Book Review: The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, by Lauren James

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_loneliest_girl_in_the_universeRomy Silvers finds herself alone in space on a journey to populate Earth II with a cargo of frozen embryos. When transmissions from Earth are interrupted with overtones of war, she becomes afraid for her own future. Just when things seem dire, help arrives in the form of another ship from Earth under the control of “J”.

This is an exciting tale of hope and despair. Romy fills in the background, but also the questions which begin to puzzle her about her mysterious rescuer. Is everything as simple as it seems?

Dystopia books are very popular at my school. This generation feels the danger of climate change, racial dischord and terrorism acutely. Creating fiction from this very real setting, captures the imagination of many young adults.

Lauren James is a 25-year-old British YA writer. Her science background is evident in the detail included in this title. It is a gripping read, with a twist: but my lips are sealed.

I already have takers for my copy of the Loneliest Girl in the Universe.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe
by Lauren James
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406375473

Book Review: The Fireman, by Joe Hill

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_firemanThe world is in the grip of a deadly pandemic. A highly contagious bacteria is spreading across the planet, infecting millions of people in its wake. Draco Incendia Trychophyton, or “Dragonscale” as people have taken to calling it, marks out its victims with beautiful decorative black and gold markings across their skin – and a propensity to burst into flame. And America is burning. Cities have been destroyed, millions have died. The sick are being hunted and executed by the healthy, led by The Marlboro Man and his Cremation Crew.

Harper is a nurse. Or at least, she was a nurse until her hospital burned down, killing hundreds of infected patients. Now she is herself infected with the disease – and pregnant. On the run for her life, and that of her unborn baby, Harper seeks refuge at a secret commune with fellow Dragonscale sufferers. They think they have found a way to live in harmony with their deadly disease – provided they are able to remain hidden from the quarantine squads. Among the group is the Fireman, an enigmatic madman who has taught himself how to wield his internal fire as a weapon.

I confess I am not a fan of horror or science fiction. This book was well out of my usual comfort zone. However, I was intrigued by the premise – and made all the more curious when I discovered that the author Joe Hill is actually Joe Hillstrom King, son of the legendary Stephen King. I suspected, rightly, that I was in for a good read. Joe has inherited his father’s gift for storytelling.

This is a tense and action-packed book. “How are we supposed to live our lives when every day is September eleventh?” Even when I wasn’t reading it, I felt an ominous sense of dread and anxiety. This is a book that follows you. Even in its bleak moments though, there is levity. I really enjoyed the many pop culture references and subtle jokes: the mentions of voting for Donald Trump, the frequent references to Mary Poppins and Harry Potter, the mentions in passing about the fate of various celebrities infected with Dragonscale (RIP George Clooney). This is a book that spans many genres without fitting neatly into any. It is part science fiction, part horror, part dystopian drama, part romance. In short, something for everyone.

It was no surprise to read in the author’s acknowledgements at the conclusion of the book that he has sold the film rights to the book. This is a story crying out to be on the big screen. The beautiful horror of the Dragonscale etching its victims in a pulsing gold pattern of swirls and curls will be incredible on a movie screen. Read the book before you see the movie.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Fireman
by Joe Hill
Published by Gollancz
ISBN 9780575130722

Book Review: Soundless, by Richelle Mead

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_soundlesI am quite a fan of Richelle Mead – I enjoyed Vampire Academy and (most of) her Bloodlines series. She has a skill for creating strong characters and weaving an elaborate mythical world. Soundless is her latest tale, and unlike the others, it is a stand-alone story set in a dystopic world inspired by Chinese folklore, specifically concerning the pixiu, the winged dragon-lion noted for driving evil away and bringing wealth.

Fei lives in a tiny village, atop a mountain. Her people are trapped there, entirely dependent on a zipline to the village of Beiugo, below. In exchange for food and other resources, they send down precious metals taken from their mine. Her people are trapped, also, in silence. Everyone is deaf, and now some of her people are starting to lose their vision as well. Ironically, as Fei’s sister, Zhang Jing, goes blind, Fei begins to regain her hearing. And then, as productivity from the mine fails, the deliveries from below decline. It is up to Fei, and her childhood sweetheart, Li Wei, to make the dangerous and deadly climb down the mountainside, to face up to the Line-keeper and deliver a plea for help. Unfortunately, what they find is not what they expect, and help is not going to be so easy to come by…

Written like a fable, this tale is short (around 300 pages) and the plot relatively simple, with little to surprise me. Mead has taken on the challenge of describing sound from the perspective of a character not previously exposed to the concept, and done a reasonable job. The chapters are short, often ending with a cliff-hanger (sometimes literally, as they are scaling down the mountainside) to entice me to read just one more. Unfortunately, the characterisation fell a little flat for me – although Fei was admirable in her courage and determination, she did not  have much depth. Her relationship with Li Wei, for all that it was forbidden (for she was an artist, and he a humble miner), was sweet but lacking in the passion and conflict that generally drives along the plot. The Chinese flavour is somewhat subtle, mostly obvious in the names and the presence of the pixiu.

