday afternoon. First time I came to Australia I stayed at a friend’s house in Glebe and really came to love the area. Local details like that make this book come alive, with Evie a recognizable and true-to-life teenage protagonist.

Where I began to have problems was with the direction the supernatural plot takes the story. At first I assumed, what with the school bullying of Evie, that this was a Young Adult rehash of Stephen King‘s Carrie. When her dreams hint at a spectral force directly haunting her, even threatening to take over her body, I began to suspect a climax similar to Koji Suzuki‘s brand of disturbing body-horror.

Instead Burke presents a teenage take on the successful television series Medium. I’m sorry to say, and I am sure this seems like an irrational personal bias, but I strongly resented introduction of a police investigation into the plot. This may sound hypocritical, after all I have raved about supernatural detective novels on this blog such as those featuring Felix Castor and Joe Pitt, but the essential difference is that they were entirely fantastical books. Police have been known to use psychics in investigations (although that perception of mine could be due to false press) and to my mind the ‘professional psychic’, is no different than John Edward cold reading a gullible audience. In The Red Cardigan scepticism itself is claimed to be capable of sucking away a psychic’s powers.

However, that being said, the first half of this book makes for an excellent assessment of teenage life. I am sad to say I was left conflicted afterwards, but would recommend this chiller for an adolescent readership.

“I didn’t mean to,” he finally blurted out, “but they were drownin’ you, and I was so scared…” He was quiet for a minute. “There sure is a lot of blood in people.”

Prior to reading this book I was only dimly aware of S.E. Hinton’s writing. I knew that she wrote young adult fiction and that her novels often had male protagonists involved in street gang life. I must confess though that was mostly due to Francis Ford Coppola having made a film of The Outsiders back in the eighties – and even that movie is not really all that well known today, except for its astonishingly prescient casting. Here’s a list of the young turks Coppola snapped up for the flick. Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, Diane Lane and Ralph Macchio (he of Karate Kid fame).

Man Tom Cruise looks crazy in that trailer.

The story is told from the perspective of Ponyboy Curties, the youngest of three brothers who recently lost their parents in a car wreck. All three boys are Greasers, belonging to a gang of kids from the wrong side of the tracks who like to drink late into the night, roll drunks for change and rip off stores on occasion. They wear their hair long and slicked back. The only implement they hold more often than a comb is a flick knife. They also are the sworn enemies of the Socs, society kids from the wealthier part of town who cruise around in expensive cars looking for lone Greasers to pound.

The two gangs fight over narrow strips of turf and spends their day plotting revenge for various slights when they’re not getting drunk, or looking for a girl.

Ponyboy is different though. He gets good grades, likes to read and is not physically as strong as his brothers Darrel and Sodapop. Those are their legal names; apparently Poppa Curtis had a sense of humour. Darrel works two jobs to try and provide for the family. Ponyboy resents how the eldest brother put pressure on him to do better in school and not stay out too late at night. Soda has dropped out and is also working. He is less scholarly that the other two Curtis brothers and has no interest in going to college. All he wants to do is marry his sweetheart and party with the other Greasers, Dallas, Two-Bit, Steve and Johnny. Little Johnny Cade is the baby of the gang. All the other Greasers look on him like a little brother and try to protect him. After getting beatings from his dad for years, Johnny took a turn for the worse when a gang of Socs left him beaten and bloody on the wasteland bordering their respective territories. Ever since Johnny has been traumatized and highly strung, retreating further and further into himself.

Ponyboy and Johnny spend most of their time together. As the two physically weaker Greasers they tend to gang up on individual Socs during fights and are less outspoken than the rest of the gang. One night at a drive in Johnny snaps when Dallas begins harassing two Socs girls. Shamed by the younger Greaser’s words, Dallas takes off, leaving the two boys with Cherry Lane and Marcia. Ponyboy discovers an unlikely friend in Cherry, the two of them quickly bonding over their frustration with the gang life they are trapped by. She tells him that he is different, he can make something of himself, that even the Socs have it rough sometimes despite coming from privilege. Greasers feel too much, they decide, whereas Socs feel nothing at all, even in the heat of a rumble.

After they offer to walk the girls home though, a gang of Socs drive past, with Cherry’s boyfriend Bob in the car. Johnny and Ponyboy find themselves targeted by the rival gang and during that one terrible night everything quickly goes very wrong.

S.E. Hinton captures Ponyboy’s voice perfectly, with his musings on class differences and his frustrations with life slowly changing as he becomes more aware of what is really happening around him. She also describes the bond between the Greasers with great sympathy, with the friends trying to give one another what family has failed to provide.

There is perhaps an overly sentimental tone to the proceedings, with Cherry an unlikely greek chorus, but the bursts of violence lend it weight. This is a sad, bittersweet take on adolescence.

I pretend to look at her kitchen while I think about everything Lily has just said and how she must feel when people pretend not to see her, or her illness. She’s sick, not stupid, so being invisible must be…well…it must certainly be something. I’m just not sure what. Worse still, I don’t know if I’m one of those people. I don’t know if I’ve ever ‘not seen’ someone, or if I’ve seen their illness instead of them. I’ve never thought about it before.

From the title alone I could tell this book would be something different. Where other stories about people living with disabilities can be sanctimonious or overly sentimental, Rebecca Bloomer set out to tell her tale with good humour and directness. It is an approach not unlike Foley Russel’s own, as he goes about getting to know the ‘poor girl’, of the title, Lily, who is living with cystic fibrosis. My father was a special needs teacher prior to his retirement, which in effect resulted in every student within the school considered ‘not normal’, winding up in dad’s class. Consequently issues relating to the integration of children with disabilities are something that I have always cared deeply about.

