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.

The May Queen

Buy THE MAY QUEEN by Helen Irene Young

The Cotswolds in the 1930s offer the rather innocent May an idyllic adolescence. Life is all about wild swimming, springtime fetes where the entire village comes together across class lines, and gossiping with her friends about the dreamy rich boy who lives up at the big house. The only shadow on the horizon would appear to be May’s steely nag of a mother, who is the cloud above every silver lining.

But there’s a world beyond the boundary with Oxford, and it’s a decidedly less innocent one. May’s slightly older sister Sophie disappears – apparently with a not inconsiderable stash of stolen cash – after getting pregnant, and now the wicked whispers May picks up upon are about whether the father is actually Christopher, the dreamy rich boy May has long pined for. And, of course, there is the small matter of that moustachioed chap now running Germany.

It’s years later before May discovers just how innocent a perception she really had of the world. She’s now a Wren, serving in Blitz-stricken London, when Sophie reappears with her young daughter in tow, and changes everything May thought she knew about their shared past.

This is a novel about two very different worlds – a timeless rural idyll and a turbulent, terrifying, exciting city – that actually turn out to be not that different after all because of the people who straddle the border between both. Helen Irene Young’s 1940s London perfectly reflects the turmoil of May’s home-life, forced into a state of permanent flux, changing overnight, every night, as both people and buildings come and go constantly.

Young has revisited a time gone just out of sight and brings it back into the now with edible prose, waspish humour and, most importantly, a lot of heart. She brings edge to a coming-of-age story whilst also allowing her characters to be quietly exhilarated about basically being on the frontline of the homefront. The sweetness of the younger May’s enviable existence is soured in devastating fashion over the course of the novel, but there’s still hope come the end that the older May will not end up mistaking cynicism for wisdom, as her mother clearly has.

We Come Apart

Buy WE COME APART by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan

Ever since Jess’s brother Liam left, her and her mother’s lives have become irredeemably miserable, with her mother’s boyfriend Terry forcing Jess to film him as he beats hell out of her mum. Terrified, but just as terrified of letting that show, Jess has no one to talk to, no one to ask for help. Nobody listens when you’re a poor kid living on a dead-end estate, not even the best friend who lands you in trouble to save herself.

Nicu does not go to school, but then, Nicu does not do most things that other teenagers in Britain do. His Romany parents aren’t planning to stay in London for long. Indeed, as soon as they can arrange a marriage for Nicu, they’re going back home. In the meantime Nicu can help his dad selling scrap metal – some of which might not actually be theirs to sell. Duly caught, Nicu is forced to go to school, but also do community service, where he meets a similarly isolated girl named Jess.

This is a romance with sharp teeth. It’s not really about love, but about how two people are driven together from circumstances that couldn’t be more different on the surface, and who are both trying to tear themselves away from an existence they can’t tell anyone about – except each other.

I’m not so cynical about novels written in blank verse since reading Sarah Crossan’s One late last year. This one has more grit and edge than One, perhaps brought out by her collaboration with When Mr Dog Bites author Brian Conaghan. I don’t know who wrote what, whether they each took a character, or worked on both together, but it works seamlessly.

The ending is a bit abrupt, but probably appropriate. Jess and Nicu’s stories could continue, but they’d go somewhere new, and that’s not what this novel’s about. I wouldn’t mind reading that one, though, even if there are no plans to ever write it.

Concentr8

Buy CONCENTR8 by William Sutcliffe

London’s teenagers have been successfully medicated. Concentr8 is basically Ritalin on, er, speed, and Blaze, Troy, Karen, Femi and Lee have all been taking it for as long as they remember. It’s been so successful in reducing trouble, however, that a cash-strapped national government has forgotten why Concentr8 prescriptions became so ubiquitous in the first place. So they pull the plug and cut off the free supply. And then the rioting kicks off.

In the midst of the chaos, Blaze and his friends make it all the way to City Hall. An encounter with one of the mayor’s underlings is only averted from ending in a stabbing by becoming a hostage crisis. But over the next five days, as the novel delves into each of its protagonists’ perspectives, it slowly becomes apparent that perhaps they’re not all up to being kidnappers after all. Indeed, most of them are just going along with it because they believe all the others are completely committed to seeing this thing through.

