Monday 28 January 2013

SHORTS ON SHORTS: 'The Future Husband' by A.J. Ashworth

Just before Christmas, Salt Publishing had a few of it's short story anthologies on special for Kindle, including  this one Somewhere Else, Even Here. So let me just show you the Goodreads synopsis so you can understand why I might have found it intriguing...

Somewhere Else, or Even HereA girl meets with danger on the beach when she is lured away by a strange boy; a  
bereaved wife enlists the help of a mysterious woman to perform rituals that will bring her dead husband back to life; a boy’s anger at his absent father leads him towards an act of destruction in the basement of his school.

I'm a few stories into it at the moment and one of them has definitely left an impression....

In a nutshell...

A woman is watching a man from a far as he examines an Egyptian museum exhibit. She may have have had a few fantasies about him in the past... (sorry that makes it sound flippant when it really isn't)

My favourite quote...

" It says she's been scanned and X-rayed to find evidence of her past - disease or abnormality in bone and flesh; the arthritic afterglow of birth in her pelvis; the age at which she died after breathing in too much sand from Egypt's many dry and dusty desert storms."

I just love that phrase 'arthritic afterglow of birth'. Yes, I'll say it again ARTHRITIC AFTERGLOW OF BIRTH.

Ok, I'll stop now.

Bits and pieces I'll take away...

It's concise and rather beautiful and this is what I love in short stories. Whenever I try to write one, it always ends up being that little bit too long. I guess the more I write, the shorter they get? Maybe? Hopefully? Not too short though. I'm not sure I really get flash fiction.

So far, this anthology has been an interesting read, and I'll keep you posted if any more nice little nuggets crop up...

Saturday 19 January 2013

YA REVIEW - 'A World Between Us', Lydia Syson (Hot Key Books, 2012)

Spain, 1936. Felix, a spirited young nurse, has travelled to Spain to help the cause of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. But she is also following Nat, a passionate young man who has joined the International Brigades fighting Franco. And George - familiar George from home - is not far behind, in pursuit of Felix ... As Spain fights for its freedom against tyranny, Felix battles a conflict of the heart. With the civil war raging around her, Felix must make choices that will change her life forever. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

There are certain things that I don't, as a general rule, approve of in young adult fiction. One of those things is love triangles. I won't go into the old love triangle argument here, but I just tend not to find this situation realistic in the slightest and a lot of the time, it just doesn't create the tension the author may have intended. Another thing is insta-love. I wouldn't say that I'm negative about this as the love triangle, but it needs to be done very well indeed to convince my cynical and jaded self.

So went I read the blurb of this book, one of the things that sprung to mind was 'that sounds like a certain three-sided shape in romance form with a touch of love of the instant variety'. But it's all good. It didn't matter in the  slightest. Because a few other things had caught my attention....

Back in the day, I somehow managed to come out of university with a politics degree (not that I have used it in my professional life whatsoever), and politics has always been something that has caught my attention, especially political history. When I started on this whole YA reading/writing business, I never expected to find the two interests crossed over in such a fascinating way. I mean, the Spanish Civil War isn't something that most folk, even a lot of politically, historically minded ones, know a great deal about. I remember writing an essay on it many moons ago, but ask me to recall any of the facts and I will stare at you blankly, pretend I didn't quite catch the question and offer you a brew and a biscuit to distract you.

A World Between UsSo I was definitely intrigued by the premise. And the cover. Did I mention the cover? 


Seriously, I can't take my eyes off it. It's magnificent. 

Anyway, back to the contents...

When a story is split three ways, so much relies on making each character engaging in so fewer words. And Ms. Syson more than nails Felix, Nat and George. Sometimes in this situation, I find myself wishing a particular character would hurry up and move the story along so I can get back to my favourite, but this never happened here.  Although, I have to say I found George the most compelling, in the sense that this sort of nice-guy character is usually so one-dimensional in most stories, but here he was given another side to his character, one that didn't involve moping after the girl he is never destined to be with (or is he?)

And Nat and Felix - I can completely forgive the insta-love thing when the chemistry is this good. The tension between them and within the story is just fantastic. Wobbly knees a-plenty.

Like a few historical YA books I've read recently (here and here in particular), the quality of the prose is first class. On key political events like war, it doesn't pull any punches, with every smell, sound, every horror right their on the page, unflinching. And like, in war, we're are reminded that not everything is cut and dried as reality begins to dawn on these characters.

If this was a book aimed at adults, I imagine it might be a sweeping epic romance, the size of which might act as an effective doorstop. And when I was about two-thirds of the way through, I was getting a bit annoyed because I wanted it to be longer - I wasn't ready to say goodbye yet. But on finishing, I was converted - this is the perfect length, and all the more skilled because so much emotion and action is within fewer pages.

I know historical YA fiction isn't for everyone, and if you're after a more light-hearted read, then maybe give this one a miss. But if you want and intense, beautiful book that will make you physically melt whilst reading it, then look no further. This might have actually inspired me to pick up my Southern-European history book that's been languishing on the bottom shelf for far too long...

