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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

'The Dust of 100 Dogs' by A.S. King

From the BLURB:

In the late seventeenth century, famed teenage pirate Emer Morrisey was on the cusp of escaping the pirate life with her one true love and unfathomable riches when she was slain and cursed with "the dust of one hundred dogs," dooming her to one hundred lives as a dog before returning to a human body-with her memories intact.

Now she's a contemporary American teenager and all she needs is a shovel and a ride to Jamaica.

Saffron Adams was born in 1972 in Hollow Ford, Pennsylvania. She is a genius daughter with alcoholic, pill-popping parents and a junkie brother called Junior. Saffron’s family are pinning all their hopes on her – to graduate valedictorian, get a full scholarship to a good college, study medicine, open her own practice and dig the family out of debt, depression and deprivation.

Saffron was also re-born and lived 100 lives as dogs of various breeds – Dobermans to Chihuahuas, Labradors and Terriers. Her canine reincarnation was thanks to a curse. A curse inherited by Saffron’s other memory…

Saffron Adams also remembers being Emer Morrisey, growing up in 1650’s Ireland when Cromwell’s army marches through, burning her home to the ground and murdering her entire family. She remembers her uncle coming for her, and not speaking at all during the years she lived with his tyranny, amongst her cowering aunt and cousins. She remembers falling in love with Seanie Carroll and planning to marry him – only to have her uncle ship her off to a rich French husband she quickly escaped from … and Saffron remembers Emer venturing to Tortuga, and falling into a life of piracy and villainy in which she sailed the high sea, killing Spaniards, taking rum and jewels and nearly out-running a mad Frenchman.

She remembers Seanie.
And the emerald.
And the Frenchman.
And the curse of 100 dogs.
But mostly she remembers Seanie.

‘The Dust of 100 Dogs’ was A.S. King’s debut novel, first released in 2009.

I’m doing it all backwards. My first experience reading one of A.S. King’s mad-cap young adult delicacies was with her 2010 novel ‘Please Ignore Vera Dietz.’ Since then she has most definitely cemented her place as one of my all-time favourite authors; particularly for ‘Everybody Sees the Ants’ in 2011 and most recently ‘Ask the Passengers’ this October. I was, of course, aware of ‘The Dust of 100 Dogs’. I bought a copy of the book immediately after reading ‘Vera Dietz’. But I didn’t read it. I put it off. It languished on my to-be-read pile for a whole year – that gorgeous silhouetted skull colour calling to me. I guess I was treating ‘The Dust of 100 Dogs’ like the last potato on my dinner plate – so good, something I knew I’d enjoy but I also wanted to savour it and save till last… And now, here we are. And let me tell you, ‘The Dust of 100 Dogs’ was thoroughly, golden-delicious.

This is a hard book to summarize – and if you want to know why, just look at the Verso (copyright) page and its keywords: Pirates. Reincarnation. Dogs.

Basically, Saffron Adams is growing up in Pennsylvania a seemingly normal American teenager. Except that she has the memories of the previous 100 lives she lived as various dogs. And she has the memories of a female pirate who roamed the high seas during the 1600’s, called Emer Morrisey. Even worse, Saffron remembers all of Emer’s worst memories – her family dying in Ireland, losing the love of her life and little bits of her humanity as she transformed into a cutthroat pirate. But the upside is that Saffron also remembers where Emer buried her biggest haul of treasure. Now all Saffron needs is to graduate high school, save some money and find a way to get to Jamaica.

There are three narratives woven throughout the novel. First there is Emer’s story – set in 1600’s Ireland and then moving to France and eventually Tortuga and surrounding famous pirate strongholds. Then there is Saffron’s modern-day story (leading up to 1990’s) as she struggles with her dependent, destructive family and all the hopes and dreams they’re pinning on her while she plots her escape to Jamaica. Half-way through the novel we start getting chapters based in modern Jamaica – told by a vile man named Fred Livingstone who yells at the voices in his head while spying on unsuspecting women through his telescope and reliving his ‘glory days’ as a date rapist. And interspersed throughout the book are a number of vignette tips on dogs (which could also work for humans) – this is Saffron recounting all that she learnt in her days as a canine – everything from why dogs like pack safety, to why you shouldn’t spoil your dog.

What’s really fantastically tricky about this novel is the distinction between Reincarnation and Rebirth. In the novel, Saffron is not Emer – she has her memories, just as she has the memories of those 100 dogs. But Saffron is her own entity, living her own life and with her own woes and worries. Saffron treats Emer like a sort of dear friend who she comes to rely on for bursts of strength and bravado (Saffron actually takes to fantasizing about pirate torture on those who annoy her, courtesy of Emer’s left-over memories).

First, she had me in college and running a local practice. Now, she had me having babies and obligingly understanding her warped view on life. I was only sixteen years old. Why was she making me imagine slicing her eyes out? Why was she forcing me to take my cutlass to the ligaments at the back of her knees?

I was reading it almost like Emer was a wonderful imaginary friend Saffron has carried around with her. Saffron and Emer actually have a really fascinating relationship – and I thought it was great to see how Saffron gained strength from Emer’s memories. The relationship is actually a very fond one, and considering these two women never meet on the page – in fact, one of them has been dead for some 300 years before the other is even born – the warmth and trust between them came across crystal clear to me. Particularly when Saffron finally gets to Jamaica, but feels somewhat abandoned by Emer whose memorial-courage isn’t as readily on tap:

Every part of me wanted to burst into miserable tears but instead I emptied my duffel bag on the quilted bedspread and looked at my stuff. I unfolded the army shovel and stared at myself in the mirror again, waiting to catch a glimpse of the woman who’d dragged me here – but all I saw was some skinny kid from Hollow Ford who was fooling herself.

And as the novel progresses, a larger question surfaces in which Saffron has to ask herself; is she really searching for physical treasure? Or is it a case of the more she follows Emer’s footsteps, the closer she gets to herself?

Anyone who has ever read any A.S. King novel knows that she likes the kooky. Her particular brand of surreal is often in the form of ghosts made manifest – whether they be Socrates, a dead best friend or a long-lost grandfather invading dreams… A.S. King has this wonderful preoccupation with the dead and buried who are still alive and kicking in her protagonist’s imagination. With that in mind, I could definitely see how ‘The Dust of 100 Dogs’ was a sort of story springboard for King’s subsequent novels. In ‘Dust’, death is made manifest within Saffron’s reincarnated memories. Emer lives on through Saffron, and continues to suffer the memories of losing her family, her love and her life all those hundreds of years ago.

I found one or two other minor connections in ‘Dust’ – little things that I imagine (in my fan-girl, obsessive way) provided the germs for thought that would become A.S. King’s next novels. Things like a ship Emer commands being called the Vera Cruz. Or those little doggy vignettes reminding me of similar side-stories of love’s impact in ‘Ask the Passengers’. So I actually came away from ‘The Dust of 100 Dogs’ thinking how wonderful it was to have read this first book last – to see where it all started, in a way, and to read A.S. King at the most extreme end of her kooky scale.

And this novel is kooky. There’s no denying that. It’s kookier than Vera talking to paper cut outs of her dead best friend, or Astrid sending her love up to planes or Lucky dreaming of saving a grandfather he never met. But, like all of King’s novels, ‘The Dust of 100 Dogs’ also balances the crazy with the beautiful. So even though it’s a novel about being a reincarnated pirate with memories of being reincarnated dogs – that’s just the interesting, helter-skelter plot. Underneath that I think ‘The Dust of 100 Dogs’ is about exploring this idea of whether or not history is doomed to repeat itself, and whether or not human beings can ever learn from past mistakes.

