guards, Lina somehow sur vives, although her mother dies along with many others.
This is necessarily a tough and unrelenting read. But Lina’s courage and determination to survive is both inspiring and shaming for readers who might recently have found themselves kicking up a fuss over a comparatively minor problem with their own physical lot. Some relief from Lina’s day to day torment is provided by scenes remembered from her contented past, interspersed throughout the story. There is also one outspoken older prisoner whose blunt speaking, however unwelcome by others, does act as a safety valve for expressing totally negative feelings at a time when everyone else is trying so hard to be as optimistic as possible. Sparely written, unflinching in detail and passionately on the side of a small nation mercilessly bullied by its bigger neighbour, this is a novel crying out to be read. The voices of those who once suffered so dreadfully in this dismal and still largely unreported episode in the last war deserve to be heard, and this fine novel should ensure that they will never be forgotten.
Cat Clarke, Quercus, 384pp, 978 1 84916 394 1, £6.99 pbk
Grace meets Ethan the night she is planning to kill herself. After drinking most of a bottle of vodka she finds herself imprisoned in a mysterious white room with Ethan as her warder. He leaves pens and paper for her and eventually she begins to note down what has been happening to her. Initially her life appears to be fairly normal – she has a best friend Sal and a boyfriend Nat but she tells us: ‘It’s when I’m alone that the doubt sets in. It’s been that way for years. As long as there are people around, I can pretend everything’s OK. But I need that audience to pretend for, otherwise it doesn’t work. Alone, I’m not that easy to fool.’
Eventually the real story emerges and we begin to understand the despair that has led Grace to want
Life: An Exploded Diagram HHHHH
Mal Peet, Walker, 416pp, 978 1 8442 8100 8, £7.99 pbk
In the Bag HHHH
Jim Carrington, Bloomsbury, 384pp, 978 1 4088 0270 0, £6.99 pbk
Two teenagers unexpectedly stumbling across a large sum of money is hardly a new idea, but Carrington gives it new energy in his second, highly accomplished novel. Tautly written in the voices of the two boys concerned, tension rises as their initial euphoria gives way first to guilt and then to fear as fate in the form of a nasty couple of drug dealers in search of their lost funds gradually closes in on them. Not quite resolved at the end, there is still enough excitement and drama in these pages to keep readers involved throughout. The warning ‘contains strong language’ on the back cover is well taken, with plenty of swearing and frequent references to boozing and drug inhalation keeping everything sounding very contemporary. On this form, Carrington is certainly an author to watch out for.
‘When Frankie lets you put your hand Down There, which soon she will surely do, what will you do with it? Show your workings.’ It’s 1962, and a hot summer during the Cold War. Clem is a working-class boy from a council estate whose deepening relationship with Frankie, the daughter of a wealthy landowner, must be kept secret, or it will blow both their worlds apart. Meanwhile, President Kennedy and Russian leader Nikita Khruschev are shaping up to do just that: with nuclear warheads. Soon, the reverberations of the Cuban Missile crisis reach even rural Norfolk, where the sound of wingéd chariots hurrying near has devastating consequences for Clem and Frankie.
How do I admire this breathtakingly intricate novel? Let me count the ways. There’s its beautiful, bittersweet evocation of rural adolescence in 1962, so sensually done that you can almost hear the fizzing hormones. There’s its sheer scope – Google Earth in a novel - as we zoom out from the North Norfolk strawberr y fields to land in the testosterone-fuelled tensions of JFK’s cabinet room and the humid jungles of Cuba and the Bay of Pigs. There are its gloriously imagined characters: both the older ones who fold inside themselves the disappointments and deprivations of war time; and the younger ones, star ting to taste freedoms and opportunities of which their parents can scarcely conceive. And there’s the fact that the whole is utterly untainted by blinkering nostalgia. ‘Nostalgics want to cuddle
to destroy herself. People have been taken in by her cheerful party girl façade but Grace’s life is out of control – she has been cutting since she was 15, often gets drunk and she uses sex as a calling card. She misses her father who left and blames her distant and emotionally unavailable mother.
Grace writes down her dreams as the days go by in the strange limbo of her imprisonment. As she writes, puzzling events somehow become clearer, assumptions are questioned and new perspectives emerge: for example, did her mother really drive her father away or did he choose to leave? Meanwhile the mysterious Ethan does nothing more than feed her and occasionally prompt her. Grace begins to feel on the edge of something and that something, she realises, is ‘the truth’.
Grace is a psychologically convin- cing troubled teenager and her strange predicament is in itself the stuff of dreams. Cat Clarke handles her multi-layered story with skill and introduces a bold twist at the end but Reader, you must read it yourself... A most accomplished and daring debut novel.
RS Long Reach HHH
Peter Cocks, Walker, 416pp, 978 1 4063 2475 4, £6.99 pbk
When 17-year-old Eddie Savage learns that the body of his brother, Steve, has been washed up in the Thames, it is shocking enough. But then he finds out that Steve was working undercover for the police, and was probably murdered in the line of duty. Determined to avenge his brother’s death, Eddie says goodbye to his old life, and goes undercover too. His first mission is to infiltrate a tough south London gang, and get some implicating dir t on its guv’nor, Tommy Kelly.
‘Powerful, compelling stuff that pulls no punches,’ says Mark Billingham in his cover quote for this, Peter Cocks’ first novel, for ages 14+. The choice of an author of such gritty adult crime novels as Bloodline and From the Dead to champion Long Reach is a telling one. Not that Long Reach fails to live up to Billingham’s billing, for it certainly qualifies as ‘powerful and compelling’. But rather because the fare served up here is ‘adult’ indeed. ‘Cocks’ are ‘put on the block’. Vicious henchmen of the gangland sever fingers, kneecap, and worse. Copious amounts of cocaine are snorted. A character is executed at point blank range for alleged disloyalty. And later comes a quite sickening murder, when a nightclub owner is sliced almost in half with a Samurai sword, and his body clinically disposed of.
That’s not to say that any of this is gratuitous. Cocks has clearly done his research into the shady world he describes, and this is a story that smacks of authenticity, and is probably all too real. In fact I found myself longing for a couple of human sub-plots to relieve the one-track brutality and nihilism. And Eddie’s internal moral tussle, while touched on, is not sufficiently explored for my sensitivities. But the main point here is that, aside from its teenage protagonist, there is nothing ‘young adult’ about this novel at all. Give it to a 14-year-old if you wish, but know this: it’s not for the faint-hear ted reader of any age.
the past like a puppy,’ says Clem. ‘But the past has bloody teeth and bad breath.’
Just one warning siren: the ending of this novel is one of those where you find yourself frantically turning the pages to check that it really is the end. And I’m not sure how much I liked being left like that.
But my admiration for this novel still soars. Above all for its spine-tingling, loin-buzzing, butter flies-in-the-stomach evocation of what it feels like to be young, that extraordinar y time of having life, love, sex and the whole oyster of the world in front of you. And so then what a blow it is when you realise that world is also a dangerous one, run by stupid people who might just cause mass destruction to your plans.
Books for Keeps No.188 May 2011 31
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