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Revolver

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Marcus Sedgwick
Orion
978-1-84255-186-8
July 2009

This book has done something important for me. And it has done it in a way so utterly and compellingly convincing that I shall henceforth consider Marcus Sedgwick a writer of the very highest order. I know others have long held him in that regard. I have admired some books of his, but none has registered that complete sense of satisfaction that you get when you read a book by a master of their trade. Let's be honest, few books do this completely. Two of my lodestars that I use when I have finished a book I have enjoyed are Robert Cormier and Sonya Hartnett. Yes, I think to myself, this book was good, but was it that good?

Well, I have to tell you that Revolver IS that good. And for the life of me I cannot imagine the conversation that must have gone on around the table between the judges of the Guardian Prize (to be announced on Thursday 8th October) that led to Sedgwick's book failing to make the crossing from longlist to shortlist. It is a shocking omission. This book should be on the shortlist of each and every fiction prize of the coming year, and that includes adult lists, because the story it tells is entirely unpatronising. If any book deserves to have 'crossover' success, it is this one. Fans of Cormac McCarthy, viewers of Deadwood alike will find familiar themes confronted with a moving, moral grandeur.

Marcus Sedgwick, you are the real deal. Revolver is a very fine achievement. A book that will stand the test of time as surely as one of the late stories of Tolstoy.


Killing God

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Kevin Brooks
Penguin
978-0141319124
June 2009



Killing God is Kevin Brooks' ninth novel and it's as fine as anything he's written. Of his previous work it has most in common with his third novel, Kissing The Rain, a book that was told in the unforgettable, stream of consciousness voice of an overweight boy, Moo Nelson.
The voice dominating Brooks' latest novel is that of a 15 year old girl called Dawn Bundy, obsessed with the music of The Jesus And Mary Chain (to the extent of calling her two dogs Jesus and Mary, much to the annoyance of her church-attending neighbours) and constantly referring back to when she was 13 years old, a time when something of huge signficance happened to turn her into the reclusive "totally unattractive" person she now considers herself to be.
Just as with Kissing The Rain, it is not sufficient to describe this as a story told in the first-person. What we get in this novel is much more than a narrative. We get the experience of feeling completely at one with the character, not merely following her story, but experiencing life as she experiences it, hearing the frequently quoted Jesus and Mary Chain lyrics in our head, sensing the menacing discomfort when the normally unfriendly Mel and Taylor visit her and spend time in her bedroom plying her with alcohol.
It seems to me that Brooks does something even more impressive than Joyce's famous Molly Bloom soliloquy, because he manages to have Dawn slip seamlessly between her stream of consciousness inner monologue, and her recounting of both past and present incidents. We gradually learn that the striking title of the novel (given a fittingly striking typographical cover design by http://the-parish.com/) is linked to the disappearance of her father, a character every bit as shambolic as Frank Gallagher from the TV series Shameless, who shortly before his disappearance became a God addict, making Dawn and her mother's life more unbearable than ever.
Since he's been gone, mother and daughter have been able to indulge and console themselves in various material luxuries - a big flastscreen TV, laptop, ipod etc. - thanks to a bag of cash the father left behind. This becomes a key factor in the developing climax of the book, as does the the trigger for the father's disappearance two years previously.
Of the book's ending I can say only that it makes the novel's title entirely apposite.
There are the de rigeur 'grateful acknowledgements' to Jim & William Reid for permission to use The Jesus And Mary Chain lyrics. I dare say the Scottish brothers are fairly grateful to Brooks in return for giving their music such high profile and thereby winning them new fans.



