Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A cutting review.

I know we all love it when I review children's books. I'm so witty. I'm so thoughtful. I'm so mean. How could I trash my peers so easily? Why would I say anything detrimental to that art of arts: writing? Why do I insist on shooting myself in the foot while punching my betters in the face? (Because, let's face it, they's published and I ain't).

Because they deserve it. I would expect the same and when I receive it, I will chew my knuckle in pain and make excuses and point fingers, but the reality is that you write for your readers, whoever they are. If they hate it and can articulate why, then that's your problem, not theirs.


Blade: Playing Dead
and Blade: Closing In by Carnegie medallist, Tim Bowler, are the first and second books in a four part series. The story follows the eponymous Blade on his adrenalin-fuelled adventures around a present-day British capital city. Blade is a fourteen year old tough kid with university-grade street smarts and a past. He narrates the action in first-person present tense, addressing the reader as ‘Bigeyes’ (an excellent touch) and placing his captive audience squarely beside him with instructions to keep watch or admonitions to stop asking so many damn questions. His voice is original and believable and his modern day street kid lingo almost conceals the fifty-five-year-old author behind it, trawling chatrooms, blogs and networks, straining for the holy grail of young adult fiction: authentic, un-self-conscious cool.

The Blade books are, on the surface, gritty, exciting, compulsive reading. Blade himself is neck-deep in action from the first page; shoplifting, back-talking, battling rival gangs, mixing up with murder, crime and intrigue and doing it all alone. He refers to past events and tragedies while still hiding them from the reader, as though Bigeyes too, must earn his trust before he will elaborate on exactly what they have to do with his current circumstances.

The target audience (reluctant, young, mostly male readers) will appreciate the honest, uncensored action and violence. Nothing is glossed over or hidden for their protection: people get hit, beaten up, stabbed, shot and killed, but the story doesn’t call for gore and glorification of the violence. We experience see these shocking events through the eyes of a fourteen year old boy who isn’t happy about seeing them. The realism of the action flows through its restrained telling.
However, the gruff, mistrustful fourteen year old narrator does create a problem. Despite the attempts to explain his verbosity and thoughtfulness through his hidden past and some-time penchant for books, the entire mis-en-scene, as described in relentless stream-of-consciousness by Blade, is shallow and black and white at best. While this is a deliberate decision by Bowler to maintain the tough, realistic feel of the story, it does rob the audience of any real sense of the world in which Blade lives. He breaks into half a dozen houses and visits different parts of the city, but none really differentiate from the others. Setting feels entirely unimportant as Blade is either running from predators through identical streets, lanes and parks or hiding quietly from them in equally-interchangeable safe house locations. There is no real vivid picture painting going on, just minimalist exposition: dark, light, locked, un-locked, urgent, quiet. There are no colours, tastes or smells. Physical descriptions are limited to functional details relevant to Blade’s progress. The sparse prose certainly serves the purpose of not impeding the action, but action without place is just interpretive dance.

There have been better action sequences. Bowler hangs grimly to his formula throughout: trouble, escape, hide, repeat. A few of the afore-mentioned realistically portrayed acts of violence are sprinkled in for (slight) variation. Suspense is drawn from the reader like an expected curtesy rather than something the author has worked for. Blade spends about half of his time demonstrating his uncanny extrasensory perception (foresight, x-ray vision and mind-reading) and the other half making decisions based on completely ignoring those perceptions. Maybe there’s a reason for this confluence of sixth-sense and foolishness, but, two books in, no explanation has been forthcoming other than Blade’s irritating mantra, ‘Don’t ask how I know, I just know.’

This reluctance to outline base facts and the Blade series’ approach to character development and structure all point towards one clear fact: these books are a rip off. Rip. Off. A rort, a scam. A tricky little scheme to make money. The series is comprised of a series of four separate books, sold as such for $14.95 each. All released at once, each containing the covers of the entire set within their back cover.

The problem is that each book isn’t a stand-alone story, designed to be enjoyed both separately and as a part of the whole. The first two books, at least, contain only minor parts of a single story arc; they provide no solutions and implore the reader on their back pages to purchase the next instalment. There are only hints pointing towards the major points upon which the story hangs: where is Blade going and from where has he come? In order to learn the answers, young readers must spend the better part of simply to finish reading a story with all the markers of an urban thriller and none of the intriguing charm. Blade should have been sold as a single book. There are no chapters to divide events into manageable sections for younger readers and the tone and subject matter both point towards an audience of an age easily able to deal with longer texts. As an artistic exercise this series is the equivalent of selling four full-price tickets to one movie and just as reprehensible on the part of the producers.

Coupled with the current fashionable hysteria in Britain over knife attacks (Blade, predictably, is a master with a concealed weapon), the Blade series reeks of savvy publishers striking while the iron is plugged in and ready to press the party shirt of the Zeitgeist. Dividing a single B-grade story over four separate, full-priced novels is a truly masterful piece of marketing at the expense of artistic product and the pockets of reluctant readers.

GTH - Shippy, Squib and River are all kicking goals and being awarded points. It might seem like a rip off, but it's really not!


  1. Jeez you're really keen on that interpretive dance metaphor aren't you?

    In other news, the font on your blog is fucking tiny. Thank god for the ctrl+ button.

  2. $14.95? That's a rip-off especially when you consider that you can get my friend Daphne's e-book here like totally for free

    That works out at 0 cents per 77 000 words, what a bargain!!!

  3. GTH: One of Alfred's Hitchcock's lesser known works, 'Rear Mirror'

  4. 327 - Surely you don't think that I just sat down every day and plucked yon sentence from the air? Which do you imagine came first?

