The Red Necklace

Buy THE RED NECKLACE by Sally Gardner

Young gipsy Yann gets to see it all, living in Paris in 1789 and being part of a unique magic act. Along with his mentors Tetu and Topolain, Yann is hired to give an exclusive death-defying performance for a gluttonous Marquis, his generally unloved young daughter Sido, and his aristocratic friends, including the malevolent Count Kalliovski. The performance ends in disaster, and Yann is forced to flee for his life.

Three years later Yann is living safely in London, whilst France devolves from Revolution to Terror. He doesn’t think he has any reason to return home, but then he hears stories that young Sido is facing the wrath of the Revolutionary courts, that Count Kalliovski is behind a dastardly plot, and that maybe Yann wasn’t the only one of the magicians to have secretly survived that fateful night. Back to France he goes, but it is a country that he barely recognises any more.

A Tale of Two Cities would have gone a lot differently had Sydney Carton been able to wield Jedi-like powers, and that’s pretty much the thrust of this story. It’s an indulgent book, in only the good ways, and is entirely unpatronising towards its target readers. It doesn’t gloss over the brutal violence of mass executions or indeed anything about the adult world – the storming of the Bastille is covered from the perspective of a guy too busy with a woman to notice.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Buy ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine. She’s stuck camping around the base of Maslow’s pyramid, but has long convinced herself that that’s where she belongs, that that’s about as much as she deserves. After all, as her mother is always more than happy to tell her, Eleanor is pretty much just a waste of skin.

Eleanor’s life follows a predictable and safe routine. She goes to work and avoids her colleagues, wearing the same clothes and eating the same lunch every day. Only her Wednesday night contact with her mother breaks up the week. Every Friday she buys two bottles of vodka, which see her through nicely until Monday. She has a crush on a local musician, and allows herself plenty of time to fantasise about a future together where she could escape all of this.

But she doesn’t have as long to wait for her life to be upturned. That happens the day she is out on the street with one of her co-workers, Raymond, and a stranger collapses in front of them. Drawn into Raymond’s act of basic compassion and inadvertently helping the man, Eleanor suddenly finds her life changing – improving – in myriad tiny but significant ways.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine treads a not unfamiliar path, introducing this lonely oddity and then revealing (quickly – this isn’t a spoiler) that she’s a victim of child abuse. It’s such a strong paean to surviving, however, that it seems a bit churlish to criticise its unoriginality on that front, especially when Eleanor’s voice is so engaging – even when she says, does or thinks things that make her isolation superficially easy to understand.

I did worry that the story was veering towards having Eleanor saved by a man and I wonder whether in an earlier draft things did head further in that direction. Regardless, I think the ending it has is the one that suits it best – quiet hope replacing silent suffering.

Red Shadow

Buy RED SHADOW by Paul Dowswell

Misha lives a life apart from most Soviet citizens. His father being one of Stalin’s private secretaries, his home is within the Kremlim, his plate is always full (even when the German betrayal in early 1941 brings food shortages) and his path towards membership of the Communist Party looks to be quite smooth.

But Misha isn’t blind to the fact that the foundations of his society are built over the graves of communism’s victims. Ever since his mother was arrested (and presumed executed) on exaggerated charges of treason, he’s been well aware that his is a world where the truth can only rarely be whispered and rumours can get you shot. Yet he knows also that Stalin is not the statue or the poster that he is to others, but a mulish chain-smoker who has to be cosseted and coaxed into making a decision, and who fully understands the power of propaganda.

The onslaught of the Nazis, crossing hundreds of miles of Soviet lands within weeks, promises to change everything, though. As even some within Stalin’s inner circle begin to contemplate defeat, fingers begin to be pointed. It’s not safe to be a boy with doubts about communism when that happens.

Of all the Paul Dowswell books I’ve read, this is probably the most uneventful. Misha doesn’t have the kind of adventure many of Dowswell’s other heroes do. Indeed, he is largely trapped, on every level, and that’s what the novel is really about – his growing awareness that everyone in the Soviet Union is a prisoner of some sort, and that some people are hoping to get better gruel by currying favour with the guards.