Overall, Soundless is the sort of story that is suited to someone – probably teenagers or tweens – seeking a quick read, or the more reluctant reader. Whilst the plot lacks sophistication, it is intriguing and appealing, keeping the reader engaged. Like many dystopia-type novels, it can suffer from over-analysis by the more critical reader (such as myself). I feel I would have enjoyed it more were it longer, delving deeper into the mythology and culture from which it drew its inspiration.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

by Richelle Mead
Published by Michael Joseph
ISBN 9780143573524

Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival: Chime In! with Anna Smaill

cv_the_chimesWhen I was asked which sessions I wanted to cover for Booksellers NZ, the session that immediately popped out at me was “Chime In!”, a session with Anna Smaill, poet, PhD, trained musician and author of debut novel The Chimes. Part of the reason I was immediately intrigued was because I, too, am a trained musician, and The Chimes was described in the DWRF pamphlet as “set in dystopian future England where reading and writing have been banned and music, rather than words, is the organizing principle of life”.

pp_anna_smaillSo I was excited to see Anna Smaill sit down with Emma Neale to discuss writing, music and everything in between – and I wasn’t disappointed. After briefly introducing Smaill, Neale kicked off by asking Smaill about the risks and rewards of writing a book set in the future, saying “speculative fiction takes all sorts of risks that realist fiction can’t”. According to Smaill, the whole experience was “scary but hugely liberating and enabling” as it turned novel-writing into a constant process of problem-solving – an interesting way to think about writing a novel. She noted that her background in poetry meant that she tended to solve such novelistic problems poetically, or in a symbolic or metaphorical way. This intersection between poetry and novel writing came up later in the session as well; despite feeling liberated by going into prose, Smaill’s poetry impulses still came along for the ride, to the point that she had to curb some of them. It was funny to hear her talk about looking at a paragraph, thinking, ‘Oh, I can say all that in a sentence or two’, then realizing that she was writing a novel and cutting huge chunks out would probably be counterproductive!

The Chimes also interacts with music in an interesting way – the text is interwoven with musical terminology as a kind of urban slang, and one of the features of Smaill’s dystopian world is that the characters experience memory loss when they hear the sound of the carillon, a type of giant chime made up of bells (above). Smaill herself studied performance violin at the University of Canterbury before eventually changing course towards writing; for her there was always “an argument between music and language” and in her case language won out. However it’s clear that music has informed her aesthetics and thought. She drew a comparison between the very human impulse, often seen in classical music, to strive for perfection and thus excise what is messy and flawed, and the ideals of fascism. She further said that there seemed to be a conceit that art can be refined to a point where you don’t have to be involved in humanity. She also noted that in music, it’s very easy to separate body from mind, and to even see the body as getting in the way of expressing oneself creatively to the fullest extent – and that separation was essentially a violent one. This, along with the other musical aspects of The Chimes, intrigued the audience. One audience member asked about the use of musical terminology in the prose (Smaill’s reading of an excerpt from the book included the sentence “He sat back lento [slowly]”). Smaill acknowledged that some readers had found it demanding but that other writers (I could think of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, though she referred to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker) used much more degraded language or were attempting much more challenging linguistic projects than hers.

This absorbing session ended all too quickly, and Smaill’s thoughtful, articulate and often funny answers to Neale’s questions clearly impressed the audience, given the stream of people who bought her book from the University Bookshop counter straight after the session. And yes, I was one of those people. The book and the session both sounded too good for me to leave empty-handed.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus, from the event on Sunday 10 May

Anna Smaill will be talking about The Chimes at an event called ‘Memory Loss‘ at the Auckland Writer’s Festival this coming weekend.

Q & A with Anna Smaill, author of The Chimes

Anna Smaill is the author of The Chimes, a post-apocalyptic novel I reviewed here recently. Smaill has previously published a book of poetry, The Violinist in Spring (VUP, 2005). The Chimes is a wonderful journey through music and emotion, I highly recommend it. We have two copies to give away this week, click through to enter.

