What’s been going on?

It has been over a term since I last added something here and while nobody else is obviously wondering what is going on, I have to wonder myself…

2013 has begun like the last year ended. Busy. When I was a full-time classroom teacher, there was an element of predictability to the year. Terms began, assessment was given out, marked, returned, classrooms were tidied for the holidays, planning sessions were held to discuss and prepare for the new units. Now? Projects I wanted to start way back when get carried over from one week to the next. My reading pile gets larger by the week. It almost feels as though there has been no progress at all on some fronts!

I can’t blame it on any one thing in particular. My starting studies again? Maybe. Picking up a new class of my own? No. Continuing to work on elearning professional learning things for the school? Not that either. All of these things in concert, though, and with the pressures on the school generally with staffing, classes, national curriculum…all of these things must have some impact. (And if I am so busy, how do I find time to do this???)

At some stage, but not right now, I will have to reassess what I am doing with this space. I have a few other virtual spaces, some which I share with students behind the department’s firewalls, and they require constant maintenance. That might be where my online energy has gone, I suspect. So be prepared. One day, this site might exist only as a ghostly archive of my thoughts and memories…

Creepy & Maud, by Dianne Touchell

A bizarre, sad, bittersweet and touching black comedy which deals with adolescent angst, as well as the way parents can impact on their children. Creepy (we never discover his real name) lives next door to Maud and has developed a fixation for the girl he only sees across the space between their houses. Even though they attend the same school, they don’t talk to each other. Their communication is limited to notes held up to their respective bedroom windows.

Both of them have problems. She has a habit of pulling her hair out, until her scalp is bleeding. He just wants to disappear into the background and gets lost in books. She likes to see the world in groups of five and keeps track of phrases that have five syllables. He uses binoculars to spy on her in her room. Both of them have sets of parents who are not quite normal, always fighting with each other and their children, but then, maybe that is the new normal.

The chapters are told by both Creepy and Maud in turns, though sometimes his voice lingers for a few chapters and then she gets a few and so on. It is effective as we get a real sense of them as events head towards the climax, which was surprising. I was not too sure how the story would end and looking back, it is totally appropriate. Bittersweet, touching and enough of a twist to make it rewarding.

The Voyage of the Unquiet Ice, by Andrew McGahan

One of the justifiably short-listed books from the 2012 YA list was the first in the Ship Kings series, The Coming of the Whirlpool, which described young Dow Amber’s journey to the sea and his quest to follow his heart, to a life on the water. In this, the second in the series, we see him onboard the Chloe as it makes its way back to the kingdom of the Ship Kings.

What an enthralling adventure it is! It took me a while to warm to Dow in the first book but I quickly got back into his mindset in this book. Had he done the right thing in leaving his native island? No doubt and he is in constant joy, even as he is being persecuted for being an outsider to the world of the Ship Kings. Fortune seems to favour him and the crew slowly accept him for his ability. His relationship with the Nell, the scapegoat, also deepens and by the end of the book, has been set up for interesting conclusions.

But the highlight is the journey through the ice fields towards the pole. This is a tale of exploration and bravery, akin to our own explorers. Indeed, there is very little of difference between this world and ours and although it is touted as a fantasy, it is only slightly removed from our reality. They sail ships, fire muskets and cannon, and have a familiar system of naval command. If it were not for the maps and new world itself, this could easily be an adventure story from the 19th century. And a great one at that!

The Sacrifice, by Charlie Higson

I read a lot of books when I was young. Books that inspired me, that moved me, that caused me to wonder about the world and history. And the point of this journey down memory lane? I cannot recall reading so many books which felt like I was running downhill and could not stop.

The past few months have seen an explosion of new thrillers designed for young people but with some seriously “adult” themes. Zombies, vampires, supernatural beings, paranormal romances… If you can conjure it up from your horror film history, there is probably a book which sets in amongst teen protagonists and the end of the world.

This is the fourth in the series which began with The Enemy and it is another cracker. You might think from my mini-rant above that I am less-than-impressed with these books. On the contrary, I am thrilled beyond belief and only disappointed that I have to wait for so long between books.

Once again, we are thrown into the action of a diseased London where the adults have become flesh-eating zombies and the children have to survive by using their wits and their weapons. We pick up again Shadowman, Ed and Kyle, Sam and The Kid as well as meeting new outposts of survivors. There is also – finally- some glimmer of an answer to the questions of what exactly happened. It has taken this long, but we might just be getting close to an explanation!

