If Jonathan Swift Wrote Horror…

 

If  Jonathan Swift wrote horror, he might have written An Other Place. The creation of author Darren Dash,  An Other Place is an offbeat, intelligent, fantasy, in a similar vein to Darren Dash’s previous novel, Sunshine.

At the end of a work trip to Amsterdam, IT troubleshooter Newman Riplan is hijacked by his friends and sent on a surprise holiday to an undisclosed location. Although he catches his flight, Newman does not reach his intended location. Instead, in one of the novel’s most bizarre and chilling sequences, he is transported to an oddly superficial timeless world, known to its residents as the City.

Always a skilled storyteller, Darren Dash is quick to pull the reader into Newman’s dilemma, creating an existence that is both fascinating and yet claustrophobic. Although they seem human, the residents of the City are creepily one-dimensional, their world confined by a lack of borders, of entrances and exits. The reader becomes trapped in the City with Newman, looking for the way out.

Darren Dash is most well known as the YA horror author Darren Shan, and his horror antecedents regularly reveal themselves. An Other Place does not strictly belong to the horror genre, however, and it is aimed at adult readers. The inhabitants of the City are prey to savage attacks from the wild animals who roam freely and from terrifying interludes signaled by the reddening of the moon. An Other Place is a thoughtful novel that does not aim to terrify, but rather to unravel the layers people create to give a sense of meaning to their existence. As with Gulliver, Newman’s experiences in this fantastical world serve as a reflection of his own empty world view, forcing him to reassess his values and question the vapid lifestyle that was on evidence during his trip to Amsterdam. Powerful, imaginative, and occasionally disturbing, An Other Place will linger in the reader’s mind long after the last page is turned.

The Unsung Challenges of Everest: A Review of Matt Dickinson’s North Face

northface

With North Face, Matt Dickinson has produced yet another exciting and intelligent novel for young adults.

The sequel to The Everest Files, North Face continues the story of Ryan, the teenage student who is spending his gap year in the Himalayas. Ryan’s role in the story, although important, is secondary. The central character in this novel is Tashi, a Tibetan girl trying to help her family cope with oppression by a brutal regime. Deprived of their nomadic living, Tashi and her family find a new life assisting trekkers and climbers on the forbidding slopes of Everest. Even still, they are hunted and victimized by the Chinese authorities

Matt Dickinson is a talented writer, who brings to life the harsh environment of the world’s tallest mountain in a manner that is breathtakingly real. Reading North Face, I could almost feel the grinding cold tearing at my extremities, imagine the struggle to breathe the thin air thousands of feet above sea level, and see the figures of other climbers appearing like ghosts through freezing fog.

With both The Everest Files and North Face, the mountain itself, with its hostile environment, serves as a metaphor for the challenges faced by the people who live and work on its slopes, the Sherpas of Nepal in The Everest Files, the Tibetans in North Face. In both novels, Dickinson demonstrates a warm regard and immense respect for these people, whose livelihoods depend on repeatedly risking their lives to help climbers negotiate the terrifying slopes of this deadly mountain.

North Face has an action-packed plot that moves rapidly from one thrilling set piece to another, scenes that include devastating avalanches, exciting rescues, and daunting mountain ascents. But this is also a story about social responsibility, about different kinds of bravery, and about considering the consequences of our actions. North Face is entertaining, informative, and inspiring.

Find out more about Matt Dickinson and The Everest Files here.

How to Be Brave, a Moving & Remarkable Novel by Louise Beech

HowtoBeBrave

It is unusual to come across a novel that so uniquely and successfully transcends genres as Louise Beech’s How to Be Brave. In the present day narrative, a mother and her young daughter struggle to cope after the daughter is diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. In the historical narrative, which takes place during World War II, a group of sailors are lost at sea in a small lifeboat, threatened by sharks, lack of food and water, and a remorseless sun.

Louise Beech makes skillful use of proven literary devices to combine these two plots. The result is a warm-hearted novel about coping with adversity. It demonstrates that everyone has his or her own story and that different kinds of struggle are equally valid. There are some appealing ghostly elements, drawn with a sufficiently subtle hand to avoid overpowering the essential themes.

How to be Brave is a poignant and well-written novel that has, as its theme, the healing power of stories, whether they are true or fictional, and the bonds that exist both between family members and between other people life throws together. The complexity and power of the mother-daughter relationship, which is at the heart of the book, is especially moving.

There are books that we read just to provide a diversion and there are books that add something to our lives. How to Be Brave is one of the latter.

Jihadi: A Love Story – A Superb Debut Novel by Yusuf Toropov

Jihadi: A Love Story

In the interests of full disclosure, I will state upfront that I edited Yusuf Toropov’s Jihadi: A Love Story and cannot be classed as an objective reviewer. Nonetheless, I feel it was an immense honour to play a part in the development of a remarkable, beautifully written first novel, and I am glad to have the opportunity to tell readers about it, now that it has been published by the groundbreaking Orenda Books.

I first encountered Jihadi: A Love Story when I read an excerpt of an earlier draft that had reached the Quarterfinals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. I had been reviewing books a lot at the time and had begun to approach new titles with a feeling of weary trepidation that I am sure is familiar to many beleaguered reviewers in this ebook-inundated era.

Jihadi: A Love Story came as a hard jolt to my lassitude. It is not an easy story. It is, at times, complex and demanding. Some parts are harrowing. But two things grabbed me at that early stage: the quality of the writing, which is quite outstanding, and the intriguing setup. A US intelligence agent, accused of terrorism, is held in a secret prison. The decoding of his memoir is the starting point for a novel that has as its theme the very nature of truth and how it is perceived.

