December 15, 2013 § 3 Comments
1. Skulduggery is a magical skeleton detective.
Just stop and think about that for a second. So many children’s authors would expect their young readers to simply suspend their disbelief and accept that, in the world of this novel, magical skeleton detectives are just part of how things roll. Not so Derek Landy. Instead, Skulduggery’s past and his current status as animate skeleton are explained so matter-of-factly that the reader is able to place complete trust in the potential of this world to exist. Skulduggery is witty, droll, powerful, loyal and just a little bit shifty. Few titular characters are as likable as the skeleton detective.
2. The meta-fictional sense of humour
Skulduggery Pleasant is a book that is constantly aware of its genre, and of the reader’s scepticism. Rather than trying to overcome this with detailed descriptions and overwhelming world-building, Landy instead turns this into a basis for humour. Skulduggery Pleasant literally made me laugh out loud so often that I repeatedly garnered odd looks from my fellow passengers on public transport.
“China is the same age as I am, and even I have to admit that she wears it better!” He laughed, then stopped and peered at her. “Because I’m a skeleton” he explained.”
“A living skeleton isn’t enough for you, is it? What does it take to impress young people these days?”
“Doesn’t sunlight kill them? Doesn’t it turn them to dust, or make them burst into flames or something?”
“Nope. Vampires tan, just like you and me. Well, just like you. I tend to bleach.”
3. The character’s names are excellent.
The magic system in the world of Skulduggery Pleasant is based upon names. Individuals are given three names – their given name, the name they choose, and their true name. Some of the names that characters choose for themselves are simply wonderful: Skulduggery Pleasant, for one, but also: Mevolent, the evil sorcerer; Meritorious, one of the wise Elders; Ghastly, the scarred but kindly tailor; and China Sorrows, dangerously beautiful librarian.
4. Stephanie’s inquisitive and enjoyably bossy personality
I’m so tired of reading reviews that praise “strong female characters.” It’s a concept I can no longer be bothered engaging with, because I think I believe it is more detrimental than it is helpful to depictions of female characters. What fiction, especially children’s fiction, needs more of are characters like Stephanie. Through a combination of inheritance and conscious choice, Stephanie finds herself fully immersed in the magical world of Skulduggery and his companions. Certain that she is now on the path to realising her life’s goals, she pesters, annoys and frustrates Skulduggery into taking her on as an apprentice. Stephanie is whip-smart, insolent and determined. In other words, she’s an actual twelve-year-old girl, and not an idealised “role model” coming to us from the top of an unrealistically high pedestal.
5. The book does not speak down to its readers
This is not a book dumbed down for its young readers. Now, it should be noted that the narration, content and language used are all age-appropriate, but in no way is it lowered in either quality or context for the younger reader. This means that Skulduggery Pleasant is just as enjoyable for the adult readers as it is for the kids!
6. The cleverly revealed layers of the plot
In addition to the highly entertaining dialogue, the plot of the first novel is fast-paced, action-packed and character-driven. All the things that you need to make a compulsive read. The author pays homage to the noir tradition, but also splices in all manner of pop-culture references (not the least of which is Lovecraftian!).
7. The relationship between Skulduggery and Stephanie (later Valkyrie)
Skulduggery is Stephanie’s teacher, mentor and protector. In turn, she is his loyal protégée. At times, they act like bickering siblings, and they’re certainly not afraid of being open with one another, but it’s quite clear that they are fiercely protective friends. It is refreshing and endearing to read about a genuinely caring relationship which is not based on romance. Skulduggery and Stephanie are simply in this together because they want to be, and that’s lovely.
“…what I was going to say is there’s something about you that is really annoying, and you never do what you’re told, and sometimes I question your intelligence—but even so, I’m going to train you, because I like having someone follow me around like a little puppy. It makes me feel good about myself.”
She rolled her eyes. “You are such a moron.”
“Don’t be jealous of my genius.”
“Can you get over yourself for just a moment?”
“If only that were possible.”
“For a guy with no internal organs, you’ve got quite the ego.”
“And for a girl who can’t stand up without falling over, you’re quite the critic.”
“My leg will be fine.”
“And my ego will flourish. What a pair we are.”