5/5

Sunday, November 25, 2012

'Suddenly A Knock on the Door' and 'The Girl on the Fridge' short story anthologies by Etgar Keret

 From the BLURB:

Part Kafka, part Vonnegut, with the concerns and comedic delivery of Woody Allen, Etgar Keret is a brilliant and original master of the short story. Hilarious, witty, and always unusual, declared “a genius” by The New York Times, Keret brings all of his prodigious talent to bear in ‘Suddenly, A Knock on the Door’, his sixth bestselling collection. Long a household name in Israel, where he has been declared the voice of his generation, Keret has been acknowledged as one of the country’s most radical and extraordinary writers. Exuding a rare combination of depth and accessibility, Keret’s tales overflow with absurdity, humor, sadness, and compassion, and though their circumstances are often strange and surreal, his characters are defined by a familiar and fierce humanity. ‘Suddenly, Knock on the Door’ is at once Keret’s most mature and most playful work yet, and establishes him as one of the great global writers of the twenty-first century.

Not too long ago my uncle told me to listen to a segment on the radio show ‘This American Life.’ In this particular segment actor John Conlee read the short story ‘Healthy Start’, by Etgar Keret from his anthology ‘Suddenly, a Knock on the Door.’ My uncle told me that while he knew where the story was going, had a vague idea of how it would end; he was still caught off guard. The author was telling a very simple story, very bloody well. And once I listened to the reading of ‘Healthy Start’, I had to agree. So then I went out and bought myself a copy of ‘Suddenly, a Knock on the Door’ which was first published in Israel in 2010, but was only released in America this year. I also bought his 2008 short story anthology ‘The Girl On The Fridge’ partly because I loved the cover art illustration by Zeloot. Both of them delighted and transfixed me over the course of several weeks, and now I think I am a wee bit addicted to Keret’s stunning stories.

Etgar Keret has been a bit of a writing superstar in Israel for years now – renowned for his short stories, graphic novels and screenplays. But in the last few years America has started to sit up and take notice. In 2006 the short stories from his collection ‘Kneller's Happy Campers’ was turned into a movie called ‘Wristcutters: A Love Story.’ And this year one of Keret’s stories inspired designer Jakub Szczesny to make the impossible, possible by building the world’s narrowest house in Poland.

Something I loved in all stories from the 2008 anthology ‘The Girl On The Fridge’ were the strong and absurd visuals. These were among his shortest stories, but they ring with such hyper-coloured clarity and delightful mayhem that they’re probably the ones that stayed with me the longest. Like in ‘Hat Trick’, a story about a children’s magician whose staid rabbit-out-of-the-hat act is suddenly made magically gruesome when the rabbit he pulls out is decapitated. The children are thrilled by the gore, and each time the magician performs the trick a new and awful discovery is made from the hat . . . until the day he pulls out something so awful, and decides never to do the hat trick ever again.  Or in the titled short story ‘The Girl On The Fridge’ a man recounts how his ex-girlfriend spent her childhood atop a fridge, which was her parents’ idea of child-minding. In ‘Loquat’ a grandmother begs her grandson to dress in his military finery (guns and all) when he tells the neighbourhood kids to stop climbing her loquat fruit tree. Or in my favourite short story ‘Crazy Glue’, a woman plays a practical joke on her husband and ends up maybe saving their marriage;

“Fine,” she said and laughed. “I’m not going anywhere.” By then I was laughing too. She was so pretty, and so incongruous, hanging upside down from the ceiling that way. With her long hair dangling downward, and her breasts molded like two perfect teardrops under her white T-shirt. So pretty. I climbed back up onto the pile of books and kissed her. I felt her tongue on mine. The books slipped out from under my feet as I hung there in midair, not touching a thing, dangling from just her lips.
-    Crazy Glue, from ‘The Girl On The Fridge

The stories of ‘The Girl On The Fridge’ are like a swift, fabulist uppercut – they’ll absolutely wallop you, maybe blindside you for being so short, so sweet and so clever. These stories do have more a feel of unreality about them.

By contrast, the slightly longer 36 stories in ‘Suddenly, a Knock on the Door’ beg you to pace yourself and read in small, multiple doses. These ones will stay with you and you’ll find yourself needing a breather after reading a few of them. Like in ‘Creative Writing’, about a man whose wife has started churning out fantastical and wounding short stories in her writing class, partly as a way to escape her own mind after a devastating miscarriage. The man decides to take a few of these creative writing classes too, but his creative well does not run quite so deep. . .

A few more of these short stories are tethered to reality, but it’s Keret’s stranger, fabulist tales that really delight. ‘Unzipped’ begins with a kiss (it almost always begins with a kiss) and a woman named Ella who discovers a teensy zip under her boyfriend’s tongue, and pulls. . . I loved this story – it’s about identity and being afraid to discover who we really are. It’s about accepting people and wishing they would change. It’s about a lot of things, really, and it’s only four pages long. But that’s the beauty of Keret – he says so much and so deeply with seemingly so little.

But my favourite short story has to be the first I heard, thanks to my uncle. In ‘Healthy Start’ a lonely man takes to meeting strangers in a cafe, and being whoever they need him to be;  

Miron shook his head. ‘You have no idea what my life has been like this past year,’ he told the husband. ‘Hell. Not even hell, just one great big stale chunk of nothing. And when you’ve been living with nothing for so long and suddenly something turns up, you can’t just tell it to go away. You understand me, don’t you? I know you understand me.’

-    Healthy Start, from ‘Suddenly, a Knock on the Door

I think Etgar Keret is the perfect antidote for anyone who thinks short stories aren’t for them. For anyone who has ever thought that short stories aren’t as big a deal as a novel. Or, heck, for anyone who just wants to be a little bit mesmerized for the space of a few pages. Keret’s stories are strange and true, fabulist and grimy. His stories aren’t terribly long – but they pack quite a punch.

5/5

Thursday, November 22, 2012

'Chasing Magic' Downside #5 by Stacia Kane

From the BLURB:

A DEADLY HIGH

Magic-wielding Churchwitch and secret addict Chess Putnam knows better than anyone just how high a price people are willing to pay for a chemical rush. But when someone with money to burn and a penchant for black magic starts tampering with Downside’s drug supply, Chess realizes that the unlucky customers are paying with their souls—and taking the innocent with them, as the magic-infused speed compels them to kill in the most gruesome ways possible.

As if the streets weren’t scary enough, the looming war between the two men in her life explodes, taking even more casualties and putting Chess squarely in the middle. Downside could become a literal ghost town if Chess doesn’t find a way to stop both the war and the dark wave of death-magic, and the only way to do that is to use both her addiction and her power to enter the spell and chase the magic all the way back to its malevolent source. Too bad that doing so will probably kill Chess—if the war doesn’t first destroy the man who’s become her reason for living.


Chess Putnam is in a good place, quite possibly for the first time in her life. She has her man, Terrible, and her place in the Church. She may still be hooked on cepts and caught between two rival Downside gangs – but Terrible’s steady love and her purpose as a Churchwitch save Chess most days.

And then Downside begins to unravel … there’s death-magic on the streets, leaving behind living corpses and helping to fuel an already raging battle between the two men in Chess’s life –Terrible and Lex.

‘Chasing Magic’ is the fifth novel in Stacia Kane’s gritty urban fantasy series, ‘Downside’.

It’s been a while since I’ve been down to Downside, and oh! how I’ve missed it. Kane’s new novel is a wonderful melding of terror on the streets and creeping catastrophe in Chess’s own life.