Since I read that first excerpt, the book has evolved, Yusuf Toropov’s prose becoming even stronger and his story, sadly, even more relevant. Our times have changed with the polishing of every sentence, and history’s terrible missteps, those of the last decade in particular, have borne toxic fruit, a reality that is echoed in the pages of this vital, powerful book.

Jihadi: A Love Story is out now as an ebook from Orenda Books and will be available in bookshops from February 2016.

 

Joe Kipling’s Light the Way – On the Crest of the YA Wave

Light the Way

There are times — not often I will admit, because seriously, who wants to be a teenager again?–but there are times when I wish I had been a teenager in the world that teenagers live in today.

Even aside from the almost infinite treasure chest of social interactions, information, and media available online, writers are falling over themselves to produce books aimed at this age group. And they’re not the trite first-date, where’s-my-makeup, Daddy-wouldn’t-buy-a-saddle-for-my-pony nonsense available when I was a teenager. Many of them are enthralling fantasies that recognize that teenagers are all different, that young people on the verge of adulthood can be politically engaged, curious, and insightful.

Joe Kipling’s Blinded by the Light, the first book in a dystopian series set in Britain after a virulent plague, was a case in point: an engaging, well-written novel about a society dominated by fear. The believable and frightening depiction of a world of gated communities and insurmountable social rankings raised Blinded by the Light head and shoulders above many other dystopian YA series, which were being churned out at such a rate that many felt repetitive and bland. Rather than reproducing Twilight or The Hunger Games, Kipling’s novel had refreshing echoes of Alduous Huxley and George Orwell.

Light the Way continues the story where Blinded by the Light left off. Kipling sensibly spends little time on exposition, and if you haven’t read the first book, you probably should before you read this. This turns out to be a good choice, allowing Kipling to focus on developing new characters, predominantly Charlotte, who is taken from her parents when she is found to possess an immunity from the virus and taken to the ominous LightHouse, where children are turned into mindless slaves. Free of the need to explain the new society, Light the Way has a faster pace than the first novel. Joe Kipling is a minimalist writer, and it only takes a few strokes of her pen to create young characters who are both believable and likable.

Light the Way is an ideal read for older children and teenagers who like stories that entertain but also make them think.

Blinded by the Light, by Joe Kipling

Blinded by the Light by Joe Kipling

In my early teens, I would have thought myself in heaven if presented with the choice of books available now in the young adult genre. Of course, given the sheer quantity of them being crammed onto supermarket shelves and adapted by film companies in a feverish hunt for the “next big trilogy,” only a small percentage of books in this genre manage to really stand out, but Joe Kipling’s Blinded by the Light manages this with aplomb.

blinded-by-the-light

When a terrorist attack tears apart the cosseted existence of teenager MaryAnn, bringing her into contact with the world beyond her gated community, she starts to question the foundations of her privileged existence. Blinded by the Light, the first book in the Union Trilogy, is one of the more political young adult dystopias. Kipling has an absorbing focus on the intricate structures of her imagined society, and expands upon a theme introduced by Aldous Huxley in his 1932 novel Brave New World. In Huxley’s novel, people were genetically engineered to be content in whatever level of society they were placed, the aim being to avoid war and social unrest. In Joe Kipling’s dystopia, the experiment in social engineering is constructed on a more tenuous basis. Her post-apocalyptic world, in which the Alphas live in luxury and the Deltas do all the hard work, is both dominated and undermined by fear of the Other, in this case the supposedly feral Echos. Sadly, such fictional worlds are sounding more familiar and less fantastical with every harrowing news report one reads.

Blinded by the Light is engaging, intelligent, and well worth reading. I am looking forward to the sequel, which I am informed by a reliable source will be out very soon. Watch this space!

Don’t Forget the Sunscreen: A Review of SUNBURN, by Darren Dash

 

When I told my two older children that I was reviewing the latest novel by Darren Dash, known to them and other fans of teenage horror/fantasy as Darren Shan, I found myself raised, for a brief but genuine moment, in their estimation. I won’t say that they were enthused exactly – responding with enthusiasm to anything a parent says seems to be against the rules at that age – but they both looked mildly interested, and my son said “Oh really?” (I will point out that a response like that from an adolescent or near-adolescent is the equivalent of cheering and shouting “Yippee” at any other age). My daughter asked if she could read the book. I said “No.”

When I told them that my review of the previous Darren Dash book, The Evil and the Pure, was quoted on the back of the paperback edition, they looked surprised and one of them said “Cool” (The adolescent equivalent of jumping up and down in a public place waving a banner). When I showed them a screengrab of my quote on the back of that book as evidence, they clearly decided that I was trying too hard and went back to staring at different-sized screens. Screens, of any size, are more interesting than parents.

Sunburn

Sunburn is very different from The Evil and the Pure, but no less absorbing. A horror novel in a more traditional mold, it uses a number of familiar ingredients: a lake, a dark Eastern European forest, a fairy tale cottage, a monster, and recasts them into a contemporary story about a couple’s relationship problems.

Dysfunctional human relationships are an ideal launchpad for horror, and from the moment Dominic and his girlfriend, Martini, embark on an ill-conceived trip to Bulgaria, accompanied by Dominic’s dissolute friend, Curran, it is clear that they are heading into disaster. Darren Dash builds up the suspense with skillful pacing and a healthy dose of literary restraint, wisely refraining from indulging in the most horrific and grotesque elements of the plot until the reader has become invested in the characters.

The result is a horror novel that is suspenseful, fun to read, and at times, very gruesome indeed. It also contains some very good reasons for never forgetting to wear sunscreen.

You have been warned.