8. The fact that Skulduggery Pleasant is not yet a movie franchise
This is surprising, because it’s a series bound for the silver screen. I’m delighted to have found these books before they get to movie-stage, because it could be done so very badly. Derek Landy’s novels are eccentric, quintessentially Irish and highly imaginative, and I worry that they would not translate effectively through the lens of a Hollywood camera. Read them before a film comes out, so you can make up your own mind.
9. The darkness that counterbalances the humour
Many children’s novels lean toward the saccharine in order to avoid frightening young readers. Few authors manage to walk the line between humour and darkness, but Landy carries it off without a hitch. There are scenes of surprising darkness in Skulduggery Pleasant, but the characters balance this out with unexpected quips and flippant commentary. Indeed, when Skulduggery is faced with somewhat graphic torture, he lightens the mood considerably by simply laughing at his captor.
10. The fact that this is a whole series I get to discover
These are the kind of books I look forward to reading during my breaks, on the bus and before bed – an escape into a world with vivid characters, a multi-faceted magic system and an endless font of humour.
July 28, 2013 § 2 Comments
Being more than a little bit obsessed with the end of the world, I often research new post-apocalyptic novels. Trawling Goodreads recently, I came across In the After, debut novel by Demetria Lunetta. It was love at first synopsis.
In the After follows teenager Amy as she finds her feet in what is left of her world, now that They have come and taken everything she’s ever known. Thanks to the respective paranoia and forward thinking of her parents, Amy’s home is fortified against the mindless, flesh-eating creatures that brought the apocalypse with them when they arrived on Earth. They are hideous, unthinking beings that don’t bother killing their prey before the devour it, but they have one weakness that Amy has been able to discern – they are dependent on sound to find their next meal.
Amy comes upon a toddler wandering the wreckage of her neighbourhood and adopts her as a sister in silence. Not being able to speak aloud, she names her Baby, and Baby becomes Amy’s reason for living. They develop a modified sign language, designed to allow them to communicate in the direst of situations, and for a while, they are content.
Amy and Baby’s insular world is shattered all over again when they are forced to leave their home. In the open terrain, they are picked up by members of a covert society which houses the remains of human civilisation, a community optimistically named New Hope.
Re-integrating into a structured society proves more difficult than Amy and Baby ever expected. In a world where 3000 people may be all that remains to repopulate the planet, government is oppressive in entirely new ways. On top of that, New Hope is being run by a psychiatrist who has access to everything about everyone, and absolute discretion. Amy and Baby may have been better off in the wild…
In some places, In the After had me jumping out of my skin. ‘They”, or the Floraes, as they are known later in the book, are quite frightening, and there were several moments of skin-crawling terror as Amy and Baby navigated the wasteland, especially in the first half of the book. One night, I was reading in the quiet in my bedroom. When my boyfriend came into the room, I jumped and nearly fell out of the bed, so engrossed was I in the book’s tension! In the second half of In the After, the use of a flash-forward narrative device made for some hair-raising suspense, so it was an enjoyably uncomfortable read the whole way through.
Not content with the horrific Floraes or the wild gangs roaming the After, Lunetta incorporates scenes of torturous psychotherapy in New Hope’s Ward (a sanitarium of sorts). The psychiatrist Dr Reynolds makes for a formidable foe, and the stronghold he has on New Hope is tyrannical. However, I felt that I should mention that electric shock therapy is NOTHING like its portrayal in this novel. I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt, in that, once the world has ended, there probably aren’t medical standards by which to abide. Of course, creative license plays a huge part in a post-apoc novel, given that we can only imagine conditions after such an event. That said, I didn’t enjoy these scenes, because I felt that they contributed to a negative conception of a form of therapy which has the capacity to genuinely help many people.
Like Angelfall, I respected this book for having very little focus on romance. This makes sense to me. Surely, once the world you knew has collapsed, you are not going to be concerned with whether the cute boy likes you?! I liked how Amy’s priority was Baby, and how the end of the world necessitated a re-assignment of the definition of family. Baby also lent an interesting perspective to the story. It’s fascinating to see her adaptation to her constantly changing surroundings develop and grow.
“Mermaids are just a story, I tell her. She looks up at me, tearful. No they’re not. Mermaids are from Before. Like horses. You said horses could live in the sea.
Seahorses aren’t horses that live in the sea… I start to explain but stop myself. It doesn’t really matter if she has the Before straight in her head. She can believe in mermaids and horses that live in the sea if she wants.”