The mystery of death-magic is brilliantly played out, alongside gang rivalry as Lex declares (following the death of his father in ‘Sacrificial Magic’) that Terrible can either join him, or stand with Bump against him. Considering Lex’s history with Chess, and Terrible’s jealous streak, it’s not hard to guess which side he chooses … but it puts Chess right in the middle of their warfare, and right when she and Terrible were just about past her indiscretion.

Couple this with a nasty plague of death-magic cursing the streets, which Chess has to investigate in her unofficial capacity as Churchwitch, and there’s plenty to chew on in ‘Chasing Magic’.

But with as interesting an anti-hero as Chess Putnam, it should come as no surprise that the more interesting aspect of this book is her chaotic life. In ‘Chasing Magic’, Chess’s mentor, Elder Griffin, uncovers Chess’s secret concerning Terrible and a dead psychopomp, which could jeopardize her job with the Church, and see her thrown in jail.

But even more interesting is Chess’s continuing battle with her drug addiction. For a little while now she’s been worried that Terrible, in his capacity as Bump’s right-hand-man and supplier of drugs, has all the power in their relationship because Chess is a drug addict. But in ‘Chasing Magic’ it also becomes apparent that Terrible is more concerned with her welfare than controlling her.

But what I really love about this fifth book is the few moments when Kane writes beautifully and heartbreakingly about how far Chess has come in rebuilding herself. Abused as a child, prone to self-hatred and self-doubt, her relationship with Terrible has been a big dose of good in a sea of bad for our girl Chess, and some scenes really capture how much she has gained with him (and how much she has to lose?):

His lips cut her off. Not a long kiss, or a deep one, but one that made her cheeks do that tingling have-to-smile thing anyway. “Know you ain’t, baby.”
People started filing back into the building, or at least most of them did. A few resolute smokers stayed on the patio, talking or looking up at the sky, pale and starless above the city’s glow. Chess looked up at it, too, at that blank stretch of cloudy gray covering the world like a sheet pulled over its head. It was watching her, wasn’t it? Watching her and Terrible, and for some reason the sight of it – the thought of it – made pain and loneliness twist in her chest.
Pain because she wasn’t part of that sky, would never be part of it, because it looked like a home she could never enter. She’d never know what it was like to be so peaceful. Pain because she was so fucking insignificant, so small, so worthless compared to that incredible expanse. Loneliness because she didn’t belong to it, and because she knew one day she’d be alone again, and because some deep part of her still felt alone; would always feel alone.

‘Chasing Magic’ is another thrilling instalment in what is one of the smartest and toughest urban fantasy series on the shelves at the moment. Chess’s downward spiral continues, but with moments of perfect love and clarity thanks to her equally anti-hero hero, Terrible. I can’t wait to revisit Downside again.

5/5

Monday, November 19, 2012

'BZRK' BZRK #1 by Michael Grant

From the BLURB:

Set in the near future, BZRK is the story of a war for control of the human mind.  Charles and Benjamin Armstrong, conjoined twins and owners of the Armstrong Fancy Gifts Corporation, have a goal:  to turn the world into their vision of utopia.  No wars, no conflict, no hunger.  And no free will.  Opposing them is a guerrilla group of teens, code name BZRK, who are fighting to protect the right to be messed up, to be human.  This is no ordinary war, though.  Weapons are deployed on the nano-level. The battleground is the human brain.  And there are no stalemates here:  It’s victory . . . or madness.
 

BZRK unfolds with hurricane force around core themes of conspiracy and mystery, insanity and changing realities, engagement and empowerment, and the larger impact of personal choice. Which side would you choose?  How far would you go to win?

In England, Noah Cotton visits his older brother, an ex-soldier, in a mental facility where he rages about ‘nanos’ and berserk.

Sadie McLure is at a football game while her brother and father fly in a private jet overhead, off to a meeting about their company, McLure Industries.

Bug Man is at the controls, about to change the very course of history.

And down in the meat, everything is coming together for disaster. . .

‘BZRK’ is the first book in a new and frightening YA series from Michael Grant.

Nothing is as it seems in Michael Grant’s creepy-fantastic ‘BZRK’ – that’s true from the story, right down to my original pre-read misconceptions (of which, I shame-facedly admit, I had many). To begin with, the book is pronounced ‘Berserk’ (not BZ-RK as I first called it), and while the cover is rather dark and masculine, hinting at the sinister within, I actually came away from ‘BZRK’ thinking it was one of those rare YA books that will appeal equally to both female and male readers. But what really impressed me about Michael Grant’s first book in a new series is how downright clever it is. It’s something of an espionage/action-thriller/pre-Dystopian gem with teen heroes, set on an epic world-stage and will also appeal to adult readers. But I’m getting ahead of myself – let me delve into the meat of this story, if you will.

We open with threads of characters – beginning with Noah Cotton visiting his older brother in a mental asylum. Alex was once Noah’s idol – a fit military man, apart of an elite unit, he must have seemed like the veritable GI Joe to his young brother whose talents lay more in shoot ’em up video games than the real thing. But we quickly see that something has gone wrong – between Noah’s old idolization of his brother to now, when we see Alex has lost his mind and is confined to an asylum. Now he rages at the world, repeating the word ‘berserk, BERSERK! … BZRK’ over and over in a looping madness.

Shift to Sadie McLure – on a date at a football game with a boy she was intrigued by, but who is quickly boring her. While Sadie tries to keep a smile on her face in the stands, her brother and father (her last remaining family after the prolonged, suffering death of her mother to illness) fly overhead in a private jet – on their way to an important conference for McLure Industires. For a little while, as we’re introduced to the intriguing brother Stone McLure, readers may be mistaken for thinking we’re meeting the star of Grant’s series. Seventeen-year-old Stone is described as not exactly model handsome, but with a certain something that makes him not for girls, but for women. He is intriguing in everything, from his interactions with his proud father, Grey (who owns a mug with ‘FAIRLY DECENT DAD’ printed on it), to his very description: “He had a brow that seemed designed by God to mark him as honest…” but, alas, Stone is not for readers. Because as soon as we’re introduced to him, begin to settle down with his character, Grant pulls the rug out from under us in a fiery plane disaster that leaves Sadie an orphan – well and truly alone in the world.

Oh, and by this point, we’re only at page 15.

After Noah’s unsettling visit with his insane brother, he gets a visitor – a man who only gives the name Nijinsky. He is eager to meet Alex Cotton’s brother, and has a proposition for Noah – if he’s interested. Meanwhile, Sadie is being given a similar spiel – after the fiery loss of her brother and father, she needs something to fight and fight for.

Both Sadie and Noah agree to a training program – thus pushing them onto ‘the battlefield’ with BZRK. By agreeing to enter into the battle that took Noah’s brother, and Sadie’s family away, they are leaving their old lives behind – no longer are they Sadie and Noah – they are now Keats and Plath.

Now we meet the big players of little warfare controlling the world. There’s Vincent (real name: Michael Ford) and Bug Man (Anthony Elder). Men behind the controls of nanobot and biot technology. Tiny nanorobotics - machines or robots whose components are at or close to the scale of a nanometer – are controlled by these men for two separate companies. There is BZRK – a secret organization divided into numerous cells – headed by Lear, who nobody has ever met but who masterminds BZRK with the sole purpose of bringing down Charles and Benjamin Armstrong, of Armstrong Fancy Gifts Corporation (I particularly like this – for all those who think Hallmark is secretly ruling the world). The Armstrong’s are conjoined twins and the other major players of nanorobotics. Between Armstrong Fancy Gifts Corporation and BZRK, a small battle is being waged – in eyelashes, under the skin and in the hair of the world’s most influential people. And now Keats and Plath (formerly Sadie and Noah) are entering into the battle.