Building on what he did in Sektion 20, Dowswell depicts life in a dictatorship as increasingly cloying, a house of cards that everyone is pretending is a beautiful castle built on a rock, and those who don’t pretend hard enough need to be cast out. It’s a suffocating existence, and by the time the Nazis appear to be closing in, they seem largely a metaphor for who else has already tried to crush Misha, his friends and his mother.

The Island at the End of Everything

Buy THE ISLAND AT THE END OF EVERYTHING by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Amihan lives an apparently idyllic existence on the island of Culion. She and her mother live in a quiet, laidback village surrounded by friendly neighbours, their lives revolving around school, church and trips to the palm-shaded beaches that surround their forested island home. But Culion is not really the paradise Amihan can see, and she’s old enough now to properly understand why. Culion is a leper colony.

This doesn’t really matter to Amihan, though, until the appearance of the fastidious Mr Zamora. Zamora is an evangelical bureaucrat, a suited zealot on a mission from Manila to isolate all those who have been touched by leprosy and remove healthy children from their affected parents. This means Amihan must leave her mother and the only home she has ever known for an island of strangers, from which Culion is only visible on a clear day. There’s only one way she will ever get to go back, but she’s not going to be able to manage it on her own.

When a book is so wonderfully written as this one, what flaws it has become all the more apparent, but at the same time are easier to accept. I felt the ’30 years later’-style extended epilogue unnecessary, and that the pace slowed to a bureaucratic churn when Zamora became the one driving the plot for a while in the middle, but those niggles aside, this is still beautifully written, and a story that felt modern yet still with a certain timeless quality at the same time.

Zamora might be a drag on the pace for a few chapters, but he is still the richest character in the story – unforgivable, yet never evil; his small-mindedness balanced against his strange, strange love for butterflies. But at the end of the day, his desire to preserve their beauty forever by killing and pinning them captures the unrecognised turmoil that he both inhabits and creates for everyone around him. He’s drawn with a complexity that’s unusual for books supposedly aimed at this age group.

The Executioner’s Daughter

Buy THE EXECUTIONER’S DAUGHTER by Jane Hardstaff

Moss has only ever seen the world outside the Tower of London through iron bars. The vicarious life she lives through people she encounters leaves her feeling safer where she is, protected by the Tower’s battalion, and her father. But then, when you’re the daughter of the man who lops off the heads of the enemies of the state, it’s not as if you get to mix with the cream of society.

Yet Moss is curious about the outside world all the same. It’s a place full of secrets, including those about Moss’s own past. All she has are fragments of stories, perhaps mythical, about her dead mother, and an old curse. When she finds a secret passage that leads out of the Tower, Moss can’t resist exploring. But the kind of people who need a secret passage to get in and out of the Tower are not the sort Moss should mess with. Maybe her father was telling the truth about the world out here after all.

Despite that title, this is quite a sweet story, not dripping in blood, and more grimy than gritty. It’s full of colourful characters (not least the suitably salty orphan chancer Salter, a boy straight out a Dickens tale), and whilst the ‘is-it-real-or-is-it-imagined?’ nature of some of the more fantastical elements didn’t always work for me, it’s a fast paced and vividly told adventure, and made me want to check out the sequel.

The Gods Will Have Blood

Buy THE GODS WILL HAVE BLOOD by Anatole France

Summer 1793, and the average French citizen has grown weary of four years of revolutionary unrest, whilst the revolutionaries themselves are fighting half of Europe on France’s borders, and fighting each other at home.

Once upon a time the emigres were the true enemies of the revolution, running away with France’s wealth. But now, angry failed artist (where else have we heard that character arc?) Evariste Gamelin realises the real enemies are actually those who were arrogant enough to remain behind, hoarding their wealth and awaiting a good opportunity to make their comeback. Never mind – the guillotine will sort out that problem.

And Gamelin, self-entitled lover of women, purveyor of unoriginal thoughts, and sanctimonious revolutionary (yes, he believes in egalite, but he clearly believes he is more egal than others), is perfectly suited to become a magistrate. He will have the power to condemn aristocratic (and not so aristocratic) enemies of the people to a swift death. So begins the Reign of Terror, which is not about to stop just because someone Gamelin knows is brought before the tribunal.

