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Jessie Greengrass – An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It

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A long title well worth typing out.

Publisher: John Murray (Hachette)
Pages: 179
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-61085-9
First Published: 30th July 2015
Date Reviewed: 18th November 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

A sailor/explorer tells the story of a species’ extinction; a child wants to go back in time, further than the years spent in a neglectful home; a visit to the zoo reiterates just how little a girl’s father cares.

An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It is an incredible collection of short stories that share basic themes – some, human intervention, others, choice. Spanning from the medieval period to some decades into the future (2050, to be exact), Greengrass’s book is one of beautiful writing and subtle shocks.

The overall reading experience of this book is one of ‘clicks’, or ‘ah ha!’ moments as we often call them. Light bulbs over heads. Greengrass’s general process, the ‘subtle shocks’ referred to, means that after a few stories have been completed you get into the habit of looking closely at the narrative to see what the nub of it all is; even the few unassuming tales in this book have at least a small moment behind them. Sometimes you get answers, a more or less bluntly-spoken meaning. Other times you have to piece it together yourself. The storytelling means that there is always something there to keep you reading; even at those times it seems the story is lengthy (in relative terms) you know that there’s a reason.

And these shocks, these points, that Greengrass includes… they could never be called brilliant, exactly, because they tend to be harrowing, but they do lean towards the exceptional in their telling. A few stories tell of cold climates and the harm done to them so you get those tales of extinction in all their violence; the author spares nothing.

To collect the feathers, there were different ways. We could not take the bodies all the way back across the Atlantic because they would spoil. At first we killed the birds and plucked them, and we tossed the corpses off the cliff and they fell into the sea. The birds looked so much smaller without their feathers on. Then we told ourselves this method took too much of our time.

The title story does this best, containing precisely the sort of information you would think it does. A report of how the Great Auks fell into extinction, which echoes the stories of the sailors of 1840; Greengrass writes from the explorer viewpoint but her thoughts of protection, environmentalism, seep out from the text. The story is full of human destruction, how in exploring and charting we are inevitably, for all our good intensions, bringing harm to places humans had never previously been and, it could be argued, should still stay away from. Echoes of the future abound – will this happen more in time? Greengrass gets to the point, and yet the story is purposefully vague. And full of excuses of the sort seen constantly – it’s not the humans’/this particular group of people’s fault this happened!

Another standout is On Time Travel, in which a child speaks of her longing for the distant past whilst recounting episodes in her dysfunctional family’s life. Rose-tinted glasses abound as the girl explains the benefits of that past time; the reader sees the flaws but then it doesn’t seem to matter when it’s just a dream. It would spoil the effect to discuss anything further, but it’s enough to say that Greengrass’s ending is surprising and incredibly poignant.

Although I am not able to deviate from the set scripts, I do sometimes alter my voice when I speak to the people who call premium phone lines in the thin hope that I will be able to help them. I do this on the occasions when I am for some reason unable to dissociate my mind from my body to the extent that time can pass over my unhindered. On these occasions, my awareness of my existence within the warehouse as unbearable comes in waves; it throbs in my temples and fills my mouth with the taste of sour milk…

Something that may or may not work in the book’s favour depending on what you think of it is Greengrass’s use of the same basic voice and writing style throughout. It’s an incredibly literary style that harks back to Victorian monologues, first-person narratives – her words are not historic, rather it’s a gentle, flowing style, full of beauty. The potential issue then is not in the style itself but in the constancy of it. Some may enjoy the stability of it as well as the way it can suit a person looking back on their life, using adult language to explain their childhood. Others may not find the maturity of the vocabulary matches the ages or personality of the narrators and that that is problematic. It’s very subjective – Greengrass has a lovely style, but does it fit the book as a whole? In regards to the first-person, on occasion the author defers to third. It appears a choice made in order to tell the story in the most expressive way each time and the switching points of view do not seem out of place.

This book warrants your attention but never demands it. It has a lot to say but it can be wistful, both an escape and a work-out for the mind. If you like the sound of the narration you will most likely find it a wonderful reading experience that is difficult to sum up – the way it can leave you speechless has a real-world impact.

An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It is a very fine collection by a very talented and thoughtful writer. One to savour… and potentially scribble all over.

This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.

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Rick Yancey – The 5th Wave

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Not the happy Mexican one.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 461
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-141-34583-3
First Published: 7th May 2013
Date Reviewed: 7th July 2016
Rating: 3/5

The alien ‘waves’ arrived with only ten days warning. For those ten days, a vast mother ship hovered in the sky; humanity went about life as normal, wondering if the aliens would make contact and either becoming excited or remaining indifferent to the idea. Like the other kids, sixteen-year-old Cassie continues going to school and it’s during a lesson that the lights go out, mobile phones go dead, and a plane falls from the sky. Suddenly excitement about alien contact goes silent, as silent as the waves of death the aliens begin to spread.