The genius of Grant’s ‘BZRK’ series lies in the nanorobotics. I admit, for a little while, I was reading ‘BZRK’ thinking what a wonderful imagination Michael Grant had. And then I got a sinking feeling in my gut. I searched Wikipedia (a scary thought in itself – since in the novel, Wikipedia is used to pass secret coded messages) and found that nanorobotics are entirely real. There really are such things as nanobots and biots, and they could very well be being used by the military. And as Michael Grant’s ‘BZRK’ progresses – as readers follow Plath and Keats on their training program, learning how to control small insect-like robots with their mind’s eye – you realize what a scary proposition that is.

The fright of nanorobotics is often perfectly articulated by a character called Karl Burnofsky, who works for the Armstrong’s and is the mastermind behind many of their creations. He was once as good a controller as Bug Man, but in recent years he has turned to drink to squelch the uneasiness of what he has unleashed on the world;

You want to see God the Creator, the supreme artist? Gaze into the nano. You’ll see your God, and he will scare the shit out of you.
God isn’t in the big things measured in miles, he’s down there. Down there in a flea’s antennae like a hairy tree trunk twitching for blood, and a macrophage slithering along like a shell-less snail come to eat you up, and the cells you see splitting beneath your feet, and landscapes of seething bacteria, and yeah, right there, you want to see God up close and personal?

Much of the action of this novel takes place in ‘the nano’ – the places where these small nanobots and biots travel – often along the clothing/skin of people, hanging on their eyelash or wading through the forest of follicle hair. Grant’s descriptions are magnified and spectacular;

“It’s like crossing a desert drawn by Dr. Seuss or Salvador Dalí,” Wilkes interrupted. “Wrinkles and crevices and hairs the size of trees.”

What I loved most about ‘BZRK’ is perhaps that it is a book of many genres. By the end of this first instalment, I was thinking that Michael Grant’s new series is best described as a pre-Dystopian one. You can imagine what the world will eventually look like if the nano-warfare played out in ‘BZRK’ continues – if regimes and countries are toppled by the goings on of biots in the nano, controlled by power-hungry corporations and unseen men.

But this is also very much a series about Noah and Sadie – all that they have lost, and what they are wading into by joining BZRK. Yes, there are hints of a budding romance on the battlefield, but it’s also their respective histories of family tragedy and grief that make these two such compelling characters.

And as much as Noah and Sadie are wonderful protagonists – I’m also a fan of the villains. Conjoined twins, the Armstrong’s, are like something out of a David Lynch movie. And Anthony (‘Bug Man’) is the scariest type of sociopath because there’s so much truth in his origin – recruited by the Armstrong Corporation for his mad gaming skills, he’s now a teenager with the world, literally, at his fingertips.

Michael Grant’s ‘BZRK’ is an ALA Popular Paperback for Young Adults, but most importantly it was shortlisted for the Centre for Youth Literature Inky Awards. Here is a creepy-fantastic novel that takes a look at the current world warfare raging in the nano – based around nanorobotics and being perfected by young people with gaming dexterity. This is a cross-genre gem that will creep out the young and old, and is a must-read for anyone who enjoys a good spine-tingle with heavy doses of uneasy reality.

5/5

Friday, November 16, 2012

Interview with Courtney Summers, author of 'This is Not a Test'


Last month I read a truly spectacular book.

It scared me. It made me cry. I wanted the protagonist to survive, even when she wanted to die.


That book was Courtney Summers’s ‘This is Not a Test’; and it was one of those rare instances where, the second my eyes lifted from the last line of the last page, I wanted to speak to the author. It was almost like a compulsion, an itch and a wish rolled into one – I just really, really, really wanted to ask her questions about this book which so affected me.


I felt very lucky when Ms Summers agreed to this little interview. It reminded me that I have, quite possibly, the coolest hobby on earth – how many other people can say that they speak directly to the creators of their obsessions? 


I owe a big thanks to Courtney Summers, who let me unleash my manic fan-girl questions on her inbox to share with you. Enjoy!


P.S. – a very big THANK YOU to Adele Walsh (alias: Persnickety Snark) who told me to: “Read this book. Trust me.” And I did and was rewarded. 

 
Q: How were you first published, agent or slush pile?

Agent!  She submitted my book to publishers.  But she found me through her query slush!  I queried her (but only after I did my research and made sure we might be a fit) without any connections at all.  I just had to cross fingers that Cracked Up to Be was right for her and luckily, it was!

 
Q: How long did it take you to write ‘This is Not a Test’, from first idea to final manuscript?

I've always wante to write a zombie book, but I didn't really settle down and try it until after I finished Fall for Anything.  I think it took about... maybe ten or eleven months from idea to final manuscript.  It's all a blur to me now.


Q: Are you a plotter or a ‘pantser’? – That is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?

It depends on the book!  I was more of a pantser when I started writing novels (I wrote three others before Cracked Up to Be), but gradually, from Some Girls Are on, I've become more and more of an outliner.  Without an outline I flounder too much and I end up wasting a lot of time.  I envy people that can write without outlining, though.  Outlining is not a whole lot of fun for me, even though it's part of my process.  It's a necessary evil.


Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?

That also depends on the book.  With Cracked Up to Be, it was character--Parker's voice was very clear to me.  With Some Girls Are, probably theme--I wanted to write about girl bullies.  The rest of the books have been so close between plot and character that it's tough to call.  


Q: Why do you choose to write young adult fiction? What is it about this genre that you love?

It just seems to be the way my stories come out, but that's not surprising to me because it's the genre I most love to read.  There's something about the immediacy of it that captures me as both a reader and a writer.  That's my favourite thing about it.  Just how sharp and immediate the narratives often are.
         

Q: I was calling ‘This is Not a Test’ a “a horror story within a horror story” – because it could have been a chilling contemporary story about abuse, but turning it into a zombie novel elevated the issues and seemed to heighten the emotions of our already damaged protagonist, Sloane Price. I wonder – was ‘This is Not a Test’ always going to be a zombie novel? How hard was it to simultaneously write about slathering undead and a girl’s suicidal fragility?

I love that description of it!  This is Not a Test was going to be a zombie novel and Sloane's personal story was there from the first page, becoming  more and more pronounced with each draft.  I didn't have as hard a time balancing zombies and Sloane's emotional issues as I thought I would.  That's not to say it was easy, it was a gradual process, but I'm used to writing books that are emotionally heavy.  But even as I say this, TINAT was still one of the hardest books I've written.  That particular balance didn't get me so much as worrying about how people would receive my first zombie book!

 
Q: You write such hard-hitting YA fiction. Whether it be contemporary or with a paranormal spin – you really put your characters through the ringer, exploring deep and dark issues. But I would say your books have a moral backbone (minus any preaching) and there are lessons to be learned through what your characters experience and overcome. I particularly thought this of your novel ‘Cracked Up To Be’. Are you very aware of not ‘talking down’ to your teen readers – and how is it as a writer to put these characters you created through such intense, awful situations?

Thank you!   When I write, my only objective is to be true to my characters and the story I'm telling, no matter what.  I feel I have to forget the audience and myself to do that and I think that prevents me from using my characters to talk down to my readers.  It's also important to me that readers take from my books whatever messages they want, and I don't want my Author Voice to intrude on that or deny them that experience.

From a writing stand-point, I like putting my characters through intense, awful situations--as bad as that sounds--because conflict often drives a story forward.  BUT.  I do take writing those situations very seriously and some scenes are harder than others.