Thursday 17 January 2013

YA REVIEW - 'Almost True', Keren David (Frances Lincoln, 2012)

On the road again, Ty’s in hiding with complete strangers . . . who seem to know a lot about him. Meanwhile he’s desperate to see his girlfriend Claire, and terrified that she may betray him. Ty can’t trust his own judgement and he’s making dangerous decisions that could deliver him straight to the gangsters. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

The very nature of the first novel in this trilogy, When I Was Joe, made it imperative that I started Almost True almost immediately after finishing it... and also the fact that the opening chapter of this book that was on the end acted like the teaser to end all teasers.

My reaction went something like this:

*stunned expression*

Oh, right. OK. So that's the complete opposite of a happy ending then 

*drops everything else immediately and starts sequel*

Almost True (When I Was Joe, #2)This is such a genius start to a follow up. Just complete trashes any preconceptions I might have had about Ty's new life and opens up so many new dramatic doors, I was practically dribbling with excitement. If you've read my review of When I Was Joe, then you might have picked up on the fact that I considered that book rather swift in the pace department. Well, compared to Almost True, the first book could well be the young adult fiction equivalent of a toddler dragging it's heels. Let's just say a lot happens. In the same way I may have eaten a lot of Matchmakers over the Christmas period. But again, it's brilliantly done and suited the nature of the story and Ty's character perfectly. Just like eating lots of Matchmakers suits my character perfectly.

And so many twists and turns that I didn't see coming (although I don't see many of these sorts of things coming as a general rule). I don't want to ruin anything, but let's just say if you had any niggles about unanswered questions in the first book, you shall be niggle-free (almost) by the end of this one.

We've still got the ongoing drama of Ty's witness protection troubles, but now there is the added element of his own family secrets that come to the fore. I have to admit, I was far more intrigued by the latter throughout most of this book and the tension over Ty's recent criminal shenanigans tended to be overshadowed a bit. But his family secrets more than made up for this, culminating in some desperately heart-breaking revelations and much shedding of tears by this reader.

But the best thing about this book, and this series so far, I think, is Ty himself. He's so brilliantly flawed and so engaging because of this. And even though the situation he finds himself in isn't one that is going to be experienced by most teenagers, he decisions and thought processes always feel genuine and I think he might just be one of the most realistic protagonists I've ever encountered in YA.

Friday 11 January 2013

YA REVIEW: 'When I Was Joe', Keren David (Frances Lincoln 2011)

When East London teenager Ty becomes embroiled in a fatal stabbing, the nature of his evidence means Ty and his mum are forced to go into witness protection and assume new identities, leaving behind their close-knit family. But as 'Joe', Ty manages to turn around this bleak situation and become the teenager that he always wanted to be, but at what price?

"Its lucky that I'm not doing feelings at the moment, because if I was, I might be pretty scared."

This book was not in the least bit what I expected, yet everything I expected it to be. 

When I Was Joe (When I Was Joe, #1)First off, apologies for that opening sentence, but I couldn't really come up with another way to describe it. I expected a rather raw coming of age tale and that's exactly what I got. I expected a few lessons learnt, a few heart strings pulled, a few scrapes along the way. And, again, that is what I got. If perhaps you multiplied this by a few thousand and then some...

One of the things I love about good YA is the messy factor. Not everything is black and white, not everyone is good or bad. Even the most well-intentioned folk make colossal mistakes. And it is for all these messy reasons that I loved When I Was Joe. The good guys aren't always necessarily good, they sometimes want the wrong people, and even the right people aren't always the most clued up or have their best interests at heart. 

I think super-charged coming-of-age tale might be the best way to describe this. Ty is going through all the changes that a lot of teenage boys experience, but he just happens to be pursued by violent criminals at the same time. Which makes everything just that little bit more complicated. And scary. Keren David handles the lightening pace magnificently, with intense events and emotions skirting across the page and tightening the tension. I don't think I've read a book recently that zipped through at such a pace. I have to admit, I was a bit wary at the start, especially when Ty was talent-spotted as a promising athlete in a few pages, but I quickly realised that this story had a lot more elements than I had originally suspected. Keeping Ty's voice consistent and strong is key in all of this and that proves another success. The delicate balance between the frightened Ty and his new persona of Joe, with his bravado and swagger is masterfully done.

"Ever since Mr Naylor made me apologise to Carl I've known I must say sorry to Claire for hurting her and scaring her. Only then will I be able to forgive Joe."

Not only is this character driven, but it has a tense plot with a few genuinely scary moments, complete with a carefully drawn out and intriguing mystery that Ty only reveals in bits and pieces. This is jammed packed full of different characters, with some faring better than others. Ty's relationship with his coach Ellie, started out as very intriguing, but seemed to get lost as the plot powered on. On the other hand, I loved the way the character of Claire was handled. It wasn't a cliched 'it's what's underneath that counts' love story and was all the better for it.

Which brings me onto what I enjoyed most about this book. I never forgot that these characters were teenagers. I know this sounds like rather an obvious statement for a YA book, but sometimes you get kids spouting rather pretentious nonsense that makes me want to throw things. But these teenagers make immature and impulsive decisions and don't always do sensible things. Like a lot of teenagers (and quite a few adults). Which is how it should be.

And an example of one of those mistakes that are made...

"It's safest to stay at home and watch Cash in the Attic."

Ty, Cash in the Attic is never the answer...