The 5th Wave is a Young Adult science fiction book that is an easy and often well-paced read but unfortunately suffers due to its formulaic nature and writing.

The story begins well and with much promise – this will not be your usual alien-invasion story, says Yancey, and Cassie quickly quashes her misgivings over using a gun. She will shoot if she has to. It’s all rather exciting. Get past the first section, however, and the true concept reveals itself: The 5th Wave may not be your ‘usual’ alien story (or at least not too usual) but it is your usual dystopian. After that first section wherein Cassie was a character you were fully looking forward to spending a vast number of pages with, two things happen.

First thing: Cassie’s personality changes. She meets a boy and suddenly it’s no longer a question of guns and survival and aliens outside the door (the humans have considered the possibility of infiltration) but looking nice, washing her hair… you get the idea. That Cassie falls in love in a desperate situation is understandable, but that she suddenly pushes the apocalypse to the side isn’t exactly realistic. She’s just survived tsunamis and a plague that wiped out billions, people are dead and every second counts in saving someone only she can save, but let’s have a cuddle first.

Second thing: the narrative switches to other characters. This isn’t a problem in itself, even if it does mean the book leans ever more into that formulaic territory, it’s that Yancey doesn’t tell you he’s switching and the lack of names mean it always takes a bit of time to work out who you’re reading about. The first new point of view matches Cassie’s in that the situation is one you naturally think is hers – Cassie was hurt so turning the page to read about someone being given first aid sounds like a continuation of the narrative. (I myself thought the referrals to this person as ‘he’ amounted to some sort of alien female-led society, which would’ve been rather awesome.)

Following on from this narrative change is the way Yancey goes about answering questions. He doesn’t really need to say anything, the book is entirely predictable once you’ve figured out what his plan is, but as it trickles out you see the influences – The Hunger Games, a certain vampire series, and notable bits and pieces from other books that it would spoil the ‘reveal’ to list, blended together (there’s even some sort of inner goddess spin-off going on). If you’ve read any of those books or seen the film adaptations, you won’t find anything new in this book.

Are the aliens exciting? Not really. They’re said to be very advanced but they’re conveniently limited by our technology at times. They make choices that allow Yancey to keep the story going. And there will be no epic battle with them later on in the series because of the way Yancey has constructed their civilisation.

There is one very good thing about this book and that is the atmosphere, or slight commentary, Yancey includes of political historical situations. Many other reviewers have noted the Colonial era, the British invasion of America and subsequent trampling of the Natives; I myself found a study of the Holocaust. Suffice to say there is something subtle at work where Yancey is looking at invasion, human against human, and showing how awful it is by pitting the whole of humanity together against another species. There’s no real conclusion to it here and indeed it seems more the general assumption of readers that there is this subtext (rather than an obvious sign from Yancey) but as many have seen it it’s something to bear in mind and, whatever it really is, it lifts the book above its narrative, at times giving it an air of literary fiction. It’s just that it’s not enough to keep the book above the narrative in the long run.

The 5th Wave is worth reading if you want something easy and if you’ve read other dystopian Young Adult trilogies and want more of the same (it is fun in that way – the pages fly by), but if you’re after a good alien invasion story you’ll be disappointed.

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Ashley Stokes (ed.) – The End

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They didn’t all live happily ever after.

Publisher: Unthank Books
Pages: 228
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-06127-5
First Published: 1st September 2016
Date Reviewed: 24th August 2016
Rating: 4/5

The End is a collection of short stories inspired by scratch-work paintings. Nicholas Ruston created the paintings in the style of old film ‘end’ cards – all black and white – and the writers went off and wrote what they would. The titles of the stories have become the titles of the paintings. It’s an intriguing concept that promises variety – there’s the simple link between them of the paintings but beyond that they are very different meaning there is wide appeal.

To my mind the absolute stand-outs in this book are the stories that have taken endings literally – they’ve written the literal end of what could well have been a longer story. Suffice to say there’s a lot of extra thinking you can do after finishing them, whole novels to imagine. The Slyest Of Foxes by Angela Readman details the end of a gunman’s visit, a woman who sees what’s going on in her neighbour’s house, choosing to go round with a bowl of soap that continues a hint of razor. Harbour Lights by AJ Ashworth details the aftermath of a relationship, a very sombre note. Ashley Stokes’ own, Decompression Chamber, looks at the non-ending of the world. Crow by Aiden O’Reilly, a political-sounding ending.