Q: With regards to your aforementioned dark and hard-hitting YA novels – have you met resistance from ‘gate keepers’ like teachers & librarians? People who perhaps wouldn’t like to believe that what you’re writing about is a lot closer to the teen experience than they’d like to believe?

Teachers and librarians have been so supportive of my books!  I've heard such encouraging things from them for my last four releases and I'm grateful.  I havegotten comments from some adult readers who say they can't believe teens live the kinds of lives I write about but I think it's more they don't want to believe it. But the gate keepers have expressed quite the opposite view and have been wonderful advocates of my books.  (Thank you, gate keepers!)


Q: Is it hard for you to let go of characters once a book is finished? Do they still ‘speak’ to you, long after the book has hit shelves? Have you ever had the urge to write a sequel for one of your novels?

I am SO done with my characters when I finish a book, hah!  And I think my characters are MORE than done with me, after all the things I put them through. :)  But give us both a little distance, and sometimes I entertain the idea of sequels.  They speak to me a little.  They are a pretty unlikely possibility though, as new ideas always call to me in a much louder voice.  :)
         
 
Q: Your next novel (due out in 2013) is called ‘All the Rage’ – and you completely hooked me, because the Goodreads description likens it to ‘Veronica Mars’ and ‘Brick’ – one of my favourite TV shows, and movies ever. Can you tell us a little bit more about this book?

It's a psychological thriller and it's about a girl who blackmails a wealthy classmate and wakes up on the road the next day with no money and no memory of the night before.  It's still in edits and it's constantly evolving with each round (maybe more Veronica Mars than Brick now) but I am really excited about it.  It's a bit vicious!
         

Q: Favourite book(s) of all time

I am going to say The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.  So brutal.  So hard-hitting.


Q: Favourite author(s)?

Oh, so many!  Joey Comeau, Robert Cormier, Lucy Christopher, Gillian Flynn, Emily Hainsworth, Stephen King, Melina Marchetta, C.K. Kelly Martin, Blake Nelson, Tiffany Schmidt, Nova Ren Suma, Rachel Vincent, Daisy Whitney and Sara Zarr to name a few...
        

Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?

To read and write as much as possible.  There is no better way to hone your craft.  And be persistent and don't be easily discouraged!  Publishing is a tough business, and you WILL get rejected a lot, but fiction is subjective.  Believe in your work and keep sending it out there.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

‘Ask the Passengers’ by A.S. King


From the BLURB:

Astrid Jones copes with her small town's gossip and narrow-mindedness by staring at the sky and imagining that she's sending love to the passengers in the airplanes flying high over her backyard. Maybe they'll know what to do with it. Maybe it'll make them happy. Maybe they'll need it. Her mother doesn't want it, her father's always stoned, her perfect sister's too busy trying to fit in, and the people in her small town would never allow her to love the person she really wants to: another girl named Dee.

There's no one Astrid feels she can talk to about this deep secret or the profound questions that she's trying to answer. But little does she know just how much sending her love--and asking the right questions--will affect the passengers' lives, and her own, for the better.

Here is what they say about Astrid Jones and her family in their small-town of Unity Valley:

•    Their mother hardly ever leaves the house. But she’s stuck-up, and thinks she’s above it all for keeping her fancy New York job.
•    The dad is a stoner – if he’s not making birdhouses, he’s taking a toke in the shed.
•    Youngest daughter, Ellis, is a mean hockey player. She fits right in here, a real small-town girl.
•    That Astrid Jones is a weird one – don’t know how she came to be friends with the nice Homecoming couple, Kristina and Justin. Did you know she really enjoyed her philosophy class (but hates Zeno of Elea)? Did you know she lies down on a picnic table in their backyard? Just lies there, for hours, staring at nothing.

But if people in Unity Valley knew the truth about a life in motion and how growing up is already a kaleidoscope of confusing without sexuality being thrown into the mix… they’d probably say something like this:

•    That mother has never loved her eldest daughter. She only has ‘mummy and me’ days with the younger sister, Ellis. Truth is, she doesn’t much care for her daughter, Astrid – doesn’t really like her all that much.
•    The dad smokes weed because he still regrets packing his family up and moving them from New York into this small town where the highlight of his year is the great stapler thief at work.
•    Ellis cares about what everyone thinks. Everyone. And she doesn’t appreciate other people’s assumptions that all hockey players are lesbians (even if she knows of at least two on her team and a rival school’s). Gross. Can’t they go off and have their lesbian luncheons somewhere else?
•    Astrid Jones might be a lesbian. Maybe. Possibly. In all likelihood. Because she loves kissing her co-worker, Dee Roberts, even if she’s not yet ready to say ‘Abracadabra’ and get hotter and heavier with her. But Astrid doesn’t want to come out. Because she’s seen Kristina and Justin intricately hide their respective boyfriend and girlfriend for two years now – and she can just imagine what Unity Valley would say if they knew how different she really was.

‘Ask the Passengers’ is the new novel from Printz honour author, A.S. King.

This novel has only been out as of October 23, but it’s already made the Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2012 list. And I’m inclined to think that that’s just the beginning… because, as usual, A.S. King is a unique force unto herself and ‘Ask the Passengers’ is truly spectacular for being a quirky, but relatable story, about a girl struggling to find herself.

First of all, it should be noted that there aren’t enough LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) young adult books out there. As the Young Adult Library Service Association’s blog pointed out recently, “There are 55 queer YA novels being published in in 2012, meaning that queer YA is just 1.6% of all YA coming out this year.” That’s pretty blood atrocious. Especially when you think that one of the main reasons anybody reads is to see a little of themselves reflected on the page – to connect to something in a character that they can relate to, struggle through or learn from. It’s awful to think that LGBT teens don’t have as many book offered to them with characters that reflect their experience or speak to them on an emotional/romantic level. So that’s one reason why A.S. King’s new novel ‘Ask the Passengers’ is so refreshing and important – merely for being apart of that 1.6%

I love A.S. King. I think she’s one of the most important YA authors to have emerged in the last ten years or so. I never read a King novel and say “she reminds me of…” No. A.S. King doesn’t remind me of anyone but herself – sure, I can see her influences include Kurt Vonnegut but when I crack open an A.S. King novel I always find something wholly original and crazy/beautiful, and come away truly believing that I’ve just read a little piece of her manic soul on the page. You know that old quote: “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed”? I really, truly believe that of A.S. King because with all her novels it feels like she’s opening wounds and serving up her characters in their raw, bloodiest form. And it also feels like she’s slicing open a little part of the reader – opening up a window in us to look through and connect with her characters on the page, and herself by extension. And she does it again with Astrid Jones and ‘Ask the Passengers’.

Astrid is in many ways your typical teenage girl. She hates trigonometry (triangles – it’s all triangles!), isn’t as cool as her best friend Kristina, had a messy break-up with her ex-boyfriend, thinks her younger sister is the ‘favourite’ and hasn’t had a memorable conversation with her mother since she moved the family to Unity Valley from New York when Astrid was nine. But in many ways not easily seen on the surface, Astrid is trying to cope with being a big-minded girl in a small-town. She’s keeping Kristina and Justin’s homosexuality a secret. She knows her dad is stoned 99% of the time. She thinks her mum is borderline agoraphobic, and that her sister, Ellis, is small-mindedly homophobic. This is particularly troubling since Astrid has recently started kissing her co-worker, Dee Roberts, and liking it. A lot.

