An interview with Helen Brain

helenCape Town-based author Helen Brain loves to make things: miniature books for keeping secrets in; a garden fence decorated with discarded objects; music and laughter. She also loves to tell stories, and her latest book is entitled Elevation, the first in a post-apocalyptic YA series set in an altered Cape Town, the last human settlement in a ruined world.

Sixteen-year-old Ebba de Eeden grew up in a colony with two thousand chosen children in a bunker beneath Table Mountain. When she is recognised as the missing Den Eeden heiress, she is elevated to the surface, which is not a radioactive wasteland, as everyone in the colony has been told, but home a functioning society split into elite and servant classes.

After a life of slavery, Ebba finds that she is now a rich young woman with servants, a luxurious home and a farm with more potential to grow food than anywhere else in the ravaged world. There is little opportunity for her to enjoy these comforts, however, as Ebba is immediately faced with extreme demands and difficult choices. Aunty Figgy says Ebba is the descendant of the goddess Theia and has to use her power to save the world before the next cataclysm. The High Priest and his handsome son are doing everything they can to get Ebba to leave her farm and join the rest of the elite in their religious community, which worships the god Prospiroh. And Ebba herself can’t ignore the responsibility she feels to use her new resources to rescue her friends in the bunker.

 

elevation

Helen’s novel is a fast, exciting read full of the ecological concerns that are so often captured in post-apocalyptic fiction today. In the middle of this is a young woman who, like most teenagers and many adults, finds herself in a world that’s so much bigger and more complicated than she realised. And she can’t just live in it; she has a responsibility to try to understand it and change it for the better. It’s a scenario that raises all sorts of tough questions. I posed some of mine to Helen, who kindly took the time to answer them.

Welcome to Violin in a Void Helen!

LS: You’ve written over 50 books for children and young adults. What is it that you love about writing for a younger readership? What stories and subjects are you most drawn to?

HB: I love children, I find them much easier to relate to than adults, and I remember my childhood with all its complex emotions vividly, so writing for children came naturally. As a child I read all the time. My mother was the librarian at a teacher’s training college, and she brought home all the Carnegie and Newberry medal winners for me to try out, so I was introduced to the best kids lit and loved the way they could take you into another world.

As a reader I like swashbuckling tales, edge-of-your-seat adventures, imaginative fancies and word play. I try to write what I want to read.

 

Post-apocalyptic and dystopian YA novels have become wildly popular over recent years. What do you think it is about this subgenre of fantasy and science fiction that is so appealing to YA fans (of all ages)? What is it about the genre that attracted you?

I think many teens are in a place that psychologically resembles a dystopian landscape. Their childhood has been destroyed, and they’re struggling to create a new way of being in an adult world. They’re like moths in a cocoon, fighing to break through the layers of silk and, once they’re free, to work out how to open their wings and use them. That’s a very dystopian place to be.

 

The trope of the Chosen One has a long history in fantasy, and it fits neatly into apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, in which authors frequently suggest that humanity has caused too much damage or become too corrupt to save itself or the world. What we need, in some of these narratives, is the intervention of a higher power, such as evolved or enhanced humans, superior alien intelligence or, in this case, divine beings. Descended from a god, Ebba is the saviour – or she will be, if she can step up to the challenge. How did you go about writing this character? What’s it like to rest the fate of the world on the shoulders of a naïve young woman who has, almost literally, spent her entire life living under a rock?

Ebba is of course an element of my own personality – my own struggle to find my inner power and to stop relying on someone else to look after me. She’s also every young woman who thinks she can’t manage life without a boyfriend or a best friend, and who gives away her power because she’s scared to use it. Over the course of the three books she has to learn to access her inner strength – represented by her four ancestors – and to literally wise up.

 

You grew up in a staunch Catholic home, married a priest and lived in parishes all over the Western Cape. Elevation, however, is deeply critical of institutionalised religion. Prospiroh is an angry male god who wipes out most of the world with an ecological catastrophe, leaving only a few select survivors, much like the Christian god does with the Flood. The worship of Prospiroh is characterised by fear, conformity and modesty, while the community of worshippers is bonded by the music and rituals of church services. The High Priest is authoritarian and, most notably, religion is used as a tool of oppression, enslaving the poor to serve an elite. How has your relationship with religion changed from childhood to the writing of this novel?

