February 2006 Archives

The People of Sparks

| No Comments | No TrackBacks
Jeanne DuPrau
Feb 2006

The sequel to The City of Ember, which I haven�t read, this book does a fair job of standing by itself as a single story.

We�re in post-apocalypse mode here. Sometime in the distant future four hundred inhabitants of an underground city have managed to find their way to a surface that they didn�t even know existed. Their city, Ember, is �dying� thanks to lack of power for the lights and shortages of various essentials, but here in the great outdoors they are as infants without knowledge of stars or seasons or weather. Luckily for them they happen upon one of the very few post-disaster villages, Sparks, a place where years of hardship and toil have finally resulted in quite a thriving and self-sufficient little community. Needless to say, the people of Sparks are a little nonplussed to have a population greater than their own suddenly descend upon them. Nevertheless they agree that aid must be given, and as a short-term measure they house the newcomers in the decrepit old Pioneer Hotel, offering to feed them and teach them survival skills in exchange for hard work: strictly a six-month arrangement.

Yet in time the strain of having these two groups living side by side, draining the resources of a single village, begins to cause friction: friction which is exploited and egged on by individuals on either side in whom the alienating concept of �us� and �them� runs deepest. Thus Sparks teeters towards its own mini apocalypse, a war that may destroy this village just as completely as the larger version did with the great cities of the past.

Who, we wonder, in this atmosphere of distrust and anger, can lead the way to a different more loving path?

Jeanne DuPrau writes very naturally and without visible effort. She depicts a highly believable, warts-and-all series of characters thrown together by circumstances and it is to her credit that the reader is not drawn to favour either �side�. She keeps her post-apocalyptic vision simple and convincing (the story might almost have been set in the pioneering days of the American west) and although such scenarios have been explored many times, we do care about this world she�s made, and the characters that must struggle through it.

Despite a little heavy-handedness in some of the moral content, the anti-war message of The People of Sparks is more valid now than ever before. All you leaders out there intent on demonising fellow human beings for your own paranoid reasons, do please have a read.

Jabob's Ladder

| No Comments | No TrackBacks
Brian Keaney
Orchard Books
Feb 06

A teenage boy wakes up in a strange field and remembers nothing other than his name. Not where he came from, nor his parents� faces: not even the words home or parents. In a little while a man comes to collect him and takes him by boat across a wide river to a grey settlement called Locus. Here he is allocated a uniform and a bed in a dormitory: one of hundreds of dormitories full of teenage boys and girls, all of whom have woken up in the field and come to make their lives in Locus. The days are spent picking rocks off the ground where new dormitories are to be built, the nights are for playing the 'memory game', when inmates share any little tiny snatches that return to them from the lives they lived before. Such nuggets are priceless, spiritual food to the inmates.

Imagine something with a sixties feel: Holes done in the style of The Prisoner. Imagine it written with an appealing Magnus Mills sort of simplicity, the strong emotions delivered with a muted touch. This is how Jacob�s Ladder begins, and like Jacob himself we cannot avoid the conclusion that there is something afoot, a conspiracy perhaps, to explain why all these teenagers are being kept in this soulless place, fed never-changing tasteless food, robbed of memory and purpose and the will to rebel. Like Jacob we are determined that we would not be such pushover victims to the routine of Locus. Without any guards openly in attendance, why stay? Why do the daily work?

Yet as Jacob desperately fans his own small spark of rebellion � and finds one or two others in whom it still lives � he starts to discover that the bonds of Locus are much deeper and more permanent than he could have realised. And when he does eventually break free with two friends, they embark on a spiritual journey, a series of weird meetings and endless walking that has something of The Little Prince or Richard Bach about it.

What Jacob finds out, and whether his bid for freedom and a return to 'before' is successful should not be revealed here. I read this one in a day, however, and if you�re looking for a book to make huge questions and unknowns accessible to 10-14-year-olds in a compelling story, then this is for you.

My only slight doubt was to do with the importance given in the book to holding on� to the past, to people, to situations. Much of the damage done in our world comes from too much �holding on�. Letting go is something that our children could learn more of from us.

