Entertainment Books

Tuesday 23 April 2019

Tales of love and death with a little bit of gore

Celia Keenan

It is fascinating to see the extent to which books on the topic of death and books with overt references to violence and the weapons of violence dominate this year's early teen and young adult lists. Has death become a fashionable replacement for sex and drugs? At least three titles have the word 'knife' or 'blade' in them, and several show graphic images of knives. Bones, graveyards and skeletons abound.

Children aged 11-13

The journal or diary form of first-person narrative seems to have become the favourite method of telling stories to the 11-13 age group.

Although Sally Nicholls' multi-award-winning first novel Ways to Live Forever (Marion Lloyd Books, €6.99) avoids any direct reference to death in its title, the subject is central from beginning to end. Sam, the 11-year-old narrator, is dying from leukaemia. He keeps a diary that covers the last three months of his life. He has all the ambitions, desires and questions of other boys his age, but these have an added urgency in his situation. His story, told simply and eloquently, is reassuring in its gentleness and humour. The big questions about life and suffering and what happens after we die are touched on honestly and simply.

Tim Bowler's Blade: Playing Dead (Oxford,€ 7.99) has a very different boy-narrator, aged 14, named Blade because of his proficiency in handling a knife. Blade is homeless, outside the law, outside society. He lives by playing dead, being invisible and using violence only when he has to. His language is hard, violent. Somewhere inside he has the potential for tenderness. The balance is a delicate one, but there is hope in this gripping story of a struggle for survival. This is sharply written without a wasted word.

David Almond's The Savage (Walker, €13.99) features a vicious-looking knife and other weapons in Dave Mc- Kean's brilliant illustrations. The hero, Blue Baker, has lost his father and is being bullied. His anger and pain find expression in the figure of the Savage that he creates in a story. The savage comes to life and enables Blue to come to terms with his own life. This is a frightening yet reassuring story in which the hero regains control of his world.

Siobhan Parkinson's latest award-winning novel covers two months in the life of its teenage heroine, Amy. It is a witty and beautifully written novel, full of fun but with serious issues such as adoption and casual racism delicately explored. In the course of two tension-filled months, Amy learns about gaining and losing friends, resisting bullying and developing self-reliance. There is a real treat in store for those lucky teenagers who read Siobhán Parkinson's Dialann Sár-Rúnda Amy Ní Chonchúir (Cois Life, €10).

From O'Brien Press in good chick-lit tradition are two entertaining Judi Curtin titles, Bonjour Alice and Alice and Megan Forever, both at €7.95, and one title by Judy May, Diamond Star Girl, at €7.99. From Penguin Ireland comes Aisling Fitzsimons' Aisling's Diary, €9.10.

Malachy Doyle's novel Swap (O'Brien Press, €7.99) is a well written and exciting story about two boys who swap identities and then discover the inherent dangers in their game.

A different game entirely is central to Joe O'Brien's Little Croker (O'Brien Press,€7.99), set to be the first in a series about a game that inspires such passion in thousands of Irish people. It is a welcome addition to sports literature for youngsters.

Historical fiction has become a less popular genre in Ireland in recent years. However, Marilyn Taylor's 17 Martin Street (O'Brien Press, €9.99) makes a valuable contribution. Set in Dublin during the Second World War, it explores the interface between the Jewish and Christian communities in the South Inner City area known as Little Jerusalem. In its treatment of the threat of deportation and ethnic loyalty and prejudice, it touches in a gentle and humane way on themes that are still very relevant today

Eoin Colfer's two titles of this year are perfect Christmas gifts, especially for boys. Airman (Puffin, €14.95) is a ripping yarn set in the early days of flight. There are lots of weapons and violence here, not to mention torture, but all of the swashbuckling kind. The sheer inventiveness of the Artemis Fowl series continues to amaze. Artemis Fowl and the Time Paradox (Puffin, €17.55 hb) takes Artemis back in time to remedy errors made then and to attempt to save his mother's life.

