2 February 2011

6. White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick

I have mixed feelings about White Crow. On the one hand, I couldn't put it down, read it in one sitting last night and stayed up far too late so I knew what happened. On the other hand, I didn't really understand the ending and so there was a bit of an anticlimax.

White Crow is Marcus Sedgwick's latest young adult gothic tale; it is not a difficult read but it is definitely not for younger children as it covers serious topics and is really quite scary in places. I have arranged for Marcus Sedgwick to come into my school in May and I asked one of my student fans of his which his favourite book was and I was recommended White Crow. I have also heard good things about My Swordhand is Singing and Blood Red, Snow White, and Revolver was shortlisted for the Carnegie award 2010 so I will probably try those at some point in the future.

White Crow is set both in the present day and in the 18th century. In the present day it follows Rebecca, a teenager who has just been uprooted from London to the tiny village of Winterfold because of a mistake her Dad made in his investigations of a missing child. Winterfold is on the edge of a cliff and gradually falling into the sea which adds to the otherwordly feel of the village and the book. Rebecca is bored, lonely and confused about how culpable her Dad really is for what the press claim he did. She meets Ferelith, an intelligent, goth teenager who lives in a kind of commune in the village. We get some passages from Ferelith's perspective and she is revealed to be very bright and also to have some sort of sinister plan going on. Sedgwick creates a creepy character in Ferelith and along with Rebecca, we're never quite sure when she's telling the truth, when she's just eager to make a friend or when she is following her unspecified ulterior motive with Rebecca. I did find myself getting frustrated with Rebecca for keeping on forgiving her and then trusting her again after the various things that Ferelith does. Rebecca herself, whilst the main character and relatable as a teenager, is really just a canvas for the action and the story of the book to happen to. The story is never told in Rebecca's voice either which adds to this, on purpose I'm sure.

Interspersed with Rebecca and Ferelith's story are journal entries from an 18th century priest who recounts his dealings with the newly arrived Dr. Barrieux in Winterfold Hall and their experiments into life after death. These are quite brief, and rather vague until we suddenly find out more about the nature of their experiments as it links in to what is happening in the present day. Whilst not entirely unexpected as it has been hinted at, the reveal of what exactly they are doing is gruesome and horrible. The theme of life and death and religion is present throughout the book; Rebecca and Ferelith discuss whether they believe in God and the idea of the titular white crow is that just as one white crow would prove that all crows are not black; seeing one person contacting the living world from beyond the grave proves that it is possible.

Sedgwick's talent lies in his writing; it is unputdownable as well as unnerving and creepy. I was totally sucked into the story and desperate to find out what was going to happen. Whilst there is a vague sense of where the story is headed, I really had no idea how the story was going to finish. Having said that, the final pages produced a kind of twist which I must admit I didn't really understand. I got the general idea but didn't really feel like there had been enough in the preceeding chapters to make the specifics clear enough. Personally, I like things to make sense thoroughly, even in a fictional supernatural story(!), and I am looking forward to quizzing Sedgwick when he visits my school on what the ending meant!

1 February 2011

5. A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

I started reading this book about three weeks ago and finished it, on page 872, on Sunday night and really feel like I've achieved something. It is not an easy read and you need to concentrate on what you're reading to follow the various characters and politics. Having said that, I really enjoyed it and was inspired to find out more about the French Revolution as well.

A Place of Greater Safety is set during the French Revolution and focuses on the lives of three of its main players ; Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques Danton and Maximilien Robespierre. Mantel gives us a brief few chapters on their childhoods but the majority of the book covers their adult lives; the years 1787 to 1784 when Desmoulins and Danton were executed. I cannot comment on how accurate the novel is historically although there haven't been glaring contradictions with the brief research I did online after reading it. Wolf Hall, Mantel's novel about Thomas Cromwell was accurate enough to avoid annoyance re. the Tudors which I studied at university, so I'm willing to assume the same here. No doubt elements has been fleshed out and gaps filled it but that is the necessity of historical fiction.

Mantel really brings the period to life and cleverly explores three men with fascinating characters. None of them are what you could really call likeable; Desmoulins is amoral, Robespierre cold and Danton aggressive. Nonetheless the scenes at the end when Danton and Desmoulins caused a few tears on my part as Mantel ably constructs believable and complex relationships between the three men and their friends and family. The tragedy of the scale of death during the Revolution is brought to you on human terms.  Mantel really brings home how brutal the  Revolution was; that men who were responsible for starting it in the first place were then executed for treason against the republic, mere years later. The fear and desperation of people waiting to be arrested for nothing more than being from an aristocratic family or not showing enough revolutionary vigour is ever present.

Desmoulins in particular is a sympathetically written character for all his flaws and his relationship with his wife, Lucile Duplessis, shouldn't be something you buy into but I couldn't help myself and when they are parted was one of the most emotional moments for me. Their relationship is intense and bizarre provides an unexpected romantic plot for the novel which is chiefly concerned with friendships and political relationships.

Robespierre is a frightening character who is constantly fighting his human instincts to try to become incorruptible for the sake of the revolution who eventually gets tied in knots and exhausts his mind trying to become it.

Similar to Wolf Hall, sometimes I found it difficult to work out who was speaking/who was being spoken about. Unlike Wolf Hall, this didn't seem to be down to a literary device (in Wolf Hall Cromwell is always referred to as 'he') but just not enough clarity or perhaps not allowing for a reader having only a cursory knowledge of the people and politics of revolutionary France. The novel is preceded by eight pages of character lists and I found myself frequently having to refer back to them. Characters often have very similar names, which is hardly Mantel's fault, however perhaps she could have made a bit clearer who was who within the actual novel, not just in the character lists. I found at points that I just gave up on trying to follow who was who and which committee was which, which lessened my enjoyment of it as I wasn't as involved in it.

My only other criticism is that the third quarter of the novel began to drag a little before working up to the climax of Danton and Desmoulins' trial. The novel is huge and I felt as though it could have been condensed slightly to avoid that dip in interest before the end.

The novel is a massive accomplishment on Mantel's part, I've never read anything like it and to be unique is a special thing for a novel. I found it fascinating, engrossing and challenging which is exactly what I want in a novel.



World Book Night

I was very pleased to find out this morning that my application to be a book giver for World Book Night had been successful.

World Book Night is a brilliant project that is arranging a giveaway of a million books on the night of Saturday 5th March by giving 20000 people 50 books to give out around the country for free. The website is at http://www.worldbooknight.org/ if you want to find out more.

Anyone had the opportunity to register, explain why they wanted to take part and choose which book they wanted to give away in March. I chose David Nicholls 'One Day' which was one of my favourite books from last year (see my Top 10 Books of 2010 post). 

I'm really looking forward to getting my books and being part of the first World Book Night!