Monday, 31 March 2014

Young Adult Round Up

This week, I've been dipping my toe in the Young Adult pool with three novels exploring the angst-ridden topics of not only loss, grief, and isolation, but also the strong bonds of friendship and loyalty that see us through the dark times. These are quite common themes in YA lit at the moment, mainly due the phenomenal success of The Fault In Our Stars, but the three novels I was sent to review manage to separate themselves from the crowd through strong characterisation, a gruesome period of history, and  heart-breaking realism.

The Dark Inside. Rupert Wallis

 James is a desperately lonely thirteen year old, who's mourning his Mum after her death in a car accident, while at the same time avoiding his violent Step-Dad who makes it clear he wants little to do with him now his Mum has gone. One way he escapes is by hiding out in an abandoned house, and it's here he discovers Webster, beaten, exhausted and on the run. It transpires that Webster is a former soldier on the run from travellers who've had him caged up and on display as one of the attractions at their fair on account of his 'curse', and they intend to get him back at whatever cost. Following a stand-off between Webster and James' step-dad, they set out together to find a cure and what follows is a rich, multi-layered portrayal of two damaged people and their attempts to fix themselves and each other.

 It's this characterisation that really drives The Dark Inside's narrative, with any supernatural element taking second place to the main protagonist's story. At times, this screams 'debut novel': actions repeated by different characters, and too much detail given to menial tasks while back-story is dismissed in a sentence are two of the problems present here, that hopefully will be ironed out in future novels, as Wallis has a definite ability with relationships.


The Blood List. Sarah Naughton

In The Blood List we're transported to 17th century England and a story soaked in fear, mistrust and loyalty, as we follow young Barnaby's transition from boy to man and the responsibilities that come with it. We start the novel with his mother Frances: young, naive and defiant, but ultimately defeated as her beloved Barnaby is believed to be a 'changeling'-swapped by the Fairies-purely because he doesn't act 'right'. Overruled by her husband's family and their nanny, the child is taken to the forest and left for the fairies for them to swap back for the 'real' baby and when the mystical area is checked a far different child is in it's place. From here on in, Frances fights against bonding with this child she knows deep down isn't hers and as we jump forward to the present, it's obvious that the relationship that Barnaby has with his mother is driven by this belief and damaged beyond repair. Soon, we learn that Frances had another child, the creepy, weasley Abel and that is where Frances affections are focused, building up to the archetypal sibling rivalry with Abel being equally jealous of Barnaby's bond with his father and the attention that garners.

 Superstition is still rife in the village with both elderly women and young girls accused of witchcraft, and Barnaby's family come under scrutiny when they hire local girl Naomi as a housemaid. Barnaby is besotted with the wild-haired Naomi since she saved his life, but her cold demeanor means he can never quite get through to her, often finding he's caused offence rather than impressed her. Unfortunately, for me, this relationship didn't quite gel for me and I much prefered Barnaby's moments with the softer, loyal Juliet, who he obviously felt a great affection for, as she did for him. Because of this, it makes later events far harder to believe, but Barnaby's actions take second place to the vivid and gruesome events of the novels second half.
The deeply religious and righteous Abel, having been sent away to join the priesthood before he causes any more trouble, returns to reek havok and take his revenge on not only his brother, but on the village that mocked him. Trouble is, he brings a new acquaintance in the form of a young Matthew Hopkins, the man who would later find fame as the infamous 'Witch Finder General'. After an extremely descriptive 'dunking', suspicion soon falls on both Naomi and Barnaby as Abel's plans come to full effect.

 This really is a book of two halves, and the second is the most preferable. Very little happens in the first half bar a few scene-setting plots, but as this is an extremely quick read, it's not a big deal. Naughton's strength is quite clearly in research and her ability to put that on the page, but I wish the same level of detail was used in regard the relationships, especially between the brothers, and the big jump from baby to young man is part of the problem. We're supposed to believe this intense hatred between them, but are only given a year to experience it.