Something I love about King’s exploration of Astrid’s sexuality in this novel is that she asks the taboo questions and explores all aspects of wondering what it means to be kinda-sorta-maybe-possibly gay;

But now all I can think about is Dee and how this all started. How she told me how gorgeous I was. How flattered I felt. How exhilarating it was to be wanted. This is why I doubt. It’s the loophole. It’s the question no one ever wants to ask.
Am I doing this out of desperation? Is it some weird phase I’m going through? And why, if any of the answers are yes, does it feel so right?
There is a 747 high, leaving a crisp white line through the cloudless autumn sky. I ask the passengers: Am I really gay?
But they don’t answer me. They are reading their in-flight magazines and sipping ginger ale. I send them love – as much as I can gather. I ask them: What do I do now?

I think this is distilled particularly brilliantly in an exchange between Astrid and her mum – when her mum says “you’re either born gay or you’re not.” Which is the very accepting notion that ‘gayness’ isn’t a choice, it’s who you are. But that doesn’t leave much wriggle-room for Astrid to explore how she feels – about Dee, about girls, about dancing at the only gay bar in town, Atlantis.

Of course, this is Unity Valley and King can’t go past making a mockery of that name. She pulls some really weighty ideas into this novel without ever preaching to the reader. I was particularly chilled by a scene in Astrid’s humanities class; they’re learning about the holocaust and the Jews, Gypsies, black, cripples, and homosexuals who were killed. Of that list – a boy pipes up to say the Nazi’s “got it right” about the homosexuals. Amazing, isn’t it? All these prejudices we’ve conquered (but not entirely eradicated) often after bloody battles and hard-won freedom rights. But same-sex marriage still isn’t recognized and homosexuality is still a crime in some parts of the world – and if some people had their way, it would be illegal in some small-minded towns of America too. How far have we come, really?

I think if we kept a calendar of who gets called gay in high school, there would be a new person on every single day of the 180-day school year. Gay, dyke, fag, lesbo, homo, whatever. Every single one of us has heard it somewhere along the ride. It’s more common than the flu. More contagious, too. Nobody gossips about whether you have the flu or not.

King’s key to dealing with these rather heavy topics is Astrid. She’s a wonderful protagonist – both snarky, clever, thoughtful and lost. She’s pitch-perfect in every way, and we’re able to navigate the rather awful torrential waters of high school bullying only because we have Astrid’s sarcastic defences and thoughtful contemplation to help us through. It also helps that this isn’t a strictly LGBT-only book. King draws in a plethora of issues – like a not so great best friend who thinks she has more to lose than Astrid, a distant mother, determinedly ignorant father and Astrid missing the sisterly bond she and Ellis used to have. Yes, this is as an LGBT book – but King doesn’t write one-dimensional characters or issues. She’s pulling in stories about struggling friendships and a choking home life. Also refreshing in a LGBT novel is the added discussion of sexual pressure – when Astrid’s more experienced girlfriend is desperate to get hot n’ heavy but Astrid isn’t quite ready yet.

This being an aforementioned wholly original A.S. King novel, I guess some people would like to know right away what the ‘quirk’ is. In ‘Please Ignore Vera Dietz’ our protagonist was haunted by paper cut outs of her dead best friend, and her father provided helpful flow-charts for the reader to follow. In ‘Everybody Sees the Ants’ our young Lucky Linderman blurs reality as he dreams of saving his POW grandfather from the jungles of Laos. In ‘Ask the Passengers’ Astrid has a habit of laying on a picnic table and sending her love up to the airplane passengers flying overhead – and in small vignettes we read the repercussions of all that love. Oh, and she’s taken to speaking to an imaginary friend who is actually (Frank) Socrates – the classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Yes, it’s trademark King quirky. And I know some people think they don’t “get” these little asides that King writes so beautifully and mesmerizingly. But there’s really nothing to “get”. Life is crazy, A.S. King’s characters just so happen to sometimes manifest that craziness.

I loved everything about ‘Ask the Passengers’. I always love King’s quirky-cool stories in which she offers her heart on the page. Astrid’s story is particularly important for being part of the 1.6% of LGBT young adult fiction to come out of 2012 – but that statistic aside, ‘Ask the Passengers’ is just a damn good story about struggling with small-town minds when you’re a burgeoning philosopher.

5/5

Sunday, November 11, 2012

‘Lost At Sea’ graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley

From the BLURB:

Raleigh doesn't have a soul. A cat stole it - or at least that's what she tells people - or at least that's what she would tell people if she told people anything. But that would mean talking to people, and the mere thought of social interaction is terrifying. How did such a shy teenage girl end up in a car with three of her hooligan classmates on a cross-country road trip? Being forced to interact with kids her own age is a new and alarming proposition for Raleigh, but maybe it's just what she needs - or maybe it can help her find what she needs - or maybe it can help her to realize that what she needs has been with her all along.


The first thing you should know about eighteen-year-old Raleigh is that she doesn’t have a soul.


She might have had one once, back in the day of diapers and innocence, but she lost it somewhere along the way. She can’t quite remember where.


Raleigh gets by being soulless; kind of. But it’s during a cross-country road trip with three of her classmates that Raleigh feels the acute loss. She doesn’t do so well with people and socializing; and an accidental road trip, California to Canada, with Steph, Dave and Ian is highlighting all that’s wrong with her.


Then there’s the reason she was in California in the first place. Him. But she doesn’t want to talk about Him. Not yet. Maybe not ever.


For right now Raleigh is content to sit in the backseat and let the world go by.


‘Lost At Sea’ is a graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley and first published in 2003 by Oni Press. It was republished in 2005.


I’m getting into graphic novels in a big way. Having recently read the brilliant ‘Saga’ by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, which is probably at the extreme-end of the graphic spectrum, I wanted something a little different. I actually wanted something that was a YA-equivalent . . . so I stumbled across ‘Lost At Sea’ by O’Malley (who found fame for his ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ series) and I am now more even more enamoured of the graphic format.


‘Lost At Sea’ is a strange little novel about loneliness and teenageness. We meet Raleigh in the backseat of a car – sitting beside loud girl Steph (who sternly tells her she only has guy friends), and looking at the backs of Ian and Dave’s heads. She vaguely knows these kids from school, but it was an accidental phone-call and the coincidence of them all being in California at the same time that landed her in the backseat.


Raleigh feels weird sitting amongst this tight-knit three-ringed friendship. Ian and Dave are both cute and cool; Dave nursing a broken-heart with cigarette smoke and Ian way too tightly-wound but with an endearing sense of humour. Steph wears flowers in her hair and her voice is constantly set to BELLOWS – she jumps on beds and hates Elvis. Seeing these three so close and so connected, Raleigh becomes hyper-aware of all that’s wrong with her. For one thing; she has no soul. For another; she thinks a cat stole it when she was younger.


O’Malley’s novel is a beautifully strange concoction that has many moments that beg you to suspend disbelief . . . but it is, overwhelmingly, an ode to being young and feeling completely, hopelessly and uselessly ‘Lost At Sea’.


True, this is a bit of an oddball novel (from Raleigh’s soulless state, to her believing cats hold the key) – but the strangeness is part of the beauty when these three relative strangers agree to help her hunt for what’s missing. And isn’t that such a wonderful way to start a friendship? On the basis that someone might be a little bit crazy, but offering to help them anyway.


5/5

Friday, November 9, 2012

'Winter' by John Marsden


From the BLURB:

For twelve years Winter has been haunted. Her past, her memories, her feelings, will not leave her alone. And now, at sixteen, the time has come for her to act. She must head back to her old home, where a pair of family tragedies forever altered her life. What she discovers is powerful and shocking -- but must be dealt with in order for life to go on.

