Wednesday 13 February 2013

YA REVIEW - 'The Ant Colony', Jenny Valentine (Harper Collins, 2009)

Number 33 Georgiana Street houses many people and yet seems home to none. To runaway Sam it is a place to disappear. To Bohemia, it's just another blip between crises, as her mum ricochets off the latest boyfriend. Old Isobel acts like she owns the place, even though it actually belongs to Steve in the basement, who is always looking to squeeze in yet another tenant. Life there is a kind of ordered chaos. Like ants, they scurry about their business, crossing paths, following their own tracks, no questions asked. But it doesn't take much to upset the balance. Dig deep enough and you'll find that everyone has something to hide… (Synopsis from Goodreads)

I've read a couple of Jenny Valentine's books in the past (Finding Violet Park and The Double Life of Cassiel Roadnight) and a few things have struck me...

1) She is very good at plot. I'm always a bit sceptical when picking up a book labelled as a 'mystery' because I am invariably disappointed. Having been brought up on a rigorous diet of Agatha Christie, I have very high mystery standards and quite like my mysteries to be very mysterious. Jenny Valentine has won me over before  by being successfully mysterious on two previous occasions.

2) The covers of her books are very misleading. They seem to be either very light-hearted comic-strippy things or pastelly with lots of swirls. If I was the sort of person who used the word 'fluffy' them I might call them that. But her writing is not. A lot of the subject matter is very dark indeed. Yes, maybe in a slightly wry and humorous way, but dark nevertheless. Which means I end up looking at her covers with a scrunched up forehead most of the time.
The Ant Colony
Light-hearted cover is light-hearted

So,The Ant Colony...well, the dark stuff is still here. It quickly becomes apparent that one of our narrator's, ten year old Bohemia, has a pretty grim existence, but manages to put her own optimistic take on it. And the mystery is here to, with the background of runaway Sam shrouded in MYSTERY until the very end. So yes, I did keep staring at the bizarre cover and thinking WTF?? quite a bit. This wasn't as plot-heavy as some of her other books, but felt more focused on how these characters interact. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Quite a good thing in fact.

And her writing is just so bloody good. Just the most gorgeous turns of phrase that made me dog-ear so many pages of my copy.

"A little boy at the window of another train, crammed in, surrounded by arms, the sleeve of a quilted jacket squashed flat against the glass like someone pulling a face."


And I think my favourite thing about this book is how she writes London. How she makes it feel like a living, breathing whole, in equal parts exasperating and exhilarating.

"Mum and Dad moved away from London before I was born. They always said that city people who move to the country are never at home. Wherever they are, they miss the things they love about wherever they're not. You fall in love with the spaces and the air, while you pine for the crowds and the movement. You learn four hundred and fifty new shades of green but everyone's skin is the same colour. You crave the lights and the speed and the noise that when you get there are too bright and too fast and too loud."

I found this video on the Guardian website where Jenny Valentine talks about London and books and London books. Watching it makes me feel very proud and lucky to live here (although some days, not so much). Anyway, it might give you an idea about how important the city is to this book, how it works as one of the main characters.

So, back to the point I made at the start concerning the covers. Well, I loved this book. Up to a point. And I shall explain why, or try to without littering this review with too many spoilers. Although there is a bit of a spoiler, sorry...

Light-hearted cover = dark subject matter. So why, when I got to the ending, did I end up wishing that the cover didn't match the book at this point? Does this make sense? For a book that seems to spend 90% of it's time wallowing in the complexities of life, why does it choose to have a very cut and dried conclusion? I love a happy ending as much as the next person, but this just did not feel right and put a bit of an ironic dampner on proceedings for me, I'm afraid.

But I heartily recommend this one. I can see adults enjoying it just as much as younger readers and it has so much to say about so many things - community, why people choose to disappear, the things that go on under our noses that we choose to ignore. I just wish real-life endings were as happy as this one.

( I just had a look at the US edition of Cassiel Roadnight on Goodreads. It's called Double and they've made it look like a typical YA thriller, although this doesn't feel right either. I KNOW. THERE'S NO PLEASING ME)

(BUT, I do like this cover and title of Finding Violet Park)

(Sorry, I'll shut up now)


  1. This on looks so good. I read Finding Violet Park a few years ago and... eh.. I didn't love it and I didn't hate it.

    I love books where the city is pretty much a character. Strong settings are so difficult to find nowadays, aren't they? But they're so important.

    Curious about this ending though.

    Wonderful review, Anna!

    1. I'm going to send this one to you as I think you might like it missy :)

  2. I believe this is the only Jenny Valentine story I haven't yet read? I love her books so much! I think that perhaps I'm keeping this one until she publishes another book. I find it heartbreaking that I'll have read them all without the hope of a new one..

    1. I still have to read Broken Soup, so there's one more left for me. She bloody better write another one soon Michelle!

  3. I haven't read any of Jenny Valentine's books but I'll have to give her a go. The cover doesn't hint at any dark subject matter! And I love the quotes you chose, she's certainly got a way with words :)

  4. The cover is...slightly odd in the context of the book. Or not. Aahh! I can't decide! You should definitely give her books a go katja. I think she's really underated.