My initial feeling when opening this book was ‘wow, a world full of song and music cv_the_chimes– how amazing’. This turns out to be such a bitter double-edged sword. What made you consider using music as saviour and disabler?
I think the seed of the idea probably came from my own relationship with music, which was also double-edged in this way. I love music, but I’ve also had periods of my life when I’ve felt cut off from it, where it has been difficult to play or even listen to it. I’m constantly intrigued by the way music operates on this higher, emotional realm, but also requires the utmost physical dedication, commitment and stamina. Keeping the two in balance seems to me quite an amazing feat for any player. I think when you separate the mind and body there’s a tendency to treat the body as a sort of machine. And in that is the potential for obsessive behaviour, even violence (as anyone who has seen the movie Whiplash can attest). The novel was really a way of pushing this idea further, as a sort of thought experiment.

Can you elaborate on the role of pactrunners, which Simon and Lucien are, in the society of the time?
Pactrunners are groups of young people who scavenge for palladium ore in the underground tunnels in London. They are parentless, highly competitive, and almost tribal – their territory is determined by the old tributaries of the lost London rivers. In the world of the novel, palladium emits a kind of silence – which is what makes it both valuable and risky.

pp_anna_smaillMemory objects strike me as something we all keep, though of course we have our minds intact. It is the type of thing we put into time capsules – a concept I have always enjoyed. Tell me about one of your own memory objects.
Yes, this is exactly what strikes me as well – we all keep a sort of structure to support our memories and identities in the physical possessions we stow around us. I think this is why I find moving house so traumatic! I’m rather drawn to small metal tins, and I do have one battered flaky one (Meggeson’s Universal Antiseptic Pastilles) that has moved with me wherever I’ve relocated. When I was growing up I used to keep it on my desk to store various treasures, and thus it always reminds me of that room, along with attendant teenage intensities, traumas, etc.

In doing a bit of research, I realised that the ravens you use as symbolic to the freedom of England actually exist, and have been kept for centuries. How fascinating! What aspects of the mythology around these ravens have you used in writing the novel?
There’s something so wonderful about the fact that the ravens are still kept at the Tower of London, and I loved reading about the practical details of their existence: one of the beefeaters is a raven master dedicated to their care; they get 6oz of raw meat a day; once one of the ravens was dismissed for poor conduct (apparently he had a taste for television aerials). The ravensguild song I wrote for The Chimes is based on the names of some of the past tower ravens, and in this there was a wonderful intersect with Norse mythology. Huginn (“thought”) and Muninn (“mind”, or “memory”) were the names of Odin’s ravens. In the Poetic Edda, Odin talks about how they fly all over the world, and how he fears for their safe return. That myth is central to the world of the novel.

Tell us more about The Chimes and how they are heard by individuals all over the country. Was there a Carillion in particular that you based the Oxford Carillion on?
The idea for Chimes was influenced by the very real phenomenon of infrasound, and the way certain vibrations can act on the nervous system. It borrowed from the hinterlands of internet discussion about sonic weaponry, and (I suspect) was shaped by my own personal experience of living next to a park in Tokyo from which was broadcast each morning a loud call for group calisthenics. I love that a very telling ‘i’ has sneaked into your spelling of “carillon” there. New Zealanders tend to pronounce it with four syllables, rather than the three it gets in other countries. I think it makes for a more fluid sound to the ear!
My idea for the carillon was not entirely linked to the real-life instrument. It began more as an abstract concept, a hybrid of an organ and a carillon, a sort of platonic ideal of an instrument – too big to imagine or describe. In hindsight, though, my imagining was probably shaped by the Auckland Town Hall organ. I’ve spent quite a few hours in that hall over the years for orchestra rehearsals and concerts, and quite a lot of that time eyeballing the imposing structure of those pipes. There’s something so magnificent about such a massive instrument, the way it utterly dwarfs the player.

What books did you read that influenced your writing of The Chimes?
Probably the biggest influence was Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, a superb novel that takes place in a post-apocalyptic England. Hoban constructed his own degraded version of English, and part of the immersive nature of the book is coming to terms with this language. Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game was another influence, more obviously in terms of the subject matter – it’s about a group of elite scholars who see music as the peak of intellectual endeavour. Reading Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series was also important to me, and I think allowed or encouraged the imaginative leap and the audacity of building a completely new fictional world. A crucial mention is also due to Bill Manhire for his poem ‘After the Movie’, which is haunting, strange and wonderful and set up an odd ringing in my inner ear. For a long time I didn’t realise that the poem was intended to rhyme, which seems very slow of me in retrospect. It was only coming back to Wellington, and hearing the NZ pronounciation of carillon, (see above) that I heard the poem as it was intended. The first stanza goes like this:

A cry comes again from the pavilion.
I was that nurse and that civilian,
I was the song in the carillon.

