The Chemical Garden Trilogy

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This series was one I discovered rifling through shelves in the bookshop, before reserving the ones with potential from my local library. The setup is this: in the future, there is a virus that means all men die at twenty-five and all women die at twenty. This has created a world where girls are Gathered and sold as wives to rich men or to brothels in the many scarlet districts.

Our main character, Rhine, is Gathered and her heterochromia (different coloured eyes) makes her distinct enough to be sold to a rich man’s son – Linden – as one of three wives. They are swiftly married in one large ceremony and trapped inside Linden and his father’s mansion.

Rhine is determined to escape, something that threads across all three books in the series. But the atmosphere of the mansion is given its comforts at the same time: watching the relationships develop between the wives is one of the few cheerful glimmers in a house which is essentially a prison. In the second book, we see more of these relationships as well as of Gabriel, an attendant Rhine grows close to in Wither.

I enjoyed the series enough to keep reading – I liked Rhine and her determination and desperate searching for hope even when there doesn’t seem to be any left. But while no character felt very predictable, few other characters leapt from the page. Resident villain Vaughn, whilst threatening, does not feel completely terrifying, even when his experiments come to light. DeStefano also drops one of the main characters for a long stretch in Sever, and while this is understandable within the plot, Rhine does not seem to really miss them and so we don’t either. It makes what was an engaging dynamic in Fever vanish, which is a disappointment.

The premise was attention-grabbing and I skated through Wither at speed. They’re not challenging books to read, which is part of their charm, and so my brain didn’t have to work hard to get through them. I would definitely give this as a reason why I chose to finish the series – it was little effort to read them all and satisfy my curiosity.

DeStefano’s use of first person for Rhine works really well, and allows us to feel as trapped in that mansion as she is. Rhine is a keen observer of others and so we are able to paint a picture of the day-to-day life of the house without difficulty. The same goes for the carnival in Fever. It’s not the most vivid description I have ever read, but it does the job very effectively and without really drawing too much attention to itself as you go through the pages. As well as that, the characters we meet at the carnival make a welcome and interesting recurrence in Sever that distracts us from too formulaic a conclusion to this YA trilogy.

On the Waterstones blurb it reads: The Handmaid’s Tale for a new generation. But I’m not quite sure what has led this person to this conclusion, as beyond its trading young girls as commodities I don’t really see any other connection. However, if it subsequently gets unsuspecting YA readers reaching for The Handmaid’s Tale, I certainly won’t complain.

An entertaining easy-read trilogy, worth picking up from your local library.

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Wither: 7/10

Fever: 7/10

Sever: 6.5/10

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A Little Bit Of Gaiman

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I’ve always meant to read some Neil Gaiman – his style sounds right up my street and I’d enjoyed his Doctor Who episodes. I also watched Coraline with my housemates a year or so ago and really liked it. It was fantastical and scary and everything I’d been told Gaiman’s writing was like – even if the screenplay wasn’t his own work. And so I picked up a copy of Coraline, shortly followed by The Graveyard Book, both the editions with Chris Riddell’s illustrations.

When I started reading Coraline I imagined only the film adaptation, but the further I read and the more of Riddell’s accompanying illustrations I saw, the more independent it became in my mind. It became my own. I was able to re-experience the plot without being restricted by my experience of the film. Coraline herself is a wonderful character and one that appealed to my ten-year-old self; grown-ups are boring, and she wants to explore this house she has found herself in. She thinks herself older than her age – what child doesn’t? – and spends her time exploring the area around her house.

Gaiman imbues a sense of mysticism and otherworldliness in his setting, drawing you in and making the unusual seem perfectly normal. This is also true of The Graveyard Book, with Bod and his home in the graveyard. In Coraline, however, it is the inside which seems more curious. Coraline is fascinated by a passageway that was bricked up but now is clear, leading her to the realm of the Other Mother and Other Father who replicate her real parents, but with buttons for eyes: buttons they want to sew onto Coraline’s eyes. It is this kind of detail that I really liked. I can imagine reading this when I was much younger and being completely terrified, in the best kind of way. Coraline is determined and plucky and things I want a heroine to be. She will not be cowed by this chilling Other Mother who is hunting her down.

