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.

The Cement Garden

Buy THE CEMENT GARDEN by Ian McEwan

After their father’s death, Jack, Julie, Sue and Tom’s mother takes to her bed – and never really leaves it again. When she also dies unexpectedly, none of the children are willing to let her go. Instead of surrendering her body to the real world, Jack insists upon burying her. Not in the garden, however, but in a large wooden chest in the cellar, filled with cement he mixes himself.

At first Jack, Julie and their siblings want to maintain the visage of being a normal family for the benefit of an outside world they don’t want to interfere with the world within their home. They have got a taste of the freedom all teenagers yearn for, and don’t want to lose that. But theirs was never a normal family to begin with.

Julie assumes the role of mother and Jack father, whilst Tom not only becomes the baby (being the youngest), but a baby girl. Their fluid roles slowly dissolve into a general rolelessness, and their sense of individual identity wanes. Total freedom gradually imprisons those left unprepared for it by parents who perhaps never were part of the normal, real world to begin with.

Unfortunately Jack’s cement mix was incorrect, and it never properly sets. His mother decomposes down in that cellar, and her strange, strange smell starts to seep through the house like a spectral presence.

Ian McEwan was one of those authors I first encountered via a university syllabus, which is never a good way to find any writer. So this is the first novel of his I’ve read in almost 15 years. It’s a slight tale, at times more about atmosphere than character. A whiff of decay lingers around its almost post-apocalyptic world of near-empty streets and demolished prefabs, let alone inside the walls of Jack’s house, where casual grotesqueries start to seem quite domestic.

Thirst

Buy THIRST by Benjamin Warner

After being stuck in unmoving traffic for several hours, Eddie decides to ditch the car, let someone tow it, and worry about everything later. He’s been under a searingly hot sun all day and is dying for a drink. On his long trek home, however, he starts to overhear some alarming things. The powercut that caused the jam on the freeway has affected the entire city. What’s worse, the water’s out for everyone too.

Nobody is too worried to begin with – the power has been out before, so has the water, and even when that’s been the case for a couple of days, someone shows up eventually to fix it, and then everything’s fine. In the meantime they just have to sit tight and make things last, just in case it takes as long to fix things again this time too.

As the days pass, the shops empty of anything with a liquid content, and people begin to drink vinegar instead, they start to hear new rumours. The water won’t be coming back on. The only water that hasn’t been chemically changed to become flammable is undrinkable brackish water. And the rest has dried up, or burnt up. People start dying – but not always from thirst.

For much of its length this is a detailed forensic portrait of the end of the world as told from the perspective of a single neighbourhood falling apart, together. Its pace never seems slow, despite its depiction of the gradual descent into a hell of communal dehydration. Desperation and primal panic turns friends and neighbours into opponents – competitors rather than enemies. Every drop of water must be fought over. Nobody else can be trusted – who knows what secret bottles or cartons someone might have squirrelled away if they don’t seem as thirsty as everyone else.

When it becomes devastatingly clear that nobody is coming to save them, what thin threads of society that remain are finally cut. The novel wanders off the road a bit after that, as Eddie’s extreme thirst provokes a delirium that allows the story to indulge a little too predictably in developments that might or might not be real.

Up until then, however, it’s really quite excruciatingly tense and all too plausible.

David

Buy DAVID by Mary Hoffman

Between the fall of the Medicis and the rise of Borgias, Florence descends into quiet anarchy, its partisan citizens bitterly divided, neighbour pitted against neighbour, as various forces try – and usually fail – to assert their dominance.

Amidst all this polite chaos, where symbols and gestures come to matter all the more, the arts flourish. Dandyish hasbeen Leonardo Da Vinci flounces around with his all-male entourage, trading off a reputation starting to fade (and being forced to accept commissions to paint women with enigmatic smiles) whilst baiting the young Michaelangelo, whose skills as a sculptor even Leonardo cannot match.

When Michaelangelo’s milk-brother (i.e. the son of his old wet nurse) Gabriele comes to Florence, bored of his bucolic lifestyle and seeking all the pleasures a virile youth can find in the city, Michaelangelo finds the young boy has grown into a young man who would make the perfect model for his statue depicting one half of the battle between Goliath and David.