It’s unclear whether this novel is aimed primarily at adult or YA readers. The behind the scenes political and journalistic shenanigans away from East London are probably of little interest to the latter, whilst a tale of teenagers swept up by the herd but finding their own sense of individuality in the middle of it is probably of little interest to the former. There are probably also too many perspectives (seven or eight – I lost count – in a novel that’s under 250 pages) to really get to know any of the characters very well.

That said, it’s a very visceral and pointed response to the 2011 riots in London, and William Sutcliffe doesn’t play it safe, make any obvious arguments, or find any neat, cosy solutions come the end. He took a potentially risky decision to make most of his kidnappers black teenagers, but ultimately the true division here is not one of race at all, but the good old British class system. He turns things on their heads in the second half in an interesting way, so whilst there might not be any true villains in this story, there aren’t any true heroes either.

One

Buy ONE by Sarah Crossan

I’ll admit I approached this one quite sceptically. I’ve read a couple of novels in blank verse before and never felt it added anything. I would go so far as to pin my cynical, philistine colours to the mast and say the only way I could tell they were supposedly poetry rather than prose was because the line breaks were in funny places. That it didn’t add anything to the book didn’t necessarily mean it detracted anything, of course.

This one, though, is different. I can’t say why because it would spoil the story (slight though it is), but coming out the other end, finding out the real reason why those lines broke where they did, I don’t think it could or should have been done any other way. Pretty much every line is lyrical – an image, a feeling, a metaphor – but its layout on the page is ultimately significant too.

One is the story of Grace and Tippi, conjoined twins who have made it into their teens, which means they have to deal with all the usual teenage angst whilst physically connected to someone who’s in love with a different boy. Sarah Crossan doesn’t shy away from any of the awkward details. Grace and Tippi know everything about each other. But then, they always have done.

Real life continues around them, of course. Their father struggles to find work and is a secret (though increasingly less so) drinker. Their sister, who silently accepts that her dreams and needs must take second place in this family, slides into anorexia. And that’s before Grace and Tippi meet any of the other outsiders of which the rest of the world is full of, too.

Even with the best of Western medicine behind them, few conjoined twins survive into adulthood, and health problems mean Grape and Tippi need to be separated. One will become two, and Grace, always the quieter of the pair, isn’t sure whether she has enough of her own identity to survive apart from Tippi.

This YA novel won the Carnegie Medal, a prize that has come into a bit of flak for some of its choices in recent years. I doubt anyone would argue that One‘s victory hasn’t done a great job in repairing any dents in its reputation entirely, though.

Born Scared

Buy BORN SCARED by Kevin Brooks

Elliot is scared of pretty much everything: loud noises, dogs, Santas, people in general, actually. The outside world is largely out of bounds seeing as it is full of ‘monkems’ (everyone except his mum and Aunt Shirley). Elliot’s fear is a beast kept in check by a diet of pills – they don’t kill the fear; they just stop the fear of the fear completely consuming him.

When a mix-up with his prescription means he runs out on Christmas Eve, his aunt agrees to find a pharmacist who can ensure he won’t spend Christmas Day getting lost in a maelstrom of terror that’s really just inside his head. When Shirley doesn’t appear and Elliot’s mum goes out to find her, Elliot must wait at home, alone, until one of them comes back with his pills. But neither of them do. Elliot is faced with a terrible choice – stay and face the terror at home, or venture out in the hope of defeating it.

Despite being told in a breathless first person present tense voice that really captures the relentless churn of crippling anxiety, the book was quite slow to get going – Elliot takes the better part of 100 pages (and it’s a short novel) just to make it out of the front door, as every little trigger sets his terrified brain off and he needs to find a way to cope with the tiniest of worries that suddenly seem like insurmountable obstacles.

Whilst that leaves it a quite accurate depiction of worry running completely out of control, what Elliot encounters when he finally gets outside almost makes his anxiety seem justified: not one but two armed stand-offs in the space of 50 pages, a drugged-up bank manager joyriding around the streets and the resulting police chase, plus a kidnapping and hostage situation. These thriller elements were all well handled too, but they made it feel like two good books joined together that didn’t quite come together to make a great whole.