“Lost Boy” by Christina Henry (2017)

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“Sometimes I dreamed of blood.”

When books enter the public domain, it’s always an interesting moment. People suddenly have the freedom to explore the worlds and add to them, for better or for worse. Many books, will eventually spawn prequels and sequels that probably stray entirely from the plans of the original writer. The Alice in Wonderland books have been explored repeatedly, and there’s always the “companion” books to Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre (Death Comes to Pemberley and Wide Sargasso Sea, respectively). Sometimes it’s done badly, but other times the results are very interesting and add new layers that still fit with the original text. Lost Boy explores the history of Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up, and long before he ever met Wendy…

Our narrator is Jamie, one of the Lost Boys that Peter has taken from the Other Place to his magical island where the only adults are scary pirates and the children never have to grow up. It is not, however, the Neverland that we would expect. Here, the Lost Boys can and repeatedly do die, with Peter never seeming to care, instead disappearing to get some more. Jamie is the heart of the troop, actually taking time to care about the boys, especially Charlie, who was far too young to be brought across.

Peter is jealous of Charlie, and later Sal, two recruits who take away so much of Jamie’s time that he feels he’s losing his oldest friend. Their adventures become more dangerous than ever, involving the Many-Eyed (a race of giant spiders that inhabit the island), a fight to the death with an uncooperative Lost Boy, and the pirates who are even more enraged than ever when Peter burns down their camp. Jamie comes to realise that Peter is not the benevolent figure he always assumed he was. Peter has been keeping secrets for a long time, and when they start to spill out, it threatens the life he wants. Jamie, it seems, can’t stay young forever…

I can’t say that Peter Pan has ever been one of my favourite stories ever – I’ve not read the original and I’ve not seen the Disney version in a very long time – but it is certainly a world that seems to require exploring, given that it has so many unanswered questions there within it, such as where Peter came from, why Hook hates him quite so much, and the biology behind those fairies. This book serves as an interesting prequel and one I’m fully happy to accept as canonically correct. It’s hard to write about this without giving away one or two of the reveals towards the end of the book which I’m always loathe to do, but it’s quite obvious from early on – if not from the cover – that the Jamie narrating the story is (or will one day be) none other than Captain James Hook. It’s a great twist to have him as one of Peter’s young friends originally but lose his faith in his leader.

The themes of guilt, blame, friendship, belief and loss jump around one another playfully, but it’s important to note that while we think of Peter Pan has being quite a whimsical character thanks to Disney, the concept of never growing up and having young boys do battle with genuinely threatening pirates is pretty dark. Christina Henry has no problems in taking the story to even darker places, explaining exactly why Peter does what he does and how he manages to never get hurt. The Peter in this novel promises adventures that he can’t deliver, and is selfish in the extreme, with every action being done simply to make him happy. He is unwilling – or maybe unable – to give anyone else much of his time, with the exception of Jamie, who he does seem to particularly love. As the backstory of how Jamie arrived on the island unfolds, however, it reveals itself to be a very sick and twisted kind of love.

I feel it’s not a book that’s going to drop easily from my mind, and if you like delving into expanded universes, this is certainly a strong contender for the best Peter Pan based fiction. But then, I’ve not watched Hook in a long time either.

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“Monsters Of Men” by Patrick Ness (2010)

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Monsters of Men“‘War,’ says Mayor Prentiss, his eyes glinting. ‘At last.'”

Every so often, a book comes along that blows everything else out of the water; a game-changer, one that rewrites the rules for a genre or for the whole literary scene. Even rarer than that is a whole series that manages to do such a thing.

It also appears to me in my experience and that of my friends, that trilogies and the like don’t always measure up to the first installment. We are more familiar of this in the world of film, where sequels are made constantly and without anyone asking for them. (As an aside, did you know that Hollywood is currently working on sequels for Shakespeare In Love and The Naked Gun?) I have friends who are fans of both Twilight and The Hunger Games, but generally openly admit they decline in quality over time.

