Patrick Ness — “The Crane Wife”

Patrick Ness, best known for his stunning YA sci-fi trilogy Chaos Walking, and more recently the award-winning and devastating A Monster Calls, returns to bookshelves and electronic devices with the beautiful, hauntingly drawn contemporary fable The Crane Wife.

The Crane Wife

Full of eerie resonances, elegantly poetic precision and a whole other world shimmering just beyond our view (a world we’ll never be able to fully comprehend, a lack of comprehension that is both blissful and upsetting), Ness has conjured up a story that is epic, moving, an ocean of emotion whose mostly calm surface hides a roiling current deep, deep beneath.

It wouldn’t do the book justice, and it would detract from the reading experience, to fully detail what does or does not happen. Suffice it to say, The Crane Wife begins with an ordinary man who discovers a crane with an arrow through its wing in his garden late one moonlit night. This event (or dream) is the catalyst for a series of events that ripple powerfully through the lives of George, his daughter Amanda, and Kumiko, a mysterious woman who seems to be the source of all hope and despair.

To reveal any more would be invidious. Ness weaves extraordinary fables into the most rainy-day, quotidian mundanities, as his characters’ lives are gradually illuminated from without and within. In the best possible way, this novel explodes with symbolism – but come back, because it’s the very best kind – poetic, subtle, capable of shaping and reshaping your emotions. Ness’s careful, elegant style ensures that every word means something. This is a pared-back experience that fills you with longing. In this novel, the quietest of symbols can cause your emotions to roar.

chaos walking trilogy

Literary fiction, generally, has not been as lively or truthful as YA fiction of late, a situation vastly exacerbated by Ness’s own contributions to YA (The Knife Of Never Letting Go, The Ask And The Answer, and Monsters Of Men are three of the most extraordinary novels ever written in any genre or category). The list of extraordinary literary novels in the last few years is sadly short: Hilary Mantel’s revelatory Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, and Haruki Murakami’s hypnotic and brilliant work of absolute genius 1Q84 (possibly the greatest example of literary fiction of all time, and itself a contemporary fable shuddering with immense hidden power and unseen forces) are the pinnacles.

They are now joined by The Crane Wife.

This is a novel that will transport you in all kinds of ways; whether you read it in bed, at the breakfast table, on the tube or the subway, or surreptitiously while at work, it will work its patient magic on you, and it will linger in your mind and heart long after you’ve put it down.

 

5 out of 5 tiles (it’ll make sense when you read it)

Days Of Blood And Starlight: Unstoppable Momentum & Atmospheric Power AKA THIS BOOK WILL OWN YOU

This is that rarest of creatures: a sequel that bests the original. Just to put that in context, Daughter Of Smoke And Bone was one of the greatest YA novels ever written, a burningly brilliant and resonant story that seared the senses with its gorgeous intensity.

Days Of Blood And Starlight is better.

Yep, I said it.

Days Of Blood And Starlight

Days Of Blood And Starlight

Laini Taylor proves herself to be an extraordinary resurrectionist. Creating a new literary creature more powerful than any before it. She has upped the emotional intensity, sharpened the sarcasm and brutal wit, exponentially increased the sheer B-movie monster awesomeness of it all, supercharged the zingers and snark, and, somehow, impossibly, she has taken her incredible gift of subtle, moving and fearsome character work to a whole new level. And of all this is presented in a glittering, hypnotic and sensual style that steals into the senses and makes you something other than what you were.

What the hell, Laini Taylor? How did you get so much more awesome than you were before? How did you take your huge canvas from Smoke And Bone and then make us realize that it was just a tiny corner of the vast universe you were actually working on? How did you trick us into believing Smoke And Bone was a deluxe, widescreen theater experience (which was so much bigger than anything else we were reading), when really it was like an YouTube video on an iPhone 3 compared to the IMAX scale of Blood And Starlight?

How did you change the way I looked at YA, and at books and writing in general… And then change it AGAIN with this?

Days Of Blood And Starlight (UK Cover)

Days Of Blood And Starlight (UK Cover)

The expansion from book one to book two is even more impressive when you consider that the story is much more focused, in time, in place, in intensity. And yet Taylor spins magical realms from the smallest of details. Those realms are not merely other worlds, but also emotional truths, physical realities. Her writing is heady, stunning, and mesmeric. These are characters and worlds that once you inhabit them, inhabit you. Putting this book down is an impossibility; your heart and soul just will not allow it.