Thank you Anna, for answering my questions so thoroughly – and thank you to Ruby from Hachette for recommending the book to me for further concentration.

Book Review: The Chimes, by Anna Smaill

cv_the_chimesAvailable now in bookstores nationwide.

This book is a beautiful journey that draws you into a world of song and music: post-dischord London.

We begin the book as our narrator, Simon, leaves his home to travel to London. The narrative drives us ever forwards, as initially, explanation of backstory is beside the point when during Chimes each day, our narrator loses his memory of the day that has just been. All he knows, and this because he is special, is that he has lost something, and come from somewhere that has disappeared into the fog of what came before.

The book uses the language of music to tell this tale. The elite of the society our narrator lives in are virtuoso musicians, the guilds that exist in England are all related to the creation of instruments or the supply of basic services to those who do, and the joy of living is found in the creation of beautiful music. Silence is anathema, and mistrusted. But there are no memories beyond the ‘memory objects’ people carry with them, and bodymemory – memory created through repetition of tasks. This means there are no books – language is not written.

Simon finds his place in London amongst a group of five pactrunners, who run through the underground sewer system to find pieces of Pale. Pale, or The Lady, is Palladium – pure silver used to create the instrument that caused the dischord, distinguishable by the silence surrounding it. He and his fellows are led by Lucien, a blind boy who has a strange power over the group. Lucien uses chords, tones, cadences and phrases to teach the runners where to find Pale, which is traded for tokens to buy food at the markets. But what is the Pale used to do? And what are The Chimes, exactly?

I have seen early reviews that say this book takes awhile to get going, but I disagree. Without this knowledge of how the society works and the place of the key characters within it, you would be running without a tune to follow.

Anna Smaill is a poet, and it is with a poet’s touch that she has crafted each sentence. Her use of musical language does require some knowledge of musical terminology, but that should not dissuade anybody from reading this wonderful dedication to the light and the dark side of cultural mores. The Chimes is also, unexpectedly, a love story, and it is this string of the story that takes precedence at the book’s end. This is a beautiful story, and I want more time in this world.

By Sarah Forster

The Chimes
by Anna Smaill
Published by Sceptre
ISBN 9781444794533

I conducted an email Q&A with Anna Smaill, which will be up in a couple of hours, and feature in The Read, our booksellers’ newsletter.

Book Review: The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon

cv_the_bone_seasonThis book is available in bookstores nationwide. 
The reputation of The Bone Season precedes it. The words ‘The next J.K. Rowling’ has been bandied about, and I guess it depends what you mean by that. Yes, she has been signed to Bloomsbury, Rowling’s publisher for the Harry Potter series, and yes she has been paid a 7-figure sum for the series. But Harry Potter was a great story without necessarily being well-written or compulsive; while this has style and substance. This book is a serious page-turner.

I enjoyed every moment of this book, though it took a bit of concentration to overlook the elements of all of the bestselling book series’ of the past few years. I would have paid her 7-figures for it too, as with power-play, a bit of sexual scintillation, a well-foreshadowed dystopian world, and some very followable characters, it really does have it all.

TScion_acthe Bone Season is in its 20th decade, and this time the transfer of captured clairvoyants from the Tower of London to Oxford includes our heroine, Paige. Paige is unusual in that she runs with a mime-crime gang, who use their talents to undermine the dystopian political conglomerate Scion. Clairvoyants are not free in Scion London, but they can be in Oxford – if they prove their loyalty to the draconian, Netherworld race Rephaim.

You get an inkling of how it is all going to play out from the get-go, as Paige is taken in for training by a Rephaim who hasn’t been known to take a human in previously. It doesn’t matter though, as the twists and turns are well-executed, and the story as a whole sets up the series well. I am looking forward to reading the second one, as I feel like having the set-up out of the way will release Shannon to get further into the plot twists that this series demands.

The potential audience for The Bone Season is huge, from dystopian genre lovers to those who had their reading interest piqued by a certain Mr Grey. I hope everybody picks it up.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Bone Season
by Samantha Shannon
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408836439