The Prince in Waiting Trilogy by John Christopher

christopherj-princeinwaitingThis volume brings together three short novels of around 150 pages each: The Prince in Waiting, Beyond the Burning Lands, and The Sword of the Spirits. The saga is set centuries in the future, in a Britain that has recovered from a natural disaster of apocalyptic proportions. Civilisation somewhat resembles the feudal medieval period. Each city, walled off from all others, is individually governed by its prince. And in summer, cities go to war with each other, more for custom’s sake than for conquest. There is no king governing the land. Machines are forbidden, because of the Disaster, and all fighting is done with bows and swords, all travelling by horse. Among people, classes are divided into humans, dwarfs, and polymufs – those unfortunate enough to be born with mutations and whose role in life is confined to servitude.

Each city has its own Seer, who speaks on behalf of the Spirits – strange disembodied apparitations that appear to men in Seance Halls. Luke Perry, a young nobleman of the city of Winchester, is proclaimed by the Spirits to be Prince in Waiting, and it is propesied that he will become Prince of Princes, ruling the whole land. But what are these Spirits? Real beings from a higher plane, or something else? Luke is soon to find out.

The saga takes many twists and turns, involving politics, war, friendship, love, and betrayal. The reader is guided through several strange and unusual cultures, as Luke’s quest take him far from his city, crossing the Burning Lands, a volcanic area separating Luke’s homeland in the south from the land of the Wilsh in the north. As a book marketed for children, the content is really quite grown up. Luke himself is nothing like a child of our own culture, and in some ways I found it difficult to be sympathetic with his cause at times. Culture clash is a prevalent theme, and the reader is invited to observe that a custom is not necessarily right simply because it is one we happened to grow up with. Another theme is the two-edged sword of technology – its benefit to society measured against its use as a tool of conquest, not forgetting its use as a means to manipulate the “primitive” mind. I’m reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The whole story is not quite as epic as Christopher’s The Tripods, but holds its own as a thoroughly engrossing tale, one that gets more interesting with each subsequent book. There’s enough good story material in here to span one of those big multi-volume sagas that are typically over 300 pages per book, as is the trend with modern fantasy writing. But I much prefer Christopher’s brevity. The Prince in Waiting Trilogy is an intelligent, gritty, violent children’s fantasy saga, and if that doesn’t sound politically correct, it’s not meant to. Recommended for all ages.

Empty World by John Christopher

A teenage boy loses his family in a car crash and is taken in by his grandparents. Some months later he loses so much more – everyone. An unusual disease breaks out in Europe, first affecting the old, but then causing rapid ageing in the young. Attempts are made to contain the disease, but due to the fact that the symptoms don’t show up until days after infection, it spreads across continents, eventually wiping out the world. There are a tiny fraction of survivors, all in their early to mid teens – an age where the immune system and the development of the human organism are in a sort of optimal balance.

This sounds like a fairly typical apocalyptic tale, but the strength is in the telling. It’s the story of one teenage boy and his struggle to survive and find companionship. This may be marketed as a children’s book, but there is nothing cotton-wooly about the events that transpire. You would be hard-pressed to find a children’s movie as harrowing as this. Christopher portrays life with a keen sense of realism, examing loss, the hostility of life, and the relationships between young people that have been freed from the restraining guidance of adults. In the end, what wins – our humanity or inhumanity? A short, strong novel – one of my favourites by this author.

Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien

Back in school, we read (or were forced to read) various novels as part of English class. Mostly, I found them incredibly boring, and a drudgery. How Many Miles to Babylon, I Am David, Of Mice and Men, etc. – books that were, for the most part, too sophisticated and intellectual for a boy in his early to mid teens. These book choices no doubt contributed to me being unable to view reading as a pleasurable past-time. That all changed when Z for Zachariah became the class novel. I credit this book as the catalyst that got me into reading, and I’ve never looked back.

Ann Burden lives in a secluded valley with her family, when a nuclear war happens. Her mother and father head out in the car, to see what’s going on in the neighbouring town, and they never return. Beyond the valley, all is dead and lifeless. For some reason, the valley is untouched by the nuclear fallout – not a miracle, but a meteorological mystery. Ann now lives alone, thinking that she might be the last person in the world – except for the farm animals. Then one day, months later, she sees a column of smoke in the distance – a camp-fire. Someone is coming. Who is this mysterious traveller? How can he move about unaffected? And will he be friend or foe?

What a terrific set-up for a rivetting story. This is the third time I’ve read Z for Zachariah. It’s still great. Athough marketed as a children’s novel, it’s a very grown-up story that doesn’t pull its punches. At times, I wanted to shake Ann, for her excessive fear and her inability to be ruthless when something needed doing. But this only served to illustrate how much the author really drew me into the story, and how well he was able to portray the predicament of a sensible, moral girl whose whole world had been turned upside down.

Interestingly, I learned that the author died while writing the final chapter of this novel. His family finished it for him, and the book was published posthumously. Highly recommended.

The Blueprint by Will Hadcroft

Liam Creedy is knocked out in a nasty accident at school. When he comes to, he finds that everything has changed. For a start, he is seeing in black and white. Oddly, though, his own body remains in colour. Flashes of colour also manifest occasionally in other people, but for the most part they are uniformly back and white. Patrick Freeman High has changed even more radically. The school crest now features a fingerprint enclosed by a “no entry” sign, as if to say “No individual identity.” Prefects have become a kind of school police force. Corridors are more like streets, classrooms more like workplaces, and there is no exit to the outside world. In this strange self-enclosed microcosm of society, Liam has one friend, the strange Mr Samson, who tells him enigmatically: “Find the blueprint and change it. Only then will you find the way out.”

