Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Dark and bloody inspirational

Review - Lord Loss, Darren Shan

I first stumbled across Shan's work after asking some advice over at Litopia. My query was simple - as a spot of research, I needed the names of authors who wrote young adult books that pushed the boundaries in how dark a story can be when written for children. If the book I'm working on at the moment holds true to how I envisage it, it's going to be dark. And bloody.

One of the titles fired my way was Lord Loss, which is the first in a series of ten, the Demonata, and it doesn't take a Mr Spock-like intellect to work out what the books are about.

The book opens with Grubbs Grady - come on, you know you're on solid ground with a name like that - enduring the teenage hell that is family. An elder sister who makes his life misery, parents who just don't get him; poor Grubbs just wants a break.

The break he gets is perhaps a little more than he asked for - his family are killed by the demon, Lord Loss, and his two demonic sidekicks. Grubbs manages to escape, but soon finds himself locked in a padded cell, trying to convince everyone that it wasn't your average Joe serial killer who wiped out his folks, but monsters from another plane.

Grubbs is saved when his Uncle Dervish visits, and seems to accept what he says, and Grubbs finds himself holed up in Dervish's large country house in the remote village of Carcery Vale. There, he befriends one of the local boys, to whom Dervish seems to give the run of the house, and the two of them start to piece together what happened, including the big question - why was Grubbs' family targeted by demons?

That's about all I want to reveal by way of plot, other than to say it's good - well worth a read, and I'll be making a date with book two, Demon Thief. What was of more interest to me was how Shan developed the characters, and just how far into depravity he took his young readers. Whether intentional or not, twenty pages in and I didn't like any of the Grubbs family. I was struggling to connect, not convinced I could tag along with the characters for another 240 pages. Then the demons attack, and literally rip Grubbs' family to shreds. And as the young lad tries to recover in his padded cell, the sympathy - and understanding - came. By the time the enigmatic Dervish appears on the scene, I was hooked.

I'm not sure if Shan set out to make Grubbs (and his family) as initially unappealing as I found him. It seemed a strange tack to take - the family I could understand, but the hero? Of course, reading is subjective, and maybe it was just me. Yet it worked, ultimately, because Grubbs changes during the course of the story, and that's what all good writing is about - developing characters, watching them grow and adapt to the challenges that are put in front of them. What helps is having strong supporting characters, and Shan has them in Grubbs' new friend, Bill-E, and in particular Dervish, who is one of the coolest characters I've met in children's fiction.

So just how dark does the book get? We're talking headless corpses, blood-splattered walls and bodies split open by page thirty. It doesn't quite reach such graphic violence again, instead changing focus and ratcheting up the tension.

And what does it tell me about my own work? That what I've got planned will (assuming it's anywhere half-decent) work, and, given the success of Shan and others of similar ilk, that there is a market for it. Kids, it seems, want to have the bejesus scared out of them, just like I did when I was a kid. Consider me inspired.

Yet this last point opens another can of cliched worms; should we really be scaring youngsters with tales of demons, vampires, murder and blood-letting? Over at the Manx Litfest Facebook page, there's been a discussion on this very topic, sparked by an article in the Wall Street Journal, which claimed that YA fiction is too dark. I don't see a problem, generally speaking. Kids have always wanted to be entertained by such stories, whether it's Dad telling a creepy story around the campfire, watching the latest teen horror on a sleepover with mates or reading about rampaging zombies eating people's brains.

Of course, there is a limit to everything, although it's hard to say what that is. There's dark, and then there's sick. Or perverse. Or both. One person on FB suggested elements of society are viewing such books as the equivalent of video nasties, with the natural progression to assuming that any kid who reads about a demon killing his sister is going to follow suit. Should we sterilise our writing for children in order to ensure they read only nice, happy stories and are falling over themselves in a bid to help the elderly across the road? There is a place for such positive, happy tales. But I sincerely hope we're not heading down such a restrictive path, where darkness is, well, confined to the shadows.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Ass-kicking justice, Reacher-style

Review - Worth Dying For, Lee Child

Ah, Jack Reacher. The 6ft 5in Terminator-like bringer of justice, who's up righting wrongs while Spider-Man and Superman are still pulling on their knickers and fighting over the Weetabix. For his latest ass-kicking session, Child deposits Reacher in Nebraska, where he sticks his nose into the business of the Duncan family, three ageing ex-farmers who rule their home county with a mafia-style grip.