But then you have Patrick Ness and the Chaos Walking trilogy – three books that maintain a level of sophistication and excitement for over 1500 pages. This is the final installment. This is where it all comes to an end.

NOTE: Below there will be spoilers for those who haven’t yet read the first two books in the Chaos Walking trilogy. Read on at your own risk.

The novel opens in the heart of the action as Mayor Prentiss’s army, Mistress Coyle’s freedom fighters the Answer, and the native Spackle are all preparing for war – three sides and there can only be one winner. At the same time, the first new settlers – Simone and Bradley – have arrived and are finding themselves thrown into a situation that they do not understand.

War is brutal and fast, and peace negotiations are slow to take hold, as Prentiss and Coyle fight among themselves to see who will get the honour of being the hero of the hour, rather than fighting together to take down the Spackle. But among them all still sit Todd and Viola, neither of whom want war and would rather everyone stopped fighting altogether, for the sake of humanity, and for the incoming settlers.

As all the armies struggle, everyone must make life or death choices that will affect everything else from now on. Should the Spackle be bombed? Should the river the men were relying on be dammed? Should they find a cure for the infected bands that are affecting all of the women? It may be every man for himself in these difficult times, but they’re going to have to work together if they have any chance of peace.

Like the first two books, this one is fast-paced, tearing through the plot at almost breakneck speed like Gromit laying track while riding a model train. You are so caught up in the action, and the constant switching between three narrators (Todd, Viola, and a Spackle that hates Todd, known at first only as 1017 or The Return) that the six hundred pages slip out from under you. Again, there is a constant theme of choice here, about grey morality, but other themes come back bigger and better. Ness is writing about torture, terrorism, feminism, genocide, but for a younger audience and he is nailing it every single time. There’s an ever-present sense of ambiguity, as you feel you aren’t always being told everything but still have to make a painful decision somewhere along the line. Ness refuses to talk down to his readers, meaning that absolutely anyone can and should read these books.

There are some wonderful moments, such as the introduction of a Spackle narrator, who allows us to see that the species has evolved a sort of hive mind, allowing them to communicate at all times, and always know what everyone else knows. They call themselves the Land and are led by one known as the Sky, who seems to be the only one capable of keeping secrets – and boy does he have some secrets.

The new settlers are a great addition too, Simone being a dazzling, intelligent woman, and Bradley being the first character we’ve met before and after he gains the Noise. We see the struggle there is to adjust to it. Todd is at his finest here, constantly appearing to save the Mayor’s life despite his insistence that he wants him dead, and Viola is a great addition to the pantheon of female role models in the genre. The idea of having the older characters be somewhat shifty means you can never be totally sure whose side you’re supposed to be on. The Mayor calls himself a general and Mistress Coyle a terrorist. She in turn refers to herself as a freedom fighter and him as a mass murderer. Everyone’s truth is different, and everyone is the protagonist in their own story.

Like all good science fiction, this is about humanity, about how we seem to consistently have to destroy everything we create. As Bradley says, “Do we hate paradise so much we have to be sure it becomes a trash heap?” The book does end on a slightly more hopeful note, but there is still so much potential there and the cliffhanger, as I’ve come to expect from the series, is far from slight. Still, this was a good place to end. We don’t need to know what happened next, we can imagine, and we can imagine for the better.

This series is incredible and I won’t hesitate to recommend it to absolutely anyone. Powerful, startlingly well-written and a page-turner from start to finish, I don’t think I can fault it. As I said in my review for The Ask And The Answer, this is how you do young adult fiction, but I’d like to amend that. This is how you do fiction. All writers should aspire to be as sure of themselves and their worlds as Patrick Ness is here.

The books seem to be gaining a small following, but they deserve far more, and I have absolutely no doubt that they will get it.

“The Ask And The Answer” by Patrick Ness (2009)

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ask answer“Your noise reveals you, Todd Hewitt.”

I resist wherever possible reading the same author for two consecutive books. I like the spice of variety. But when I finished The Knife Of Never Letting Go, the insistence that I read the next one began to nag at me. I borrowed it (and the third in the series, too) from my friend and after reading a few Christmas presents, I went back to New World to pick up from the most ridiculous cliffhanger left by the prequel.