But perhaps the winner is All The TVs In Town by Dan Powell. It focuses on the very end of whatever apocalyptic situation (or is it The Truman Show?) it’s talking about. Various genres within a whole, the mainstay is science fiction/dystopia with a liberal spritz of literary fiction.

The paintings themselves are rendered small but the composition and overall creation is such that that’s all that’s needed. It is indeed true to form – the aspect ration fitting cinema, the frames sporting an almost Hitchcockesque atmosphere. There’s a deliciousness in the blend of old and new – a car in one of them, for example, is mid-twentieth century, but then there’s a psychedelic design in another, with other paintings being decidedly more modern – old base, new ideas. One suspects that for the paintings… it’s hardly the perfect analogy, mass-produced as they were, but consider those foil and copper art packs your parents bought you when you were a child – the finished works were quite something.

So in this book there’s a lot to enjoy, and that there’s a base theme but no other means it’s a lovely break if you like short stories but have had enough of all the connections. The introduction to the book, which includes the background to the pictures and the commissions, is a short story in itself. The book could have done with another proof-read but overall this is a great choice for an evening’s read or perhaps even better if spread over the course of a few days.

Dark in many definitions of the word, The End offers a special experience and an introduction to a plethora of authors you may not have heard of.

I received this book for review from the editor.

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Sara Taylor – The Shore

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Broad horizons. Land’s end.

Publisher: William Heinemann (Penguin Random House)
Pages: 304
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-434-02309-7
First Published: 19th March 2015
Date Reviewed: 17th October 2014
Rating: 5/5

Chloe’s glad to hear Cabel’s dead. He tried to hurt her sister. The girls live with their Dad in a small house; they aren’t as well off as their ancestors. But the ancestors didn’t have great lives either.

It’s easier to carry on the summary in this way: The book sports a ‘fractured narrative’ (a term Taylor uses herself), a style in which the author looks at one person’s life as a short story, then looks at one of their relatives, and so on so that you end up zipping from the twentieth century back to the nineteenth and into the future, learning about the various branches of the same family tree. It sounds a lot more complicated than it is.

The Shore is a fantastic book. From the first chapter – the first story – it pulls you in and whilst there are dips every now and then it soon draws you back, yes, not unlike the tide.

Taylor’s writing is lovely. She uses a variety of persons and tenses, ensuring each story is different, and whilst every chapter boasts its inevitable literary style, the characters are varied. The world building is naturally limited in space – most of the book is set in the same place – but unlimited in scope. Taylor aptly describes her settings but there’s space to put your own mark on it; much of the beauty of this book is in its potential for numerous visuals. (And for the most part it doesn’t matter how you see the setting as although there is history in the book, other genres are more important, for example, fantasy.) What’s not so varied are the themes; this is part of the book’s concept. Underlying almost every one are a few particular ideas: to have or not to have children, to do what is right or not, to drink or not to drink, to stay or not to stay – the same basic themes run throughout.

Most poignant of these is surely the question of children. It’s a question that isn’t in every single story – some of the chapters are about children themselves so it wouldn’t be appropriate – but individual agency and the right to choose, most particularly in the sense that throughout history women have had that mother, home-maker role to play, are very important to the text. A lot of the women in this book are happy to have children, but many of them are not so keen. The second group are most often victims of abuse. You also have a few members of the family tree who know how to use herbs to prevent pregnancies and the stories surrounding them are full of neighbours coming to their door for help. It’s a study of choice, the ability or not to choose, the extremes of either choice, and history.

Always in the background, or in the foreground, abuse. It’s often the same characters who happen to feature, whether in person or in reference, and one in particular who has an affect on a number of people. The Shore can be hard to read on occasion; Taylor doesn’t shy away from telling the details. And the cycle continues; Taylor shows the classic concept of traits, decisions, in this case abuse, passing down the family tree however in this case it’s not quite the stereotype – it misses generations, it comes in from another branch, and so forth.

The book presents itself as your average nostalgic read, one of those books that is quite comfortable in its telling if not its content, the sort of book about American life that can draw non-Americans to it due to the setting being so different. There’s a hint of magic in this book, there are paranormal elements, and there’s some science fiction. It’s these three elements that stop the book from dipping too far (in the way I suggested earlier) because there comes a point where everything starts to come together, when things you didn’t know you needed to know about, things you didn’t know anything about, all get twisted up into that very satisfying literary notion, that feeling that causes the recently coined phrase ‘you guys, this book!’ Taylor doesn’t just deliver a gratifying literary experience, she delivers a gratifying literary experience with bonus points. And she plays with the concept of religion in an interesting way.

There are a few houses in this book, but two are more important than the others. These houses are as much characters in their own right as Manderley and are a further factor that unites the already tangled family members. The houses keep the family grounded in their history; they couldn’t leave forever even if they wanted to.