This series is essentially about wrestling with my issues around faith and religion. I was a committed Christian from 16 to 40. Then, after a year or two of struggling, I stopped believing.

Four years later my very devout husband, the most moral and ethical person I’ve ever known, was struck down with colon cancer, aged 46. In his last month he had periods of the worst physical pain imaginable where he begged god to tell him why he had turned him into his whipping boy.

I couldn’t reconcile how a caring god would do this to someone who loved him. Murderers, rapists, war criminals, torturers were flourishing, and here was someone who genuinely loved god and had served him faithfully begging to die, screaming from pain. It was excruciating. If he’d been a dog or cat we’d have ended his suffering. I didn’t want to know a god who stood by and let someone who loved him suffer like this.

I began this series as an atheist but as the books are progressing I’m revising my theological stance. In essence they’re a record of my private wrestling match with god. Whether god exists only as a function of my brain chemistry or is a being out there in the ether somewhere I haven’t decided yet.

 

Goddesses are often presented as the nurturing, eco-conscious, egalitarian alternatives to conservative, destructive male gods, and in Elevation, it’s only through the goddess Theia that the world could be saved. Do you think a goddess could save religions from their pitfalls?

I don’t think it’s about having a matriarchal god instead of a patriarchal one. I think it’s about the two living in balance. That’s what Ebba’s job will be – to get them to make peace.

 

You blog about financial advice for an investment and budgeting app, and your posts got me thinking about the powers and pitfalls of money in the novel. Although the world has been reduced to a few small societies at the tip of Africa, it still runs on money. When Ebba is elevated, she not only rises from the bunker to live on the surface, but rises in class thanks to an inheritance that makes her fabulously wealthy. She finds it both liberating and confusing, and although her money empowers her, it endangers her too. How would you describe the role of money in terms of plot, worldbuilding and character development? And why is it that these people are still clinging to the concept of coin?

I found this tricky. I decided that the citizens would still use coins and have a monetary system, but the rest of the world will be using bartering. Ebba’s rich not only because she’s inherited a lot of gold stashed away in a bank vault, but also because she owns the only arable land in the city, and because her goddess blood means plants grow very fast around her. Food is the major commodity in this post apocalyptic world, and she has a unique ability to provide it. That’s why everyone is trying to gain control over her.

The idea of the book came about through my concern about the way we’re destroying the planet in search of material happiness. I think of the series not so much as dystopian or mythology but as eco-theology. I used religion and the gods and goddesses as a metaphor to highlight what I see as our biggest problem today – our material dissatisfaction.

I imagine us like the Little Prince standing on the top of his planet in a pile of garbage. He’s holding more and more things, and to make them he has to dig away at the planet he stands on.

Helen-Brain-garden-fence

Helen’s garden fence, decorated with the things other people discarded.

If we don’t stop wanting more and more and more, new cars when our old ones work, the latest phones, more clothes and things for our increasingly big houses, and toys and gadgets, we will destroy our earth.

We’re treasuring the wrong things. It’s the green spaces, the forests and beaches and gardens and veld that bring us happiness, not more stuff. But we’re hellbent on destroying the very thing that brings us life.

 

Without giving away too much, can you tell us what to expect from the rest of The Thousand Steps series?

In book 2 Ebba has to rescue the two thousand from the bunker before the General genocides them by closing up the ventilation shafts. To do this she has to sacrifice herself, and she doesn’t want to.

In book 3 she is elevated to Celestia, and has to sort out the gods and find the cause of their dysfunctionality. It’s kind of Enid Blyton meets Dante with a healthy dose of Philip Pullman.

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Crooks & Straights by Masha du Toit

Crooks-and-StraightsTitle: Crooks & Straights
Series: Special Branch #1
Author:
Masha du Toit
Publisher: 
self-published
Published:
 12 April 2014
Genre:
 YA, fantasy
Source: 
eARC from the author
Rating:
 
8/10

Crooks & Straights is a lovely read. I say that without qualification, but I want to add that it’s particularly impressive because it’s self-published. I’m also really pleased that it’s South African, and it’s set in Walmer Estate and surrounds in Cape Town, close to where I lived and worked until recently.