NOTE: Below there will be spoilers for those who haven’t yet read the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy. Read on at your own risk.

Todd and Viola have run across the planet from Prentisstown to Haven, only to find that their enemy, Mayor Prentiss, has beaten them to it and turned the city of hope into New Prentisstown, a place where he intends to rule, despite his constant assurances to Todd that he doesn’t want to cause anymore pain and he wants peace to return, ready for the next wave of settlers.

Todd and Viola become separated, allowing the narration to flip between the two of them as they struggle against those around them and their own moral codes to do what they believe is right. However, they soon find themselves on opposite sides of a brewing war, and as time moves on, pressure grows and war becomes more and more imminent, life gets more and more difficult.

Who is right? Who is wrong? Who can you trust? Those are the questions at the forefront of this novel, and they are beautifully explored. The change from one narrator to two narrators in this book is interesting and lets us get a fuller picture of the world, learn more about the history of New World and choose our own sides. Is Todd being controlled? Does Viola have a choice? As with many young adult books, the theme of our choices defining us is strong here, and very well played.

Character development alone deserves some sort of award, as evil characters like Davy Prentiss Jr. begin to show that maybe they aren’t all bad, and Todd refuses to change the one thing that makes him who he is. There’s a welcome return of Wilf, a great character from the first novel, as well as a less welcome return of Ivan, a farmhand who is not afraid to go wherever the power is. The second novel is slower to get going, but once it does, it retains the fast pace of the first. Graphic and violent and not afraid to show people suffering the most horrific injuries and tortures, Ness doesn’t hold back in displaying barbarism of all kinds. There are flashes of the Holocaust here, and they are occasionally uncomfortable to read. Humans are humans, which is both a good thing and a bad thing.

I’ve been scathing in the past about YA fiction. I’m no fan of John Green, and of course Stephanie Meyer seems to have single-handedly trained a subsection of the population to believe that an abusive relationship can still be romantic. But there are occasions in which it’s done very well, and others when it is done so perfectly that you would want your teenagers to read the book. In fact, you’d want anyone to read this book. However old you are, you should really get into this series, as it is incredibly well-structured, smart, dark and captivating.

This is how you do young adult fiction.

“The Knife Of Never Letting Go” by Patrick Ness (2008)

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It ain't for butter spreading.

It ain’t for butter spreading.

“The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.”

The excitement in her voice was palpable as she almost threw the book at me saying, “You will love it! Honestly, you’ll be asking me to lend you the sequels without a doubt!”

“But what’s it about?” I asked.

“Just read it,” she said.

I am, naturally, talking about one of my friends – in this instance, the psychologist – who has given me a copy of The Knife of Never Letting Go. I don’t know it, have never heard of it, but the opening line is known to me. I don’t know why, or from what situation, but I have heard that line before. I’m always wary when people are so keen on a book, if only because I don’t want to hurt their feelings when I’m unimpressed by it. But, in this case, she was absolutely right.

This is the story of Todd Hewitt, who is the last boy in Prentisstown. All boys become men on their thirteenth birthdays, and Todd is still a month away from his. None of the men want to talk to him anymore, so he is left with his dog Manchee, a dog he never wanted, and his two sort-of-fathers, Ben and Cillian. Prentisstown, however, is not your average town. Firstly, there are no women. Secondly, everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts. They call it the Noise, and it means there is no privacy or secrets anywhere, as anything you think can immediately be read by everyone else. And it’s not just the humans – you can hear the thoughts of the animals too.

But then, quite without warning or preparation, Todd stumbles upon a pocket of complete silence – something that cannot and should not exist, and yet does. When he returns to the farm and Ben reads in his Noise what he has found, everything begins to change, and Todd and Manchee are forced out on the run when the Mayor comes knocking and demanding Todd be handed over to him.