When Reacher busts the face of one of their sons, suspecting him of beating his wife, the Duncans call in their heavies and send them in Reacher's general direction. If you've read any Reacher before, you know what's coming - pain for anyone in Jack's way, and a complex web of intrigue, a dirty great scab the Duncans want to keep hidden, and, well, Jack just can't help but pick at it.

I finished Worth Dying For several weeks ago, but as I started to think about a review, I realised there wasn't a whole lot to say. Not because it's a bad book; far from it, I think it's one of the finest of his fifteen adventures. But if you've already fallen for Reacher's charms, then you know you can't delve into the plot without removing the joy for others of watching the big man piece it together.

No, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to talk about Reacher himself, and what it is that has enthralled millions of readers around the world.

Six years ago, when I read the first Reacher (Killing Floor) and blitzed through the back catalogue at a pace which had me believing I had true stalker potential, I thought of each book as one of my small guilty pleasures. It wasn't just because they were selling by the shitload, and so could be viewed as overly commerical; it was because the writing seemed too straightforward, Reacher a blunt vengeance-wreaking tool, almost superhero-like in his quest for justice. He was Batman, without the cape. And that was fine with me, but the impression I got from reviewers (and punters) was that it wasn't cool to admit it.

As the years, and books, passed, I realised I'd pegged it all wrong. The more I studied writing, and publishing, I began to see the beauty, and subtlety, of what Child was doing.

Sure, it all seems fairly formulaic - Jack gets caught up in some intrigue, sometimes of his own doing, other times because he's in the wrong place at the wrong time, nothing is quite as it seems, there's usually a woman involved somewhere along the line, and Jack is usually two steps ahead of the villains (and three ahead of the reader).

And it's easy to understand the attraction. Reacher is part Bond, part Batman, part Man With No Name, and all hero. In fact, if Eastwood was forty years younger, and forty pounds heavier, he'd be ideal for taking Reacher to the big screen. Reacher wanders the US, moving on once the problem has been solved and justice meted out, carrying nothing but the clothes he wears, a toothbrush and, reluctantly, a bank card.

It's a brilliantly simplistic idea that Child forged and developed. There is something in Reacher's lifestyle that appeals to everyone. MrsQ is no doubt going to read me the riot act, but would I like to live the kind of life that Reacher does? Hell, yes. At least, part of me does. And I defy anyone, man or woman, to say otherwise - even if it's just one per cent, even if you know there is absolutely no chance of you doing so, there's always that thought - wouldn't that just be so damn cool?

What fascinates me about Child's writing is the intricacies of the reveal. I picked up Worth Dying For as I lay in bed one night and when I stopped for breath, even thought about anything other than what I was reading, I was on page eighty. It must have been an hour, maybe an hour and a half, and it felt like ten minutes. It was half two in the morning, I was wide awake (I'd been dead on my feet getting into bed) and I had to keep reading. I eventually quit half an hour later, but only because I knew I was looking after the kids the next day, and they'd be pouncing on my head in about four hours' time.

It's page-turning expertise of the highest order. Child is a master at coaxing you on, not just with another bit of action, or the promise of seeing Reacher taking down a few of the bad guys. It's those morsels of info that he reveals, delicately placed throughout to ensure you're cursing his name when the kids demand a viewing of Spongebob at half six in the morning. That in itself is a prized skill for any writer to attain, and one that - to my mind - puts Child right up there with the best authors working today.

Returning to Worth Dying For, and indeed its predecessor, 61 Hours, I've noticed a change in Reacher. His time on the road might be numbered. Avoiding spoilers, he's focused on one thing now - both books follow his path back to Washington DC - yet, at the same time, his thirst for justice and willingness to put himself in harm's way seems to be more intense. At the start of Worth Dying For, there's a point where Reacher knows he can just keep on walking. He's not embroiled in anything yet, there's no 'event' which lands him where he is. He can avoid everything and not get involved in what he believes to be a domestic situation. But he can't help himself. It's as if the bomb that has been ticking inside him all these years is ready to detonate.

I've no idea what Child has in store for Reacher. When I interviewed him for the Litopia e-zine, Muse, fifteen months ago, he said that as long as people want to keep reading about Reacher, he was happy to write the books. Folk seem happier than ever to read them. But I can't help but feel that Reacher is being steered towards some kind of climax. Whichever way it pans out, I'll be right there with Jack, striding into danger, no matter what time of the morning it is.