The Forest Of Hands & Teeth

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Carrie Ryan
Gollancz
9780575090842
July 2009
I feel very ambivalent about this debut novel. And I think that is largely because it is ambivalent about itself. It is essentially, and in its denouement has the honesty to admit it at last, a zombie novel. A village is making its last stand against the infection that surrounds them. A deliberately knowing but misjudged withholding of narrative information concerning the infected 'Unconsecrated' keeps the reader in the dark for far too long. The suggestions that the book is some sort of religious allegory are laid on very heavily. Consequently, as a reader the novel only hooked me in short bursts. When it did so it hooked me good (especially towards the end when the storyline has become a more straightforward fight for survival against the zombie hordes), but that only made the dull and pretentious patches the more disappointing. As a reviewer I found myself frustrated by the narrator's plaintive tone of voice. The book is written in contemporary fiction's perniciously pervasive first-person continuous present and it is the worse for that. On the plus side, there is some very effective writing here, both in terms of describing action and describing the main character's emotions. I'd certainly read another book by Ryan. I'm not sure it will be The Dead-Tossed Waves, coming in 2010, and a return to the world of the Unconsecrated.


Bad Faith

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Gillian Philip
Strident
978-1-905537-08-2
Autumn 2008

Early on in this superb novel, the main character comes across a half-killed rabbit, with bulging eyes and a crushed spine. She shows her strength of character by doing the humane thing. And the author shows us how good she is at choosing her words and modulating them so that exactly the right tone and atmosphere is achieved.

I hesitated, because it was adorable, but half-shut my eyes and hit it twice on the neck, then once more for luck. I opened my eyes, feeling a complete heel, and saw its hind leg jerk skywards, then sink gracefully back to the ground. When I poked it with the stick its head lolled loose on its fragile neck. There was blood trickling from its ear that was a simply beautiful colour: jewel-red, sparkling so vividly against the tarmac you'd think the rabbit's life had drained out of its eyes onto the road. I touched its unblinking eyeball with the tip of a finger, then snatched it away; it was dead now, all right...

Make no mistake, this is not an easy scene to write well. So easy to overdo. So easy to underdo. So tempting to be either sensationally vivid or evasively poetic.
After reading this passage (page 30 in a 240 page long novel), I knew I could sit back and enjoy a story being told by a writer of the very highest calibre.

Bad Faith is a murder mystery with a dystopian backdrop. The trouble with most dystopian fiction is that it is laid on too thick. The horrors of the envisaged future swamp the drama being played out in its midst. But that is very much not the case here. The personal drama - the predicament of a young couple forced to dispose of a corpse - is always the driving force of the novel. Small details - cars driving past blaring religious trance music - are cleverly dropped in to suggest the daily living atmosphere in a society governed by the One Church and the gangs that intimidate unbelievers.

Cass's own father is a vicar of the One Church who, though sickened by its values, plays the game for the sake of his family's safety. The darker secrets that lurk in the family's past are gradually revealed by Philip with consummate skill.

Thematically and atmospherically Bad Faith recalls the early work of Kevin Brooks, a name I mention with due care, since I am eager to convey how very good I think this novel is; those who know my reviewing will know how highly I rate Brooks' work.

After I had finished it, I looked on Amazon to see if there were any reader reviews. There are (as of March '09) eight reviews, every single one of them 5-star reviews. So I am not alone by any means in thinking this a first-rate, five-achukachick read. I urge you to hunt it down.

I am now looking forward with much excitement to reading Crossing The Line, to be published by Bloomsbury in April (2009).



The 13 Treasures

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Michelle Harrison
Simon and Schuster
978-1-84738-449-2
January 2009

