Thursday, 30 June 2011

Review: Swim the Fly - Don Calame

Extent: 371 pages
Publisher: Templar
Pub Date: 1st June 2011

Fifteen-year-old Matt Gratton and his two best friends, Coop and Sean, always set themselves a summertime goal. This year? To see a real-live naked girl for the first time. But this impossible mission starts to look easy in comparison to Matt's other challenge: to swim the 100 yard butterfly (the hardest stroke known to man) and impress the gorgeous Kelly West.

I warn you, do not read this book on public transport unless you don’t mind people staring at you tittering away in the corner. Many books are funny but very few force eruptions of laughter from you when you least expect it, and Swim the Fly by Don Calame falls very comfortably into that category. This book is packed with all the cringey, awkward and embarrassing moments that plague the average teen boy’s life as the trio of 15-year-old boys try to fulfil their summertime goal – to see a naked girl. Cue one badly laid plan after the other, all ending in catastrophe. Each chapter is like one episode after another of a coming-of-age sitcom, only without the unfunny bits like drugs and underage pregnancy. It’s pure slapstick with enjoyable tributes to the edgy.

Don’s experience as a screenwriter shines through in this story as it reads like a film, going at a really good pace and employing realistic dialogue. Perhaps the greatest skill in the writing lies in the way he weaves the relationships between each character and gives even the minor characters a really well-developed personality. I think my favourite bit part character is Grandpa Arlo with his shameless pursuit of the recently widowed Mrs Hoogenboom. I would probably die of embarrassment if my grandfather said some of the things Grandpa Arlo does and even he is a victim of the bad plan epidemic. However, despite the cringeathon, there are some really sweet moments in this book, especially the relationship between the three boys, Matt, Coop and Sean. Their interactions are so convincing that you think you’ve been reading about them for years but you’ve only known them for a few pages. Their friendship is so strong and despite their constant larking about, it’s clear they would do anything for each other and this is evident in the one decent plan Coop and Sean make at the end to help Matt out in his race. I won’t spoil it!

There’s also a serious side to Swim the Fly – if you can believe it – and it’s a side that really shows up the beauty and subtlety of the writing. From start to finish there’s a tremendous sense of Matt’s journey from boy to man. I know it’s an age old cliché but it’s woven so subtly that you don’t really realise what’s happened until you start thinking about it. Matt starts off as a pretty superficial guy, desperate to fit in and ogling the hottest girl on the swim team, but as the story goes on he gradually finds his humanity, realising what kind of girlfriend he actually wants, what really matters in life and what his friends mean to him. This is the beauty of the story: couching a heart-warming journey within hilarious episodes, keeping the story light but maintaining a significance and a reason to actually read it. It’s not a throw away comedy, it’s a beautiful and funny story, a really clever plot that will have you thinking fondly of it, like an old friend, for many months afterwards.

And don’t think this is a story strictly for teen boys. Girls, Don has an amazing ability to get inside the mind of a teen boy so don’t miss out on this rare insight. Adults, this one will have you indulging that secret immature side of yourself – the one that laughs internally at rude jokes and still marvels at new ways to refer to secret parts. You know it’s there – do not resist!

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Review: Shark Island - David Miller

Extent: 352 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pub Date: 7th May 2009

Hanna, Ned and their parents are on the holiday of a lifetime on the paradise island of Kaitan. But the idyll is shattered when pirates come in the night, burning their house and kidnapping their mother and father. The children are stranded, and don’t even know if their parents are alive or dead.

In this action-packed adventure, there is no one to help. Escape will take every drop of their cunning, courage, and stamina...

I can safely say I had a serious case of the post holiday blues when I finished Shark Island. David Miller’s recreation of Malaysia is so vivid that every time I came to read it I was instantly there, on an adventure holiday of a lifetime in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. I think this is what really struck me about this book, it almost felt like a true story, a hybrid of travel writing and adventure as the level of detail is so high. The author has clearly spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia and it’s a real asset to this story that it shows. The detail is in the real nitty-gritty aspects of Malaysia, the ones not covered in the travel guides like the farms and the Sea Gypsy village, giving the country a real dynamic edge in your imagination.

It’s also really refreshing to have a cast made up almost entirely of non-Caucasians. Ned and Hanna, the book’s heroes, are half Chinese and the rest are made up of Malaysians or the Sea Gypsies who add a really fascinating aspect to the plot. It’s rare in a children’s book to find an almost unknown minority group so intricately explored and their culture so neatly uncovered that the reader finds they have experienced a whole new mythology within the fun of fiction. I get especially excited when a book incorporates a new language, and this story is peppered with Sea Gypsy words that add to the feeling of being right there, working on your tan whilst dodging corrupt officials.

