I don't want to be little again. But at the same time I do. I want to be me like I was then, and me as I am now, and me like I will be in the future...
from 'Jackdaw Summer', a forthcoming novel by David Almond (November 08)
It's about a year now since I stopped reviewing for the print press. For twelve years I had been reviewing children's books for TES and Literary Review and young adult fiction for The Scotsman. It was a grand time to be a children's book reviewer. Already established writers such as Anne Fine and Philip Pullman began writing better than ever. Extraordinarily appealing writers from America and Australia (Sharon Creech, Ursula Dubosarsky, Sonya Hartnett, Jack Gantos, Morris Gleitzman to name a few) were being published here for the first time. And magically talented new UK writers such as David Almond and Kevin Brooks [see reviews below] appeared upon the scene.
Why did I stop reviewing? The simple answer is that it was becoming a chore. Less and less rewarding. More like homework. New authors were still emerging but I couldn't get as excited by them as I had by the early work of, for example, Julie Bertagna and Keith Gray. I am sure that part of the reason for this lies within myself. I had acquired a kind of reading numbness.
I am still reading, of course. Reading and sifting the books that arrive daily, deciding which ones merit mention on the website. And I relish the freedom I have now only to 'review' or write about the books that really stand out or otherwise demand attention.
Yesterday, I finally got round to reading Black Rabbit Summer by Kevin Brooks (now out in paperback).
Perhaps it was just me in the middle of being particularly negative, but I found Being, his first book for Penguin, a touch on the cold side. It was ambitious, different, page-turning, very good... but for me (at the time) it lacked that quintessential Brooks atmosphere that made those first few novels for Chicken House so memorable.
Black Rabbit Summer is back in the groove. Dialogue-driven but also occasionally poetic in its choice of epithet - 'soured silence' - Brooks' style is a joy. I cannot imagine his writing requires any sentence-level editing.
Brooks must remember his own adolescence well to be able to write about teenagers as he does. He remembers in particular how important terrain is. How young people have their own routes for getting from A to B. In particular, the off-road suburban terrain of footpaths, derelict areas, embankments, cut-throughs. He describes these so well. He writes about them as if he were still a 15-year-old himself, dashing through an alleyway.
He also remembers that for 15/16 year olds their 13/14 year old selves are an age away. There is emotional tension at the start of this book between the main character, Pete, and Nicole. They had been boy and girlfriend a couple of years ago, but not since. Meeting in a den before attending a local fairground the group of friends drink and smoke. The tension mounts.
Established early on is Pete's feeling for Raymond, a boy ostracised by everyone else. Raymond is a loner who spends much of his time out in the garden beside the hutch of his pet black rabbit.
Pete's father is a policeman and when people start to go missing following the night at the fair, Pete becomes both investigator and investigated. The second half of the novel is so well plotted and developed one hopes Penguin will have the sense to enter this book for a regular crime fiction award. It's a fantastic read, to be recommended for adoloscents and adults alike.
Brooks and Almond share a capacity for evoking and empathising with strangeness - with characters that don't fit the mould. They are very different writers. In Almond's hands I imagine something more would have been made of Raymond, perhaps a little less of the police procedure. (Although there is an Almondesque interlude in which Raymond visits a fortune teller at the fiar.)
Indeed less is the word these days with Almond's writing. Always a compact writer, his style is becoming ever simpler. If editing of Brooks' sentences is redundant I daresay any tinkering with Almond's sentences is just as unimaginable. It's amusing to imagine what writing Level he would be awarded by a SATS marker. I reckon he would be deemed a borderline level 3/4, confident with simple sentences, but not varying them sufficiently and failing to give any evidence of beginning a sentence adverbially.
I am halfway through Jackdaw Summer, the new novel to be published this November. It makes the heart sing to find this author writing as well as ever. The novel has a contemporary setting. The main character's mother is an artist, his father a writer, and Almond seems to be having some genial fun at his own expense in this regard, which makes reading the book an additional pleasure.
It begins with a boy and his mate following a jackdaw and stumbling on an abandoned baby, with a note saying she is a 'childe of god'. There is wonderful writing about the landscape and heritage of Northumbria. The savagery of war in Iraq is related to the wars and battles that took place hundreds of years ago on those northern fields.
I have just read a passage in which a group of boys dare one another to cross a pit of captured adders. It is a brilliantly realised piece of writing. And it evokes a theme that is already a prevalent one in this novel - the place of beastliness in this world, from where it derives, and in what manner it is displayed by humans.
So, as always in a David Almond book, there is darkness and there is light. "Have you seen how big his bum's getting?... It's a writer's hazard. He's hardly moved for weeks," says the wife to her son.
Well, thank you Kevin Brooks and David Almond. Thank you for the time not moving. The time spent writing has been enormously appreciated by this reader.
Another reason I stopped reviewing was that I began to spend more of my spare hours on a private passion - photography. Spent more time taking photographs, more time processing them, more time looking at other people's photos. The artist in Almond's book is also a photographer. She takes closeup photographs of her son's skin and scabs and then blows them up so they look like wild landscapes.
How wonderful to be a new reader, with Skellig, Lucas and all the other great books by these authors still to discover. I feel that jealousy sometimes when I look at my favourite photographers on Flickr (where I have spent much time for more than three years now) and see someone commenting, "I have just discovered your stream...." Lucky thing, I think to myself. And lucky all those who have not yet read anything by these two authors. What a time they have ahead!