The neighbourhood has a quirky, old-school feel similar to the real one, but is set in an alternate fantasy world where magical creatures and humans with magical abilities are a well-known fact. Some of them are familiar, such as werewolves and genies, but author Masha du Toit uses a wide variety of her own eccentric creatures indigenous to South Africa, like haarskeerders, snaartjies, vlêrremeisies, roos-dorinkies, streepies … Many of these are as unfamiliar to the characters as they would be to readers because, for centuries, magicals (or ‘crooks’, as opposed to non-magical ‘straights’) have been persecuted. In Du Toit’s world, they parallel other minorities: people of colour, women, LGBTQ groups, etc. Apartheid, therefore, was not only about the oppression of the black majority, but about the suppression of magic. Crooks and straights fought together in the liberation movements, and the historic neighbourhood of District Six was famed for its acceptance of magic in addition to its racial and cultural diversity.

So, when sixteen-year-old Gia moves to Walmer Estate, near to where District Six used to be, she’s struck by the remnants of that vibe: a strong community spirit characterised by diversity and a relaxed approach to magic. Her parents are fashion designers who fit right in with a neighbourhood known for its small businesses and artisans. There are signs of magic at their new house, such as the ward on the front door: a rustic bit of sorcery in plain sight. In her previous neighbourhood, magic was kept to a minimum and obscured the way pipes and electrical cables are hidden behind the walls of modern homes.

Sadly, this reflects a growing attitude towards magic in present-day South Africa: it’s taboo and used only with reluctance. Many people, like Gia’s friend Fatima, are disgusted by it and avoid speaking about it. When Gia’s liberal, socially conscious teacher gives classes on magic and magicals, she discreetly covers the intercom so that she can’t be monitored. There’s a growing sense of dystopia because a political group known as The Purists is gaining influence, especially with the president’s son backing them. The Purists believe that magicals – including human ones – are either dangerous or useful only for hunting other magicals. They have a Red List for those who should be terminated on sight and a White List for those who are tolerated for their skills. The Purists are also proposing a Grey List of individual magicals with their personal details, allowing the government to keep track of them.

The might of the Purists is enforced by Special Branch, a military operation that uses werewolves to sniff out magic, does a lot of classified experimental work, and administers torturous tests for magical ability (those who pass get a Certificate of Purity, which has disturbing social implications). Special Branch uses the rhetoric of freedom and safety, promising to fight the “nightmares” so citizens can sleep easy but what they offer is not peace but security for those deemed eligible.

It’s not a good idea to get messed up with the Purists or Special Branch, but Gia and her family end up wandering dangerously close. Firstly, her parents are hired to design the wedding dress for Kavitha Pillay, fiancée of Luxolo Langa, the leader of the Purists. When Gia accompanies her mother to a meeting to discuss the design, Kavitha warns her that Luxolo is cruel and ruthless. The wedding is set o be a high-profile celebrity event, and if they screw up in any way, he’ll ruin them.

Then Gia unwittingly brings her family under the scrutiny when Special Branch comes to her school for a presentation on magical children, explaining that conditions like autism may be caused by magical abilities. Gia immediately sees an opportunity to help her beloved brother Nico, whose cognitive and social limitations are putting increasing strain on their family and on his ability to live a full life. Unfortuantely she doesn’t have the political savvy to realise that Special Branch are part of a frightening authoritarian power structure, so her good intentions end up endangering that which matters to her most: her family. Which is not to say that Gia’s character has to drag the weight of blame around; in a world with the Purists and Special Branch, things like this are bound to happen, and Gia doesn’t do anything unethical or even stupid. Nevertheless, she takes responsibility for her mistake and determines to fix it.

One thing that might have bothered me about this book is if the author had written Gia as a Chosen One or a special, magical snowflake labouring under the assumption that she’s just an ordinary girl. She is ordinary, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that means she’s boring or weak.

On the contrary, Du Toit has made Gia a powerful protagonist without simply making her more empowered than everyone else (Chosen Ones and magical snowflakes can be great, but they can be a symptom of boring, lazy writing too). The story is driven by who Gia is as a person and the decisions she makes with the means at her disposal, and you can see the connections running through the novel like thread. She is, first and foremost, someone who cares about her family. She’s also a talented young woman who’s smart enough to appreciate moral complexity, and open-minded enough to embrace the reality of the world she lives in, rather than simply rejecting the unfamiliar or the unnerving.