    As for the font - ? I set it at the same size it always has been

    Squib - Gawd. I KNOW. I really had to reel my criticism back on this one. The books are just SO plainly written as a single story, or at least a serial.

    Nice plug by the way. Not too sure when I'll find a moment to plow through 77,000 words on the compuscreen

    And that's a top-notch guess too.

  5. I don't keep up much with new children's books. At first your review led me to think this could be a good story that I might possibly buy for my grandson for christmas, but then you went on to suggest there isn't much real depth to the character, so maybe not. Give your honest opinion here, is it the type of story that would keep a young boy reading and lead him to search out more books?

    GTH: Driving in the rain on your way to Qld. with the window down so the windscreen doesn't fog up, with the stereo way up high so you can sing along and still hear it over the rain.
    Ooooh-I like squib's answer.

  6. I'm thinking the Blade not only sounds like an attempt to be directed towards thinking of the action movie starring the Sniper, and that the way it you describe the interpretations of Blade's surroundings, it sounds the like an almost complete rip off.

    I must say I like the Squibster's GTH, but now I've opened the account. I'm going to go with...

    GTH: Like a metaphor, the car's mirror gives a clear picture, however it's blurred by the foam from the surrounding car wash - much the same as the book you digested seems clear in the way the action is described, whereas the surroundings are blurred in someway.

  7. Oh, and window down and system up, the way action should be baby. With a sweet soundtrack.

  8. Yo 327!
    I agree, but my fix is ctrl-scrollwheel coupled with a 42" Plasma.
    Boobs have never looked so big! Or true to life!

  9. River - If you are rolling and cash and don't care what you spend to get your grandson reading, then by all means, buy these four books. But for nearly sixty dollars there are a LOT more and better books out there. You could even buy two or three different books. How good would that be?

    Shippy - Aye. The Squibster's guess is good, but you're making it tough...

    TooS - What boobs? Where?

    Ninj - What vampires? Where?

  10. Rolling in cash?
    I'll get the boy a gift voucher from Borders, he can make his own choice. The other grandson does well from Borders. Loves reading.

  11. Not too sure when I'll find a moment to plow through 77,000 words on the compuscreen

    Oh man, have I got stellar news for you then. You can buy in in print version for ONLY $US15 (plus postage)

    But wait! There's MORE!

  12. Hmmm, maybe you should also venture into reviewing adult books? I've just submitted a negative review of one that won a NSW writers' award, yet was utter shite.

    GTH - you're at a carwash, driving through!


An explanation of The Joy Division Litmus Test

Although it may now be lost in the mysts of thyme, the poll below is still relevant to this blog. In the winter of 2008, Mele and I went to live in Queensland. In order to survive, I bluffed my way into a job at a Coffee Club.
It was quite a reasonable place to work: the hours were regular, the staff were quite nice, it wasn't particularly taxing on my brain.
There were a few downsides: In the six weeks or so that I worked there, there was about a 90% staff turnover (contributed to by my leaving). This wasn't seen as a result of the low pay, the laughability of staff prices or the practice of not distributing tips to staff, rather it was blamed on the lack of work ethic among Bribie Island's youth.
However, one of the stranger aspects of the cultural isolation that touched our lives during our time "up there" was the fact that nobody at my work had heard of the band Joy Division.
The full explanation is available here.
But please, interact a little further and vote in my ongoing poll. The results are slowly mounting up, proving one thing: people read this blog are more well-informed about Joy Division than anyone who works at the Coffee Club on Bribie Island.

Have you heard of the band Joy Division?

Chinese food, not Chinese Internet!

Champions of Guess The Header

  • What is Guess The Header about? Let’s ask regular “Writing” reader, Shippy: "Anyway, after Franzy's stunning September, and having a crack at 'Guess The Header' for the first time - without truly knowing what I was doing mind you - I think I finally understand what 'GTH' is all about. At first I thought you needed to actually know what it was. Don't get me wrong — if you know what it is, it may help you. I now realise that it's more Franzy's way of invoking thought around an image or, more often than not, part of an image. If you dissect slightly the GTH explanatory sentence at the bottom of his blog you come up with this: “The photo is always taken by me and always connects in some way to the topic of the blog entry it heads up.” When the header is put up, the blog below it will in some obscure way have something to do with it. “Interesting comments are judged and scored arbitrarily and the process is open to corruption and bribery with all correspondence being entered into after the fact and on into eternity, ad infinitum amen.” Franzy judges it, but it's not always the GTH that describes the place perfectly that gets it. “The frequent commenters, the wits, the wags and the outright smartarses who, each entry, engage to both guess the origin and relevance of the strip of photo at the top (or “head”) of each new blog and also who leave what I deem the most interesting comment.” It generally helps if you're a complete smartarse and can twist things to mean whatever you feel they should mean - exactly the way Franzy would like things to be twisted." - Shippy Blogger and GTH point scorer.
  • Nai - 1
  • Lion Kinsman - 2
  • Will - 2
  • Brocky - 2
  • Andy Pants - 2
  • The 327th Male - 3
  • Mad Cat Lady - 3
  • Miles McClagen - 4
  • Myninjacockle - 4
  • Asheligh - 5
  • Neil - 5
  • Third Cat - 5
  • Adam Y - 6
  • Squib - 6
  • Mele - 6
  • Moifey - 7
  • Jono - 8
  • The Other, other Sam - 14
  • Kath Lockett - 15
  • Shippy - 19
  • River - 32