The Year Of The Rat. Claire Furniss

Sometimes, you come across a novel that just 'gets' you in all the right places, and The Year Of The Rat is one such book. Pearl is fifteen, busy doing all the things fifteen year olds are good at-friends, love, school, getting sassy with her mum- but that all falls apart when her mum Stella dies, at seven months pregnant, leaving her, her step-dad and the new baby Rose. But Pearl can't cope with Rose, knowing that her very existence is why her mum is dead, so refers to her only as 'The Rat', refusing to even visit her in the hospital.
The novel covers a year in Pearl's life since the event and touches every base possible: resentment, unbearable grief, denial, and isolation as Pearl struggles to keep living her life as she feels everyone expects her too. But what debut novelist (and it is seriously hard to believe this is her first) Claire Furniss has achieved here is remarkable, with a level of realism in her characters that I've not seen since early Jacqueline Wilson. These are real people-no cliches, no stunt 'issues' to pad them out (at one point Pearl's gauntness is presumed to be an eating disorder, but she rebukes that straight off-it's grief) just honest depictions of the rubbish that hits us every day. Stella appears to Pearl after she's died, not as an ethereal spirit talking like a motivational poster, but as Stella, complete with her her cigarettes and lighter, often when Pearl least expects it. How Furniss handles this evokes the fabulous Truly Madly Deeply with an especially funny sequence while Pearl is trying to take a shower. You can see Pearl's heart break with every appearance but as time goes on you see her start to question her mum's actions, particularly as to why she had to have another baby and 'ruin it all'.

 As Pearl unravels more and more and her isolation increases, you genuinely worry for her, whether she'll pull through unscathed, but you never question her actions or judge her because she is written so well. This will be one of those YA novels that becomes a hit across the generations as adults and teens alike will be reading this and going "Yep, she's got that right" through most of it. You'll be hard pushed to find a book that deals with the grief process and how hard it is to really 'let go' as The Year Of The Rat, but word of warning, you will need tissues, no matter how hardcore you think you are. This is already in my top ten books of 2014.

All novels were received as digital review copies via NetGalley and publishers Simon and Schuster, in return for an open and honest review and I thank them for the opportunity.

Friday, 21 March 2014


A few weeks ago, I reviewed some great and not-so-great New 52 graphic novels from DC and this second chunk are just as much of a mixed bag.

Beginning with the long-winded but intricate Green Arrow, Vol 4: The Kill Machine it's obvious that DC are desperate to win back readers and fans by bringing in big names (in this case award-winning Jeff Lemire) to either kick a story line into touch or launch a complete re-boot, and as witnessed so far, sometimes this works and then, it kind of doesn't. Volume 4 of New 52 Green Arrow is somewhere in the middle and although it does follow on from a previous story it's a good issue to pick up for the casual reader as backstory is filled in where necessary and there's no deeply intricate old lore thrown around.

The plot starts of quite simply, with Queen's empire under attack from the mysterious archer Komodo who's hitting Oliver where it hurts; money, hideout and friends are all lost to him within the first few pages and from there it's a case of finding the truth by any means possible, at times with great risks to others as well as himself. Queen's investigations lead him back to the island where he became Arrow and thanks to his 'guide' Magus he discovers more about his father and the mythology behind the 'Clan of the Arrows'. It's the second part of the story that really cements this history with the introduction of new villain Count Vertigo and the 'Outsiders' the origin of the 'Clan'. While the storyline can drag on, the art redeems it ten-fold. The use of panel-in-panel cut-outs (usually black and white) to emphasis points of damage during fights is a good one and some of the one panels are full of depth.

If DC keep hiring the team of Lemire and Sorrentino, then Green Arrow may well achieve the same level of popularity in print form as it has on tv.


How many times do we need a Batman origin story? Well D.C. obviously thinks we need one more and have released  Batman, Vol. 4: Zero Year a truly stunning tale from 'man-of-the-moment' Scott Snyder. I've adored Snyder's American Vampire saga for an age and his work here is equally as good, if not better.
Unfortunately, going any further into the story other than the fact we see the birth of the Bat and a very stubborn Bruce Wayne arguing the toss every step of the way, would ruin the surprises that are in store when you read this.
Suffice to say, if you're a Bat fan, then grab this asap.


