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ordinary people like Anthony are at the mercy of gangs like The Betta, who will stop at nothing to control not just the streets, but whole swathes of the global economy as well. When his girlfriend Tais is left in a coma and fighting for her life after a gang hit, Anthony decides that he must flush out her killer and bring him to justice. But to do so, he will have to venture underground,

into the perilous underground virtual world of The Drop

This is a well-crafted and pacey thriller from the Costa-shortlisted author of The Carbon Diaries 2015, with obvious appeal for gamers. I admired Lloyd’s ambition in presenting a nightmare economic vision of the future for younger readers: topical given the current state we’re in. Anthony tries desperately to hold onto his ambition to help good prevail in a world where the super-rich own 60% of the globe’s entire wealth, and mafias prevail.

There are plenty of thought-provoking moments in this novel. However, its intended global scope feels rather constricted by its pages. At times, I found the scenes in the virtual world hard to follow: the blurring between the worlds confusing rather than symbolic. And Anthony’s quest to track down Tais’s killers never quite catches the imagination, perhaps because the depth of their relationship isn’t really explored. I liked the character of Anthony’s sister Stella, and her Asperger’s obsession with crows, but she felt like a bit of a walk-on, largely superfluous to the action.

‘I can’t focus anymore’, says Anthony, comparing his situation to an eye test where the optician keeps changing the lenses. The experience of reading Quantum Drop was a bit like that too. CS

Shipwrecked HH

Siobhan Curham, Egmont, 352 pp, 978 1 4052 6457 0, £6.99, pbk

Grace Delaney, a seventeen year old from a dance academy in Los Angeles, has been recruited as one of a group to dance for one month on a cruise ship, boarding in Hawaii. Another of the dancers from the same academy is Todd. Although she is going out with Todd, Grace is not sure whether she wants to commit to him. Another male contender for her interest will of course soon appear on the scene.

Grace is excited by the adventure on which she is about to embark, though anxious too about leaving behind her recently divorced mother. She flies to the point at which a small boat is to meet her group and ferry them to the cruise ship. But there is a massive storm and the boat is wrecked with its eight passengers on an island.

The island has a strange effect on Grace. From the moment she steps ashore she feels unreal. The castaways must find out which island they’ve landed on – it turns out to be Blood Island - what secrets it holds and what lessons they may learn about themselves and the others.

Curham has made an interesting authorial choice in the domain of characterisation. The characters of most of the castaways fit so neatly into well-defined, oversimplified stereotypical slots – there is a Paris Hilton lookalike, a hip hop addict, a girl whose life seems perfect but is in fact quite the opposite and a cardboard cut-out of male

Dystopias are getting darker. This time, five banks have crashed, food is short, a chicken costs £90 at the supermarket. There are riots and robberies. When young Matt’s lorry-driver Dad left with a load of potatoes one day, he never came back; his body was found in a ditch. Matt’s Mum has remarried the kind but ineffectual Justin. Their store of food, carefully saved for the family, attracts an assault on their home which they are helpless to resist. Grandpa, trying to support them all, dies of a heart attack defending his allotment. In a later raid, the horrific implication for the reader with eyes to see is that Mum is raped by armed thugs in balaclavas.

After fifty pages of this, Matt, his small brother Taco and Justin flee, hiding in a truck belonging to his Dad’s streetwise former employer, Bob. They head through the tunnel to France, leaving Mum behind to care for demented Grandma Grace. Any respite for Matt, and for us, is soon tempered since things are not much better across the Channel; refugees are offered no more than basic rations in a tented camp, where the rest of the novel is played out. Matt, who tells the story in an anxious narrative voice unrelieved by humour, meets some kindness from a nearby woman farmer and makes a friend of

glamour – that the author must have opted to drain any element of individuality from most of the characters. The only exceptions to this rule are Grace herself and Cruz, the Latino ferryman who got them into this fix.

Cruz is the perpetrator of a memorable ruse. For much of the book he maintains that he speaks only Spanish. His companions pass critical remarks about him in English with total lack of restraint – until he reveals that he is fluent in both languages.

This book may have been written with at least one eye on film producers. It would most likely make a decent movie. But as a novel it bumps along the surface of its narrative, as compared for example with that scary masterpiece Lord of the Flies. RB

After Tomorrow HHHHH

Gillian Cross, Oxford University Press, 304pp, 978 0 19 275626 8, £6.99, pbk

Paige, a girl posing as Bob’s daughter, since only the presence of a child persuades the French authorities to allow adults a place in the camp. As the days go by, Matt discovers reserves of ingenuity and resourcefulness in helping his family to survive.

