Wish Me Dead

Helen Grant
Penguin
9780141337708
June 2011
441 pp
Whole book read
Yes
Let me begin with a reminder of how much I admired Helen Grant's first two novels, each of which received ACHUKA's top rating of five gold chicks. You can read my reviews of The Vanishing of Katharina Linden ("not one single moment of disappointment, not one wavering of tone, not one narrative misjudgment awaits the reader in this impressively assured debut novel") and The Glass Demon ("as she did in her first novel...Grant cranks up the drama and excitement with impeccable pace and timing") here: archive (scroll down - this review will be on top).


Her third novel is, like the first, set in the small town of Bad Munstereifel, and begins reasonably lightheartedly as a kind of Five Children and It in reverse. Instead of child characters, the friends in this book are all in their late teens, and act and behave accordingly. Instead of their wishes (made on scraps of paper and left in a deserted house) going comically wrong, they are granted precisely as asked. Each time it is Steffi (the book's narrator) whose wish is granted. For obvious reasons this unsettles her, particularly when people begin dying.

Steffi, who works in the family bakery and cafe, is a vivid presence and her voice is the driving force of the novel, as it has to be. The experiences she undergoes become increasingly horrific. The ratcheting up of the tension is not, however, as well handled here as in the first two novels. There are signs that it was not so tightly edited, both at individual paragraph level, and in terms of its narrative trajectory and structure. Grant is a fluent writer, but at times her fluency produces more words where fewer would serve more strongly. The novel would be better for being fifty pages shorter.

An Amazon reviewer feels that the brief return of Steffi's sister was 'pointless'. I agree with that. The father's illness is sufficient in itself to add roundness to Steffi's character (as well as ensuring Steffi is alone in the bakery at a crucial time in the plot's development) and allows Grant to ensure the reader remains sympathetic towards her main character.

It's still a good read and like the first two books would make superb TV drama.




Perfect Architect

Jayne Joso
Alcemi
9780956012524
May 2011
181 pp
Whole book read
Yes
This caught my eye. It has a simple but distinctive red jacket design and I have always been interested in the life of architects.

The start of the novel is told exclusively in an exchange of letters between the recently widowed Gaia (whose husband had been one of the leading architects of his time) and Selene. Initially, Gaia suspects she is writing to a young mistress of her dead husband, and the gradual disabusing of this notion is humorously and very beguilingly handled. Indeed, Selene is a delightfully witty and life-affirming creation.

It is something of a shame that the novel could not have been conceived as a wholly epistolary construction, because when the action moves away from the exchange of letters and the compelling relationship between Gaia and Selene, the novel loses its hold on the reader to the extent that the resulting four-way competition to design the perfect home for Gaia to move into and reconstruct her life in never achieves any traction. Whilst the letters are perfectly pitched, Joso is less assured when it comes to character dialogue. The American architect in particular is an embarrassing pastiche.

Nevertheless, I'm glad it caught my eye.



August

Bernard Beckett
Quercus
9780857387899
September 2011
203 pp
Whole book read
Yes
I had not read Genesis, this author's award winning previous novel, nor indeed any of his earlier books for that matter. Although August is, in many ways, a deeply unpleasant novel, and very different from the one I was expecting, it is also, partly by virtue of being so unusual, a very interesting work of fiction.

The book's title refers both to to the theologian St Augustine and the eponymous establishment that Tristan (one of the book's two main characters) attends. I had laughably selected the book to read on the train thinking the title referred to the month August and that the jacket strapline - "A thriller that will turn you upside down" - promised a lightweight 200pp diversion. How wrong could I have been? And how shamefully ignorant of the tenor of the previous novel which had been selected for the Guardian Children's Book Prize two years ago.

Part of the book's unpleasantness stems from the situation which opens the novel, persists throughout, and the scatology of which the author seems to take perverse delight in describing.

A car has just crashed and is lodged upturned half-way down a ravine. Tristan, the driver, and Grace, the passenger, are trapped inside.

It soon becomes apparent that this circumstance is not going to be the prelude to a conventional 'thriller' - in fact it is hard to see how the book can be so described, when the novel is in fact a fairly demanding philosophical exploration of free will and determinism. The only real thrills in the novel are intellectual ones stemming from Tristan's attempts to outwit the manipulative rector at St Augustine's and prove that his actions are freely chosen and not predetermined.

It is a tribute to Beckett's ability as a writer that he manages to make this aspect of the novel - its crux - completely engrossing.

The stories of Grace's and Tristan's lives leading up to the car-crash are told in recollection. Neither really existed for me as a believable character, even and especially in the last quarter of the novel when the independent and codependent lives of each are given more space. But being moved about character is not what this book is about.