Plot is all in Blood And Starlight, so I shall give none of it away here. All you need to know is that the stakes are radically higher, the emotions are turbo-charged and relentless, the atmospheric power of the novel is off the charts, and Taylor keeps everything tight, controlled and focused with extreme screenplay skill. Not a single word is wasted; everything charges forward, in the manner of an exhilarating but terrifying rollercoaster. It’s almost too much to take in because you power through it so quickly. The incredible views flash past because there’s no stopping the momentum.

Just read it. Love it. And then wait, helplessly, for the next one, your mind and body singing, reeling, resonating. And good luck starting any books after this; because after this, nothing is quite the same.

Rating: Five out of five chimeras

Ray Bradbury: The Fog Horn and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms

One way or another, it’s safe to say that Ray Bradbury’s stories shaped my childhood.

The first time it happened, I was four, and it was the stolen pleasure of sneaking downstairs late at night, unable to sleep, and creeping into the armchair in the living room while the grownups watched The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms on TV. They knew I was there; I knew they knew; but it was okay. A secret compact between us: just this once. The beast roared its way in 40s black-and-white Harryhausen stop-motion from the Arctic wastes to the towers of New York City, and the skeletal shapes of the Coney Island rollercoasters. Even as a kid, the creature’s terrible loneliness and confusion and terror were clear, and overwhelming.

That was Bradbury’s gift: the lonely heart that beats through all of us, human and monster.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was the original title of Bradbury’s extraordinary short story, The Fog Horn. When Warner Bros., who were already developing a story about a sea monster rising from the depths, optioned the story and the 20,000 Fathoms title, Bradbury changed his title, keen to differentiate the story from the movie.

In the original story, a lonely sea monster is called up from the depths by the sound of a lighthouse fog horn, mistaking it for the cries of its own kind. It had lived for centuries alone, the only one. The sound of the fog horn gave it hope that it might no longer be lonely. When the creature discovers that it will in fact continue to be alone forever, it’s a haunting, crushing moment, one that consumed the seven-year-old me.

Loneliness of the long distance monster

Through the movie and the short story, Bradbury opened my mind to the raw emotional potential and power of story; the way an emotional moment can be  a devastating engine for storytelling. Brilliance of concept was not enough; every story must have a heart that beats through it, and through you, the reader. You need to feel its heart pounding in the race of your own pulse. Bradbury’s genius was in refracting these moments through awesomely pulpy genre material. These two works were key in my own evolution as a storyteller. My love of heart and of genre as a reader and a writer has its roots in Bradbury’s beautiful, lonely visions.

Powerful, heady stuff for a young mind; many years later, it still reverberates, hypnotizes, and inspires. Bradbury was unique, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for being a great teacher, and an incredible visionary and writer.

Breathless Reads Tour Recap

I was recently very fortunate to attend one of the dates on the Breathless Reads tour. This was Penguin Teens awesome lineup of YA sci-fi authors Marie Lu (LEGEND) and Beth Revis (ACROSS THE UNIVERSE), and YA fantasy authors Jessica Spotswood (BORN WICKED) and Andrea Cremer (NIGHTSHADE). I’m pretty sure you won’t find a smarter, more talented or more charming group of writers anywhere else. These ladies kept the crowd entertained and engaged as they talked about YA, writing, their inspirations, being writers, and their books. It was a great event for fans and aspiring writers alike.

It’s always interesting to hear what inspires great writers. Unsurprisingly, they all have great taste in TV — there’s a serious overlap between the breathless, fast-paced, what’s-going-to-happen-next qualities of the best YA, and the greatest TV dramas. Marie Lu singled out Game Of Thrones and Breaking Bad, while Andrea Cremer & Beth Revis both gave props to Doctor Who (Harley in ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is based on David Tennant), and Joss Whedon (Revis credits him with teaching her how to kill characters, while Cremer says he taught her how to write dialogue). Revis is a huge fan of Firefly and Serenity, and via Nathan Fillion, she loves Castle too. Cremer is a devotee of Buffy. Jessica Spotswood namechecked a pretty awesome mashup of Downton Abbey, Revenge, and The Vampire Diaries.

With their genre credentials firmly established, the writers talked about why they like writing in the YA sci-fi and fantasy genres. Lu and Spotswood made the great point that this kind of fiction really allows you to explore issues without coming across as preachy, while Revis and Cremer dig the fact that you can transcend the usual boundaries of “boy books” vs. “girl books”. As Revis put it, “there should be good books, and everyone should be able to read them.” Lu praised Penguin for marketing LEGEND based on its sci-fi content, rather than directing it at boys or girls.