I feel that if this book had been at least twice its length, I’d have become even more invested in its world. The plot was full of twists and turns which, while exciting, felt a little rushed. That said, it’s an exciting ride, and an end-of-days I’m excited to read more about. Demitria Lunetta is definitely one to watch, and I’ve added In the End to my sequel-countdown!
If you’re interested in what electroconvulsive therapy is genuinely like, check out Caustic Soda’s Psychotherapy episode. Caustic Soda is my favourite podcast, and I listen to it religiously. Be warned, though – it’s not for the faint-hearted (or easily offended)!
July 20, 2013 § 8 Comments
With the recent revelation that Jo Rowling has decided to try her hand at a detective novel, we thought it might be prudent to revisit her first novel for adults – The Casual Vacancy.
When Barry Fairbrother, a council member and former “Fields” resident, dies unexpectedly, Howard Mollison is elated; his main opposition to his anti-Fields campaign has been conveniently eliminated. A casual
vacancy arises in Barry’s wake, and several members of the community, each with a different motivation and stance regarding the Fields, step up to fill his shoes. These include Miles, Howard’s mini-me son; Colin Wall, the nervous and emotional school principal; and Simon Price, dodgy employee of the local printing shop. From this premise, Rowling spins her story of small-town corruption and secrecy. Each of the characters has a secret, and some of them begin appearing on the parish council’s website, published by an anonymous user, ominously titled The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother. The skeletons in respective townspeople’s closets begin to appear, and as the past is dredged up, the very fabric of the community begins to change. For some characters, these exposures effect positive changes in their lives, and for others, they bring the walls crashing down around their ears.
Rowling’s characterisation simply shines in The Casual Vacancy. Each and every character is so vivid that the reader’s response to them, whether disgust, sympathy or pity, is visceral and lasting. Rowling imbues nasty, vicious characters with semi-redeemable qualities that leave the reader doubting their absolute opinions, and she renders small behaviours of the most admirable characters hateful. In the broad spectrum of characters Rowling has drawn in The Casual Vacancy, there are those whose cruelty stems from ignorance or misunderstanding; there are those whose apparent charity is nothing more than a carefully constructed social veneer; there are teenagers who appear spiteful and selfish to their parents, but who carry the burden of a grief to which their parents are oblivious; and, perhaps most importantly, there are people who are dirty, foul-mouthed, ill-educated and promiscuous, who, as Rowling points out so very clearly, are human after all.
This brings me to Krystal Weedon, whose struggle to care for her four-year-old brother Robbie continues throughout the story. Krystal is a native of the Fields, and her mother, Terri, is a long-term heroin addict. Krystal has a reputation for being violent, and is generally thought of as a disgusting, foul-mouthed example of why Pagford should excommunicate the Fields. Despite this, though, several characters throughout the book have unexpectedly fond memories of Krystal which often showcase her bravery and confidence in difficult situations. She’s written off by the majority of the community as a no-hoper, and, although she is oblivious to the goings-on of the council, it is she who will be most affected by their decision to cut Pagford’s ties with the Fields.
A lot of fuss has been made about Rowling’s fairly explicit criticism of the striation of the British social classes in this book. Of course, this is a huge part of the novel, but I felt that it was done masterfully. Krystal’s story ends with a sort of tragic dignity that is both fitting and highly confronting.
She kept asking herself whether, if he had looked cleaner, she might have been more concerned; whether, on some subliminal level, she had confused his obvious signs of neglect with street-smartness, toughness and resilience. ‘I thought he’d come in there to play, but there was nobody with him. He was only three and a half, Miles. Why didn’t I ask him who he was with?’ – 494
And while the novel’s close sees the redemption of some characters, others are too mired in their own prejudices to see past the fact that Krystal was from the Fields, and therefore not worthy of their concern or even pity. But Rowling, master storyteller that she is, finds some subtle way to punish these characters, ultimately elevating Krystal as the heroine of the story.
