BfK 14+ Secondary/Adult
foreign city, where people go where they please, eat until they are full, and dance until they smile. The questions this utopian vision raises in her mind, and her growing feelings for Sook, the son of the village secret police chief precipitate a nightmare that is anything but a dream.
It’s hard to conceive that such a dark novel could be based more on real events than the imaginings of its author, but sadly my reading of such non-fiction books as Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy and Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14 confirms that Yoora’s story is, in the main, all too believable. It’s clear that careful research has gone into the writing of this impressive novel. Yoora’s voice is well sustained throughout, and the horrors she endures – from the tragic fates of her family members, to her prison camp diet of cockroaches – are all the more affecting for their controlled and simple telling. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the appearance of a tiger on the wrong side of the prison fence, and the ending of the book does depend on a monster coincidence. But what precedes it is so awful, that you cannot but root for Yoora’s escape to freedom, wholly believable or not.
North Korea’s recent aggressive posturings have worried my children enough to prompt them to ask questions about this most secretive of countries. Adults wanting to know more should definitely read the Demick and Harden books I mention above. But for younger readers, I’d recommend A Dream of Lights; an uncompromising but unfortunately rather accurate account of a real dystopia of the here and now. If only it were fantasy.
CS Black Sheep HHH
Na’ima B. Robert, Frances Lincoln, 272pp, 978 1 84780 235 4, £6.99, pbk
“Is it love at first sight, or death on the streets?” The strapline says it all, because it’s both. Dwayne is a ghetto “sweet boy” and hard man, running with a gang since his early teens, the bane of his mother’s life and likely to end school with no GCSEs. Misha is an academically gifted posh girl, studying in a private academy and with her sights set on university. Despite their different backgrounds, they fall in love, and Robert’s novel is concerned with two questions: can their love survive and will Dwayne turn his life around? There is much to admire in the novel: it’s long but packed with incident and drama, from gang violence, which features twice but with telling effect, to the socially excruciating meeting between Dwayne and Misha’s family. It’s told alternately from Dwayne and Misha’s points of view. Dwayne’s use of street language is entirely convincing to an outsider like me; and the author is even-handed in her attitudes to their very different worlds. Robert is a Muslim and Islam has a place in the story, acting as a redemptive force for older gang members and for Dwayne, for whom The Autobiography of Malcolm X leads on to study of the Quran. Yet, there are one or two aspects of the story that puzzle me as a reader. First, that sex doesn’t seem to be a part of Dwayne and Misha’s relationship at all (although exploitative sex makes an
incidental appearance elsewhere); and, secondly, that, while their social and family relationships are explored in some detail, they remain shadowy to me as individuals, perhaps because their lives are seen as so strongly socially determined. For instance, it is not until near the end of the novel that we see Dwayne doing what he most enjoys: DJing at a club. Robert tells her story with conviction and passion, from a strong, but never obtrusive, moral standpoint. Her story is driven by despair at the waste of young lives in our cities, but she finds creative energy and hope there too.
CB The Butterfly Clues HHHH
Kate Ellison, Andersen Press, 336pp, 978-1849395557, £6.99 pbk
A thriller, a mystery, a romance, a study of OCD, The Butterfly Clues also has something of the air of a fairy tale to it.
Hero Penelope (Lo), as steadfast and brave as her namesake, is an innocent in a dark and dangerous world. Wandering through unfamiliar streets near her home she is a bystander at a shooting. Lo, who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, her life constrained by an overwhelming desire for neatness and pattern that causes her to constantly tap patterns on her body, is driven to find out the truth behind the murder. This takes her into a seedy underworld, an area of the city called Neverland. She finds her prince there, though he has his own set of problems, and there are trials and tests for both of them before their happy ending.
We learn that Lo has always had OCD, but that the condition has been exacerbated by the disappearance of her brother, Oren. As the story unfolds, narrated in present tense by Lo herself, we gradually discover what happened to him. It turns out that his story too is linked to that of the murdered girl.
Lo’s is an entirely convincing voice, and Kate Ellison’s novel has a distinct and original feel to it. She successfully combines the realism of the crime thriller, with a fantastical sense of other, hidden worlds. Lo’s condition is skilfully described too so that we experience it as prop and curse. This is an intriguing and compelling read, and a very impressive debut. AR
Dead to You HHHH
Lisa McMann, Scholastic, 288pp, 978 14071 3723 0, £6.99, pbk.
Ethan Manuel De Wilde is aged 16. He was abducted from his home at the age of 7. After nine years he has returned. McMann’s story revolves around a first person narrative of his and his family’s struggle to adjust to his return, and the issues that arise for all of them.
Ethan must establish a modus vivendi with his father and mother, as well as his younger brother Blake and a sister, Gracie, whom Ethan sees as the child intended to replace him when he disappeared.
Of course when Ethan reappears his family constantly want to know how much he remembers of his former life. Does he remember the house, the games, the
30 Books for Keeps No.200 May 2013
books? Does he for instance remember that he loved playing snakes and ladders? On all these points Ethan disappoints his family and himself. His memories are scant.