Obviously, this makes her an ideal narrator for a fantasy world, but it also makes for a nuanced family dynamic, particularly in the relationship between Gia and her (adoptive) mother Saraswati. They have the kind of tension that naturally arises between a 16-year-old and her parents, exacerbated by Saraswati’s strictness and a mysteriously blank past that Gia is only just beginning to question. But although Gia avoids speaking openly to her mother most of the time, you see the love between them when, for example, Gia lovingly brushes her mother’s long, ink-black hair, or takes Saraswati’s hand as she falls asleep and pictures the bonds that link them and her father and brother. As a family they’re caring, antagonistic, imperfect, contradictory and blessed in a way that feels real and keeps you invested in the story.

There’s also something ineffable about Crooks & Straight that I find appealing compared to most other South African novels I’ve read. Our literary scene is not a happy place where reading is fun and that’s because it doesn’t have enough novels like this. I’m not sure how to articulate it, but if I can resort to a very casual description I’d say it’s chilled. It’s not fraught with anxiety about tackling big issues and great tragedies. It’s not a drama so determined to be true to life that it’s just as dreary. It’s not trying to be so serious that it’s just depressing.

It’s obviously an explicitly political book, as I’ve spent half of this review explaining, but its primarily a book with compelling story, driven by a character you can relate to, set in a fantastic world you want to believe in. After months of struggling to find time to read or not being able to finish books I’d started because I was so tired from working all the time, Crooks & Straights finally gave me what I needed to get lost in a good book. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory

Harrison SquaredTitle: Harrison Squared
Author: Daryl Gregory
Published: 24 March 2015
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: YA, horror, adventure
Rating: 8/10

Thirteen years ago, Harrison Harrison was out on a boat with his parents, and a tentacled monster attacked them, killing his father and ripping off Harrison’s leg. He nearly died from an infection, and in the years that followed he covered up his memories with a more rational explanation than a Lovecraftian monster.

Now Harrison is sixteen and accompanying his mom on a scientific expedition to the little coastal town of Dunnsmouth. Rosa Harrison is a marine biologist who specialises in massive creatures like whale sharks and sperm whales, and her latest obsession is the colossal squid.

Harrison (H2 – Harrison Squared – to his mom; scientist humour) thought tagging along would be better than the alternatives, but Dunnsmouth is set to prove him wrong. The town takes the concept of “parochial” to new levels of creepy. There is no internet connection or cellphone reception (Harrison complains about being “involuntarily Amished”), so there’s no way of calling for help from the outside world. The school Harrison has to attend looks like a giant tomb, he sometimes hears chanting as he wanders through the labyrinthine hallways, and the swimming pool is in a subterranean cave. Some of the staff members look kind of… aquatic. The principal also happens to be the priest of the town’s arcane religion, and while Harrison is “used to being one of the few public atheists in school” he’s a lot less certain about being “an army of one against the One True Faith of Dunnsmouth”. Also, all the kids look weirdly similar, they’re unnervingly quiet, and they’re all white, which is worrying for a mixed-race kid like Harrison in a small town.

And what Harrison’s mom hasn’t told him is that this is the same town where he lost his leg and his father thirteen years ago, and that she’s returned to find the monster that attacked them. This is something that Harrison is forced to discover on his own when Rosa goes missing at sea on their second day. The townspeople don’t seem to think there’s much hope of finding her (or don’t want to), but Harrison is convinced that she’s still alive so he mounts his own investigation. No matter how distorted his memories of the attack thirteen years ago, he knows that his parents saved him, so he refuses to abandon his mother. Along the way, Harrison finds some unexpected allies, including a boy from a race of aquatic humanoids; encounters a terrifying murderer known as The Scrimshander; and finds out exactly how creepy Dunnsmouth’s weird religion is.

 

I jumped at the chance to read this after reading the novella We Are All Completely Fine, which features an adult Harrison in group therapy with several other people who’ve had to deal with monsters in their lives, including a woman who’d had images carved on her bones by the Scrimshander. That book had its flaws – most notably an unimpressive ending that didn’t do the rest of the book justice – but I was seriously impressed by the characters Gregory wrote, and that was more than enough to make me want to read this book.