"I can't cope with this," Tanya's mother declares at the start of this exceptional debut novel (winner of this year's Waterstone's Children's Book Award), and promptly dispatches her daughter off to stay with the grandmother, in a suitably expansive and derelict mansion.
It is Tanya's fixation with fairies that has driven her mother to the end of her tether.
And thus is set up a quintessentially English children's book adventure; child staying with grandmother in slightly spooky house has escapades involving little people.
Now, whilst I am happy to read the classics in this genre, I have to say that a contemporary title of this ilk normally finds me a somewhat resistant reader. But I quickly found myself a thoroughly willing participant in the tale concocted by Harrison - one of fairy glamour and entrapment going back two generations.
The house itself and its principal occupants - Tanya's grandmother, the groundsman Warwick and his son Fabian (nicely chosen names, these) - evoke just the correct atmosphere. And when the fairy intrusion occurs it happens with such unexpected malevolence as to be completely unnerving and, in the book's best sequences, as exciting as an episode of 24.
There are occasional lapses of pace (usually when Harrison is attempting to convey narrative information via dialogue) and, quite importantly really, the book's title is never given proper significance or weighting. Having said that, the sheer power of invention and fluency of story narration carry the reader along in a fashion that makes its winning of the Waterstone's Award entirely understandable.
Here we have a writer who you just know will go from strength to strength. There are superbly well-realised sequences - in the catacombs of the house, in the surrounding woods - which, in my own reader's mind I imagined as a TV dramatised adaptation, so visually vivid was the description.
The book has a Prologue and an Epilogue. Its chapters are of just the right length for children to read one (or more) in bed at night. Harrison herself decorates the initial letter of each new chapter, in a style suggesting she might also have contributed excellent narrative illustrations had the publisher been so inclined.


Running On The Cracks

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Julia Donaldson
Egmont
978-1-4052-2233-4
January 2009


Well, a full-length young adult novel from the creator of The Gruffalo and other successful picture books! That Donaldson is an expert in the shorter form is now unquestioned, and it is cause for celebration, both for her and for us, that she has decided to launch out in a new genre. The question everyone will want to know is: Can Donaldson 'do' a long narrative? The form is so different from the short rhyming texts of hers we are used to appreciating.

The answer to the question has to be a resounding Yes. Certainly by the end of the novel. I confess I felt a little uncertain during its opening pages, but alternating narrative voices always take a little time to become established. (I was also reading the early part of the novel on a train and there was a distractingly giggly conversation going on in the bay behind me.)

The main character's voice belongs to Leo, a girl who has been living with her aunt and uncle following the death of both her parents in an accident. She is compelled to run away from home, both by a desire to discover her Chinese heritage and by the discomfort she feels in her uncle's presence.

Once she has arrived in Glasgow the torque of the narrative really begins to pull the reader along. The secondary voice is that of Finley, a boy whom Leo befriends in Glasgow and who helps her avoid discovery.

In addition to the two separate narrative points of view, Donaldson extremely cleverly interjects newspaper reports, a shopping list, letters, an email... Coupled with the explicitly documented Glaswegian locations, this gives the book cast-iron credibility, creating a story that is believable, exciting and moving. (There is a touching episode near the end of the book when Finley's family hear all about his role in Leo's affairs.)



Then

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Morris Gleitzman
Puffin
978-0-141-32482-1
January 2009

Last summer I was sent a very early proof copy of the new novel by Morris Gleitzman, a sequel to Once, a book published at the same time as and - media-attention-wise - unjustly overshadowed by The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.

I have always had the highest regard for Gleitzman and regard him as one of the very best writers for the young of the past twenty years.

For months that proof copy lay untouched. A second proof copy arrived. I did not read that either. I had, I realised when I finally started reading the book in its final published format, been nervous of encountering ten-year-old Felix again in case any further adventures had a reptrospective lessening of the impact of the first book, read with so much admiration.

Picking up from the end of the previous book, Felix is accompanied by six-year-old Zelda (not his sister) and from the first words, "Then we ran for our lives..." this is the story of how they together attempt to escape being captured by Nazis.

We see many atrocities through child's eyes (the most painful of all at the end of the book) but there is sufficient good fortune and good deed-doing to make this an ever-hopeful edge-of-the-seat read. The character of Genia - a woman who makes her home a safe-house for Felix and Zelda, giving them different names - is strongly drawn and helps ground the central part of a novel which might otherwise, as its title suggests, have been a then-fortunately-then-unfortunately continuum.

Another grounding motif is the figure of Richamal Crompton, described by Carol Ann Duffy in The Ultimate Book Guide as 'the patron saint of childhood'. Certainly, in this book the creator of William acts on more than one occasion as the guardian saint of Felix, helping him to avoid potentially fatal dangers.

