Monthly Archives: February 2013

London’s Burning


I’ve been taking a break from genre fiction after a bit of a dystopian overdose, so when I picked this one up I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about going back there. Happily, Burn Mark can hold its  own in these increasingly crowded ranks. The premise is intriguing, set in a alternative version of modern London where ‘the burning times’  of 17th century England are vividly remembered and the descendants of those long-ago witches and witchfinders are still locked in an antagonistic, but symbiotic,  relationship.

The story revolves round a pair of 15-year-olds, Glory, the down-at-heel descendant of a long line of famous witches and Lucas who has been groomed to succeed his father, a powerful and influential Witchfinder. When they both get the Fae that marks them out as witches it is an expected and much-wanted occurrence for Glory, but a source of horror, confusion and shame for Lucas. Thrown together as unexpected allies in the fight against corruption in high places, they discover they have more in common than they could have guessed.

Burn Mark is slow to get started, but by the time I was half way through I was thoroughly gripped. I liked the way Powell has used the historical background to give depth to her alternative reality. The large cast of secondary characters are well-drawn and convincing and the central pair of Glory and Lucas have enough hinterland to make them feel like proper teenagers. Straddling the genre boundary between dystopia and thriller with a bit of history thrown into the mix, and with a point of view that switches equally between the male and female protagonists, Burn Mark should appeal to a fairly wide cross-section of readers in the 12-15 age group. Health warning though: the novel opens with a rather gruesome depiction of a witch-burning, so take care about recommending it to very sensitive children.

Burn Mark – Laura Powell, Bloomsbury, £6.99


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Everyday genius

“Even if you were green and had a beard and a male appendage between your legs. Even if your eyebrows were orange and you had a mole covering your entire cheek and a nose that poked me in the eye every time I kissed you. Even if you weighed seven hundred pounds and had hair the size of a Doberman under your arms. Even then, I would love you.”

When you fall in love, who are you really falling in love with? People like to believe they fall in love with what’s on the inside of a person, but how would it be if all the externals were different every time you met? For most of us, that’s just an interesting topic to muse about, but it’s of more than academic interest  for A. Why? Because every morning for 16 years,  A has woken up encased in a different body and forced to inhabit the life of another stranger for just one day. Then one day, A wakes up in the body of a boy named Justin and falls in love, for the very first time, with Justin’s girlfriend Rhiannon. Suddenly, all the rules A has created to keep safe, are thrown out the window. Nothing matters but finding Rhiannon again… every day.

Handled by the wrong writer this storyline has huge potential for slapstick comedy, but you can put all thoughts of Freaky Friday out of your head because in the hands of Levithan Every Day is a nuanced and thoughtful exploration of what makes a person who they are. A experiences life in the bodies of 16-year-olds of every shape, size, race and gender and the sharply-detailed vignettes of their lives are one of the best things about the book.

There are a couple of potential pitfalls with Leviathan’s insistent harping on the love is blind theme: A’s pursuit of Rhiannon can come across as overly stalkerish at times, while the emphasis on genderless nature of true love comes close to crossing the line into full-on preachiness. But the quality of the writing manages to circumvent these hazards and the story resolution, which I was a bit worried about as the last page started to loom, was adroitly handled.

I first came across David Levithan’s writing through Will Grayson, Will Grayson, his brilliantly funny collaboration with John Green. Both writers are part of a zeitgeist in the US that are bringing LGBT-friendly teen fiction to a wider audience in a way that is just not happening in the UK at the moment (more of this in another post soon), so while it’s a shame that Levithan is not yet as well known in the UK as Green is, hopefully that will change when Electric Monkey brings Every Day out here in paperback later this year. Meanwhile, if you want to splurge a tenner on a hardback I can’t think of a better book to choose.

Every Day, David Levithan, Alfred A Knopf, £11.49

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A question of perfection

Amid the frenzy surrounding the many dystopian, fantasy and alternate reality novels swamping the young adult market at the moment it would be all too easy to overlook The 10pm Question, an understated but very nearly perfect contemporary novel from the New Zealand writer Kate de Goldi.

The hero of the novel, in every sense of the word, is 12-year-old Frankie Parsons, the youngest member of a warm, funny, unconventional family.  Frankie struggles with anxiety, the cause of which, we gradually come to understand, is his mother, who has issues of her own to contend  with.

Every night at exactly 10pm, Frankie goes into his mother’s room,  interrupting the rereading  one of  her favourite Russian novels to ask her a question about his latest health anxiety. And every night she reassures him that it’s unlikely that  he has caught Hepatitis from Seamus Kearney’s brother, or that he has an undiagnosed hole in his heart like Solly Napier’s cousin.  He goes to bed reassured, but he is never entirely free of the ‘rodent voice… thin and whining and the perpetual bearer of unpalatable facts’.

Still, with the uncritical support of his best friend Gigs, Frankie manages to keep his feelings pretty well under control, until a girl called Sydney breezes into his life on what he rapidly and unhappily realises is a wind of change.  Sydney, it turns out, is very good at asking questions and Frankie soon finds himself ducking and diving to prevent her asking the questions that he just isn’t ready to face the answers to.

What sets this book on a plane above most ‘issue novels’ is that the characters are so surely drawn, so individual and believable that it is they, rather than the focus on mental health, that drives the story.  Frankie’s dad, his brother and his sister and best of all his three card-playing great-aunts are the sort of fully-rounded people who could step right out of the story and into your own family and even his cat, The Fat Controller, is more lifelike than the humans in most novels.

One the best things about The 10pm Question is the way it ends. Mostly, books like this are spoiled by an inept resolution, caused either by the writer’s compulsion to tidy all the loose threads, or  by their inability to draw the strands of the narrative together in a convincing way, but the ending of this book is as perfect, understated and elegant as the rest of it.

The 10pm Question could be enjoyed by anyone from 10 to adult and would be a wonderful novel to share with a Y7 or Y8 class. In fact, next time I get to choose a set of KS3 class novels, it is going to be the only name on the shortlist.

The 10pm Question,  Kate de Goldi, Templar Publishing, £6.99

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