Category Archives: Drama

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.

Bartoleme, The Infanta’s Pet

Rachel Van Kooij

Little Island

9781908195265

September 2012

200pp

Whole book read

Little Island Press is an Irish publisher of quality fiction by Irish and international authors for older children and teenagers. Rachel Van Kooij, as her name suggests, is Dutch-born, but lives in Austria and writes in German. The book being reviewed was first published in 2003 and has only recently become available in an English translation (by Siobhan Parkinson).
This is a wonderfully well-paced and realised story about a young deformed dwarf who, at the start of the book, is growing up in the Spanish countryside with a father absent for long periods working in the royal court in Madrid.
All changes when the father announces that the family is to up sticks and move to the city to be with him. But he does not want to take Bartoleme with them, fearing the boy will only be ridiculed and be nothing but a source of embarrassment for the family. Eventually he agrees that Bartoleme can come, but only if he remains hidden from view at all times.
The first half of the book concerns this hidden life, and Bartlome’s determination to better himself and prove himself to others by learning to read and write. However, when an accident exposes him on the streets he is spotted by the young princess – the Infanta – who mistakes him at first for a dog, and insists on it becoming her pet plaything.
The back of the eye-catching book jacket shows a scene from Valasquez’ painting Las Meninas, the significance of which becomes cleverly apparent towards the end of a novel which is thought-provoking, moving, entertaining, life-enhancing and powered by a dignified narrative momentum. This is a book that takes the reader beyond their present-day experience and presents them with the issues faced by those who have a handicap or are otherwise physically very different from most other people.
The father is insensitive and unfeeling and has a thuggish streak – there is one upsetting scene of domestic violence – but is never depicted as a pure brute.>>

 

Revolver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.