Life: An Exploded Diagram

Mal Peet
Walker Books
9781844281008
June 2011
413 pp
Whole book read
Yes
I was one of the judges in the year that Mal Peet was awarded the Branford Boase Prize for his first novel, Keeper, and it has been no surprise to me that the immense promise represented by that novel has already been amply augmented by subsequent work [Tamar, in particular, was an exceptionally fine book]. Life: An Exploded Diagram begins as if it is going to be a bildungsroman in the grand European tradition. The main character's family heritage is described in loving detail, so that the reader knows the mother, the father, and indeed the grandmother as vividly as they grow to know Clem.

Because the book is told in the first person, it also reads as a memoir recounted in retrospect so that all the episodes, particularly as Clem grows older and falls in love, have a veneer akin to The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder.

The rural and period evocation created by Peet's impeccable writing is hugely impressive. It is a pageturner of a novel, not by virtue of its narrative pace - it is told slowly - but because the reader is made to feel a sense of place and character so very vividly.

I had a problem with it, however, which it would be wrong to let my admiration for Peet in general and this book in particular gloss over.

The bildungsroman, coming-of-age tone of the book changes abruptly and unexpectedly at the end of Part One. Part Two is titled, appropriately 'Blowing Things Apart'. The beautifully evoked memoir is suddenly suborninated to pages and pages of potted history about the Cuban Missile Crisis. I personally found this part of the book heavy-handed to the point of doing something I had not done in the book thus far, and can't remember doing with one of Peet's books before - skip-reading. These days if I start skip-reading a novel I tend to give up on it altogether. Let me make it clear, I came nowhere near feeling that about this book.

The same political crisis underpins one of David Almond's recent novels. There the action is adumbrated but not swamped by the political perspective. But Almond and Peet are very different writers, and for most reviewers of this book the space given over to political history has not been an issue. I wonder what young readers, coming to the Cuban Missile Crisis for the first time, will make of it. My worry would be that they, like me, will be tempted to just skimread those reported conversations between generals and politicians at the risk of diluting what is likely to have been a complete immersion in the book to that point.

The book also suffers somewhat to my mind by using material which is, by Peet's own admission, autobiographical and, in order to maintain the fiction, having to put it all in the voice of an imagined character. Whilst I get a very vivid picture of Clem as a young boy and then as a teenager in love (I feel as if I am definitely seeing Peet as he was himself when young) I do not get any real sense of Clem the freelancing, middle-aged, living-in-America illustrator in whose words the novel purports to be told.



Small Change For Stuart

Lissa Evans
Doubleday
9780385618007
May 2011
278 pp
Whole book read
Yes Yes Yes
What makes me like this book so much? Is it that it concerns a collection of old threepenny bits, those belovedly brassy coins of childhood? Is it because it is such a well-formed object of a physical book, a beautifully proportioned small hardback with pleasingly designed dustjacket and chapter heading illustrations (both by Temujin Doran)? Is it because it reads so smoothly, with not a word wrong-footing the inner ear? Of course these things help, but novels ultimately have to make their impact by virtue of characters and narrative, rather than style, form or inanimate objects.

Stuart, very short for his age and with a surname (Horten) that doesn't help matters, is 10 years old when he has to move away to a new town, leaving all his friends behind. His new neighbours, the Kingsley triplets, do not believe him when he tells them how old he is. These neighbours are highly entertaining creations, as is Stuart's father, a writer of crosswords, who always chooses the longest words to describe things. A great-uncle of Stuart's used to live and work as a magician in the town they have moved to. The discovered collection of threepenny bits and the subsequently collected sequence of clues lead Stuart (and, eventually, one of the triplets) on an adventure of discovery to find the lost workshop of Teeny-Tiny Horten.

Perfect reading for children aged 7-10, and highly recommended as a readaloud class novel for teachers of Y4 or Y5. The author is a radio and television producer. She has written two or three adult books. This is her first children's novel. It ought not to be the last.




Beautiful Malice

Rebecca James
Faber
9780571255238
July 2010
353 pp
Whole book read
Read On? Yes, but...
This book had a lot of publicity when it came out last year, so I am not going to waste too many words on it here. Suffice to say that I was led to believe it was a a debut novel by an Australian author that shouldn't be missed. From the recommendations I had remembered reading I was expecting a psychological thriller of the highest order. Well, it isn't that. It's highly readable in a trashy kind of way, and I read it from cover to cover while on the train to Glasgow. I think it could work quite well as one of those 3-parter TV thrillers, but whoever turned it into a screenplay would have to make the ending far less easy to predict.
I only had one book accessible on the train, otherwise I would have stopped reading half way through, as it was fairly clear by then which way things were going. Good advertisement for a Kindle I guess. In fact, I wonder if Kindle readers are more inclined to give up on books than book readers, in view of the easy access to alternative titles.



Between Shades Of Gray

Ruta Sepetys
Puffin
9780141335889
April 2011
344 pp
Whole book read
Read On? YES

Ruta Sepetys discusses her upcoming novel, Between Shades of Gray from Penguin Young Readers Group on Vimeo.

