“Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It” by Maile Meloy (2009)

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“Chet Moran grew up in Logan, Montana, at a time when kids weren’t supposed to get polio anymore.”

Life is an endless series of choices. We find ourselves an endless number of futures ahead of us, and then the decisions we make whittle down the options, but there will always be more. Left or right. Buy or sell. Stay or go. Hide or seek. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in time travel fiction, the heroes are always so concerned that any actions they make in the past might affect the future, but we never seem to pause in our own present to realise that the decisions we make now are making big changes in the future. There’s no time travel in this book, however, just simple people with big decisions to make.

Meloy’s book is a collection of eleven short stories, each of which centre around a person who has reached a figurative crossroads in their life and need to decide what they’re going to do about it. Chet Moran is worried that he’ll never see Beth Travis again, unless he does something about it. Aaron needs to decide whether or not to continue his relationship with his tiresome brother George. Naomi has to choose what action she takes when her friend confesses that she thinks her husband is having an affair. And Everett and Pam have got to make up their minds regarding the strangers they found in the snow.

Some of the same themes recur over and over, and there is definitely some repetition of situations, with affairs and relationships between parents and children, but they all feel real and raw. The silliest one, and probably my favourite, is “Liliana”, which is about a man who finds his grandmother alive and well on his doorstep, despite her death and autopsy two months previously. It turns out that her death was all something of a “misunderstanding” and so she has returned to check up on him and his family. Many of the other stories are quite tragic, such as “Travis, B.” which is about a young man struggling with feelings of love for the first time and not having the ability to do anything with them, or “Red from Green”, which is about a father failing to stop the molestation of his daughter and how their relationship drifts apart afterwards.

Curiously candid and not overly flowery, the stories are short and punchy, and I think all of them left me with a sense of wanting to know what happened next. Intriguing little nuggets of fiction that tap into those bits of being human that we don’t always like being tapped. Worth a read if you’re after something quick.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“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.