I wish I could tell you more of the story here and, while I can, I think it would be unfair to do so. There are so many surprises along the way and it wouldn’t be right of me to remove the joy of experiencing them from you first hand. As such, this review is going to be rather vague.

First things first, quite simply, this novel is incredible. It clocks in at almost five hundred pages, but it’s so gripping and fast-paced that you barely notice. Todd is a young narrator who doesn’t make me want to commit infanticide. He’s naive for his age, but it is merely a product of his very sheltered upbringing. The primary villain, Aaron, is a masterful creation of what happens to men when they become monsters, driven by madness and their own agenda.

The book doesn’t shy away from graphic violence and showing the effects of it. The bigger themes are those of doing what is right and what is easy, about how information overload can do dangerous things to you (it was this theme that made Ness choose to write the book for teenagers), and also how the choices we make impact the sort of man or woman we grow up to be. There are some dreadfully sad moments (this is not a funny book) and some passages are a little dry, but on the whole the action and exposition are so neatly entwined that I can’t complain about it. I’m particularly fond of the representation of the Noise which, when in Prentisstown, is displayed as dozens upon dozens of overlapping lines of speech in various handwriting, showing the reader how overwhelming the situation must be.

The ending … well, it totally rests on a cliffhanger that sets you up for the next book. I will be continuing this series in 2014, so watch this space!

15/01/2014 EDIT: My review of the second book in the series is available here.

“Pigeon English” by Stephen Kelman (2011)

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pigeon“You could see the blood.”

From the rich streets of California, to an London tower block, I have once again skipped location, genre, narrator and time for a new story. I remember Pigeon English coming out and being immediately popular. As such, because I’m a nightmare for things like that, I ignored it. It didn’t seem like something that would interest me very much. Fortunately, I have a friend who understands me and my literary tastes perhaps better than my own. After discussing Bradbury with her last week, I was prompted to pick up this book which she bought for me last year.

Pigeon English is the story of Ghanaian immigrant Harrison Okupu, who is eleven years old and lives in a London tower block with his mother and older sister Lydia. The rest of his family – Papa, Grandma and baby Agnes – are still in Ghana and he speaks to them regularly on the phone, but they are still saving up to move over for a better life. Harri is a bright and curious young boy who spends his time being the fastest runner in Year 7, talking to his friends about superheroes and cars, and annoying his sister. He is innocent in many respects, but wishes to become friends with the Dell Farm Crew, a gang of Year 11s who are, in his eyes at least, very cool.

The novel opens with the death of a teenage boy who lived on Harri’s estate. He was stabbed outside a chicken shop and, because the dead boy once spoke to Harri and he considers that they would have become friends, the intrepid young boy takes it on himself, with the help of his friend Dean, to find out who killed him. Armed with a sense of duty, some cheap binoculars and Dean’s encyclopedic knowledge of crime dramas, they set about their mission, which is interspersed with singing in church, playing dares and watching the pigeon that always seems to be around.

Harri forms a close bond to this particular pigeon who always seems to return to him again and again. The novel appears to be Harri telling the story to the pigeon and, in a wonderful little bonus, the pigeon sometimes shares its thoughts in return. It talks about being attacked by magpies, about the joy of shitting on people’s heads, and also gets very deep – the pigeon knows that there is a Heaven. The pigeon is benevolent and there to keep Harri safe.

Kelman’s interpretation of the way pre-teens speak and act is brilliant and while the slang has certainly moved on since I was that age (a sobering fourteen years ago), the sense of wonder and that feeling of being the centre of the universe is definitely relatable. Harri is still excited by the Tube (even if he thinks it smells of farts), loves Skips and the way they fizz on your tongue and knows all the rules that he’s learnt from school, like “No running on the stairs”, “Always put your hand up before you ask a question” and “He who smelt it, dealt it.”

I’m particularly fond of his relationship with his sister, Lydia. She’s about 13 and thinks she’s the big “I am”, especially in front of her friend Miquita, but while the two tease and taunt each other mercilessly, the siblings clearly do love each other and have fun of their own. When push comes to shove, Lydia will go above and beyond to help and protect her little brother.

