Sunday, 22 February 2015

New writing for the young

There have always been good children's books, but there wasn't always much for older teens and younger adults. That's changed for the better. Three good new Young Adult books that this rather old adult liked, too

I left school in 1974, at 17. Teachers and I parted company with mutual incomprehension and dislike. There were then still craft apprenticeships for working-class boys, and university or polytechnic for posh kids with brains. But there was nothing for those who were neither. My parents hinted that I could be articled to a solicitor. I hinted that I would rather be disembowelled. Eventually, someone saw a small ad for a stockroom assistant at the Oxford University Press showroom in Oxford’s High Street. I got the job. For the next year I carried dusty piles of books, stood attentively while ladies chose white wedding Bibles for their daughters, typed invoices with carbon paper that turned my fingers black, and sold etymological dictionaries of Icelandic (yes, really; I sold two).   

Now and then I ventured upstairs, to a quiet carpeted showroom where there were books for schools. Sometimes I’d glance at a row of what we would now call Young Adult, or YA, books. I suppose they were meant for people of my age, or a little younger, but they weren’t inspiring. If a Young Adult really wanted something that spoke to them then, there were a few “young person’s” classics they were expected to like; otherwise, it was it was Tolkien or nothing.

Times have changed. Not least because of the digital revolution, which means you can now publish economically for a niche market. In so doing, authors have found that this isn’t a niche market at all; it’s huge. Moreover the definition of YA is elastic. The relevant Wikipedia page assures me that, while the American Library Association defines young adults as between 12 and 18, others say 16 to 25, while “teen fiction” is 10 to 15.

I’ve been asked to review three recently, and I very much liked them. None of the three are written “down” to a younger audience; they’re every bit as literate or sophisticated as anything an older reader would buy – it’s just that they address younger people’s imagination, and their fears, hopes and dreams. Neither do they necessarily avoid “adult” themes such as sex. The first of these books, Through the Fire, definitely does not, and is probably aimed at readers of at least 17, going into the twenties and above. Girl of the Book is likely for the other end of the spectrum, while Over Cast might appeal most strongly to high-school students between the two. But in a way it doesn’t matter; I’m old, and I enjoyed them all.  

Disclaimer: The authors kindly supplied ebooks for review purposes (but these reviews were not reciprocal).

Through the Fire
Michelle Irwin
Evie is a teenager with a problem. She fancies Clay, a boy at school, and he wants her. But when she kisses him, he recoils in horror.
“How can you walk around and just pretend you’re normal? You sicken me! You and all of your kind.”
“My kind?” I asked. “What does that even mean?”
“Non-human filth,” he growled.

Wow. That was definitely a bad date. And when she gets home, Evie extracts a confession from her father; she looks, acts and feels like she’s human, but he’s always known she isn’t. She is, in fact, an ancient, mythical creature. So was her mother, and because of that she was murdered by a sinister secret group called the Rain, equally ancient warriors whose task it is to hunt down the non-human and uncanny and destroy them. Worse, it turns out that Clay is a hereditary member of the Rain. Evie and her father flee. But he finds them. 

As for what creature Evie actually is, and whether Clay and his kind get her in the end, best not to say; that would spoil the story. Which would be a pity, because Michelle Irwin’s Through the Fire is well worth reading. It’s mainly for older YAs, with the emphasis on the adult bit; there’s a bit of sex in here, and some quite frightening scenes. Anyway, older readers will enjoy this too (I did and I’m quite an old adult). I guess the book also fits into the fantasy genre. There’s a lot published in both genres now, and not all of it is good, but this is a cut above the average. Making Evie a mythical creature instead of an alien is a good idea; Evie is oddly believable from the start. Through the Fire is also a genuine thriller, well-paced and sometimes very tense.

The story does slip a bit halfway through, when Evie, on the run, meets other “others”, or non-humans. Up to that point, Irwin does a very good job of making Evie and her story feel real, despite the fantasy element. The new “others” are just a bit too fantastical, making it harder to suspend disbelief. This part of the plot passes and Evie is out on her own again, and the book does recover, but that was a chunk of the story that could have been removed without losing anything. Also, earlier in the book, the reason for the Rain’s existence isn’t established quite well enough. The love scenes went on a little long for me, slowing down the plot. There are one or two other things that could have been done better.

Even so, this is a good fantasy thriller. The two main characters are real. Not only does Evie herself work; Clay, in particular, is struggling with the conflict between his love for Evie and his mission to destroy her. (Intriguingly, Irwin is putting out a book written from Clay’s point of view, too.) And the book does raise some deeper questions. Why would some creatures be “others” when we regard most animals as harmless? Irwin seems to have tapped into the “uncanny valley” theory – that something that looks like a human but somehow isn’t will freak us out. Also, because the story is told from the point of view of the “other”, and her emotions clearly are very human, the book also feels like an argument for tolerance.

Last but not least, Through the Fire is rather well-written, in direct, elegant English. It’s also nicely produced, with good and appropriate cover art and a refreshing absence of typos and misspellings. Perhaps this shouldn’t matter, but it does – this book feels like a quality product from the first page, and it is. Worth your time.