Unfortunately, for every Batman, there's an Aquaman...I'll be honest with you, not the biggest Aquaman fan, always found him inconsequential and he added little to the Justice League setup for me. But, a galley came up for review, and as they say it was "free to get in!" Would Aquaman, Vol. 4: Death of a King  make me change my mind?


Like some of the other Volume 4 editions, this is a continuing story-line, but whereas Wonder Woman and Green Arrow are coherent and utilise conversations and scene setting to fill the gaps, Death of a King is a rambling mess, often throwing in flash forwards to drive the narrative.
It's all kicking off under the sea an on top of it as The Scavenger is chasing an Atlantean weapon that'll do untold damage to the planet, Orm, (Aquaman's brother) is in a prison on dry land and suffering a serious case of the 'Emo', while down in the depths, there's a trio of warriors with divided loyalties and a pissed off former King who wants it all back. Throw in the ubiquitous and heavy-handed 'green' messages and what you get is just under 200 pages of eye rolling and "Wha?" moments. Unfortunately, there's not even any eye-catching art to take away from the mess of the story.


Now this is where the 'crazy' comes in, as the writer of Aquaman is also responsible for the fab Justice League, Vol 4: The Grid, an epic, battle strewn tale full of twists, that grabs you and very rarely, lets go.
All the usual League boxes are ticked perfectly: Batman's moody, Diana and Supes are loved-up and taking the moral high-ground while Cyborg is creating things that you know full well are going to backfire horribly. Throw in an appearance from fan fave Martian Manhunter, three new members (Atom, Firestorm and Element Girl-at first they feel superfluous, but eventually they gel perfectly) and a little Shazam and it feels like you're reading Saturday morning tv.

Whereas Aquaman felt jumbled and all over the place, The Grid is tight, fast flowing and never feels convoluted, even when throwing in ancient mythology in the form of Pandora and her well-known box of tricks. The artwork is well-defined and tight, with the Shazam section being particularly impressive, especially in the battles with Black Adam.

Overall, this was a corker that, much like Green Lantern, made me want to track down the previous issues and pre-order the next lot.


All issues were supplied as digital review copies via NetGalley and DC Comics in return for a fair review.

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Good, the Average and Aquaman: A weekend with DC's latest 'New 52' novels. Pt 1.

Over the last few days, DC publishing have sent out galleys of their latest New 52 runs and I was lucky enough to be given seven of them to review. A tiny confession first though: while I enthusiastically embraced DC's New 52 launch originally, I kind of fell by the wayside due to real life, and lost track of issues, story-lines and my impetus to get back into them, especially considering the unfavourable reviews.
But, when they offer you review copies, who am I to say no? Thankfully, of the seven sent out, one is a totally new launch and three are almost reboots, so prior knowledge isn't a pre-requisite to enjoy these latest offerings. Also, it's handy having the novels written by such an accomplished team that even if you are coming in half way, you not overly 'lost' as the dialogue fills you in quickly enough.
So, I spent a merry couple of days surrounded by post-its and superheroes in an attempt to a) not get lost among the threads b) make sure I had reference points to do background checks and c) encourage my OCD-like obsession with note-taking and not messing up my journal. shush.

First up is the stand-a-lone launch of Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell the latest from Paul Dini and artist Joe Quinones. A year has passed since Canary's failed attempts to stop a major Vegas heist and the subsequent death of gangleader Tina, yet suddenly the other members of the gang start dying, all taking their own lives in bizarre ways. Black Canary turns to her old friend Zatanna for help, creating a vibrant, powerful and funny team. Dini has always been able to write powerful women well, and Bloodspell is no exception. Whether it's highlighting their past exploits (young Zatanna's training is a stand out here) or their current case, the narrative never loses pace and Quinones' stunning art is a fine accompaniment. Zingy and sassy, this is great launch title for the casual DC fan, but with plenty of nods to previous New52 books for the fans.