I would like to thank Odyssey Books for the review copy of this book.

Foley Russel and his mate Shay enjoy each other’s company too much to bother with schoolwork. After all, water fights and computer console games are a lot more fun than reading some boring old book. So it takes a special kind of teacher to get through to them and luckily Miss D just happens to be just that kind of educator. Invited out on a day’s outing to the local library, the boys are surprised to find an odd assemblage of local heroes and authors waiting for them inside. Miss D explains that they are each going to write a special book report about some very special people. Everyone gathered within the library has either featured in, or written a book. The students have to choose a subject and then review the book that concerns them.

On a whim Foley approaches the girl sitting in a wheel chair, wondering what speeds it could reach with a rocket attached to the back.

Lily Ashford has not had a book written about her. In fact she has written one of her own, a fantasy novel about a prince lost in a dark wood threatened by shadow beasts. Foley does not understand why Lily writes about princes and magic when she has a tube up her nose. That’s worth writing about, right? Lily explains that she’s tired of being seen as a disease instead of a thirteen-year-old. She wants to escape from being stared at in the street, or having to sit in small classes with other kids living with disabilities. Slowly Foley begins to understand and Lily becomes more than that girl in a wheelchair, but a friend.

Bloomer writes with admirable humour and insight about her characters. First Foley and Shay are well captured as self-involved teenagers, but this does not exclude the parents featured in the novel from the same degree of character detail. Oftentimes novels for children, or young adult fiction rely upon that Charles Schulz trick of reducing the adult world to white noise, incomprehensible to the younger protagonists. Both Foley and Lily’s mothers have their own lives. Their pleasure at the growing friendship between their children is as much due to the love they feel for their kids, as it is happiness at the prospect of having made a new friend of their own.

Bloomer also intersperses explanatory boxes similar to hyperlinked Wikipedia articles into the text, giving greater clarity to what is being said. This illustrates the purpose of Foley Russel and That Poor Girl desiring to inform, but not preach, broaching the painful subject matter in a familiar and intimate way.

Impassioned, yet affectionate, this is a very enriching novel.

And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre  one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious – is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult readers only as “guilty pleasure” (a phrase I loathe).

My mother-in-law and Michael Chabon have something in common. They both dislike the word genre. It has become an arbiter of taste – genre-fiction obviously is of less value than ‘literature’, or serious writing. Not only that, but a book written according to the rules and precepts of a specific genre is somehow less meaningful than a tale about individuals struggling with day-to-day problems and perhaps if the reader is lucky, arriving at an epiphany before the plot runs out.

Chabon here defends the stalwarts of genre fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle to M.R. James; from ghost stories to comic books, Will Eisner‘s The Spirit to Howard Chaykin‘s American Flagg; running the gamut between Philip Pullman‘s Miltonian Young Adult fiction, to literary darling Cormac McCarthy’s sf-not-by-name The Road. This is also, as the book’s subtitle states ‘Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands’ a collection of essays about writing, as much as it is about reading. The first half of the book is concerned with writers who represent the influences Chabon wishes to credit for his own development as a writer. The second half describes his beginnings as a novelist, as well as the aspects of his own life that inspired his fiction.

The central theme can be reduced to the power of lies to tell the truth. Chabon’s love of Loki found expression in his own children’s novel Summerland, where the villain was identified as the archetypal Trickster. He credits Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World for identifying the role played Loki/Satan/Coyote/Prometheus in symbolising that freewheeling creative spirit of the imagination. The conflict between genre fiction, wild and magical, dark and mysterious, and literature, enshrined (perhaps entombed) by consensus as ‘valuable’, in a coldly calculated manner, that lies at the heart of this collection.

When we read about our favourite writers, the temptation is there to find some aspect of their true selves in their fiction. Chabon describes how he himself felt terrified the first time he submitted material that featured a gay love scene. Similarly Wonder Boys convinced certain readers that Chabon himself was a pot-smoking ladies’ man. It is with these caveats that he sets about describing the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, presenting what he has learned (I loved  that The Sign of Four and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray were commissioned at the same time over lunch by magazine editor J.M. Stoddart), while also making tentative guesses at some insight into the author’s life. M.R. James’ ghost stories possess none of the overt Freudian undertones of modern horror writers, but beneath the precise phrases and clipped prose, Chabon detects an unconscious sexual undercurrent to the paranormal horrors the writer visited upon his protagonists.

He criticises Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for losing sight of the first book’s sense of wonder, as well as its heroine Lyra’s whimsical character. However, he also lauds the series for not condescending to its readership, reinvigorating the tropes of the adventure serial and seriously exploring its allusive relationship to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The series, in Chabon’s view, acts as a celebration of the adventure that can be found in childhood, one that is slowly being extinguished in mainstream culture, even in comic books! In a general essay about the medium, he notes that few comics today actually feature child protagonists. Compare that to the blockbuster Harry Potter series, or Lyra and Will leaping across dimensions in Pullman’s books.

This being Chabon of course, the auto-biographical segments of this collection need to be taken with a grain of salt. From his remove as a forty-something author his childhood becomes a tableau of unguessed at future potential; his first novel credited to the efforts of Fitzgerald and Roth. He discusses his life as an American Jew, the break-up of his first marriage, the ‘exile’ of an author and how it relates to his culture. How a conflict on a Yiddish message board led to The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball!

Inspiring, truthful and humorous.

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