It didn’t disappoint; Harrison Squared has a fantastic cast of characters and even the minor ones are well-written. Sixteen-year-old Harrison is an even more enjoyable character than the adult version, perhaps because he’s funnier and more optimistic. He’s got a great sense of sarcasm and is generally a nice, well-rounded kid. He’s so capable with his carbon-fibre prosthetic leg that his disability never seems like much of a disability, although it’s still very much a part of who he is and how he functions. He does, however, have two serious problems – he’s afraid of going in the water, and he has a “volcanic” temper in contrast to his otherwise “calm and analytical” nature. His water phobia has never been an issue in daily life, but of course he’s going to have to deal with it if he has any hope of saving his mom in a place like Dunnsmouth. His temper has been more problematic, and although he’s learned to handle it over the years, the current situation threatens to break his control.

I also loved Harrison’s Aunt Sel, who comes to stay with him after his mother disappears. Selena was initially dismissed as a potential caregiver for being a snooty urbanite with no interest in kids. When she turned up I was expecting her to be an uncaring bitch, but she was superb. She’s definitely not the mothering type, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about Harrison; it’s just that she doesn’t show it in any kind of conventional motherly way. She strides in, dramatic and impeccably dressed, effortlessly gets her way with almost everyone, and refuses to take shit from anyone. Harrison eats well if only because she’s used to having the best (lobster dinner?) and he’s warmly dressed on some of his later night-time excursions partly because she finds his one-hoodie style tiresome and is dying to buy him some new clothes.

Sel also doesn’t care if Harrison doesn’t go to Dunnsmouth’s weird school or that he sneaks around at night, which is perfect in these circumstances because it means Harrison is free to do whatever he needs to do to find his mother.

As far as the plot is concerned, Gregory does a better job than in We Are All Completely Fine. Harrison Squared reads like the best kind of YA adventure horror, which is to say that it’s wonderfully fun and creepy, thanks in part to the immense pleasure of being able to root for a character like Harrison. The climax felt a bit abrupt, but no matter; I had a great time with this and I want more books like it. The ending provides the setup for a possible sequel, so I can only hope that there will be one.

Bones & All by Camille DeAngelis

Bones and AllTitle: Bones & All
Author: Camille DeAngelis
Published: 10 March 2015
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: young adult
Rating: 7/10

Maren is a cannibal. There’s a hunger inside of her that she cannot control and no matter how many times she tells herself she’s not going to do it again, she inevitably does. She avoids making friends, but then some boy – it’s almost always a boy – tries to get close to her and she devours him.

Her mother has become an expert at packing up their things and getting out of town as quickly as possible, but the strain eventually becomes too much for her. The day after Maren’s sixteenth birthday, her mother abandons her. Not knowing what else to do, Maren decides to track down her father, who she suspects is also a cannibal. Along her impromptu road trip, she meets other cannibals like her, and tries to come to terms with being a monster.

Well, this was certainly something different. Not weird per se, but it certainly puts a different spin on the usual tale of a teenager discovering herself. Unlike most YA protagonists I’ve read, Maren is undoubtedly a monster. She’s a serial killer and what’s more she her victims are mostly lonely children who were just reaching out to another loner in the hope of making a friend. When she gets older, her interactions with her victims start to become overtly sexual, but none of them ever do anything without her consent. You’re not allowed to feel better because she kills a potential rapist – she’s a bad person who kills innocent people.

Which is not to say that you won’t like Maren – DeAngelis has written her as a surprisingly sympathetic character, and I liked her a lot. I think it’s because you really have an opportunity to engage with the struggles she’s going through. She knows that what she does is horrific, but it’s something she cannot control. When her mother abandons her, it’s perfectly understandable, but you can also understand Maren’s pain and fear. It occurs to her that her mother must have been afraid of her and she concludes that her mother never loved, just felt responsible for her. Now, at only sixteen, and she has to continue her life alone.

