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Review Round-up: Knitters, Pirates, Cops, Princesses and Priests

TheBig SinA quick-fire round-up of eight recent holiday reads - including some vintage mysteries, a brand new fantasy, a YA that'll have you in stitches (fnar) and a saucy pirate romance. Most of these were recommendations via Twitter, so thank you all for sending them my way!

Prologue Books are one of my go-to publishers - whomever is putting together this list of out-of-print fiction is doing a cracking job. (Also, they use Amazon well, so I can find their books by searching Prologue Crime or Prologue Western, which is really helpful.) Anyway, that baseline of praise established... Jack Webb's The Big Sin (1952) might be one of my favourites so far. Webb's story ticks all the right narrative boxes: a cop versus a Big City machine, a man framed for murder, criminals being forced to choose between doing 'bad' and doing 'evil', the works. And, beneath it all, he underpins everything with a discussion of faith.

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Is The Hunger Games the greatest modern movie epic?

Lorde - "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" (Catching Fire)

The-Hunger-GamesFinally saw Mockingjay, Part 1 last weekend. All three movies seem to be a slightly different style, but they all revolve around a really interesting anti-authoritarian, anti-media theme. What's interesting isn't just how the theme is handled (intelligently and provocatively), but how it has evolved over the three films, without losing the basic action/adventure/coming-of-age premise that makes the whole thing so fun. It is also, in a way that many of its peers is not, strikingly contemporary.

It'll be interesting to see how it dates, but given the world doesn't seem to be de-paranoia-ing, de-militarising or de-media-saturating any time soon, I suspect this might be something made for the long haul.

Anyway, after a day or so of pondering, here's my challenge - is there a better modern movie epic?

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Pompidou Posse by Sarah Lotz

Pompidou PosseFreedom's just another word for nothing to lose.

And with that, Janis Joplin captures the beautiful/painful dichotomy of Sarah Lotz's Pompidou Posse. Vicki and Sage are seventeen and practically drowning in freedom. After an incident (fire, building, art college), the two friends make the only 'rational' decision: they run away to Paris. Armed with Pet Semetary, some 2000AD comics, a few of their favourite sculptures and, of course, their boots, the duo head to the city of love to find themselves. They're young, they're artistic; they've got enough money for at least two bottles of cheap wine... and, plus, they're together. What else do they need?

As it turns out: quite a bit. 

Pompidou Posse oscillates between the joy and the agony of perpetual freedom. Vicki and Sage are responsible to no one and to nothing; their anarchic existence is purely about scraping together enough money for wine, shelter and the occasional shower. Any excess is spent on, well... more wine (or other addictions). This is freedom: they're making art, they're making friends, and they're living beholden to no one.

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Americus by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill

AmericusM.K. Reed and Jonathan Hill's Americus (2011) is one of those lovely books about books - about fantasy books, in particular, and what they really mean. Often the conversation about the 'value' of fantasy gets side-tracked into one about escapism - which, yes, is an easily-grasped benefit of fantasy, but far from the only one. Moreover, to debate whether escapism has value is to ignore fantasy's worth as a mechanic for dealing with reality.

Fortunately, Americus goes for the hard stuff.

Fantasy - in this case, The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde - is definitely escapist. Americus' protagonist, the teenage bookworm Neil Barton, values the series - a sort of Harry Potter clone - as a means of 'hiding' from the real world. But as the events of Americus unfold, he and the reader both learn that a good book is more than a shield.

But, boy, you can understand why he wanting it so much. Americus itself is an Everywhere, USA, the archetypical small town (the rest of the book is a lot more subtle than the title). Neil and his best friend Danny are just your 'normal' geeks - trying to get through life and hormones and the awkwardness of everyday existence. Which, as eighth-graders, can be pretty awkward indeed.

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Review Round-up: Half Bad, The Rest of Us and Princess Decomposia

Three recent and upcoming books - all Young Adult (I suppose?) and all recommended (definitely). 

The Rest of UsI'm not going to 'review' Patrick Ness's The Rest of Us Just Live Here (2015) - for reasons that will become immediately clear to anyone reading it. So feel free to add however many grains of salt to this that you want. But... as well as being the typically Nessian magnificence about coming of age and learning to grow comfortable with yourself, The Rest of Us is also a continuation of his crafty conversation about the lessons of genre fiction. 

A Monster Calls described the power of stories to heal; The Crane Wife showed their darker side, arguably a book about the dangers of living a fantasy (literally and figurative). More Than This was, amongst many other things, a beautiful reflection on the role of science fiction, imagination, aspiration and escape. And now The Rest of Us Just Live Here turns to fantasy. By following a group of 'normal' kids in a hilariously stereotypical contemporary fantasy (one where the high school burns down regularly and all the oddly-named 'indie kids' are off saving the universe everyone), Ness nails the point: you are the hero of your own life.

