reviews 14+ Secondary/Adult How To Fall HHHH
Jane Casey. Corgi 416pp. 978-0-552-56603-2.pbk. Price £6.99.
How To Fall introduces Jess Tennant, amateur teenage detective. Jess and her mother Molly are staying in Port Sentinel, Molly’s childhood home, following the apparent suicide of Freya, the cousin Jane never met but to whom she is identical. Molly’s marriage estranged her from her family but now that it is over she is keen to renew her acquaintance with her sister, nephews, nieces and old friends. Jess, on the other hand, is equally keen to establish how her cousin really died.
As Jess feels her way physically and socially around the village she provokes interest, hostility and anxiety. Will, the love interest, is introduced early but their relationship false-starts until the book’s last chapters, providing insights into Will’s family history and the unforgiving nature of life in a small community. Natasha and her credibly blustering cronies fail to overwhelm Jess, but their threatening behaviour is painstakingly observed and described.
Casey understands the rhythms and intricacies of teenage years and breathes them into existence on the page, with their attendant damage and intensity. This is as much a book about the mechanisms of family life and the obsessive nature of teenage concerns as it is a murder mystery. The reader is absorbed by the search for clues, the unravelling of lives and the clever pacing of events. The denouement is a surprise - another authorial success-and although there is a sense of events being brought to a close there is never the feeling that loose ends have been tied at the expense of credibility.
VR Never Fall Down NO RATING
Patricia McCormick, Doubleday, 220pp, 978 0 857 53221 3, hbk £9.99
This account of the life of Arn Chorn-Pond in the killing fields of Cambodia takes its readers into the darkest regions of human experience. It is not particularly graphic, given what is described, although the book’s cover has an understandable warning to would-be readers about the disturbing nature of the content. This is a story of unrelenting brutality and of desperate survival, partly by cunning, partly by luck, and often by acquiescence and enforced collaboration in atrocity. Written as a novel, it is essentially a witness statement, unremitting in its honesty about the capacity of people to inflict the worst cruelties on each other and about the suffering of victims and what they will do to survive. It is the testimony of a remarkable survivor, taken into the countryside by the Khymer Rouge as a child and whose hard-won skill as a musician enabled him to cheat death, who has dedicated his life since to the cause of children caught up in war and
the resurrection of traditional Cambodian arts and culture. While his story is a record of cruelty and degradation that is hard to read, his subsequent life and his belief in forgiveness and the common humanity of oppressor and victim is a testimony to how our best instincts can triumph over our worst. I find it impossible to judge this book as a novel, although Patricia McCormick and not Arn Chorn-Pond is its author and she has shaped the story so that it is within young people’s understanding. McCormick has approached her subject as biographer, journalist and ghost-writer, supplementing Arn’s own memories with those of other survivors and telling it in a version of Arn’s own English voice. That the story rings true is a measure of her success. Somehow, to give it a star rating, seems to me a disrespect to her subject and to all those to whose fate he so effectively bears witness.
CB The Quietness HHH
Alison Rattle, Hot Key, 9781471401015, £6.99, pbk
There is little about the way this novel is presented to suggest the dreadful happenings within its covers. Apart perhaps from the bottles of Laudanum and Godfrey’s Cordial – ‘the Quietness’ – tucked out of the way on the back. Its foiled William Morris wallpaper look and the rather clean and contemporary looking model on the front both hint at a conventional historical novel, which the blurb confirms as set in London in 1870. And yet, only a few pages in, The Quietness plunges us into all the vice and hypocrisy of Victorian London, and a horrifying story unfolds which takes in illegitimacy, infant death, rape, prostitution and worse.
Fourteen year-old Queenie longs for some respite from the squalid slums where she grows up, squeezed into one room with her parents and hungry siblings. When her father goes awol, the ‘easy’ money available to her mother by selling herself to paying customers behind a pinned-up sheet provides the only way to keep everyone fed. Queenie yearns for a better life, and when she answers an advertisement for a home help, it seems that she has finally found it. But why are the babies in her charge so quiet? And why must she keep dosing them with Godfrey’s Cordial?