Girl of the Book 
Princila Murrell
Courtney Parker is a 12-year-old South African whose father moves the family to Saudi Arabia for two years, so that he can work on a construction contract. It’s a well-paid job and will help pay for Courtney’s education, but she’s none too sure about all this, especially when she sees women on the plane put on abayas as they approach Jeddah.

When she goes to school things go from bad to worse; instead of the friends she has left behind in Johannesburg, she’s surrounded by Saudi and other Arab girls who find her pale blonde appearance weird, and either want little to do with her or show outright hostility. Even Lana, the one girl who is friendly, cannot really understand that Courtney is not a Muslim. Worse, the one other friend she makes – Nizar, the son of a Saudi neighbour – gets into trouble for speaking to her.

Courtney keeps her head held high. But it’s hard for her, and you feel for her every step of the way. That you do, is because of the empathy that author Princila Murrell seems to have with her characters. According to the book blurb, she does live in Saudi Arabia, with her family – so she knows what she is talking about. But she also seems sensitive to how kids feel at this age, with their intense friendships and enmities and deep sense of hurt. Moreover, she’s used a very effective way to tell the story. About half of it is told in the first person by Courtney, but the remainder is split equally between Lana and Nizar, who also tell their stories in the first person. The cultural misunderstandings and upsets Courtney has with them are thus seen from their side too, and all three accounts have the ring of truth. There’s no sense of a poor girl being thrust amongst a bunch of weird cartoon foreigners; everyone’s real – the book is about them too, and you identify with them as well as Courtney.

If I have a criticism of this book, it’s that it sometimes lacks a sense of place. I can remember arriving in Sudan for a two-year assignment many years ago; we had flown in by night, and when I walked out of the hotel in daylight for the first time, the sunlight hit me like an axe. I didn’t quite get the feeling of Courtney and her family being plunged into that in quite the same way. I also wondered if she would really be the only non-Arab child in a school that was teaching an international curriculum – but perhaps she would. 

Even so, I really liked this book. Kids of Courtney’s age who are going to have to travel may find this book helps them understand what’s coming. But they may enjoy it anyway, even if they are not going anywhere; I think I’d have liked this when I was 12, and identified with the characters. It may also help introduce them to the fact of cultural differences between people, and how they can be overcome.

Last but not least, parents taking their children abroad, or thinking of it, should read this too.

Over Cast 
K.W. Benton
Over Cast is a novel for young adults, the sort you might buy for your teenager in an attempt to wean them away from the PlayStation. The trouble is, you’re going to end up reading it yourself. I was hooked from the first page, on which the main protagonist, a 15-year-old girl called G.J., has an interview with the school principal:

“G.J., do you have any idea how Icy Hot ended up in Miss Ackers’ underpants?”
This I can answer with at least a half-truth. “No, sir. No, sir, I do not.”

For UK readers, Icy Hot is the US equivalent of Deep Heat – you put it on your aching muscles. But you do not put on too much. It’s the latest disaster for G.J, who is from Louisiana but has arrived in Washington State in the Pacific Northwest to live with her aunt, following the death of her mother in bizarre circumstances. G.J. isn’t completely at home or welcome in her new environment. As her discomfort grows, so do the strange incidents that surround her, including telekinesis, the Icy Hot and a budding friendship with a wolf. 

If this all sounds absurd, it is – but this story has great vitality, and is told with real skill. We learn of these events through the first-person narrative of G.J. herself, and it is absolutely deadpan, slightly bewildered and sometimes very witty. The aforementioned Miss Ackers is spouting spiteful mendacious nonsense about G.J.’s family: “...She was at me yet again, making up nonsense about my family. And well... in trying to ignore her I did recite, “liar, liar, pants on...” under my breath, and then... well they were. Just with Icy Hot.” Later in the book, returning to school after a bad injury: “A hurt leg is one thing; a bandaged head is quite another. I feel like I’m a victim in a Civil War re-enactment. All I need is a flute.” 

A strength of the book is the way the supernatural aspect is introduced gently, and is mingled with the usual teenage angst. G.J. may have paranormal powers but that doesn’t stop her lusting after the male students in a high-school wrestling match. There’s enough normality for the weirdness to seem perfectly natural.
This isn’t a perfect book. The author does overheat the plot a bit near the end of the book, making it a bit harder to suspend disbelief. She is more comfortable with female characters than males. There are also a few editing glitches (miss use for misuse, waive for wave) that suggest over-reliance on the spell-checker; with words like that, it can let you down. That sort of thing bothers some readers a lot more than it does me, but they’re best weeded out.
Even so, I liked this. It’s a teenage fantasy, but it’s well-plotted, with attractive characters, and written with genuine wit, warmth and charm. I’m sure it’d be great for young adults, but this rather old adult liked it a lot, too.

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Mike Robbins’s latest book, Three Seasons: Three Stories of England in the Eighties, is available as an e-book or paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Scribd and other online retailers, and can also be ordered from your local bookshop. Requests for review copies should be sent to thirdrailbooks (at), or to the author.