The adventure story itself was not at all disappointing either. David Miller really captures the moments of ecstatic hope and dark despair two teens would really go through as they struggle entirely on their own to find their kidnapped parents. The emotions run deep and a strong storyline complements this very effectively. There are moments of genuine suspense without predictability and the author doesn’t shy away from the ruthlessness of the modern-day pirate. In fact, modern piracy is not the only hot topic this book covers, you’ll also find political corruption, eco-tourism, poverty and minority persecution getting a fair share of the plot. As well as being a thrilling adventure, the reader is getting a decent insight into some of the serious issues found in many Southeast Asian countries.

In all, if you want a jolly good adventure romp and have dreamed of going to exotic climes but can’t afford the flights then this is the book for you. It’s an adventure and a holiday rolled into one and you can go there without leaving the comfort and economy of your own armchair. It’s the kind of adventure you always dreamed of having as a kid, but without knowing it, you’re also learning heaps about a secluded culture and taking a tour that Google Earth couldn’t better. I can’t wait to go on my next holiday in Sea Wolf!

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Review: Gone - Michael Grant

Extent: 576 pages
Publisher: Egmont
Pub Date: 3rd September 2009

Suddenly it’s a world without adults and normal has crashed and burned. When life as you know it ends at 15, everything changes. There are no adults, no answers. What would you do?

Those left must do all they can to survive. But everyone’s idea of survival is different. Some look after themselves, some look after others, and some will do anything for power... Even kill.

For Sam and Astrid, it is a race against time as they try to solve the questions that now dominate their lives . . . What is the mysterious wall that has encircled the town of Perdido Beach and trapped everyone within? Why have some kids developed strange powers? And can they defeat Caine and his gang of bullies before they turn fifteen and disappear too?

It isn't until the world collapses around you that you find out what kind of person you really are.

If you need to go on a crash diet then my advice is to read this book. When I first downloaded Gone onto my Kindle I thought it was going to take me ages to get through it as it’s pretty hefty – digitally speaking – but within only a few days I was distraught to find I’d hit the last page. Apart from work I suspended all other activities and a bowl of cereal became a suitable substitute for dinner. I literally trembled my way through Gone and could not abide putting it down in case something hideous should happen to the characters in my imagination. Every time I had to switch off, the heroes were on the point of defeat and I couldn’t bear to leave them hanging there, so switch offs were fairly infrequent (that’s what I particularly love about my Kindle, needing no hands to read is a real aid to multi-tasking!).

The writing is spot on for this kind of story, the pace is perfect to keep your heart pounding and the story complex and long enough to leave you satisfied. So many questions are raised right from the start and the lack of answers is agonising but the real key to Michael Grant’s writing is that no answer is predictable. I was literally left scratching my head, teetering on the point of confusion when I turned the final page and I don’t know how I have managed not to dive straight into the next book – some form of mental masochism I suppose.

It’s the main character, Sam, that holds all the threads of the story together and keeps his friends alive with his quick thinking and natural courage. Sam offers a glimmer of hope that in the event of adult eradication a leader would step up who was good-natured and had incredible common sense but at the same time, his inevitable demise hangs over the reader as a countdown to his fifteenth birthday is issued at the start of every chapter. Sam and his friends are so easy to empathise with, they all have their own problems and their own way of dealing with those problems and none of them lack characterisation.

Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of this story is that it is so reasonable to imagine that out of the book universe, if all the adults really did vanish, every single event the characters go through could actually happen. Why wouldn’t the bullies become tyrants? Why wouldn’t it take so long to organise search parties for the youngest survivors that they end up finding only corpses? Why wouldn’t a kid take over the McDonald's to try to boost morale? More importantly, the kids have real problems like bulimia, cowardice, autism and psychopathy, which makes for an interesting cast that set up engaging plot assets and storylines – they’re not just your average book heroes with endearing little flaws, they have the hardcore issues you would find in any bunch of actual kids.

You do start to freak a little at the realism, like when you were forced to read Lord Of The Flies for GCSE, and that’s exactly what this book is – Lord Of The Flies with microwaves and mutations. There are moments when I felt genuinely uncomfortable and slightly disturbed, there are vivid images that will stay with you, popping into your head at unexpected times and reminding you that you haven’t read any of the sequels yet. But if you can swallow all that, you’ll find in Gone an astonishing exploration of courage – what it means to different people, how different people achieve it and how people deal with not having it.

Gone is so worth reading and when you have, I challenge you to say you were not deeply affected by it.