Queenie’s misfortunes are told in counterpoint with those of fifteen year-old Ellen who lives a seemingly much more privileged life in a big house across town. But it is a cold, lonely existence, with a domineering anatomist father who monitors her monthly bleeds, and a mother who is cold to her. The arrival of Jacob, a hitherto unknown cousin stirs new emotions, and Ellen dares to dream of love. But love is to prove her undoing.
Victorian London is very well drawn in this novel, which balances giving just the right amount of period detail with a plot which moves on at a tidy, absorbing pace through short, alternating chapters. And I liked the underlying theme of quiet.
Ellen’s lonely life is stiflingly quiet, whilst Queenie constantly yearns for a breather from the clamour of the demands of others. Neither can find any real peace. But it is the more sinister Quietness of the title which provides the chilling heart of this novel. In her author’s note, Rattle explains that her story was inspired by true-life murder case, and it was an unquiet one indeed.
The sheer wretchedness of many Victorian women’s lives, from the moral stain caused by illegitimacy to the contemptuous misunderstanding of their bodily functions and emotions is thoughtfully portrayed. The final chapters feel rather melodramatic however, as the author hurries to resolve her story, leaving a whole host of unanswered questions hanging from the noose. And ultimately, this novel feels a little too young in the telling for the grimness of its subject matter. There are some things so shocking they cannot be wallpapered over.
CS Hostage Three HHHHH
Nick Lake, Bloomsbury, 400pp, 978 1 4088 2821 2, £12.99, hbk
his new young bride. She’s just messed up her A-levels and fought against all the disciplines and values of her private school. Her one joy, her saving talent, has been her music; but, ‘after Mom, I didn’t listen to it any more’, or play the violin. So, with some reason, she is sullen, resentful, and a determined teenage pain.
The round-the-world sailing trip is her father’s naïve attempt to make a new family, spending ‘quality time’ together. Ironically, it is through the terrifying pirate hijack, not the affluent tourism, that Amy finds ways of looking beyond herself. The catalyst for this is Farouz, the young translator among the pirates, for whom Amy feels an electric physical attraction. As things develop into a more searching and mutual connection, and as she hears Farouz’s story – the desperate poverty of his country, the political chaos, the brutal treatment of his brother (Nick Lake spares us little here) - she understands his journey into piracy. His motivation is selfless. Amy’s horizons slowly and credibly expand.
How to end such a story? Here Lake plays some literary games which young readers might find anything from exasperating to fascinating by way of confusing.
You fear, all through the book, that the end is likely to be bloody. Now though, the concluding section is written by an Amy who knows that the legacies of others’ lives endure within us, that their stories shape our own. She knows that ‘if you get lost, it’s possible that a light will come dancing, on the horizon, to lead you home.’ To this point we have had to make our own sense of Amy – now she has the ability to look beyond herself and we can trust her. That kind of change happens too glibly in much YA literature; and, incidentally, the book differs from almost all of that genre in that it might well attract both genders as readers. Here Nick Lake has taken a situation which could easily have married melodrama with cliché. In avoiding that, he has charted a shift within his narrator which is entirely believable. An achievement to admire.
GF Sister Assassin
Within ten lines, Amy Fields has ‘a gun pointing right at my head’. The finger on the trigger is that of a Somali pirate. Amy is ‘Hostage Three’, so it’s a fair guess that she’ll be executed before the more valuable Hostages One and Two, her banker father and her new stepmother. Since all the characters – hijacking pirates and hostages – are anchored aboard the enclosed world of a luxury sailing vessel for most of the book, Nick Lake has quite a challenge on his hands if he is to sustain the tension of that opening.
In fact, the book’s tension stems from more subtle sources. By the time she is telling us her story, Amy has some perspective on who she was when the adventure began. Then, she mourned a mother who took her own life. She resents a father she sees as emotionally stunted and remote; and she despises
Kiersten White, Harper Collins, 241 pp, 978-0-00-749164-3, £6.99, pbk.
Sophia (known as Fia) is the younger of two sisters, Annabelle (known as Annie) is the older. She is blind. Their parents died seven years before this story begins.
The sisters hear of the Keane school, where a treatment is available that might restore Annie’s sight. Fia insists on accompanying her sister to Keane because she feels that there is something slightly suspect about the place. To help matters, after a single interview Annie has been offered a full scholarship.
The sisters learn that the Keane is not really a school at all but a training centre for girls with psychic gifts. There are of course no male pupils. What boy could
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