This is a theme that's not only critical to convey to a young adult audience but also a philosophy that's in direct conflict with the subtly objectivist foundation of virtually every fantasy. In real life, there are no sidekicks, no extras, no un-Chosen. We're all special and (unlike the weirdly Randian message of The Incredibles), everyone being special means everyone is. Rather than a book that glamourises accidents of birth and the glory of predestination, The Rest of Us emphasises the unheralded heroism of being 'ordinary' and having, well, agency.

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At long last, Kim Curran's Delete!

DeleteKim Curran's Delete, the long-awaited conclusion to the Shifter trilogy, is out now! The young adult series - beginning with Shift and Control - has followed Scott, a teenager with shifting powers - the ability to warp reality around him.

Cool, yes, but there are factions and powers and schemes and (of course) horrible consequences... and Delete sees the very worst of those come about...

Kim will be swinging by later, virtually speaking, but for now - here are some links to keep you entertained:

Buy yourself a copy (hint)

Or go for broke and try to win the whole series.

Delete on Goodreads

Bother Kim on Twitter at @kimecurran

Enjoy "The Kiss", a free short story...

...or have it read to you by Mahvesh Murad.

Check out the rest of the blog tour, including today's other stops at ChooseYA and Man of Words.


Review Round-up: Wolf Winter, Day Four and Five Others

Seven books from February that all got tagged for later consideration. Or, barring actual consideration, at least some sort of hastily-assembled round-up.

Read on for Wolf Winter, Day Four, Easy Death, and Don't Even Think About It!

Plus: The Trouble with Bubbles, The Tunnel Under the World, and Steampunk Salmagundi.

The new

WW-UKWolf Winter (2015) by Cecilia Ekbäck - Anne handed this one to me, saying, "this is one of those books that you call fantasy but no one else does. You'll love it.". And, she was right. (It also says something  about me. Of all the windmills to tilt at, this may be the silliest.) 

Wolf Winter is a historical murder mystery set in 18th century Sweden. It is shockingly intense: there's a palpable sense of abandonment that heightens the stakes.. The predators (human and otherwise) feel overwhelmingly, pervasively, inescapably evil. This is also the coldest book I've ever read - even more than, say Dan Simmons' Terror or other novels of Arctic misery. In Wolf Winter, the reader feels every icy droplet of shivering despair - the freezing temperature is exacerbated by the loneliness and isolation. It is less about life feeling cheap than death feeling inevitable, with every new dawn a triumph of survival.

The fantastic elements, a bit like Jenni Fagan's Panopticon, are - uh, well, are they even there? I'd argue (of course) that they are. Whether or not the reader, from our (cozy, cynical) modern position sees the supernatural - the characters certainly do. Witchcraft, visions, shades, these all exist for Maija and her daughter. Whether or not they exist 'objectively' (that is, within the confines of a work of fiction) is beside the point. It helps that Wolf Winter is, in no small way, a discussion about the very role of belief: be that the church, the government or witchcraft - all these systems built on faith come under scrutiny, if not outright attack. It isn't just that humanity (as little bags of quivering meat) has a fragile existence, but our structures do as well. A brilliantly dark, and oddly triumphant, book, and highly recommended.

(And, yes, that's the German cover. The UK and US ones are fine, but I think the German one nails it.)

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Illustrating Harry Potter: 6 Questions with Jim Kay

Flourish & Blotts - Jim KayJim Kay is one of our absolute favourite artists. His hauntingly beautiful illustrations for A Monster Calls won a well-earned Kate Greenaway Medal.

When he was announced as the artist for the new, illustrated editions of the Harry Potter series, we were overjoyed. Even more so, now that the first glimpses of his work have been revealed. On the right is Flourish & Blotts, the magical bookstore of Diagon Alley, as brought to life by Kay's art. (Apparently this immensely details image is part of an even bigger work that shows more of the Alley. Whoa.)

Thanks to Bloomsbury for providing us with both the image and a short Q&A with the man himself. (Kay, not Potter.)

How did you feel when you found out you would be illustrating the Harry Potter novels?

Scientists say the Big Bang is to be followed by the Big Crunch, I feel I have firsthand experience of this theory, for hearing the news that I'd got the commission was an explosion of delight, followed instantly by an implosion of brain-freezing terror. From my point of view it is, without doubt, the best commission you can be given - I'm a bit of a control freak, so to be given the opportunity to design the characters, the costume, the architecture and landscapes to possibly the most expansive fantasy world in children's literature, well lets just say I'm extremely excited about it. However, I am also mindful of the huge responsibility this represents, I just want to make sure I do the best job I possibly can. 

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