I followed Coraline with The Graveyard Book, about a boy called Bod Owens (short for Nobody) who is raised in a graveyard by ghosts. The setting is once again Gaiman’s forte: within the first few chapters I had gone from my spot on the sofa and I was in the graveyard with Bod, exploring its grounds, and talking to all the different ghosts. And the plot paces out excellently, too. We open with ‘the man Jack’, who has come to Bod’s house and killed his parents and sister. Luckily, Bod is a natural explorer and has escaped his crib and makes it safely into the graveyard. And then we meet the ghosts of the graveyard, all discussing what to do about Bod. As a reader you don’t even hesitate to think: ‘but they’re ghosts’. It is simply the obvious.

The story of Bod’s survival churns on as the book progresses, and meanwhile Gaiman uses the opportunity to show us through Bod’s everyday life. His education at the hands of various graveyard residents, meeting another child, and his relationship with Silas. Mr and Mrs Owens are his adopted, ghostly parents; Silas is his guardian. I loved the character of Silas. He is that dark, knowledgeable figure who comes and goes, never quite tells the whole story, and who is endlessly fascinating to a young child like Bod – or indeed, like any of us. It seems a fairly standard fantasy character, but somehow Silas doesn’t seem the stereotypical dark mysterious mentor. Gaiman manages to avoid that pitfall, and I’m still not sure how. He just sort of… does. It’s definitely a feature of his writing, as no other book comes to mind that is so very fantastical and other, yet is so straightforward to the reader.

My only regret with this first foray into Neil Gaiman’s works is that I was not younger when I first read them. I think there is a certain element to both of these books that needs you to be a child when you read them. But that hasn’t stopped me from ordering them both for my bookshelves – I’m pretty sure these are books I’m going to be re-reading in future, particularly The Graveyard Book.

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Coraline: 8/10

The Graveyard Book: 8.5/10

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Follow me on twitter: @unexploredbooks

More Than This

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“A book… it’s a world all on its own too. A world made of words, where you live for a while.”

It seems appropriate to open with this quote, from Patrick Ness’ latest YA offering, More Than This. I have spent the last day or two in its world, and it has been a fascinating ride.

The book opens with the line: “Here is the boy, drowning.” And in the first three pages the boy, Seth, dies. So where to go from here? Ness spends most of the book answering this question. More Than This is an exercise in curiosity, teasing you further and further inside its pages until you’re totally sucked in and can’t fathom how you got this deep into it. After all, Seth is in a world all by himself. You would think that with only one character, things would get stale rather quickly.

But Ness really plays on this idea of isolation. Even the tiniest movement in this empty place has you jumping with fright. Aside from the lack of people, where are the animals? The sounds? The eeriness of this abandoned setting sinks in to you, and just as you’ve become accustomed to Seth’s immediate surroundings you are thrown completely off by the introduction of something new.

I wish I could be more specific, but as Patrick Ness says in his video here, the book relies greatly on its mystery, and I don’t want to spoil it for any of you who might not have read it. The unfurling of the mystery is what I love the most about this book. Ness has done it previously, in his acclaimed Chaos Walking trilogy, where he opens in the isolation of Prentisstown and slowly spreads outwards and uncovers greater and bigger things. But here it is even more pronounced, as you do not have the distractions of an action-packed plot to take away from it. This is not to lessen the effect – by taking a more minimalist approach, as this story demands, its impact is heightened and made more impressive. And as a reader you get these glorious nuggets of realisation, where enough things are unfurled to allow you to unlock another part of the puzzle.

It might not seem like the most obvious book to sit in the YA category, but yet again Ness has gauged his audience perfectly. Within the scope of this novel he covers a multitude of themes from relationships to bullying to parental trouble and of course, friendship. It is not a book ‘about’ any of these things, but he covers it all within exploration and narration of this world Seth has found himself in. That is one of the reasons I think Ness is such a great YA writer: he threads all of these themes in to make one seamless whole.

His Chaos Walking trilogy is something I find very hard to criticise, both plot-wise and linguistically. More Than This is not far off. However, in the carefully paced opening section of the novel his use of new single-line paragraph for effect can be a little much, overemphasising more than he needs to. This technique faded for me in the second half of the book though, although this may have been because of the steady increase in pace throughout the novel. I initially found the pace unsettling, but then again I should have expected it after being treated to the first few chapters at the Hay Festival. And I don’t see how this novel could have been approached any faster without ruining its wonderful tension.

I thoroughly enjoyed More Than This, and am grateful that Patrick Ness has chosen to once again write for the YA market. Inside the back cover it informs us that he has won every major prize in children’s fiction, including the Carnegie – twice! If he carries on producing works like this, I will be very much surprised if he doesn’t win them all over again.

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More Than This: 9/10

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My review of A Monster Calls HERE

Listen to Patrick Ness talking about Chaos Walking HERE