From the proudly camp tight-wearing duo I went to a woman who if you ever referred to her as 'camp' you'd still be travelling: Wonder Woman, Vol. 4: War and to be honest that should probably be written as "WAR!!" in as angsty and threatening tone as possible. Not going to lie, this one was hard work to come into half way. A battle of immense proportion has obviously just occurred, and we join her Ladyship and her cohorts in the aftermath. I'd heard rumours of Diana's 're-imagining' as a daughter of Zeus, and I'm not overly sure I buy it. Naturally, her playmates are the likes of War, Hera etc who have been given an 'edgy' look far removed from your regular 'Clash of the Titans' affair.
Everyone is desperate to protect baby Zeke, a child of prophecy, from the evil 'First Born' and along the way we are treated to deaths, twists, more deaths, a lot of arguing and the inevitable big battles. While the art is at times amazing, the confusing voice overs can mean you lose track, and although there are odd moments where the reader is 'filled in' on past events, it all makes for an incoherent volume. A cliffhanger ending would make me consider coming back to the series, but only after I've grabbed issues 1-3 first.


After the draining WW saga, it was a relief to then get to Green Lantern, Vol.4: Dark Days a new chapter in the Corps history from Venditti and Tan. Now, I can take or leave the Green Lantern, but I appreciate it's huge mythology and the impact it has on it's fans (trust me, as the mum of a teenage boy who was the only audience member for the last movie, on it's opening day, I really understand their pain) so I was looking forward to getting stuck into this one. To put it mildly, after volume 4 I'm now ready to get every previous volume of this saga and devour them in one go.

Jordan and Stewart are trying to get the corps back together after previous events, but are hampered by the power starting to drain from  lanterns everywhere. Putting personal conflicts aside (there's a particularly impressive fight between Hal Jordan and Star Sapphire Nol-Anj) all the corps band together to preserve their energy sources. One of the most impressive aspects to this edition is the backstory of main antagonist 'Relic' and his place in the universe, while also expanding on the history of the Lanterns.
An amazing 'relaunch' story, and impressive, striking art, all combine to create possibly the best of this group of volumes and it's impossible to delve any deeper into the story without spoiling it. This is one that I will be following with interest, especially after the cliffhanger ending.


Still to come: the birth of Batman, a wibbly wobbly Arrow, the Justice League goes off the grid and yeah...Aquaman...

Monday, 3 March 2014

Review: Byron Easy

Byron Easy
Byron Easy by Jude Cook

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's Christmas eve, on the dawn of the Millennium, and cynical, self-loathing, lonely, and depressed Byron Easy is taking an arduous train journey from London to Leeds to visit his mother. Thankfully, it's not that arduous for the reader as we are treated to a new refreshing and enlightening male voice in the form of debut novelist Jude Cook's messed-up protagonist.

As we join Byron, it's obvious that he's just come out of a very difficult and volatile relationship, and as we progress we get more of an insight into Mandy, the beauty with a very dark side. Alongside Byron's recollections about Mandy we get a full run down of his past; his many jobs, friendships and the loves that got away are all given the wannabe poets treatment and very rarely do any of them come away smelling of roses. Where Byron's memories are most evocative (and Cook's writing at it's best) is in the chapters covering his childhood and early home life. It's obvious from the outset that Byron has serious self-esteem issues, which over the course of time has an effect on all of his relationships, and it's in the chapter 'Home' that we start to see the root of these issues.

Very rarely does Byron refer to his parents as 'mum and dad', much preferring first name terms, nicely underlining the detachment that he feels from these people for whom there is an obvious mutual love, but a complete inability to show it. Cook gives Byron a beautifully evocative and understated voice for this chapter, which for once doesn't overpower the narrative, instead choosing to let Byron's memories (and possibly those of the reader) drive the story forward.

This simpler narrative is a welcome break from Byron's dips into his notebook where he takes on the voice of his namesake while recording either what he experiences on his journey or recalls from his past journal entries, and it's this 'recounting' where I occasionally came unstuck with the novel. For a novel that touches (brilliantly I may add) on the male image, depression, self-worth and the place of the 'self-aware man' in society, being regularly told 'something worse is coming' caused the book to be closed and not opened for a day or two. It's certainly not a novel that can be read in one go-you will need a break, especially towards the last third, a section which should possibly come with a trigger warning as events unfold in a graphic and heartbreaking manner.

Whilst sometimes infuriating, it's obvious that Jude Cook is a talented writer and definitely one to watch for the future and he should be applauded for writing about depression and abuse from a male perspective, something that is seriously lacking from mainstream literature.

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