The Mob

| No Comments | No TrackBacks
Clem Martini
Jan 2006
The Mob is the story of a flock of crows that have gathered for their annual meeting. The multitude has come together for play, pairing off and the general hubbub of family reunions.

Clem Martini introduces us to the lore of the crow clans, a clash between strong-willed youngsters and more conservative elders as well as the Chooser, the slightly bedraggled elder selected to guide the flock.

Sadly The Mob � the first part of a trilogy The Crow Chronicles � isn�t one of the happiest meetings as a series of battles with a group of local cats cause chaos and social upheaval that threatens to divide the flock.

The review copy promises Watership Down with crows and it�s a tough comparison, particularly given that fluffy bunnies automatically attract more sympathy than cackling crows.

I finished this book two weeks ago and I�m still ambivalent about the whole experience. Parts of it irritated me intensely but there�s also some fine writing, particularly in the climactic tunnel scenes.

One sign that I wasn�t fully engaged is my annoyance at the fact that all the characters� names start with a K � all very nu metal and initially at least quite confusing. I don�t recall all the rabbits in Richard Adams� story having names beginning with R.

I�m also unsure who it�s aimed at. The start of the book is very slow although there�s a burst of crow lurve and some nice touches about how a girl crow observes human behaviour, which might appeal to a female readership. At the same time the end of the book is more violent and action focused and reads as if it�s aimed at a male readership.

Ultimately I feel a potentially good idea hasn�t been served well by the way it�s been published. I recall Watership Down as a chunky read, with pretty small type, a single volume that recounts a series of episodes in the establishment of a new burrow.

According to Amazon there are 480 pages in the current Penguin edition of Watership Down while The Mob is just 236 pages with a fairly hefty typeface and generous leading. It recounts a single eposide in the life of the flock leaving you feeling short-changed by the current vogue for publishing franchises.

I don�t know how long parts two and three of the Crow Chronicles will be but had the whole tale been published as a two-parter or even a single volume then the early slow pace of The Mob might have worked well as the lead in to a more textured story.

Mixed Magics

| No Comments | No TrackBacks
Mixed Magics (audio CD) by Diana Wynne Jones, read by Anthony Head
March 2006
Originally published in 2000, this collection of magical short stories is being published as a CD audiobook for the first time. Not having previously read any of the other Chrestomanci books, I admit to being tempted into starting with this one purely on the basis of it being read by Anthony Head. I was not disappointed - his mellifluous tones are easily absorbed and his subtle delivery perfectly complements Wynne-Jones's lively prose. I discovered that the stories work fine as a stand-alone collection and you need not have read the others in the series in order to appreciate them. Each of the four tales is linked by the mercurial and often unpredictable presence of Chrestomanci, an enigmatic enchanter who presides over many worlds, intervening when needed to maintain harmony and balance.

The first story, Warlock at the Wheel is a farcical romp, featuring a hapless warlock who has lost his magic powers and gets himself transported to another world in order to find them again. There follows a catalogue of disasters as he steals a car and in doing so accidentally kidnaps a demanding young girl and her aggressively protective dog. Stealer of Souls is an altogether darker yarn, in which two young enchanters are kidnapped by a wicked soul-stealer and have to use all their wits, without the use of magic, to overpower him. I found Carol Oneir's Hundredth Dream hugely entertaining, with echoes of 'The BFG'. Young Carol has the unusual gift of being able to control and record her dreams, but needs Chrestomanci's help when her characters go on strike. The final story, The Sage of Theare is the most complex and atmospheric of the four. It deftly confronts weighty issues through the eyes of the unwitting 'sage' Thasper, who threatens the supremecy of the gods with his incessant questions.

Each story varies in tone, and as a collection, Mixed Magics strikes a satisfying balance between humour, intrigue, fantasy and philosophy. This (unabridged) audio version is bound to go down well with parents and children alike - Mums especially will be charmed by Head's dulcet tones, and Wynne Jones's clever, multi-layered narrative allows her stories to be appreciated on many levels.