The Shore is exceptional. It’s written well, it’s planned well, it’s executed well – it’s everything well. It’s a subtle thrill that bowls you over mentally, intellectually, without requiring you jump up and down about it, though you surely will.

I received this book at the Young Writer of the Year award blogger event.

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Sarah Govett – The Territory

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To pass with flying colours…

Publisher: Firefly Press
Pages: 202
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-08018-4
First Published: 2015
Date Reviewed: 24th July 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

It’s 2059. The world has largely flooded and there is very little land left. In Britain the Ministry deals with the population problem by making 15-year-olds sit exams – those who achieve high marks get to stay, those who don’t are sent to the Wetlands where there are few resources and disease is rife. It’s a death sentence. Wealthy and/or influential parents can pay to upgrade their children, set them up with the technology that streams information straight into the brain, and many do. But Noa’s parents didn’t. A ‘norm’, she spends her time revising and hanging out with her friends whilst she still can; Jack is good at art but may fail science, and Daisy is an average student with little support. But then there’s Raf, the ‘freakoid’ surgically-enhanced new kid who isn’t like the others.

The Territory is an ambitious and very ‘current’ young adult novel that looks at the way exams impact students in the context of a dystopian society. Comparable to The Hunger Games on certain levels, the book marks the start of a trilogy, the beginning of a bold journey for Govett. The book sports appeal for both teenagers and adults – teenagers are more likely to accept the language, adults more likely to enjoy the political elements.

Let’s get the characters and language out of the way first. Noa isn’t at all likeable. She’s irritating; she judges people based on their appearance (this can be argued to be fair considering exams and social standing are everything – it’s the sheer number of times she does it that is the issue); she uses offensive language on every other page (“mental”, “psycho”, “denser” – again understandable where intellect is of utmost importance, it’s just the repetitiveness of it that’s uncomfortable and off-putting). Her use of language is seemingly at odds with her education, at least in the context of our day.

But, and this is a big but – this is Govett’s point. Noa is average, an average teenager, as likely to cause offence as any other, as likely to be nice or nasty as any other (and Noa isn’t heartless, she’s far from it). She’s cited as clever but there’s the ongoing question of whether or not she’s clever enough to be saved. Govett’s point is thus – why shouldn’t Noa, who stands for the average school-aged child, be free to live happily? Why shouldn’t she be saved, why should she be placed behind a person who has had every advantage? In this way Govett questions our present, real, society, and the importance we put on status, on exams; she questions elitism and the barriers placed in front of disadvantaged children that effectively hinder their progress. And so Govett has taken her questions and woven a dystopian tale around them.

Going back to the language and Noa, the language is something your typical adult reader, and likely many younger readers, too, are going to have to work around, to get past if they can. Noa’s language is almost too colloquial – there are words here I know I’ve never heard of that may or may not be made up (this is the future and language is always evolving) – and there are many capitalised words and exclamation points. The book is written in the first person in what seems to be a diary – at least it reads like a diary.

The second thing that needs to be worked around, by the reader for them to enjoy the book, is Noa’s attitude, specifically the way she expresses herself and her emotions. Noa is sarcastic and favours humour, which is obviously at odds with the situation but makes sense when you consider she probably needs to let off steam. What doesn’t work so well is the distance between her and the reader. You can draw parallels with the way Katniss can come across as uncaring until you peel back the layers and realise she is suffering from PTSD, but unlike Collins’s trilogy, The Territory‘s lack of stated emotion has a negative impact on the world building.

Govett has obviously spent a good while on the world-building; most questions are answered and the only big mystery that remains by the end refers to the Wetlands. This itself is quite fine because it’s evident that you’re going to be visiting the Wetlands at some point and any amount of experience with dystopian fiction is enough to alert you to the fact it’s likely the Wetlands aren’t cut and dried (excuse the pun) much in the same way you don’t hear about District 13 or any other dystopian underworld right at the beginning. The problem is that there is too much focus on language – an obvious focus on getting the language right to the detriment of the world-building. You are told much, and see a little, but more could have been made of what is said. Being in Noa’s head limits your knowledge and her seeming lack of care, her distance, means it’s difficult to care yourself.

As you can see it’s a trade in and trade off – The Territory is undeniably excellent for what it does, says, presents and asks. It includes most everything it needed to to attract the reader and it does keep you wanting to read. But it could have used more outward emotion, detailing, and immersion in the world.

The promise at the end is that the second book will be full of action and there’s no reason to think otherwise. The Territory is very much the set-up book and where the political elements are put into place. It’s a book that’s worth the read so long as you keep in mind that there are two levels to it and you remember which one is yours. (This itself is not something that limits or detracts from the novel.)

I’ve met the author.

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