As the author herself says in the book trailer above, the war crimes of Hitler are well known and well documented both in histories and in fiction. The war crimes of Stalin and the sufferings inflicted on the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are not so widely known, especially amongst the young.
The American author is of Lithuanian descent and her novel is based both on personal family history and on general research. After the Baltic states had been annexed to Russia lists of those deemed unsympathetic to the Russian state were compiled. The men were arrested and imprisoned. Women and children were herded onto cattle trains and sent away to camps in Siberia.
The novel follows the experiences of a 15 year old girl, Lina, her mother and brother as they are shipped away to a cruel Arctic winterland. Sepetys makes a compelling case for her story in the book trailer (as she did also when I heard her speak recently at a Puffin event). I was pleased to find that as a novelist, she tells her frequently harrowing story just as compellingly. The only parts that didn't work for me were the italicised sections, which I found distracting and unnecessary.
This powerful and important novel is a very impressive debut from a new author.



Giles Andreae
Egmont
9781405258463
April 2011
32 pp
Whole book & series read
Read On? YES
During Easter weekend I was made to read aloud all thirteen of these quirky World Of Happy titles in a single sitting. The books are mini modern Aesopian fables in which unhappy situations become resolved, but not in an overly educational way. In The Knitting Gorilla, for example, one of the gorillas' children, instead of growing up to be big and fierce like his daddy, defies convention by developing a knitting habit. The jumpers he knits are too small. To begin with, the other gorillas jeer and mock, but after a while they begin to RESPECT the jumper as an item of distinction. Likewise in The Pink Cricket, instead of playing the violin like all the normal green crickets, the one and only pink cricket takes up the drums. Despite the inevitable ridicule and teasing, the pink cricket sticks to his dreams and ends up playing drums in the band. The books all have randomly capitalised words. Tortoise Football contains "WRONG, MISERY, TOWER, SCRAMBLED..." It's all a little puzzling. You can get a flavour of this on the series website. Whilst most of the titles are witty in a way that will chime with both young children and adults, and all are boldly, simply and accessibly illustrated, one or two of the little books strike a decidedly weird note. In The Elephant And The Spider - SOCIAL ISSUE is capitalised early on - the elephant takes "a JOURNEY into HERSELF" and the whole self-help ambience of the book certainly went way over the heads of my 3 and 5 yr old audience. But I no longer have any of the books in my possession. The three-year-old decided they simply had to go home with her, which probably says more than anything else in this review.



Eye Of The Crow

Shane Peacock
Tundra Books
9780887768507
September 2007
250 pp
Whole book read
Read On? YES
Andrea Deakin sent me this Canadian winner of the 2008 Arthur Ellis Best Juvenile Crime Novel Award quite some time ago, but I only recently picked it up. And enjoyed it. It is well-written and well-paced, though on balance I would have preferred the narrative in a traditional past tense, rather than the rather stylised continuous present used by Peacock. The dustjacket of Tundra's hardback edition shows a detailed Victorian streetmap of central London on the reverse, and the city details in the story are amongst the features that make this an enthralling read. Young Sherlock - depicted here at times almost like a Spiderman hero - sets out to prove a man wrongly accused of murder innocent of the crime. It's a colourful tale involving crows, glass eyeballs and several quite harrowing scenes. For Conan Doyle aficionados there are familiars in the cast, including the name Lestrade. The first book in a series.



Long Reach

Peter Cocks
Walker Books
9781406324754
January 2011
402 pp
stopped at p92
Read On? NO
It's getting difficult to actually finish some of the books I pick up these days, so I have decided that, rather than ignore them, it would be better to confront the situation and actually record the point at which I give up on a book, for whatever reason.

Sometimes it is the awkwardness of the prose. I was once at a launch party and was discussing with the husband of a fellow reviewer why he did not read children's books. He picked up a copy of the launch title, opened it at the first page, and seemingly at random pointed at a sentence in the middle of a paragraph. He didn't need to add any further explanation. It was a horribly worded sentence. Children love a good story and will happily pass over stylistic hiccups if the narrative is sufficiently gripping. This, it seems to me, is taken too much for granted by contemporary children's authors and their editors. There are too many books that are awkward to read aloud, that have a sentence to stumble over on every page.

Sometimes, I find myself thinking 'Who on earth is the target readership for this title?' Largely because of the 17yr old character's life amid "fast cars and flash women" you are probably talking Y7+ or age 12+ here. But by 14+, if not earlier, surely any adolescent boy (this is male-oriented writing) wanting to read a good thriller will be turning to a fully-blown adult thriller, something a little more savage than Eddie Savage. So the target audience is very narrow indeed, and one notoriously difficult to reach.

It's a shame because Cocks writes well enough and the book grabs the attention at the start. But it falls hopelessly in between the appetite for true juvenile thriller-writing, as so well served by the likes of Horowitz, and the adult genre. Cocks and his publisher clearly think there is some middle ground waiting to be served. I think they're wrong. It takes a quirky one-off like Kevin Brooks to really reach the teenage audience with thriller-style material.