Blake is placed in an invidious position. Over the years of Ethan’s absence Blake has become accustomed to the role of the only son. Now he suddenly finds himself demoted in the family pecking order. His irritation is increased because Ethan recollects so little of their past lives.
The family are naturally curious about Ethan’s life during the seven year gap. He explains that he was living for a time in Oklahoma with a woman named Ellen whom he took to be his mother. Ellen could not be said to be a competent mother. She worked as an ‘escort’ and often left Ethan alone. Eventually he was moved to a residential home in Omaha. Unhappy in the institution, Ethan absconded and found his way to St Louis where he lived homeless for a year. He tracked down his family through a website and rejoined them at their Arizona home.
Despite the shortcomings of his supposed mother Ellen, after he returns to his home Ethan feels more kinship with her than with the real-life mother he has rediscovered. For Ethan the most comforting aspect of his return is the relationship he establishes with Gracie. Because she has no knowledge of a life before he was abducted, she has no expectations of Ethan, no criterion by which to judge him inadequate. The relationship between Ethan and Gracie is the most appealing feature of this novel. The questions still hanging in the air as the book enters its final phase are how far Ethan can rebuild the relationships he has lost, and how will he set about doing so.
I have classified Dead to You as suited to readers aged over 14. On the whole this is an appropriate classification. In places however the language of the book is too profane for children of any age.
RB The Under Dog HHH
Marcus Zusak, Random House Definitions, 160pp, 978 1 849 41699 3, £7.99, pbk
Marcus Zusak is best known in Britain for The Book Thief, his highly successful later novel. This book, the first of a trilogy about Cameron Wolfe, a deeply self-deprecating teenager growing up in a contemporary Australian city, is his first published work, and admirers of The Book Thief may find themselves looking for signs of what is to come from Zusak, or pondering how much of this story is autobiographical, rather than enjoying the book for its own sake. Cameron is struggling incoherently to understand what’s going on with his family and himself. You might say he is looking for an identity or what it means to be an adult, although these are outsider assessments. He is just keen to stop being useless and to date his first girl: a real girl rather than the masturbatory fantasies in the lingerie catalogue. The incoherence of his attempt to make his mark on the world is apparent in the two great exploits planned by himself and his elder brother, Ruben. The first is to rob the local dentist (it doesn’t happen). The second is to steal a road sign (it happens, but they feel so guilty they put it back). But Cameron describes all this completely coherently, in his own voice,
including his revelatory dreams, which usually serve to confirm his perceived uselessness. Cameron’s moping misery feels authentic, as does the world he lives in, and his occasional, largely harmless, wild behaviour (although the death of a neighbour’s dog may be indirectly his responsibility). His resilience, too; for he recognises that, as well as being useless, he is a fighter. And all this begins to come together for him at the end of the novel when he comes to the existential realisation, in a long howl at the moon, that life lived intensely (however it comes at him) and his particular skill at recording that experience is what defines him: “All that I cared about was that I was howling so that I could hear my voice so that I would remember that the boy had intensity and something to offer.” My problem with the novel was identifying its register. There is much that is comic, but so securely are you in Cameron’s self-flagellating mind, with only the merest ironic distance, that, for me, at least, there’s little temptation to laugh, even when Jesus appears in a dream complaining about his sandals and the stinginess of “me old man”. Cameron’s journey to selfhood and his first real girlfriend continues in two more short novels: Fighting Ruben Wolfe and Getting the Girl.
CB Heroic HHH
Phil Earle, Penguin, 304pp, 978 0 141 34627 4, £6.99pbk
Novels set in the current war in Afghan are now starting to come through, with no holding back on the frustration and danger experienced by combatants on one side and an often resentful local populace on the other. Phil Earle’s story is excellent on the mounting terror felt by young soldiers in a situation which could quite literarily blow up in their faces at any moment. Narration switches between eighteen-year old Jammy, out in Afghanistan, and Sonny, his younger brother left behind on a British sink estate. Written in tough, staccato prose, there is much to admire here even though the total project starts to run out of steam well towards the end. What goes wrong is the characterisation of the main players, with Sonny on one page sounding and acting like an unreformed hooligan and on the next coming over as a concerned Youth Worker as his older brother, once back home and suffering from Post-Traumatic Syndrome, finally cuts loose. This inconsistency, plus over-insistent writing when it comes to describing thoughts and emotions, particularly where relationships between the two brothers are concerned, robs this otherwise worthy effort of that final satisfaction obtainable from a really good read from start to finish.
NT Quantum Drop HHH
Saci Lloyd, Hodder Children’s Books, 288pp, 9781444900828, £6.99, pbk
‘Nothing special ‘bout me. I’m in every street in every neighbourhood and every city on earth’. Anthony Griffin, resident of the Debtbelt is just an ordinary ‘boy next door’, caught up in a dangerous world of the near future, where the dividing line between what is real, and what is virtual is increasingly unclear. Even more lethally,
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