He also meets hostility and treachery, sometimes from those he thought he could trust. Bob, for example, sends Matt off on a desperate chase around the French countryside to find penicillin, at huge cost, to save Taco’s life; it’s a money-making scam - all the time, Bob knows the tablets are no more than aspirin. The basics, food, water, shelter, are in short supply and there is no safety net. These are the kind of conditions we might see on television on some distant border, the sufferers safely somewhere else. Except here, Gillian Cross will not let us switch off. This could be us. The adults have no more answers than the children, because there aren’t any.

Any ways forward at the end of the book are of the young people’s making. As Matt and Paige stare across the fields, they know they can trust each other, their own mental and physical toughness, but “the road went on and on, into a whole, unknown country”. That road looks relentlessly uphill from where Matt and Paige, and the reader, are sitting.

The writing is uncompromising and strong, the young voices and fears entirely credible, the situation all too possible if everyone else in Europe is on the slide, out of the control of any government. So what will serious-minded young readers, their lives in front of them, make of it all? Years ago, children’s book people would insist on a happy ending for young people. How naïve that looks here.

GF The Last Minute HH

Eleanor Updale, David Fickling Books, 272 pp, 978 0 385 61668 3, £10.99, hbk

On the first page, a map of Heathwick High Street (airport nearby, right?). Then a Prologue, subtitled ‘Eleven minutes later…’ which reports a situation shortly after an explosion on that High Street. The next 228 pages record a second-by-second, one minute countdown towards the explosion (hence The Last Minute). The final 20 pages comprise a transcript of a post-catastrophe radio interview and a list of victims and survivors. The publishers promise supporting ‘online documentation and reference material including radio and press coverage of the disaster, tribute sites to the victims and the official government report’. Such material, they suggest, will reveal ‘how people are perceived before and after tragic incidents, and how the media report on tragedy’, including the manipulation of facts by the Press.

Eleanor Updale worked in radio and television news and has a PhD in History, so everything seems to point to an intriguing and authentic docu-novel. But that list of 65 victims reflects a basic flaw in this promising structure. We glimpse these ‘ordinary people’ in the preceding pages, going about their mundane business in the minute before the explosion. Given time and incident through which readers could get to know them as

characters, we might find that nobody is ‘ordinary’. But we have only one minute of time in which to meet everybody; children on a school outing, women in a fitness class, people in a bakery and a petrol station, on the street between the bank and the church, in the coffee shop, passengers in a plane on its descent to Heathwick Airport. One or two are sketched a little more sharply than others: an unfaithful prospective MP, a sign painter up a ladder outside the church, the teacher on the school bus, a drunken beggar telling a feeble joke – but even they remain little more than ciphers.

Within just a few minutes of finishing The Last Minute, I couldn’t remember any of them; and because I had no reasons to care about them, I was not at all inclined to spend long raking over the clues to work out which of the possible causes of the disaster (chance, carelessness, terrorism, whatever) might be ‘the truth’. Too many people, too little time and circumstance to know them, too little depth. So an exciting, different idea became little more than an exercise.

GF The Wall HHHH

William Sutcliffe, Bloombsury, 304pp, 978-1408837450, £6.99 pbk

The town where Joshua lives is divided by The Wall. Joshua knows there are people living on the other side, but he’s never once been there, never even seen over The Wall. When he stumbles on a secret tunnel that dips under it, he can’t resist the temptation to take a quick look.

The decision to go through the tunnel will change his life. Minutes after arriving in this other land, he is running for his life. A girl his own age saves him, leading to a second trip through the tunnel to repay that debt and the start of a friendship that will put Joshua in danger again.

Though it is never said outright, Joshua is an Israeli; his town a settlement on the West Bank; the people on the other side of The Wall Palestinians. Though the opening has a feel of dystopia to it, this is a fable set in a world that is only too real.

Sutcliffe was inspired to write the book after a visit to the PalFest literary festival and intends it to evoke the realities of life in the region for his young readers. In Joshua he has created a central character whose story will hold their interest. Told in the first person, and in the present tense, The Wall succeeds in making the political personal. Joshua’s increasingly tense and bitter relationship with his step-father feels real, the breakdown of his friendship with the boys at school will strike a chord with his audience too. When Joshua takes over the care of the olive grove that used to belong to the Palestinian family he has come to know, he enjoys a freedom that any adolescent will immediately understand, while the scenes provides a tangible sense of what the family, and families like them, have lost.


Books for Keeps No.200 May 2013 31

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