As she wanders, scraping by on crime and charity, you have to wonder what her life is going to be like. She has never formed a long-lasting relationship with anyone except her mother, and it’s quite possible that she can’t. It’s only when she gets physically and emotionally close to someone that she feels compelled to eat them, so she usually stays away from people – especially men – for their own safety.

On the road, however, she meets two other cannibals. The first is Sully, a strange old man who apparently only eats people who have already died, and keeps the hair of his victims in a neverending braid. Sully is pretty creepy, but Maren is inclined to trust him because he is the first cannibal she meets, he’s kind to her, and teaches her a little about what she is.

Then there’s Lee, a 19-year-old cannibal who’s been on the road since his tendencies forced him to leave home. Lee is a lifesaver for Maren. Besides literally saving her life a few times, he becomes her first real friend. In another YA novel, you would expect this to develop into a romance, especially since Lee and Maren are travelling together and often share the same bed, but they’re both very careful around each other. They’re serial killers who don’t want to jeopardise their relationship. That said, their connection is a little beacon of light in this otherwise grim tale.

And yeah, I absolutely loved it. I don’t usually care about coming-of-age stories, but this one is very unconventional. I also enjoyed the somewhat paradoxical experience of reading about this truly monstrous person who I never had trouble empathising with.

The book does have some flaws though, and despite the fact that I was willing to overlook them, I think they’re worth discussion. Firstly, there’s the cannibalism itself. It’s not gory – in fact it’s barely described – but it doesn’t work the way you’d expect. When cannibals like Maren devour people, they don’t eat in any normal sense of the word. It’s not a case of them taking one bite after another and getting full. They can consume an entire human body – Bones & All – in only a few minutes, and still be hungry afterwards. They don’t seem to gain any mass from the process, and yet whatever remains of the victim can be stuffed into a small plastic shopping bag. Although the book doesn’t have any overtly speculative elements, there’s definitely something other involved here, so maybe Maren really is a monster from the myth and folklore she studies.

It helps to know this before you start reading, because otherwise certain things can be quite confusing. For example, Maren’s first victim is her babysitter, who she eats when she’s just a baby. I couldn’t imagine how a tiny child could possibly overpower an adult and reduce her to a pile of bloody bones, but that’s what happens. Later, she starts eating children from school, again without any apparent difficulties. I wondered how a young child could hide a body until I realised that there were never any bodies left to hide.

This brings me to a second problem with the book, which is that Maren never gets caught. She kills a string of young boys, and each time her mother gets them the hell out of town and they start up in a new place. It slightly more believable once you understand that there are no bodies so these might be treated as missing persons cases rather than murders, but that’s not enough. Unless Maren drinks all the blood up quite quickly, she’d probably leave enough of a mess to make it clear that she killed her victim. But even if she executes a clean kill every time, her subsequent departure would be highly suspicious. A child disappears, and immediately afterwards, Maren is taken out of school, her mother leaves her job, and they get out of town? You wouldn’t have to be a cop to see a link, and Maren’s mother never changes their names, so they’d be easy to track.

Admittedly, the cops probably couldn’t prove or even guess the truth, but it still feels like the entire issue gets conveniently swept under the rug. And while I like the book enough that it doesn’t bother me, I can’t ignore it completely.

Nevertheless, I had a great time reading this. Maren is a wonderful character, and I was fully invested in her journey.

Up for Review: Bones & All

I don’t read a lot of YA, but my interest tends to be piqued when I get offered things like a book about a young cannibal who wants to eat the people she cares about.

Bones and AllBones & All by Camille DeAngelis

Camille DeAngelis will take you on a haunting journey of self-discovery in her debut novel, Bones & All.

Maren Yearly doesn’t just break hearts, she devours them.

Since she was a baby, Maren has had serious trouble accepting affection. Any time someone gets too close to her, she’s overcome by the desire to eat them.  Abandoned by her mother the day after her sixteenth birthday, Maren goes looking for the father she has never known, but finds much more than she bargained for along the way.

Faced with a world of fellow eaters, potential enemies, and the prospect of love, Maren realizes she isn’t only looking for her father, she is looking for herself. The real question is, will she like who she finds?

 

Bones & All will be published on 10 March 2015 by St. Martin’s Press.

