Monthly Archives: June 2015

Pike

Anthony McGowan

Barrington Stoke

9781781124666

May 2015

hardback

There was a very revealing and self-aware exchange during a brief Q&A feature that the author of this splendid little book completed for the publisher’s website recently, in which he responded to a question about which type of books he preferred writing as follows: “If I have a preference it’s for surreal, gross-out tragi-comedies, like Hellbent, Henry Tumour and Hello Darkness. That way of writing comes very easily to me. I’ve had to make myself write in a more simple, grittily realistic way, for The Knife that Killed Me, Brock and Pike. Strangely, I think this has forced me to produce my best work. Sometimes you find that going against your own grain makes you a better writer.”
Pike is another story about Nicky and Kenny, two characters reminiscent of Stenbeck’s George and Lennie from Of Mice And Men. McGowan first wrote about them in the earlier, highly-popular Brock, and this second tale about them indeed shows Nicky and Kenny bringing the best out of McGowan.
The action takes place mainly around Bacon Pond, a small lake next to a derelict food-processing plant. The atmosphere created is superbly tense and claustrophobic – very different, it has to be said, from the rurally idyllic illustrations that somewhat incongruously decorate the page footers. But that’s beside the point, because it’s the words that make this little story sing and soar, used as they are to create memorable characters and incidents in a manner suggestive that McGowan’s work as a YA writer will become more widely regarded, successful and appreciated in direct proportion to the degree of ‘going against the grain’ future full-length novels share with their little siblings, Brock and Pike.

My Name’s Not Friday

Jon Walter

David Fickling Books

9781910200438

Jul 2015

hardback

One of the best children’s novels of 2014 was Close To The Wind by Jon Walter. The fact that it was overlooked by all the major children’s book awards (including the Branford Boase Award for a first novel, where it was not included in even the longlist, let alone the shortlist) left me open-jawed and, ever so temporarily, nervously questioning my own judgement.

Was Close To The Wind as good a book as I thought it was? Did it contain some flaw that made it ineligible for praise in the eyes of award judge panels? I looked at the book again and was reminded how unique, how special was the slow, unhurried but totally gripping narrative tone. I remained convinced. This was, it is, a very special book indeed.

And now we have the author’s second novel to stand alongside that exceptional debut.

My nervousness as a reader and reviewer returned. Would the new book excite me as much? Or would it help explain why none of those award panels had shared my enthusiasm for the earlier book.

That nervousness didn’t last beyond the first page of My Name’s Not Friday. In the short opening chapter we appear to be starting a story that is going to be told in the same unspecific, emblematic style of Close To The Wind. A boy is bound up and has a bag over his head. We experience things only through the boy’s sense of hearing. He calls himself Samuel, and starts off believing his captor to be God, since he feels he must have died and gone to heaven.

The tone and narrative style quickly shifts in the very next chapter. The boy is being taken to market to be sold as a slave. The book tells the story of how this has come to pass and what happens to Samuel once he is working as a slave.

Set near the end of the American Civil War, My Name’s Not Friday is more soundly set in a specific time, place and period than Close To The Wind. But Walter is still more keen on establishing convincing, emotion-engaging verisimilitude than on creating a precise historical exactitude.

There is an illuminating Author’s Note to read at the end of the novel in which Walter writes: “I had to use detail to portray a narrative that was believable and then make choices about how best to illuminate the truths contained within the story.”

As an illustration he refers to his use of the word “nigger”.

One of my first choices concerned the use of accent and dialect and I chose to use only a few words that gave the reader a suggestion of the time and place. I thought to do otherwise would be too intrusive. This decision was particularly acute in the use of the word “nigger”, which would have been used more commonly in the period by both vlack and white, but which I chose to use infrequently… This seemed to me the right balance – to bear witness to the past and still keep sight of the present.

At a little over 350 pages Walter has written a classic children’s adventure story in which the reader sides with the main character throughout, but is helped to see how the rights and wrongs of any particular situation are always shaded.

To those classic stories such as Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian and The Kingdom By The Sea by Robert Westall can now be added My Name’s Not Friday. It really is a fantastic novel. The characters all live as vividly as if they were in a Dickens novel. Reading the book I became aware of echoes with Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones and, of course, the movie 12 Years A Slave.

If Jon Walter is once again ignored by award panels after writing a book as good as this – with its enormously satisfying narrative arc and a main character whose belief in an interventionist God remains undimmed throughout – I shall be aghast.

The book is published in hardback by David Fickling next month (July 2015). Order a copy today. And if you haven’t yet read Close To The Wind, the paperback is available straight away.