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14+ Secondary/Adult Echo Boy HHHHH

Matt Haig, Bodley Head, 416pp, 978 1 782 30006 9, £12.99 hbk

We begin, ‘It has been two weeks since my parents were killed’ and things go pretty much downhill from there. Fifteen year old Audrey narrowly escapes death herself when she finds Alissa, the domestic Echo (Enhanced Computerized Humanoid Organism) standing over her parents’ blood-soaked corpses, kitchen knife in hand.

Audrey just makes it into the car, hovering outside the family’s modest stilt-house, some fifty metres above the muddy waters of permanently flooded Yorkshire. She even manages to destroy the pursuing Alissa, but she has few options as to where she might then turn. There’s her Gran maybe, but she’s spaced out on everglows up there in the New Hope Colony on the moon; or Uncle Alex perhaps, secure in his Hampstead mansion, the grounds guarded by mechanical killer dogs. But her uncle is the owner of Castle Industries, European maker of high tech products including Echos. And Alex had barely been on speaking terms with Audrey’s journalist Dad, whose writing warned of the escalating numbers of ‘tech nightmares that were becoming real’. In fact, he had almost finished a book questioning the ethics of bringing Neanderthals back to life and displaying them alongside dodos and mammoths in ‘The Resurrection Zone’ – Alex’s favourite project housed in what used to be Regent’s Park .

So yes, this is somewhere between SF and dystopia. Everything we fear now in 2014 has come to pass – tsunamis, flooding, Mediterranean populations driven North as their own lands became scorched deserts, corrupt police forces in the pockets of Big Business, manipulative political controls – the lot.

Echos in 2115 Britain obey, but cannot feel. They look like humans (except for the perfection of their skin and physique), they talk, they can be programmed to perform sophisticated tasks, they interact to satisfy human wishes. Alissa was a unique prototype Echo, designed seemingly for domestic service, but actually to kill. Daniel is another recent but very different prototype, for his designer included 0.01% of human DNA from her own dead child. That makes all the difference, for alongside the mass of information in his programme, he slowly discovers emotions. These, to his amazement (for he can feel amazement), include pain and fear and, when he meets Audrey, love. Logically enough, he learns to hate those who would harm her.

This is strong, relentless stuff. Matt Haig’s universe is impressively consistent in every detail. We inescapably inhabit this world. The plot is chillingly taut, and readers will be far from sure how things are going to turn out. For all the alien surface features however, the priority questions, 100 years on, have not changed. Haig alternates the narrative voice between Audrey and Daniel, offering contrasting perspectives. Finding herself suddenly alone, she struggles to make choices about who she wants to become; while he too is

learning what it is to be human. Where she has known a loving family and education, he has no previous experiences or self-knowledge. The technology, the climate change, the controls – maybe the first signs are already with us. So what do you make of this if you’re a reader whose life should reach into the second half of the century?

GF The Eye of Zoltar HHHH

Jasper Fforde, Hodder, 401pp, 978 1 444 70727 4, £12.99 hbk.

Like all good comic writers, Fforde always offers his readers a gripping story on which he then hangs choice examples of his laconic, under-stated humour. But in this novel, scenes of urban decay under dictatorship, with private armies outside roaming the surrounding countryside in search of booty, get closer to depicting the sort of dysfunctional state only too often visible on today’s television news. The result therefore is something of a compromise between entertainment and drama as Jennifer Strange, wizard organiser extraordinary, and her gang of helpers explore the neighboring Cambrian Empire. This country has some resemblance to Wales but is otherwise known as the land that Health and Safety forgot. Their mission is to find the legendary jewel of the title, and this they finally manage to do after a series of adventures both weird and wonderful. There is so much to enjoy here at a time when belly laughs in fantasy writing are in short supply after the death of Diana Wynne Jones, past master of this genre. But Fforde’s jokes are always excellent; only he could come up with a dismembered magic hand with ‘No More Pies’ tattooed onto its knuckles. There is a little too much detail when it comes to describing complicated imaginary places, always difficult to visualise from text alone, but otherwise this story is a winner once again, well qualified to join a literary stable already full of this author’s past champions.

NT Silent Saturday HHHH

Helen Grant, Corgi, 416pp, 978-0552566759, £7.99 paperback

Based in a richly imagined Belgium, Silent Saturday is sophisticated, atmospheric and brooding. Veerle is constrained by the oppressive relationship she shares with her deeply over-protective mother. Seeking an escape from this, she goes climbing and, whilst so doing, becomes reacquainted with an old friend Kris and encounters the Koekoeken, a group of urban explorers who enter empty buildings.

Alongside the rekindling of the friendship, comes the gradual remembrance of a shared experience that both Veerle and Kris had hoped to forget. There is a clever interplay between the internalised fears that Veerle’s mother is subject to and that she wishes to protect her daughter from and the very real external horrors being systemically perpetrated. This creates an excruciatingly tense atmosphere of uncertainty and of palpable psychological

fear. Characters, their emotions and

motivations all feel real in this carefully crafted novel which is the first in a proposed trilogy, Forbidden Spaces.