They all take different approaches to writing:

Revis — “I laugh wickedly when I kill off my characters.”

Cremer — “I cry a lot when I write my books.”

And they all picked different “theme songs” for their books:

Lu — Europe, “The Final Countdown”

Revis — Chameleon Circuit (a Doctor Who fan band), “Everything Is Ending”

Cremer — Florence + The Machine, the entire “Lungs” album

But they all feel blessed to have the opportunity to be published:

Spotswood — “It’s amazing.”

Revis — “Even after two books it’s still shiny and new.”

Cremer — “It’s extraordinary to be able to do this… I’m still trying to keep close to how extraordinary this is.”

Revis in particular has cause to still feel enthralled about the process of being a published author: prior to writing ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, she’d written 10 novels over 10 years, and had nearly 1000 rejections. Her will to make this happen was a testament to believing and following your dreams. Marie Lu had a similarly long path, having received her first query rejection at the age of 15 (for “a book that was basically LORD OF THE RINGS, but not good”). Cremer was at the other end of the speed spectrum: she had her third novel published a year after she started writing her first. It seems traditional publishing has two speeds: geologically-paced slow motion, and warp factor 8. But there’s only one type of attitude for writers: unflinching dedication to the dream.

Cremer had great advice for aspiring writers: “stop chasing new ideas — pick one and finish it.” Revis’s advice was possibly more lighthearted, but no less practical: “you need a spinning chair.”

And it was Revis who gave the best description of how YA should be seen: “YA isn’t a recommended reading level, it’s a style of writing: interesting characters, interesting setting and a fast-paced plot.”

What came across from all these inspiring and talented women was the belief that good books are good books, regardless of genre or gender. Writing is about creating great stories that reach people and move them, take them to different worlds (sometimes literally), and change how they see our world.

Many thanks to Marie Lu, Beth Revis, Jessica Spotswood and Andrea Cremer for taking part in the Breathless Reads tour, and kudos to Penguin Teens for organizing it, and for bringing writers and readers together.

Marie Lu: LEGEND

Legend is one of those books. You know the kind I mean: you can’t turn the pages fast enough, but you just don’t want it to end.

Full of intrigue, thrills, darkness and high-voltage action, Legend is a great YA sci-fi debut for Marie Lu.

Set in a futuristic Los Angeles, the novel begins with Day, a 15 year old criminal on the run. No one knows who he is or what he looks like. He’s an exile, the most wanted person in the Republic. He steals to stay alive, and to help his family. He has skills, and they’ve kept him and his cousin Tess alive. But then one night, while trying to steal medical supplies for his sick brother, he gets chased down by Republic soldiers, and leaves one of them for dead.

That soldier is Metias, brother of June Iparis. June’s also 15 years old, but she’s the opposite of Day in every way: the only person in the Republic to attain a perfect score on their equivalent of SATs (with slightly higher stakes; a low score gets you banished to labor camps, or worse). She’s the prodigal daughter of the new world. Its shining star. And the most dangerous, notorious criminal in the Republic has just killed her brother. June swears revenge, and sets out to track him down.

What follows is a thrilling, shocking and adrenaline-filled ride through the darker side of the crumbling sectors of LA. The book is alternately narrated by Day & June, which makes for a fascinating back & forth as the story develops. Lu does a great job of keeping the story moving hard and fast, finding time along the way to bring us deeper into the characters’ inner worlds. She gives us two young people who are both on the edge in their own way, and getting pushed further over. Both Day & June are driven to make tougher and tougher choices, all the way to an incredibly tense, nail-biting finale.

Throughout, Lu brilliantly conveys character motivations, complex relationships, family lives, politics, and the grimy, gritty setting of her future world. She weaves all her threads into one high-velocity narrative that is gripping, raw and doesn’t let up until the very end.

And even then, it doesn’t let you go. As you finish the final page, you desperately want book two. Lu throws you into the ending at such high speed, with so much story tantalizingly ahead of you, that the idea of waiting to find out what happens next is almost impossible to handle. By all accounts, Legend 2 is finished, and Lu is already writing Legend 3. And in the meantime, it’s no surprise that CBS Films has snapped up the movie rights.

The movie and the sequels can’t get here soon enough.