Ibarajo Road : Harry Allen

 Ibarajo Road from debut author Harry Allen is a darkly haunting story full of riches. Charlie, a rich white kid (an oyinbo), goes out on the town with his mates. It’s meant to be the best night ever. It really isn’t.

That night is where everything starts to go wrong and, as penance, Charlie opts to work in a refuge. The refuge provides a place for the homeless, sick, and any orphan children in the neighbourhood. Worlds apart.  And Charlie’s time there changes his life forever.

I was really intrigued by the description of this novel and hopefully I can review it without going all Gap Yah on you. I’ve worked in Ghana as a volunteer English teacher. Africa is the strangest place. It sears you with memories, both good and bad, and I still remember it with a lot of love.

Allen himself grew up in Nigeria during his teenage years and a lot of this is blatantly evident. Although the book is nominally set in ‘Sengharia’, the patois and the overall feel of the book is intensely vivid and read to me as Nigeria under a pseudonym. But I digress. It’s a book full of colour, and heat, and dense contradiction. And I think it’s a book about choices. It’s about reaching the crossroads in your life and making the right choice.

Ibarajo Road is written in a quietly, haunting style. You go with Charlie on his journey from rich kid to ‘other’ kid, one who’s seen the world and seen the darkness it can hold. And there’s a lot of darkness in this book – some which is genuinely very disturbing and upsetting to read. Allen works his text well though, making it non-judgemental and quiet throughout.

If I were to pull this book up on anything, it would be that it feels slightly over-worked in places. There are a few too many neat endings to too many chapters and a few too many stylistically aware moments that just all feel a little over-written. And, although it may be that I’m simply hanging around with the wrong teenage boys, I am yet to hear one of them refer to a girl’s ‘obsidian’ eyes.

Ibarajo Road is a dark, haunting, and actually really rather poignant novel. A very solid 4/5.

Dads, Geeks and Blue Haired Freaks : Ellie Phillips

Dads, Geeks and Blue Haired FreaksDads, Geeks and Blue Haired Freaks by Ellie Phillips

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s Sadie’s 15th birthday and, as you do on every birthday, she’s got cards. The small problem is that one of these cards comes from her Dad.

See, Sadie doesn’t know who her Dad is. He’s a sperm-donor who her mum found on the internet, back in the dawn of the online world. And now Sadie’s got a card from him.

I really loved this. With a unique, and sympathetic point of view, Phillips tells the story of how Sadie discovers who her father is. It’s a bit Mamma Mia if Mamma Mia were set in Hackney and featured a very funny and food obsessed family. There’s a brilliant bit in it which had me in stitches (you’ll know it when you get there, it’s the bit where Sadie starts yelling the food menu!)

It also deals with an unusual subject and does so very nicely. Sadie’s search for identity leads her down several blind-allies and these are funny, sharp, and painful in equal measure. What’s quite lovely is that Phillips doesn’t forget the adults in this situation and writes a world of reactions that are understandable, moving and acutely painful.

I bawled at the ending because it was really very lovely. It was satisfying, and it was all heart-warming, and it was just right.

The only problem is that now, because I can never do my hair without six days worth of notice, I have major hair envy of Sadie’s ability.

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The Probability of Miracles : Wendy Wunder

The Probability of MiraclesThe Probability of Miracles by Wendy Wunder

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a very, very gorgeous book. It’s painful too, teary-eyed and clutching it in the middle of the night painful, and it’s very very life-affirming.

I loved The Probability of Miracles. The UK edition (published July by Penguin) has a very luscious cover which I like a lot more than the pink one for the US edition.


The Probability of Miracles is the summer of Cam. Campbell is seventeen. She’s got cancer and she’s a little beyond miracles now. She’s cynical, smart and very Juno-esque. But her mum and her sister believe and they drag her to Promise, Maine, a bizarre little town where magical things happen.

It sounds a little hokey but it’s not. It’s very very lovely. The blurb has it down as Before I Die meets Juno which is very apt but there’s also a lot of The Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind in it as well. The way that this story is layered equally in cold hard fact and then in maybe-magical moments, is kind of beguiling.

I loved this. It’s the sort of book that reminds you what to believe in.

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A Brighter Fear : Kerry Drewery

A Brighter FearA Brighter Fear by Kerry Drewery

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Brighter Fear by Kerry Drewery is, I think, the first piece of British children’s literature to directly address the war in Iraq. (Please do correct me if I’m wrong!). A while back on my blog I wrote about the necessity of children’s literature addressing war here and would particularly reccommend Lydia Kokkola’s Representing the Holocaust in Children’s Literature to those who wish to learn more.

A Brighter Fear is a groundbreaking book in many ways and one that’s also very very curious. It’s the story of Lina; teenager, Christian, female – and Iraqi. She’s growing up in the most difficult circumstances possible and it’s not easy. Growing up never is.

Drewery creates a convincing and believable character in Lina. She’s palpably sad, and tense, and fragile. Every word she says has the sensation of being very deliberately chosen for this point in time. Here, though, is where the book gets quite curiously intriguing. It’s told in first person past tense style: I said, I believed, I watched etc. The other key signifier of Drewery’s writing here is a preponderance for sentences that begin with “And” or “But”. There’s a lot of them here.