Gamelin is almost entirely objectionable for the first third of the novel, but in an entertainingly pompous way. Anatole France insists on throwing in a few moments of decency, such as when Gamelin splits his bread with a hungry stranger and her baby, then tells his mother he already ate his half so the rest is hers. There’s enough human complexity to his character to make us wonder whether either his head or his heart is in the right place after all, and ensure that we’re not just reading to see the fall that comes after the pride. It’s not really a tragedy, though. Not one about Gamelin, anyway.

Just as in my last read, Jamaica Inn, where Daphne du Maurier tackled a similar era through a prism of a century plus of further historical and literary development, Anatole France’s treatment of the Revolution is even less contemporary in spirit than Victor Hugo’s treatment of the 1832 uprising in Les Miserables. That lends the novel a certain smugness in hindsight, because it was written only a few years before bloody revolution gripped Europe’s east, and really not long before a quiet, untrammelled revolution in the west led to bloodletting on a scale to make the French Revolution look rather quaint.

Jamaica Inn

Buy JAMAICA INN by Daphne du Maurier

Following the death of both her parents, Mary Yellan has no choice but to go and live with her mother’s sister. Aunt Patience lives on the other side of Cornwall, a decidedly less sun-swept frontier of rainy moorland and ragged coastlines. Mary isn’t at all prepared for what she will find at Patience’s home, the remote travellers’ rest, Jamaica Inn. But it is Patience’s husband, the wild Joss Merlyn, who really proves a shock.

Trapped by distance and violent threats from the raving Merlyn, Mary soon learns the real reason why Jamaica Inn never seems to have any overnight guests. Those who do come show up in the middle of the night, and they are just as wild as her uncle. She knows better to ask any questions, but in his drunken delirium one day, Merlyn tells her the truth – Jamaica Inn is the staging post for wreckers who work the northern Cornish coasts, drawing ships onto the rocks to steal the cargo.

Mary wants to leave, but there is nowhere to go, and Aunt Patience is too much of a wreck to be abandoned. Hope comes in an unlikely form, Joss Merlyn’s younger sibling Jem, but Mary isn’t altogether sure he is any less dangerous than his brother.

I never really got on with Wuthering Heights, perhaps the most unconvincing of all (supposed) love stories, but fortunately Daphne du Maurier only layers on the Gothic colours (so grey, brown, black, another shade of grey, then) to pastiche them. Indeed, during her coach ride across the stormy moors which opens the novel, Mary’s preoccupation is not the wild gloominess of the world, but the fact that the roof is leaking and she doesn’t want to get wet.

The wild men of the novel are not irredeemable boors of the Heathcliff variety either, with Joss Merlyn every bit as much of a cartoon villain as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Long John Silver, and his brother Jem more of a misunderstood outcast whose redemption is clearly signposted from the start, and who, with a change of clothes and a wash, could walk quite easily into an angsty YA novel.

Ultimately du Maurier’s sensibilities are more 1930s than 1830s, especially with regard to Mary being an independent character who can spend most of the novel scared without ever verging on hysteria and needing a man’s arms to faint into. And in a thrilling romp full of larger than life men (and not just the Merlyn brothers), that’s exactly what’s needed.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Buy FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS by Ernest Hemingway

In four days’ time, a ragtag gang of Spanish partisans – communists, gypsies, women, old men – will play their part in the civil war between republicans and fascists by blowing up a bridge. History will probably never remember this minor contribution (especially if the republicans lose), and most of those hiding in the forest, waiting for the hour, are well aware of their general insignificance.

The same is true of American Robert Jordan, a volunteer fighting for a cause he just about still believes in, sent up the hill because of his experience with dynamite. It’s not necessarily true of Maria, a woman who watched her parents executed before being raped by fascists, and who Jordan falls instantly in love with.

With a portentous sense that their time together may be short, Jordan need not worry about the other, less beautiful side of love. Four days is long enough to feel lust and longing. Maria becomes both true love and wife, and in another way his sister, because he has never had any of those things, and may otherwise never have them.

He’s well aware that his new, heightened sense of being alive may be him just being oversensitive, and that time hasn’t really become meaningless, but if these are going to be his final days on earth, he’d rather spend it amongst the trees with Maria than arguing with the drunk Pablo, who has his doubts about their mission – and who knows where the detonators are hidden.