Gabriele finds everything he wanted in Florence, including plenty of trouble, as tensions between republicans, pro-Medici supporters and lingering followers of the mad monk Savonarola boil over. At any other time he could hide in the crowd, but that proves a bit difficult when he has the most recognisable face in Florence.

Mary Hoffman has written such a colourful, exuberant version of the impact the Statue of David had on Florence that it’s frankly a pity the majority of it is completely made up. Despite its convincingness as a historical novel, at its heart is a timeless young adult story that revolves around Gabriele following his trousers around the widows and servant girls of Florence, and aching for a good scrap.

It may play fast and loose with what the most likely version of events (though there is the hint of a cocky challenge from Hoffman that implies it’s up to the reader to prove things didn’t happen exactly as she’s described) but the spirit of the Renaissance captured here feels very honest. The novel is a celebration of art, intellect, passion and open-mindedness over money, tribalism, superficiality and monkish attitudes.

Sweet Caress

Buy SWEET CARESS by William Boyd

When Amory Clay is still at boarding school, her father shows up one day to take her for a drive – a journey that ends with him driving the car into a lake in an attempt to kill both of them. But that isn’t really the end of the journey for Amory, because this experience colours the rest of her life, particularly when it comes to her relationships with men.

Desperately searching for a more suitable father figure, she develops an infatuation with her uncle Greville. It is he who introduces her to photography, a hobby that becomes a passion that becomes a job. Through her camera lens Amory gets to see the tumult of the middle half of the twentieth century, always convinced she’s a part of it, always convinced she can actually capture a story – or, better, a truth – on film.

From the easy defeat of Mosley’s blackshirts at the Battle of Cable Street (which only helps generate a sense of cosy complacency about fascism), Amory’s work takes her to burlesque Berlin during the slow, simmering rise of Nazism. Thence to a US in jazz-infused splendid isolation just before the attack on Pearl Harbor and, following the Allied invasion after D-Day, back to a Europe that has adopted a new casualness towards seeing mutilated bodies left unburied by the side of the road.

Along the way she embarks on various transient relationships with fellow photographers, but it is the relationship with a Scottish commando she meets in war-torn Europe that lasts the longest. Her oblivious search for a replacement father figure pretty much ends with her finding the closest match to her own father. He was a damaged First World War veteran. Her husband is damaged in the Second. Through him she comes partway to understanding what her father must have gone through.

Ultimately this is a novel about stories, linked loosely together by the wars that destroy them. The book is interspersed with period photographs that give the sense of this being a memoir rather than a work of fiction. Their presence emphasises that pictures aren’t really worth a thousand words – they hint at stories, but only give an unreal sense that they tell the whole thing. Amory still has to fill in the gaps.

Sometimes Amory feels a little too lascivious, following her passions into bed rather quickly with many of the male characters that cross her path. It takes quite a long time for the reasons why to start to become clearer.

Though it continues afterwards for several more chapters, the novel effectively ends in Vietnam, a war Amory’s country isn’t even involved in but which she feels drawn to nonetheless. Here she can finally leave her father behind, in another war that robs a generation of countless stories, even if those men do come home too.

The Storm

Buy THE STORM by Virginia Bergin

The second book in Virginia Bergin’s post-apocalyptic YA series starts where the first one left off – with gobby teenager Ruby Morris on her own in a world where nearly everyone else has been killed by an extraterrestrial plague bedevilling the water supply (and specifically, the rain).

Brushing off the other survivors she has collected in her travels (including the nerdy Darius Spratt and the mute little girl he’s protecting but knows only as Princess), Ruby continues her endless search for her dad. Despite everything she has seen that suggests a high probability he died bleeding and screaming, she just knows he’s still alive, and that might mean her little brother Dan could be too. And she’s right – but the route that will take her to them is going to go through some very dark places.

The world may have fallen into chaos after the killer rain first fell, but it is no longer quite as chaotic as it was. Crossing paths with an army that is enforcing a new kind of order, she learns there might be a cure, that she might be an important part of that, but that the military might not have the most virtuous of intentions for it.