Winter was four years old when her mother and father died; drowned in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. Now sixteen, Winter is coming home to Warriewood – it’s the first time she’s been back since becoming a ward of the state, cared for by her parent’s trust-fund and waiting to inherit the property when she turns eighteen. 

In the meantime Warriewood is being managed by Ralph and Sylvia – a couple Winter doesn’t entirely trust, who have let her old homestead go to ruin while they suck the Warriewood property dry. 

But upon her return home, Winter finds that the past is not quite ready to be put to rest. She has questions; about her mother’s death, the distant relatives she never knew she had and the shadowy memories that come flooding back. 

‘Winter’ was the 2000 stand-alone novel from one of Australia’s most beloved young adult writers, John Marsden.

I've been feeling a bit nostalgic for the young adult novels of my actual young adulthood. I’m from a very lucky generation who grew up with the YA genre, so was never lacking in reading options throughout my teenage years. And as an Australian, I really had a superior reading list to choose from – among the first YA novels I read were those by Melina Marchetta, Nick Earls, Margo Lanagan, Jaclyn Moriarty and the wonderful John Marsden. It’s a testament to these fine Australian young adult writers that they’ve stood the test of time (teen-time, no less!) and are still widely read and published today. And being that I’m a complete bibliophile, I don’t throw books away – ever. So I have a few ‘vintage’ Aussie YA novels, if you will. I was perusing my bookcase and John Marsden’s ‘Winter’ stood out for me. 

I remember reading ‘Winter’ when I was younger (about 12 or so) but the story was hazy for me. Whereas other Marsden books stick out prominently in my mind (‘Checkers’, in particular for that ohmygod curveball ending) ‘Winter’ was bringing up a bit of a blank, beyond remembering that I really loved it. So I thought it warranted a revisit and, honestly, I so enjoyed re-reading that I think I might have to do more retro re-reads of my favourite early YA books.

The book opens with a prickly introduction to Winter De Salis, as we meet her returning home after twelve years away. Winter is rude and combative to Sylvia and Ralph, the seemingly nice caretakers of her parent’s old estate. By her own admission, Winter doesn’t do well with impulse or anger control and we see that in the first few chapters. It’s an interesting introduction which instantly puts readers on the back-foot, thinking this is a nasty young woman with a chip on her shoulders. But, that’s part of the beauty of this novel in which nothing is as it seems.

As the story unravels we learn of Winter’s tragic past – an orphan by the age of four, living in boarding schools and waiting for the day she turns eighteen and can become her own woman and accept full responsibility for Warriewood. In the meantime, and at the age of sixteen, Winter is coming home to put persistent demons to rest – to know what really happened to her mother, and to confront the dark, unfocused memories of her childhood;
 

I didn’t want to look any more, didn’t want to see the terrible sight. I ran and ran and ran, down the long tormenting white drive of my memory, down the long black bitumen road of terror, and at last, as I reached Warriewood, between the stone gateposts of my childhood. 

It’s only when Winter starts opening herself up to the past that she starts accepting the future and living in the present. She does so by crushing on Warriewood neighbour, Matthew Kennedy, and befriending local girl Jessica McGill.

‘Winter’ is a quiet novel, as many of Marsden’s books tend to be. Marsden really does excel at lulling readers, and writing sleight of hands that distract us from the monumental wallop we’re going to be dealt before the final page. This is also true of ‘Winter’, which has a dark climax and explanation for Winter’s haunting memories. That’s part of the beauty of a Marsden novel – he sneaks up on the reader and leaves you with big questions to mull over once all is said and done. I especially like that he does leave the reader with questions – he’s not a fan of writing definitive answers or wringing out character’s responses. Part of the fun and gravity is that he leaves readers to make up their own minds and decide what they’d do if put into a similar situation. 

Again, as with most Marsden novels, ‘Winter’ is relatively short – a mere 135 pages. He doesn’t need much more than that though; Marsden always starts stories from the meatiest part – in ‘Winter’ he certainly could have started earlier, even with a prologue of Winter’s four-year-old self. But there’s something very satisfying about a book that starts at the highest point of action, when all the balls are in the air for the character and readers meet them at the most important moment of their lives.

‘Winter’ was as satisfying a read the second time round as it was the first. Thankfully for me, I forgot the sneaky curveball denouement and was given the opportunity to read the jaw-drop all over again. This book reminds me why Marsden is one of the Aussie greats, and makes me thankful that I had such a good young adult reading foundation growing up. 


5/5

'Alien vs Alien' ARC winner!



Congrats to Gisele, who has won an advance copy of Gini Koch's amazing 'Alien vs. Alien'. Gisele answered the question of 'Which two famous aliens would you like to see battle it out?' with 'Daemon vr. Devon!'

Congrats, and a big THANK YOU to all who entered, and Gini Koch for supplying the ARC. 

For those who didn't win, don't fret - Kitty and Martini will be landing on December 4!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Interview with Rachel Caine, author of the 'Morganville Vampires' series

 

I am such a huge Rachel Caine fan. I loved battling storms and Dijn with Joanne Baldwin, gained some human perspective with Cassiel and most recently I've been enjoying the resurrection racket with Bryn Davis. But it's Caine's 'Morganville Vampires' series, and the awesome-foursome of Claire, Shane, Michael and Eve who I have a real soft spot for. 

I can't believe 'Morganville Vampires' is now into its 13th book, with the latest offering of 'Bitter Blood' setting up some very interesting curve balls for the Glass House residents.

I was actually lucky enough to catch up with Ms Caine last year, for a lovely breakfast (courtesy of Penguin Books Australia!) and I had a wonderful time picking her brain... so I couldn't pass up a second opportunity to find out the latest goss about one of my favourite authors!
If you would also like the opportunity to meet Ms Caine - check out her Aussie tour dates!
 

Q: I understand that ‘Morganville Vampires’ will be ending with a whopping 15 books in the series – with the very last book, 'Fall of Night', to be released November next year. Have you started writing that book yet? Have you observed any writerly rituals to say goodbye to these characters that you first wrote into existence back in 2006?

Actually, FALL OF NIGHT will be the next-to-last book, released in May 2013 ... we haven't yet finalized the title for #15, but I'm leaning toward DAYLIGHTERS. I haven't started Book 15 yet, although I have done the outline -- I'm just finishing up FALL OF NIGHT at this time. (My publishing turnarounds are much faster than normal on deadlines, so Book 15 will be written after the first of the year.)


But when I get there, and start writing it, I think the reality will definitely set in. It certainly did when I finished the last book of the Weather Warden series in Urban Fantasy ... the reality that 9 years of living with those characters had come to an end. It's very much like moving neighborhoods ... you know you'll settle in, make new friends, but you always feel nostalgic for those you left behind.


As to rituals, I suspect that finishing Book 15 will be followed by an actual vacation -- the first I've taken in nearly 20 years. And I'll probably hoist a glass of ale to the road behind me, and the road still ahead.



Q: ‘Morganville Vampires’ was really your first foray into YA. Do you think you’ll ever revisit the young adult genre with a new series or stand-alone?

Absolutely! I've already finished a stand-alone novel called PRINCE OF SHADOWS -- you'll hear more about that as we get closer to 2014 when it's scheduled for release, but it's about Romeo and Juliet. I also have a new series, unrelated to anything else, that I'm putting down in the planning stages right now. So definitely there's more to come!