Now usually I’d be picking up on these stylistic tendencies because reading a lot of sentences that look the same is a tiring experience. You become used to the shape of the word, of the paragraph, and as such start to slowly disengage from the text. A Brighter Fear manages to become a book that doesn’t really lend itself to be read – it’s one that you engage with. Time and time again I found myself reading sections out loud, feeling the words on my tongue and picking up on the inherent rhythms of the text. It combines to produce quite a spooky, unnerving affect and being all in past tense gives it a very definitive feel of uncertainty. It seems to say this is Lina’s moment, this is where it all changed, and the Lina that’s telling you this might not be the same one who’s in the story.

This is a book that’s very near to the bone in many places. There’s a subplot with Lina’s mother which is incredibly painful to read. It needs to be read with an awareness of the recent nature of these events for if A Brighter Fear is something, it is very quietly provocative and disturbing.

The more I read A Brighter Fear, the more I felt uncomfortable and the more I became wrapped up in what happens to Lina. It’s a big, brave story to try and tell and I sort of think that Drewery does succeed in the whole. She presents a novel full of pain, and beauty, and tear-filled moments and when she writes her big moments, she writes them very beautifully.

But I think where A Brighter Fear perhaps succeeds more is when it forgets the bombs, the terror, and the sad sad resignation of the populace. It is in the quieter moments; the moments where people just talk or think or love. After all, it’s people who make conflict – and it’s people who will solve it.

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Hollow Pike : James Dawson

Hollow PikeHollow Pike by James Dawson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Debut YA author James Dawson has written a sort of surprising novel here. Initially I read Hollow Pike with a horrendously blase attitude. Witches. Yawn.

But then, it so got me. Dawson’s produced a sexy (that front cover is very indicative of the style within) and dark novel which had me laughing out loud with glee at the simple audacity of the Big Twist. I won’t even attempt to spoil it but the eventual location for the Big Bad? Genius.

It’s written from the perspective of teenager Lis London who’s just moved to Hollow Pike following bullying at her old school, and Lis swiftly makes friends at her new school. I actually really enjoyed how ‘non-sterotypical’ these teens were and how they actually existed as characters instead of just foils for Lis. (God knows if non-stereotypical is a word but I’m sticking with it).

There are elements of everything here: Scooby-Doo mysteries, The Craft, Scream, and a heavy dose of Mean Girls. And then it takes it all and flings it up North in a desperately weird little town full of Wait, Did I Just See That Or Did I Imagine It moments. Ace.

The attitude that I started this book with? Wrong.

The attitude I finished this book with? Curled under the quilt at midnight, “just reading a few pages more”?

So very right.

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Heart-Shaped Bruise : Tanya Byrne

Heart-Shaped BruiseHeart-Shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Emily Koll is – well – she’s –

she’s here.

She’s brittle, broken. But she’s here.

She’s here after –

(well, after everything she did, after everything that’s been printed about her, after all the words that have been said)

She’s telling her story for the first time. And oh – what a story. Emily is a glass-edged, vivid narrator full of fragile braggadocio and vicious, vicious pain.

Heart-Shaped Bruise is massively out of my comfort zone and I found it a little hard to get in to at first. It felt a bit too artful for what I was expecting. But then, once I was in there – it was good. Almost voyeuristically good. What Byrne does is, she gives heart to the heartless. Emily’s one of those people who’s done awful things and we shouldn’t love her.

(But we sort of do. We sort of root for her to come back from this place she’s in and pull herself out of the darkness).

Heart-Shaped Bruise is a massive book because, I think, it poses so many more questions than it can ever answer. Revenge. Love. Loss. Everything. It’s big.

Emily Koll is bigger. There was one moment that leapt out of the sky at me. One of the characters asks Emily what she wants when she dies. Her reply? “When I go, I want to punch a hole in the sky.”

That’s it. That longing to make a mark – to just – just matter.

Tanya Byrne makes Emily matter.

Heart-Shaped Bruise is kind of spectacular.

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Unravelling : Elizabeth Norris

UnravelingUnraveling by Elizabeth Norris

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Janelle Turner should have died. She was hit, head-on, by a pick up truck thundering out of nowhere. She should have died.

But she didn’t. Somebody heals her broken body, and starts her stopped heart. Somebody brings her back. In the process of discovering who – and why – they did this, Janelle uncovers the worst sort of problem. A sort of potentially world-ending problem. And she’s only got twenty three days to solve it.

I love how this is put together. Short, gaspy, 24-esque chapters with a time stamp and a punchy image before moving onto the next moment. I felt it worked a lot better in the second half of the book when Things Got Explained and Janelle had a bit of purpose rather than going ‘Hey-ho the world’s about to die but I’d better go to class first and crack on this hot looking lad next to me’. To be frank I struggled with the first half of the book. The second was amazing but the first just felt like wading through mud.

I think that first half confused me a lot about this book. It was heavy when I was expecting pace. It wandered off to explore X and Y when I was just wanting to know more about the whole world-ending thing. I appreciate there’s a level of world-building necessary but sometimes I felt the central urgency of the story was lost.

But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. There were moments in the first (and pretty much all of the second) half which made me keep on turning those pages. Norris phrases her chapters in an almost serial format – finishing most of them with one of those moments of ‘well, now I’ve read that line I sort of really have to keep on going don’t I?’

Unravelling confused me greatly. I shifted from rampant ambivalence through to post-midnight page turning and back and forth a thousand times.

It’s good.

(I think).

Note: the front cover above comes from the US edition. The front cover for the UK edition is ridiculous brilliant.

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