Links
Camille DeAngelis: Website l Twitter (@cometparty) l Facebook
Bones & All on Goodreads
Read an excerpt
St. Martin’s Press

Daily Reads: Monday 24/11/2014

Daily Reads 17112014

Morning guys! Last week was rather unproductive blogging-wise, but I did get a lot of reading done, so I should have some reviews for you this week. In the meantime, here’s some online reading to kick off your week.

– Are you thinking of buying any South African YA this Christmas? Local author Sally Partridge has put together a lovely YA gift guide.

– Author Alis Franklin, writes a letter to readers about Beauty and the Beast and loving monstrosity: “Because what’s the point of a lesson in accepting difference, for loving people for what they are, when the “reward” for success is conformity?”

– Ken Liu chats briefly about translating Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (which I recently reviewed). It involves so much more than just converting words from Chinese to English; I really admire the work Liu has done.

– iO9 lists 7 worldbuilding tropes science fiction and fantasy need to stop using. And dear god yes, enough with medieval fucking Europe! This is one of the reasons I’m usually not interested in epic fantasy. It’s beautiful, I know. I’d also like to ride a horse through forests and rolling green landscapes, or be offered a cup of wine in a castle, but it’s so boring and unimaginative in fiction. Isn’t the whole point of fantasy to be fantastical? Go read The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley to see how it’s done.

Sharp Edges by S.A. Partridge

Sharp EdgesTitle: Sharp Edges
Author: S.A. Partridge
Published: 25 August 2013
Publisher: Human & Rousseau
Source: ARC from the publisher
Genre: YA
Rating: 7/10

For her seventeenth birthday, Demi goes to a music festival in the Cederberg with five of her friends. Sadly, what was supposed to be the best night of her life ends up being the last, and her friends go home traumatised by her tragic death. Her boyfriend Damien feels like he doesn’t have a reason to live anymore. Ashley and Verushka (“V”) have lost their best friend. James and Demi weren’t close, but he’s torn by the fact that her death ruined his relationship with V, who hates that they were together in his tent when Demi died. Siya will never be able to forget being the one to find Demi’s body, but all his father cares about is the fact that he went to a music festival without permission.

Sharp Edges delves into each character’s mind, with every chapter taking us closer to Demi’s death and the events leading up to it. We not only get a sense of how deeply it has affected her friends’ lives, but also how a tangled mess of teenage angst, lust and longing brought them all to this fate.

And what South African author Partridge does very well is depict some of the psychological suffering of adolescence, like being stuck under the thumb of domineering or inadequate parents, juggling the various aspects of your evolving identity, being constantly awkward and angry and unsure of yourself.

As we move through each character’s POV narrative, you can also how painfully self-absorbed they all are. Each is struggling with their own issues, while almost completely failing to notice what difficulties the others are going through.

I liked some POVs more than others. Damien struck me as melodramatic while James was a bit boring as the typical bad boy hiding deep feelings under a callous exterior. Siya’s story was more interesting though, and Demi became more complex as the book progressed. At first she bothered me because some of the characters remember her as being virtually perfect – a beautiful, bubbly blonde with an endlessly sunny disposition. She even dyes her hair with a perfect array of rainbow colours. However, we eventually see that this sparkly ray of sunshine isn’t quite as lovely as she initially appears. Demi was perhaps so cheerful because she was a flighty person who never took anything seriously. And there is a problem in the way Damien idolises her as his dream girl – might things have turned out differently if he acknowledged her flaws?

It’s a tragically complicated mess of adolescent angst, psychologies, personal issues, and mistakes that can’t be easily unravelled for simple answers. It’s the kind of book that presents a great opportunity for arguing back and forth about what the characters did, what they should have done, how culpable they are, what it’s like to be a teenager, etc.

There was one major issue that bothered me though – why is there no investigation into Demi’s death? Was there an autopsy? She’s underage, dies at a music festival, and drowns even though she is able to swim, so surely the authorities – or at least Demi’s parents – would ask questions about drug abuse and drinking at the very least. I can understand why Partridge might have avoided this – it allows her to focus solely on the characters’ psychological journeys. An investigation might have gotten in the way. But it still seems strange that any legal consequences of Demi’s death are absent.

Nevertheless, Sharp Edges is a good read, and at only 130 pages you can tear through it in an hour or two.