Q: ‘Morganville Vampires’ has come such a long way and taken so many twists and turns. Fans read the awesome foursome survive Bishop, the draug and Ada – we’ve seen good characters turn bad, humans turn vampire and we’ve had to say goodbye to a beloved few (Sam! *sniffle*). I wonder if you’re a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’ – that is, do you plot your books meticulously or fly by the seat of your pants? And was there ever a time when fan influence had sway over the story (I know that many fans pushed for a Myrnin/Claire romance – and in recent books you have broached the subject…) furthermore, was there ever a time when you were really surprised by the direction the series took?

I definitely started my career as a pantser -- seat of the pants, going without a map. I wrote about ten books that way before I started publishing often enough that having that roadmap was essential -- not just for my sanity, but for business reasons for the publisher, who needed to design covers, write ads and copy, sell the book ahead into stores ... it isn't all about the book itself. So I was forced to try to find a compromise between the two. Now, I have a general outline of events, and then I find room to "pants" my way around and through them!


Hmmm, fan influence ... I try not to let anyone else's ideas influence what I do, but I had always intended for Myrnin to have a bit of a fatal fascination for Claire, and for him to be equally fascinated by her. It isn't a romance, per se ... in Myrnin's mind it probably comes closer, but it's really mostly deep admiration and trust. He's the world's worst candidate (well, next to a draug, probably) for boyfriend, because as sweet and fantastic as he can be, and as loyal as he is, he's also unpredictable and has a history of killing those he loves when he's out of control. This is not what you want in a sweetheart.



Q: In the last few ‘Morganville Vampires’ books you’ve started writing perspectives beyond just Claire’s. I, personally, have loved Shane’s insight – it’s really been a way to mark his growth from the angry young man in ‘Glass Houses’, to someone with a lot to lose (and fight for!) in ‘Bitter Blood’. What gave you the idea to offer up more perspectives in the latter-half of the series? And who have you most enjoyed writing for?

It started in BITE CLUB because there was no way I could pull off the plot without people understanding what was in Shane's head. I tried -- I wrote it all from Claire's perspective. But Shane came off horribly, and there seemed no way to make it work without more explaining than I was comfortable with doing. So ... I switched to Shane's perspective.


But once I'd done that, I realized that it really opened things up for the events that were coming with the draug, so I kept going, opening up the world more and more.


This continues in BITTER BLOOD, because (again) of the necessity to have other characters carry plot points. And you'll see it to a smaller extent in FALL OF NIGHT.



Q: In 13 books so far – what has been the hardest scene you’ve had to write, and what made writing it so difficult?

The toughest scenes are always the ones that you don't expect. I have no problem with action scenes ... once things are moving and the plot is charging along, the writing goes extremely fast.


It's the beginning of the book that is the toughest for me, every time -- getting established back in the world, allowing the characters to find their feet before the plot sweeps it all away. The structure and order is necessary as a contrast to the chaos that's to come, but it also can be challenging to write.


I also had to be careful of the big love scene between Claire and Shane in CARPE CORPUS, because I wanted it to feel real, sweet, exciting, awkward ... all the things that it would be in real life. It had to be more realistic than romantic, in my mind, and I probably rewrote that scene five or six times to get it right.


Q: ‘Fall of Night’ is your next book in the ‘Morganville Vampires’ series, and it’s the one before the big finale. Can you give us any clues about what we can expect from book #14?

It's WAY out of the Morganville box, as I mentioned before ... big changes for characters not only in geography, but internally as well. This is a pivotal book for Claire learning what she really wants and who she really is ... I strongly felt that Claire needed to become her own person and face some issues without the protection of the Glass House gang (at least initially), so this is what came out of that. It's a shock to her to find out that when you leave someone behind (her former best friend Elizabeth) the person they are when you see them again isn't the same ... and it can be dangerous to underestimate how much someone can change. We'll meet some new characters who'll play important roles in Book 15 as well.



Q: Are you aware of the many, many, many, many Morganville ‘mock trailer’ videos there are on YouTube? What do you think about fan’s fantasy casting (particularly the persistently popular Jared Padalecki as Shane?)

I think the mock trailers are GREAT! Honestly, the creativity of my readers just blows me away ... I saw one the other day that looked like an actual movie trailer, and it would've fooled me if I hadn't known better.


The casting is always fun, but in practical terms, Jared's done playing teens, and he wouldn't be convincing anymore as Shane at 18. I love him, and he's absolutely the right type, but I look at the type, not the actor. Because who's available and the right age when (IF) something comes about is usually completely different than your dream cast.


Q: Something I love about ‘Morganville Vampires’ is that you take what is, essentially, a sociological idea of a vampire-run town and turn it into something rather magnificent that fits beautifully into the vampire mythology. I think you did it again with your new ‘Revivalist’ series – which I read as delving into the world of big Pharma and corporate takeover – which fits very cleverly into a modern zombie mythology. Where did you first get the idea for the ‘Revivalist’ series, and what made you want to explore zombies?

Thanks! As you probably know from the news, the USA faces unusual issues in regard to health care -- we're a wealthy nation, and we have some great hospitals and doctors, but we also have traditionally not had the kind of healthcare safety nets other countries do. Our insurance has always been employer-based, with some private insurance available for purchase. Other than that, there is "charity healthcare" where you can be treated as a charity patient if you meet certain very strict income levels.


For many entrepreneurs (like me!) the struggle to get health insurance is a nightmare. I am a successful writer by any standards, and by small business standards especially ... yet the insurance companies will not insure me for any price, because I am not employed by someone else, and I have had health issues in the past. They have the ability to reject me for coverage, and do.


Living in that world, where no matter how much money you may be fortunate enough to have in the bank just means you're six months away from homeless if you have a car accident, serious illness, etc. -- it made me think about how much we're controlled by the very companies that save us. Our employers ... the insurance companies ... and the drug companies. Many people exist just a day or two away from death if they can't afford their medication.


I just held a science fiction mirror up to a real situation.


Q: On that note – what other supernatural creatures would you like to write about? Werewolves and witches perhaps?

I honestly don't know yet. I'm still letting things form in my mind! But I don't think it will be anything too easy to guess :)



Q: Can you give us any clues about the latest ‘Revivalist’ book?

In book 2, TWO WEEKS' NOTICE (you may have figured out the book titles are all a play on employment-related terms!) Bryn will have to face some deadly secrets about who's really behind the impending zombie war, and why ... and deal with her boyfriend Patrick's former relationship with Jane, who in many ways was Bryn 1.0: an original test subject for the nanites, with the unfortunate complication that it made her into a psychotic killer. Is it coming for Bryn, too? And is there any cure to death itself?



Q: I was such a HUGE fan of your ‘Weather Warden’ and ‘Outcast Season’ series. I think Jo & Co. got such an epic, befitting ending and I loved both ‘Total Eclipse’ and ‘Unbroken’. Have we most definitely read the last of the ‘Weather Warden’ universe and the Djinn? And how hard was it for you to say goodbye to those characters who you’d been writing for since 2003? Do they still occasionally ‘speak’ to you, even though their series’ are over for now?

Awww, thank you! I truly cried when I ended the cycle of those stories ... I tried to make it as big and epic an ending as I possibly could, because I felt that they were larger than life themselves, and deserved all I could do. It's a super fun universe, and I definitely will go back to it (possibly for novellas or e-releases) but I'm letting my brain cool off a bit before I jump back in. :) This is my first year without a Weather Warden book in, eep, more than 10 years if I count the time I spent writing ILL WIND! And yes, they definitely do speak to me ... especially as the powerful storms are lashing us in the USA. I think we might need the Wardens now more than ever!


Thank you for the chance to chat -- I'm really looking forward to seeing everyone at SupaNova in Brisbane and Adelaide, and at the upcoming signings in Sydney and Melbourne!!