Ruby herself was the weakest point of the first book in the series. However brilliantly depicted she was, I felt she was a bit too relentlessly obnoxious about everything and everyone. And she’s still got a mouth on her in this book, but in this one we’re allowed to see what’s beneath that hard shell. Far more vulnerable than she lets on, perhaps she isn’t quite as different to nerdy Darius she tries to convince us she is.

The plot takes some deranged twists, but also meanders around a bit, and the ending comes quite abruptly. Indeed, whilst things come to more of a close than they did in the first book, there are some rather significant unresolved threads that suggests Ruby’s ordeal is not quite over yet. And the novel’s done enough for me to want to check out the next one.

Jonathan Unleashed

Buy JONATHAN UNLEASHED by Meg Rosoff

By all appearances Jonathan Trefoil is living the dream. He works in marketing in New York City and has a stunning girlfriend who everyone would tend to think is well out of his league. He knows his life isn’t all that fantastic, of course. Marketing involves getting excited about stationery and hanging around trendy, trendy hipsters with a penchant for verbing nouns. And his girlfriend Julie sees him as a bit of a curio. She knows it. He knows it.

What’s more, Jonathan’s dogs know it. They’re not even his dogs – his brother flew off somewhere too exciting for dogs, let alone Jonathan, and left Dante the bordercollie and Sissy the spaniel cooped up in Jonathan and Julie’s increasingly cramped apartment. Julie can’t stand them and thinks they’ve got it in her for. He can’t admit it to her, of course, but Jonathan’s already got his suspicions that the dogs are taking over his life – and in more than one sense of the phrase.

There’s a definite Adrian Mole vibe running through this novel. Jonathan is overly introspective and insecure, as disbelieving of his good fortune landing Julie as everyone else, and frequently spends time indulging daydreams and other fantasies. Some of them feed the grand comic book slash novel he’s working on called New York Inferno, recasting everyone he knows (and everything that annoys him) in a version of Dante’s (the poet’s, not the dog’s) Hell based on New York City.

Whether Dante and Sissy really are showing a sentient concern for Jonathan’s life and are trying to nudge him in a better direction, or whether he’s just projecting on to them his own sense of self-doubt, is a nice joke that Meg Rosoff keeps going for much of the book. The novel manages to pivot around its furry plot devices without actually being a very dog-heavy book, so even this cat person wasn’t put off.

And it’s a bit more cheerful than Rosoff’s How I Live Now too.

The Virgin Suicides

Buy THE VIRGIN SUICIDES by Jeffrey Eugenides

The five Lisbon girls manage to be the main topic of conversation on their 1970s Midwest suburban street without even doing anything. Part of it is their unique attractiveness (not even classical beauty – more a captivating allure). But most of it is their mystery. Living almost a secret life, largely separate from their peers, they are kept deliberately anonymous by their similarly (but more wilfully) anonymous mother.

To the teenage boys who live in the same neighbourhood, the Lisbon house looks reasonably normal from the outside, and the girls seem close enough physically not to be out of reach. But when Mrs Lisbon agrees to a party – the first and last party her daughters ever have – the boys learn just how far away the girls really are. The party comes to a sudden terrible end when the first of the daughters kills herself in front of everyone. Within a year, all of her sisters have followed her.

We never learn the name of the narrator of this novel. He (if indeed there’s only one of them) is ultimately as anonymous as the Lisbon girls. He isn’t really a character – nor really much of a narrator, for that matter. He’s more of a curator, collating news, rumours and speculation about what happened to the girls (years after the fact), his narration more of a commentary linking it all together.

For all Jeffrey Eugenides’ wonderful writing – perfect sentences that may focus on the prosaic and the domestic (like a more literary Stephen King perhaps) but which are sometimes closer to poetry than prose – I was left utterly unaffected by his robotic storytelling. But maybe that’s the point.

The picture he paints of America is of a place where nobody really knows anybody else. And maybe, despite it coming in a novel about five suicides – five child suicides, no less – that’s the most depressing thing of all.