Young Adults AGED 14-17

Keith Gray's Ostrich Boys (Random House, €8.99) takes the form of a literal funeral journey. Ross has been killed in what at first seems like a road accident. His three teenage friends take his ashes on an alternative funeral journey or pilgrimage from England to Scotland. This remarkable, hard-hitting story gives a grim and realistic picture of teenage realities, including betrayal, guilt and suicide. It also, however, conveys the power of adolescent friendship, hope and acceptance of responsibility.

Tim Bowler's Bloodchild (Oxford, €19.50), also begins with an accident in which the teenage hero, Will, loses his memory, and subsequently tries to put his life together again. The story turns into a tightly written psychological thriller with a strong supernatural dimension.

Tabitha Suzuma's A Voice in the Distance (Definitions, €8.99) is a love story that tackles the reality of young adult depression in a thoughtful and sensitive way.

Siobhan Dowd's Bog Child (David Fickling, €13.99) is set in Northern Ireland at the height of the 1980 hunger strikes. It creates a parallel between the life of the teenage hero, Fergus, whose brother Joe is dying on hunger strike, and the story of an ancient preserved body found in a bog. As both stories unfold it becomes clear that love and sacrifice are inextricably bound; that the community makes unspeakable demands on the young; and that though some things change with time, there is a spirit of the place that endures.

Sonya Hartnett's The Ghost's Child (Walker, €10.99) is a poetic and beautifully written story in which an old woman is visited by a ghost child on the opening pages. Love and loss are both sensitively evoked against the backdrop of inevitable death.

A dead child also features in Kate Thompson's Creature of the Night (Bloomsbury €13.99). Its hero, Bobby, is a petty criminal. When his mother moves him and his young brother to Clare to escape from debt, his initial response is anger. However, the modern world collides with the world of folk and fairy lore in a powerful way that enables Bobby to accept himself, discover his talents and create a new life for himself.

In contrast, Anthony McGowan's The Knife That Killed Me (Definitions, €8.99) is a sharp, fast-paced thriller about bullying and aggression at home and at school. It is a violent novel, as its title suggests, but it does capture the reality of the dangerous world in which today's young adult males find themselves.

Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go (Walker, €19.50) is one of the most extraordinary books of the year. It is a fantasy with intensely realistic elements. The hero, Todd, inhabits a nightmare world without women in which all the male characters can hear each other's thoughts and there is no such thing as privacy. A rich and gripping book.

Oisín McGann's thriller, Strangled Silence (Corgi, €10). also uses an imaginary world to evoke some of the most dangerous elements in contemporary political culture.

Politics is always at the heart of Conor Kostic's work too. His most recent book Move (O'Brien Press, €9.99) has a hero, Liam, who can move between parallel universes. This is at once complex, gripping exciting and challenging.

A different kind of historical fantasy is Celine Kiernan's first novel, The Poison Throne (O'Brien, €12.99). Wynter, daughter of the king, must struggle to save her father and his kingdom. This bare account gives no idea of the power of the writing, the concentration and the wonderful attention to detail.

Mary Finn's Anila's Journey (Walker, €10.60) beautifully evokes a historical past, that of India in the 18th century. Hero Anila seeks to survive and prosper in a distinctively male world.

Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book (Bloomsbury, €19.50), illustrated by Dave McKean, has a hero living in a graveyard and reared by the dead. There is another version illustrated by Chris Riddell to appeal to slightly younger readers. It is a brilliant and at times funny thriller, part-grotesque fairytale, part-horror story. McKean's stark black-and-white illustrations illuminate the whole narrative.

PJ Lynch's illustrations of a completely different kind illuminate and humanise O. Henry's slightly cynical Christmas story, The Gift of the Magi (Walker, €14.90). Young lovers Della and Jim live in early 20th-century New York, where they work hard for little money. Their plan to buy a perfect Christmas gift for each other is frustrated, but love wins in the end.

Celia Keenan is a senior lecturer in English and director of the MA in Children's Literature at St Patrick's College, Dublin

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