JH Buffalo Soldier HHHHH

Tanya Landman, Walker Books, 368pp, 9781406314595, £7.99 pbk

‘There was a buffalo soldier in the heart of America/Stolen from Africa, brought to America/Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival’.

Tanya Landman’s new novel is as powerful as the Bob Marley song with which it shares its name, and fleshes out the history alluded to in its sparse lyrics in utterly compelling fashion. This is the story of Company W, a cavalry regiment of

recently freed

African-American slaves who fought with immense valour throughout the Civil War and the ‘Indian Wars’ that followed, despite unimaginable hardship and prejudice. And it is the story of Charley O’Hara, a freed girl slave who becomes a boy soldier in order to survive after the passing of the 13th amendment, only to find herself in a different kind of captivity: ‘If you’re good enough to die for your country, ain’t you good enough to live in it?’, she asks?

In her illuminating Author’s Note at the back of the book, Landman explains how Charley’s story seized her ‘by the throat’ and wouldn’t let her go, after she read about the so-called ‘Negro soldiers’ of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments, and a freed slave named Cathy Williams during her research for her CILIP Carnegie shortlisted novel, Apache. The writing of Buffalo Soldier took a lot of ‘wrong paths’ she tells us but every time she thought it would never be finished ‘Charley appeared, standing at my elbow and nudging me along until I’d finished writing her story’.

There are so many reasons to admire this book, and one of them is the voice of Charley herself. In this first-person narrative, Landman nails her southern inflexions from the outset, and sustains them beautifully – and completely convincingly for the next 350+ pages. She weaves memorable idiom into Charley’s speech too: when her adopted mother-figure, Cookie gets together with a man, they ‘jump the broom’, whilst notions unfold in Charley’s head ‘like a blanket’.

Buffalo Soldier also provides a compelling history lesson about a period of American history probably most familiar to British readers from Gone With the Wind and cowboy films (although Buffalo Bill Cody does make a cameo appearance). Though many young readers will know something about the abolition of slavery, Landman’s novel will confront them with the truth about the many thousands of ‘free’ slaves for whom the kind of liberty which would allow them live their lives as they might have wished remained a pipe dream. As Charley puts it: ‘I thought when freedom came we was all gonna be sitting out on the porch sipping mint juleps’.

Landman is utterly unflinching in her portrayal of the all-pervading inhumanity which was unleashed across America during the second half of the 19th century: the lynchings of blacks by whites; the scalpings and

multilation of white settlers by native Americans in defence of their lands, and the slaughter of those natives by the US army, bent on eliminating ‘hostiles’ and claiming swathes of territory for the infant nation that was the US of A. It is at times, a pitiless narrative, and not for the faint reader.

But those who steel themselves for an often brutal narrative will be amply rewarded with both a terrific story, and as thought-provoking a book on friendship, prejudice and above all the meaning of freedom as you could hope to find. America might be the Land of the Free but at what cost came that freedom? God Bless Charley for elbowing its author into telling us so bloodily but so brilliantly.


Gregg Olsen, Hot Key Books, 256pp, 978-1471401855, £7.99 pbk

Gregg Olsen is well known as the author of bestselling adult crime novels. This is his third for teenagers, and follows two Empty Coffin novels, Envy and Betrayal. These featured spiky twin girls, and though impressive for the sparky teen dialogue and genuinely dark atmosphere, suffered a little from over-convoluted plots.

Olsen has really hit his stride in Run however, and how. It’s a tightly plotted crime thriller, with a driving pace that will make it a read-in-one-sitting book for many, and a classic crime hero, who just happens to be a sixteen year old girl. Rylee is a loner – she’s had to be. Her family have been on the run all her life, fleeing a violent stalker obsessed with her mother, or so they believe. When she comes home from school one day to find her step-father murdered and her mother gone, Rylee goes straight into survival mode. She’s determined to save her mother, and totally ruthless. With brilliant - and witty - economy, each chapter opens with a summary of Rylee’s situation, totting up: cash, food, shelter, weapons and plan – as the book progresses the weapons mount up, and her plan changes from ‘stay calm’, to – well, you’ll need to read it.

So many books, films and TV programmes seem to revel in the torture and murder of women and girls. That’s not the case here. Rylee is the hunter, not the hunted, and she’s out not just to save her mother but, as she finds out more about the man who has taken her, to avenge and give voice to his other victims. Tracking him down she speaks to the families of other murdered girls, so we get to know them as people, understand the impact what has happened to them has had on their families. Olsen writes true crime too and has spent a lot of his life talking to victims. You can’t help but feel that Rylee is fulfilling a need in him too to speak for these families. Watching a neighbour on TV discussing what’s happened to her family, Rylee comments bleakly, ‘Did he think that evil only comes after the bad? That darkness only seeps into a corner? …This is exactly what happens to nice people like us.’ This is very dark stuff indeed - thank heavens Rylee is out there, and on the victims’ side. AR

There are lots more reviews to read on our website Books for Keeps No.206 May 2014 31

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