Gleitzman's style is always highly accessible, so this book can be highly recommended for any child who is ready to confront the horrors of Nazi tyranny. Thank heavens there is no age-banding on its cover.



Life, Interrupted

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Damian Kelleher
Piccadilly Press
978-1-84812-003-7
January 2009

Damian Kelleher is well-known on the children's books scene. He was book editor in the glory days of Young Telegraph and T2, frequently chairs children's book events and is seen at all the best publisher parties. For that reason, if I had not genuinely liked this book I would probably have kept my thoughts to myself.

The first thing to be said about it - this is Kelleher's debut as full-length novelist, as far as I'm aware - is that it is extremely fluently written, in an unpretentious, unshowy first-person continuous present. The second thing to say is that the subject matter - a mother of two boys dying of cancer - is not one I exactly relax into.

There is a puff on the back jacket from Jacqueline Wilson in which she uses the phrase "searingly sad at times", so I was braced for a hard read. As it happens, the mother is only a peripheral part of the story. The focus remains throughout on Luke and his brother Jesse, and the uncle who arrives to take care of them.

Conicidentally, as soon as I had finished Life, Interrupted I picked up The Paris Review Interviews vol. 3 and read the interview with Ralph Ellison, in which the interviewers remark at one point, "A common criticism of first novels is that the central incident is either omitted or weak." It's possible that some may feel in this book Kelleher does not give the central incident sufficient weight or emotional cache, relegating it, as the title of the book implies, to an interruption.

It seems to me that that would be to grossly misunderstand what Kelleher is trying to show here. In concentrating on an important schools football final and in optimistically acclimatising to life with their gay uncle, the boys are coming to terms in their own way with what has happened, and doing what boys often do differently from girls when life is interrupted by major events - moving on more quickly and with less overt emotion.


Waterslain Angels

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Kevin Crossley-Holland
Eerdmans
978-1-84255-691-7
Autumn 2008

Set in Norfolk in 1955 this children's novel, both beautifully and poetically written ("poppies white as talcum powder and pink as peardrops and scarlet as new blood" in the opening paragraph) and tightly plotted from one daring escapade to the next, is a thrilling and evocative read.

Ten-year-old Annie and eleven-year-old Sandy (just returned to England from America with his mother) take it upon themselves to try and discover a set of carved angels missing from the church for hundreds of years.

The freedom allowed ten and eleven-year-olds in the 1950s allows Crossley-Holland to write episode aftger episode of reckless daring. One particularly vivid scene has them climbing the church tower and being attacked by a swarm of bees.

The dialogue is marvellously clipped and unbloated. When the adults are involved the reader is made party to remarks that cleverly create, brushstroke after brushstroke, a backstory going back a decade, when American GI's were stationed in the region. The other backstory reverberates across centuries from the time when the angels were first carved to the time when they were taken or hidden away and on to the present time of their attempted recovery.

The characters in the novel are presented at the front of the book as a cast list. I could think of nothing more pleasing than a television serialisation of this wonderfully well-modulated story.


Airman

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Eoin Colfer
Puffin
9780141383354
Jan 2008
"One of my childhood favorites was The Princess Bride [by William Goldman]. Read that to see how I was influenced by his pacing and the swashbuckling tone he set there while being quite humorous. That's one of the finest examples of a high adventure book," Eoin Colfer says in a recent interview with the magazine Newsweek.
Airman is a fabulous mix of adventure, high daring and romance. There are comic moments, but these are lowkey compared with the emphasis on high adventure. Colfer has already achieved fame and fortune with his Artemis Fowl novels. With Airman he will have achieved new stature and respect for his abilities as an author.
With each turn of the page the quality and pitch of the writing seems to ratchet up an extra notch until, in the last section of the book, it feels to me that Colfer is writing at the the very peak of his abilities, skillfully maintaining tension and excitement while repeating scenes from different points of view.
He has produced a work of literally marvellous escapism, and selected a real-life setting (The Saltees) perfect for his requirement.
Very highly recommended for confident readers aged 9+.