It’s a funny book, but it’s definitely dark. Harri doesn’t really understand certain things, like why his aunt burns her fingerprints off, or why her boyfriend carries a baseball bat around. It’s a book of hope in the harsh reality of twenty-first century Britain, a story that touches on poverty, immigration and the gang culture that seems to be so deeply ingrained in London and other places today. It will make you laugh, but it will also make you cry.

Heartwarming, heartwrenching and just a little bit magical.

“To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee (1960)

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mocking

Not a how-to book

“When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”

“But have you any idea of the societal, literary and intellectual pressure there is riding on me reading this book?” I whined, clutching the small novel in my hands and staring at it, wondering if it only got to 30,000,000 sold because it’s forced on every American schoolchild. Yes, I had made it twenty-five years without reading what is often said to be the most read book in history and now, finally, egged on by numerous people around me and a general sense of duty, I have read To Kill A Mockingbird.

It’s not that we didn’t do classics at school, but we didn’t do this one. At school I was subjected to the usual Shakespeare (in my case, Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth), Of Mice and Men and Far From The Madding Crowd. I despair at some of the books that are chosen for schools, I really do, and I think that it really affects how many children grow up to be adults with a love of reading. If you’re forced to read Thomas Hardy, whom has, in my opinion, absolutely no literary merit whatsoever and absolutely no place in modern society, then you’re going to be put off. I think Mockingbird is a more popular choice across the pond, given that it is about their history, but that’s not to say no one here does it.

The plot is simple enough although, I confess, that given the popularity and ubiquity of this book, I wasn’t really aware of it. In fact, I knew startlingly little about it, aside from a vague shape of the plot, a few character names and a location. For those of you who still don’t know what it’s about, let me explain.

The protagonist is Scout Finch, a young girl living in Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s, narrating about events of her childhood from an adult point of view. She is a very intelligent child with an interest in everything around her. She lives with her brother Jem and father Atticus and enjoys reading and playing games in equal measure. Atticus is a lawyer who is probably more accurately defined as the main character as opposed to Scout herself. He becomes tasked with defending a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman, a case that to the prejudiced eyes of the townsfolk should be sorted out within a matter of seconds. Fortunately, Atticus is very shrewd and he isn’t going to let it slide.

Scout, Jem and their friend Dill, meanwhile, have become interested in the Radley House next door, where a man called Arthur “Boo” Radley supposedly still lives but is never seen. They try to get him to come out, with little success, but they soon find evidence that he is there and isn’t the monster that some of the townsfolk seem to believe he is.

I was far from impressed with the start of the book, honestly, regretting my choice to read it. But I pressed on, if only to get it out of the way, and found that, actually, I sort of understand why and how it has lasted. My trepidation comes from the fact that this book combines all of the things I find boring – child narrators, classic novels, arguments about race and whatnot – so I was sure that Harper Lee and I were never going to be able to get along. The scenes in the courtroom with Atticus defending his client Tom Robinson, however, were sheer masterpieces. The characters burst to life and I found myself rushing along with the trial, enjoying every twist and turn of the way.

Once the trial was over, the book began to lose it again, and I coasted through to the end with little enthusiasm once more. The very end, however, left me with that warm glow that you get after you know you’ve read something special. Because, whether I wanted to or not, I actually did enjoy the book. Atticus Finch in particular is a marvellous creation and a wonderful man. Struggling to bring up his children alone, I think he’s done a masterful job. I don’t care so much for Scout, Jem or Dill, but then again I never imagined I would.

The messages in the book are brutal and not so subtle, but very well done. There’s a discussion at one point of how can someone think that Hitler rounding up the Jews is disgusting, but that very same person can think that black people are beneath them and not see the hypocrisy in their statements. The first glimmers of equality are showing but people are still aware that they have a long way to go, allowing for a great moment with a character called Dolphus Raymond, who explains to the children something about humans that they hadn’t yet understood.

I’m pleased I’ve read it, and I think you should give it a go if you haven’t already because sometimes the masses are right.