The pace of these books is relentless. We barely catch our breath from one narrow escape and then we are plunged once more into a race away from the hordes. I had to stop every few chapters just to catch my breath and refocus! This is what I meant by “running downhill”. It is nonstop action and mayhem. There are passages of explanation and dialogue, especially when we meet Mad Matt again, but these are worked so tightly into the narrative that we barely notice them before setting off again into the streets.

It is a great read and joins what is becoming a long list of excellent titles I have read this year!

The Forsaken, by Lisa Stasse

It is easy to be cynical in this post-Twilight and post-Hunger Games world, when publishing companies seem to be promoting every new release as the next paranormal romance or post-apocalyptic action thriller, all with some death and some romance, to make sure that both boys and girls get something out of it.

Is that what we have here then? More of the same? The cover suggests that fans of the Hunger Games will love this and no doubt they will, but only if they can’t get their hands on Pure or Divergent or Ashes or any one of the other books in this vein. The cover gives it away. A teenage girl with a bow and arrow over her shoulder looking moodily at the viewer, a slash of red and the tagline across the top : “No rule, no refuge, no escape.” It all sounds very ominous, doesn’t it?

Alenna spends only 30-odd pages us telling her about her world and how controlled it is before she is transported to the island, where all the dissidents go, to kill or be killed, basically. Everyone here is a teen with a life expectancy of eighteen. There are essentially two tribes, those who side with the Monk and appear under his cult-like influence, and the others, a ragtag bunch of kids who live in the jungle and fight daily with the Monk’s drones. The scenario is very Lord of the Flies, with bits of Lost (the TV show) thrown in for good measure. Their only chance of getting off the island is to make it to the Grey Zone and see what lies within the buildings left by the government when they established the island as a prison.

Along the way, we have cases of divided loyalties, stories of the government manipulating the truth, learning to hunt and kill, chases through the bush, attacks by flying robots which extract various children at random and hints of romance. Ticks all of the required boxes but ultimately is not as satisfying as its competitors.

Genus, by Jonathan Trigell

The broad genre known now as speculative fiction encompasses much. Some of it is fantasy, some of it science-fiction and some of it is truly speculative, worlds of “what if” mixed with visions of the future warped by religion. It is an interesting read considering recent events in the Western/Muslim world; there have been three Caliphate wars with an apparent sweeping of Muslim violence across much of the world, leaving Britain and the US as free countries keen to protect their borders.

But the story is concerned less with what is happening in the wider world than what is occurring within London itself. Kings Cross, now known as the Kross, has become a sinkhole of human degradation. Violence and deprivation are everywhere but that is not the story, either. As the title suggests, this is a world dominated by genetics. People are Unimproved, or clones of some description, or have been manipulated from birth to be what their parents want them to be. The same applies to animals with spiders the size of dogs and dog breeds which are combinations of not only other dogs but mixtures of animals. Women are kept as broodmares and the population drinks synthetic alcohol, synth, to keep the horrors at bay. What a world!

This vision of the future is not quite as bizarre as China Mieville’s, but it is close. Weird, urban fiction with a touch of science. Imagine Neil Gaiman with more science. Great stuff and a cast of interesting but ultimately forlorn characters.

Ashes, by Ilsa Bick

Little did I know when I started this book that it was the first in a trilogy, so now I am very disappointed! It is yet another dystopian speculative fiction title told in the third-person through the viewpoint of a determined mature teen girl. Ring any bells? The spark which kicks this book off is an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) which not only destroys virtually anything mechanical or electrical, but also does some weird things to people. Nearly everyone aged between 15 and 65 has died, their minds and bodies fried somehow. Those teens who have survived are either flesh-eating crazies or Spared, like Alex, our hero.

As America, and the rest of the world we presume, falls into chaos, she stumbles through the wilderness with a young girl in tow until she meets Tom, a war-ravaged young soldier on leave from his tour of Afghanistan. The three of them fight and scavenge for the best part of the book. The world she describes is interesting and complex, though the well-worn chapter ending cliffhanger trick gets very annoying. Each chapter seems to finish with an “Oh My God” moment that is usually developed on the next page, so what is the point? And there are a few sections where something momentous happens, like a gunfight, and the next thing we know, Alex is in the aftermath, leaving the resolution of that conflict to be eventually revealed later.

So, not perfect but better than most and I am waiting for the sequel…