13.05.10

Book Review: Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:02 pm

Forget everything you ever knew about unicorns…

The sparkly, innocent creatures of lore are a myth. Real unicorns are venomous, man-eating monsters with huge fangs and razor-sharp horns. And they can only be killed by virgin descendants of Alexander the Great.

Fortunately, unicorns have been extinct for a hundred and fifty years.

Or not.

Astrid Llewelyn has always scoffed ather eccentric mother’s stories about killer unicorns. But when one of the monsters attacks her boyfriend in the woods – thereby ruining any chance of him taking her to prom – Astrid learns that unicorns are real and dangerous, and she has a family legacy to uphold. Her mother packs her off to Rome to train as a unicorn hunter at the ancient cloisters the hunters have used for centuries.

However, at the cloisters, all is not what is seems. Outside, the unicorns wait to attack. And within, Astrid faces other, unexpected threats: from crumbling, bone-covered walls that vibrate with a terrible power to the hidden agendas of her fellow hunters to – perhaps most dangerously of all – her growing attraction to a handsome art student… and a relationship that could jeopardize everything.

This review contains minor spoilers.

I am having a particularly good run with young adult fiction lately, in that I keep picking up books that make me read them compulsively, sometimes furtively, until I’m done.  Out of that already excellent selection, Rampant is a particularly notable find.

I have to admit, unicorns are a mythological beastie I have a prejudice against, because I tend to like my beasties dark and nasty and not farting rainbows (or sparkling in sunlight, ahem).  Too much rainbow farting and no horn-impaling makes Aimee something something.  Until now, my favourite unicorn appears in a few of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, as the pet of the Queen of the Elves.  And he was only a bit player anyway.

No one could accuse the unicorns in Rampant of farting rainbows.

Borrowing from folklore that posits that unicorns are more likely to spike and devour you than take you on their back to a special land of fairies and cake, Rampant’s unicorns are venomous, bloodthirsty, and fairly revolting in general, but also at times amazing, and even sympathetic.  They are not at all a creature with whose pictures you would decorate a child’s bedroom, unless you wanted to traumatise the child in question.

But enough on unicorns.  What really makes Rampant sing, and what makes it stand out in a sea of stellar YA fiction, are the characters, particularly the main character, Astrid Llewelyn.  Astrid is smart, snarky, brave and a little neurotic – pretty much what you’d expect from someone who’s just discovered that a mythological being exists and she’s descended from a line of people who are powerful enough to kill it.  The supporting cast of characters, from Astrid’s American schoolmates to the fellow hunters she meets in the cloisters in Rome, are convincingly drawn, right down to the briefest encounters.  The dialogue is realistic, fast, fresh and occasionally hilarious, and Astrid’s inner monologue is part Buffy, part Daria, and part something else entirely that makes it unique.  She’s the kind of girl you’d want to hang out with because she’s so awesome and cool, and not just because she could save you from being gored and eaten.

Peterfreund remains faithful to the unicorn folklore that states that only virgins can tame them, and I loved how she used this; in the hands of a lesser writer, it’s the kind of thing that could potentially make me want to throw a book across the room.  The topic of sex and virginity in YA novels can always be counted on to get folks raging on all sides of the sexual politics spectrum.  Peterfreund’s unicorn hunter characters are all discovering their powers – and how conditional they are – right at a point in their lives where they’re also discovering their sexuality, and deciding what they want out of their relationships with boys, and the confusion that all this causes is pitch-perfect.  Astrid does not meekly accept that her powers are fully dependent on her virginity, and her resulting internal conflict provides some tense and dramatic moments.

Likewise, I was very impressed with how Peterfreund dealt with the issue of rape; again, a topic that many writers struggle with and cop out on, she deals with it coolly and compassionately, with a sneaky, kick-arse dismissal of the idea of “grey rape”, and a sensitive understanding of self-blame and survivor psychology.  I wish more novels – not just YA but fiction in general – dealt with this topic with the same level of compassion and humanity, rather than lazily using it, as is often the case, as a convenient plot point (motive for revenge!  The character development you have when you’re not actually developing a character!  Just random filler!  Whatever!), or treating it as something that inevitably happens to female characters, particularly in situations where there are other types of violence.

I could probably write an essay on how much I like this book, and why.  Quite easily, in fact.  I will be recommending it to people regardless of their age and their stance on the Zombies vs Unicorns debate (like I mentioned on Twitter, I’m a staunch Team Zombie girl, but Rampant has almost swayed me).  The story moves at a cracking pace, there’s a lot of intrigue, some of it out of left field at times, and, really, how many folklore-based, well-written feminist action novels do you get to read?

28.04.10

Book Review: Loving Richard Feynman by Penny Tangey

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:26 pm

Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.  Catherine is a science-loving fifteen-year-old.  Richard helped build the atom bomb.  Catherine’s just trying to survive school.

When your life is falling apart around you, is talking to a dead physicist normal?

Catherine thinks so, but it isn’t until her life begins unravelling that she learns who she can really trust.

In Loving Richard Feynman, her debut novel,  Penny Tangey has revealed that she has a gift for touching on the old with enough of the new that it feels completely fresh.  The narrative takes place as a series of letters that Catherine writes to Richard Feynman, self-consciously at first, and eventually completely openly.  Given that letters and diary entries such a well-worn form of telling a story, particularly in YA, this could have gone badly or just blandly, but having one of the greatest physicists the world has ever known as the focus of Catherine’s unrequitable letters works really well; Catherine learns more about Richard Feynman as she learns about herself, and uses his life and times (as told through biographies and Feynman’s autobiography) as a one-way sounding board for her own angst.

Catherine is such an awesome main character.  It’s still unusual in YA to have a female character that is so unabashedly nerdy, witty, smart and brave.  Catherine’s cousin refers to her in one scene as a “box of nerdish delight”, and this is absolutely spot on.  Catherine is smart, headstrong and hilarious, with enough emotional fragility that she’s still easy to relate to; her insistance that she doesn’t care what others think (inspired by Feynman) is more of a mantra than a verifiable fact.  It’s also nice to come across a teenage female protagonist who isn’t  afraid to indentify – loudly – as a feminist.

Catherine’s school life feels very realistic; possibly particularly so to me as, like her, I went to high school in a small Victorian country town, and the party scene in the paddock is all too familiar.  But the travails and trails are well-referenced here without seeming stale or cliche, which is an absolute boon.

As Catherine’s own life begins to change, she leans more heavily on her imagined relationship with Feynman, only to discover, as she learns more about his life, that he is just as human and fallible as the people around her.  Although the letters begin as a way for her to retreat from her life for a moment to make sense of it, she becomes more self-aware about the relationship she imagines and the ideals she is projecting onto Feynman.  It’s a clever in-text critique of the novel’s own structure, and it drives the narrative smoothly to its crisis point.

Loving Richard Feynman should be read by every current and former high school nerd, and by anyone who loves fresh, funny YA fiction with strong female characters.  Penny Tangey is a writer to watch.