There were times when I struggled with this in a way I never found it a struggle to get through A Farewell to Arms (admittedly that was some 18 years ago, and I was a different reader back then). I read it in bursts, on and off over several years, contemplating on a few occasions whether to give up on it altogether, but remembering how I almost did that with A Tale of Two Cities, only for the second half to be so much better than the first. Then there would be interludes such as the one where fascist prisoners are forced to run a gauntlet of all the village before having to jump off a cliff to their deaths. So I persevered, and it too got better as the hours the partisans have left run out.

It was impossible for me not to make further comparisons with A Farewell to Arms too. Jordan was only slightly more demonstrative than Frederic Henry, and Maria was only slightly less of a blank sheet than Catherine (though her dialogue was generally less barmy). It’s not a particularly convincing romance, purely circumstantial, but that’s probably the point. Despite the disparate nature of the guerrilla band, everyone there except Jordan and Maria seems to belong. It is Hemingway’s most romantic notion – that two outsiders will find each other (and find love) whilst there’s still time.

I sometimes turn corners of pages (I know, I know) when a writer has written something particularly worth returning to. I must have had portents of my own a year or so back when I turned one such corner on the page where one of the partisans asks Jordan whether there are any fascists in America and he says, ‘There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.’ I’m not so sure they will, Robert.

The Weight of Water

Buy THE WEIGHT OF WATER by Sarah Crossan

Kasienka and her mother arrive in Coventry from Poland with barely a bag between them. They have left everything behind (which wasn’t much, anyway) to come in search of Kasienka’s wayward father. He’s set up a new life here, and Kasienka’s mother fully expects them to just fit right back into their old roles within it. But she’s wrong.

Whilst her mother continues to search for her lost husband, Kasienka must go to school. But it’s hard to fit into a teenage world where you don’t understand any of the silly little rules, and where being different carries little in the way of cultural capital. Swimming, however, makes everything better. She doesn’t need to speak the same language (and not just in the literal sense) beneath the surface of the water – and that’s how she meets William, who inadvertently teaches her why her mother has dragged her across the continent in pursuit of a man she is besotted with.

As with the wonderful One, and her double-hander with Brian Conaghan, We Come Apart, Sarah Crossan’s novel is written in blank verse, with snatches of lyricism doing the job of a chapter of prose.

The novel dances around a lot of themes (some of them developed better in Nicu’s half of We Come Apart), from first love to bullying, and the slight extent of the book leaves them seeming quite straightforward. Their various endings may have a general sense of lack of resolution, but such is life. Whilst there are no pretty bows to tie up any ends, we’re left with a sense of hope that things will ultimately turn out all right for Kasienka.

Earthfall: Redemption

Buy EARTHFALL: REDEMPTION by Mark Walden

After finding out certain uncomfortable truths at the end of Earthfall: Retribution, Sam Riley and his friends think they know everything. They think Earth has simply been caught in the middle of an interstellar war between the Voidborn and the Illuminate, and that mankind is an irrelevant part of an epic battle that has spanned the galaxy for millennia. They believe they have survived the zombification that has rendered the rest of humanity inert because they have been experimented upon in preparation for this moment. They barely know the half of it.

Having barely recovered from the last foiled Voidborn attack, humanity suddenly faces an even worse foe. The Primarch has arrived in orbit of Earth, but he is not a new threat. Indeed, he is the main threat, the one behind Earthfall, and with the planet on its metaphorical knees, the time is right for him to reveal his endgame, and bring it to fruition. To defeat him once and for all, Sam and his friends must embrace the Illuminate technology they have been gifted – but to do so, and to win, will not be without sacrifice.

The stakes were already so high in the previous two Earthfall books that Mark Walden would always struggle to raise them much higher without making it practically impossible for his half-dozen mortal human heroes to succeed (to defeat an entire alien menace established to be nigh on unstoppable) in convincing fashion. As such Sam and his friends really do become reliant on outside help, in a two parts Iron Man to one part Power Rangers kind of way, and the humanity does get quite lost at times.

Fast-paced and filmic, with set pieces that could be levels of a video game (there are definite similarities with the Resistance games), this series has clearly been aimed at perhaps more reluctant readers, especially teenage boys who could easily be distracted by 101 other things. On that level, it’s a success, regardless of whether there’s anything particularly original here or not.