Many readers seem to be searching for the link between Hogwarts and Pagford. Rowling has been quite explicit about the fact that there is none. You might see glimpses of some of the same issues that were embedded in the fantastic world of Harry Potter, such as the class divide, but The Burrow is far from the Fields of The Casual Vacancy. In this novel, poverty is not quaint and cozy, but is the cause of disease, neglect and death. That said, I do see a connection between the Harry Potter novels and Rowling’s first adult novel. The world of Harry Potter contains many moral lessons for the millions of fans who read the books. For example, issues of discrimination are addressed perhaps without many young readers realising, when lupine Professor Lupin is driven from his post at Hogwarts for a condition he cannot help having. Similarly, we are positioned to be somewhat repulsed by the Malfoys’ decadent mansion, and to feel at home in the dilapidated house of the Weasleys, subliminally coming to associate wealth with evil, and poverty with good, hard-working people (Harry himself always says he would give up his wealth for the Weasleys if only they would let him). The Harry Potter novels, therefore, are a sort of fable – they contain moral lessons imparted by the behaviour of the characters.
I see The Casual Vacancy as a moral tale for adults. The way in which the villagers of Pagford are bound up in their own lives and petty concerns may seem extreme to us, as readers, but when examined closely, is recognisable. Through superficial Samantha Mollison, misogynistic Gavin, cruel, cold-hearted Fats Wall and nervy Sukhvinder, Rowling expounds a new moral message – look around, and take note of those who need your help. Put aside your own concerns, and listen to those of the people around you, even if they are not being spoken aloud. Use your resources for the greater good, and not for the immediate gratification of the few.
Yes, The Casual Vacancy is about social class, and yes, there’s a lot of swearing, abuse, drug use and sex in this novel. No, of course it isn’t another Harry Potter, it’s far from it. But it is just as good.
July 18, 2013 § Leave a comment
When I told itsnotnatalie that I didn’t like Murakami, she simply refused to accept it. Knowing that she holds Norwegian Wood in very high esteem, and knowing also that she knows me, I accepted a loan of her copy of After Dark. She thought that this short, eerie novel might be a better way to ease me into the joys of Murakami.
I tried so hard to enjoy and to appreciate After Dark. Really, itsnotnatalie, I did… but it just felt like a waste of a potentially good idea. The characters are drawn with surprising clarity and depth, and I wanted to know more about them. Murakami’s prose is enthralling, with its clean, cold crispness and swinging perspectives. But the very unfinished-ness of After Dark irritates me so very deeply that I can’t appreciate any of it.
There are certainly scenes worthy of skin-crawling, goosebump-inducing creepiness in After Dark. The masked man who watches over the comatose Eri, for example – he’s indescribably unsettling. The freakishly detached “salaryman” who assaults a nineteen-year-old Chinese prostitute is shocking. How could someone commit such atrocities with such ease and apparent unconcern?
Oddly, these were the parts of After Dark that I liked the most. The cold, clinical attitude toward violence reminded me of another Japanese novel I had read: Grotesque, by Natsuo Kirino (which I loved). I also found the way that the characters seemed to contemplate the ability to commit violence and atrocities to be fascinating.
Takahashi, a jazz musician and law student, establishes a suddenly intense friendship with Mari, Eri’s sister. He begins to tell her about why he chose to pursue law:
…there really was no world separating [the criminal’s] world from mine. Or if there was such a wall, it was probably a flimsy one made of papier-mache. The second I leaned on it, I’d probably fall right through and end up on the other side. Or maybe it’s that the other side has already managed to sneak its way inside of us, and we haven’t noticed.
This is pretty disturbing. Is Murakami suggesting that the capacity to assault and intent to murder lurks within everyone? If he isn’t, why did Takahashi focus on this so much? Takahashi is so concerned with this concept that he decides to give up music, his true passion, to follow a career in law. Perhaps he’s so worried about his own capacity to commit evil that he feels compelled to prevent others from doing so…?
Or maybe he’s not. Because it’s Murakami, and to attempt to interpret it would be to fail to understand it.
This book is a snapshot of one night. This is why there is minimal characterisation beyond in-the-moment observations. That’s why there’s no real plot, resolution or climax. Murakami works with the concept of magical-realism in such a way as to render any symbolism inscrutable, and toys with the reader’s expectations of narrative structure. I found that at the end of it, I was mildly interested in finding out what happened after the night in question, but didn’t really have any burning questions about it.
Overall, I felt about After Dark as I did about the other Murakami books I have read: I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but resented it once I finished it. Maybe this means that my reading tastes aren’t mature enough to appreciate the great Murakami, but for the moment – I kind of don’t get it, and I can’t work out if I like it.