March 2009 Archives

Bad Faith

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Gillian Philip
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
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.