It’s clear that the author is using a lot of symbolism. The story is a vehicle for exploring the faults of the education system, its misuse as a means of indoctrination, ensuring that the population thinks a certain way. And the end result of this way of thinking, symbolised by a millstone inscribed with the words “Cause and Effect” rolling down a distant mountain towards the school, is the destruction of us all.

I can get on board with Hadcroft’s thinking to some extent. Like the author, I’m a fierce individualist, which makes me perceptive to the problems caused by mass herd-conformity. People work like crazy to buy like crazy, and this sort of attitude is gradually assassinating the planet. Religious hypocrisy and the pointlessness of war are touched upon in the book. I did find Hadcroft’s stance a little confusing at times, but while reading I was constantly analysing where we both differed.

I think my views would have been more in line with the author’s a few years ago, when I was reading a lot of conspiracy material. But these days, I see the competitive nature of life as something natural – a sort of stratification process, with winners and losers, a process that is mirrored in the animal kingdom. Although we fight against injustice, I don’t see a world without power struggles and exploitation as something that’s even possible. Hence, I don’t see the world we have in quite so dark terms as the author maintains. Even though we are undoubtedly indoctrinated in early life, it’s also true that the world today is so full of exciting education resources, if we would only reach out and take them – rather than spending our evenings wallowing in front of a television set watching soap operas. The real root of the problem is that many people simply don’t wish to learn. In fact, I would say that the TV is a far bigger source of indoctrination than the education system. I see television as the modern replacement for religion. It’s what people use to fill a hole in their lives; meanwhile it subliminally shapes their views and opinions.

I happen to know of the author’s personal religious convictions, so it tickled me when the protagonist had an argument with his teacher about evolution. The author takes the view that evolution is a lie, but the anecdote supplied in the story simply fails to deal properly with the issue. Today, for evolution to be false, there would either have to be a massive worldwide scientific conspiracy, or mass stupidity among scientists. While there is certainly a religious agenda against evolution, motivated entirely by a need to defend an inflexible dogma (which the author himself admits), the same accusation cannot be levelled at the scientific community, whose aim is simply to formulate the best theory from the available evidence.

Fans of the television series The Prisoner will notice a deliberate nod to the show in the design of the book’s cover. Elements of the story are also reminiscent of Life on Mars and Quantum Leap. The Blueprint is an enjoyable story, extremely well written, with an intelligent and thought-provoking subtext.

Branded by Robert Swindells

Put yourself in the shoes of young teenage boy, Dale Ward. You’ve got a mum, a dad, a younger sister called Kayleigh and an older brother called Gavin. Life is fairly typical for you, until one day the police arrest your older brother for raping and murdering a girl in an alley – a girl who was one of many. Gavin is found guilty and put in prison for a long time. The press have a field day with you and your family. Your family goes into witness protection. Suddenly you’re no longer Dale Ward but Glen Parish. On the surface, your life seems normal again. But underneath, you know you’re the younger brother of a serial killer.

What an absolutely enthralling premise for a novel. How do you reconcile the loving brother you’ve always know with the monster who brutally murdered girls? Why did he do what he did? Will you grow up to be just like him? How will anyone tell Kayleigh? Are you and your family safe in our new lives, or will the press hunt you down again?

You’ve got to hand it to Swindells. He can pick really his ideas. I’ve enjoyed all of his young adult novels. There’s a grit and an honesty to them that I really appreciate, and this one is no different.

The only downside I found was that, for some reason, Swindells is pulling of a Cormac McCarthy act with this novel. McCarthy (The Road, No Country for Old Men) is known for making some strange decisions with punctuation, such as omitting all quotations marks. Swindells mimics the style here. It doesn’t work for me. In fact, I don’t know that it works for McCarthy, either. All it really does is add a bit of confusion between dialogue and narration, occasionally breaking the flow of reading. Just a small gripe. Otherwise, highly recommended.

The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

James “Slippery Jim” diGriz is a master criminal living in a near-totalitarian future society. Using his own cunning, and with the help of disguises and gadgets, he outfoxes the lawmen and gets away with the loot … until now. We begin with a bank heist that goes wrong, putting diGriz in the hands of the police. It looks like it’s all over. But then Harold Inskipp, of the elite law enforcement agency the Special Corps, seeing the potential of diGriz, puts him in the agency’s employ. diGriz, who is in fact the hero of the story, changes his criminal ways (sort of) and starts working on the right side of the law. Soon, he ends up on the trail of another master criminal, one who is in the process of secretly building a battleship to wreak havoc across the galaxy. In summary, the story is sort of like James Bond in space. You have the gadgets, the battles, intrigue, betrayal, sensuality.

I had problems with this novel. First, I found myself not entirely warming to James diGriz. It wasn’t so much that he was a criminal. It was all the self-justification of his crimes. He won’t commit murder, but he will lie and steal his way through life, and see himself as quite a moral guy. He is a romanticised outlaw, and there’s just something false about him. Secondly (and this is purely a matter of what you’re looking for in a story), the aspects of the story involving technology and trickery and cunning just didn’t do it for me. There was a hollowness running through it that made me feel like quitting at a few points. Three quarters done, I kept reading purely to finish what I had started.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the closing chapters blew me away. Suddenly The Stainless Steel Rat became a story about people (which is exactly the kind of fiction I like). The cracks in diGriz’s armour were beginning to show. He was in serious danger of losing his way entirely, of partnering up with the very person he had set out to arrest – a power-mad violent sociopath, no less. Furthermore, the sociopath wasn’t allowed to become pure evil personified. Harry Harrison delved into the past, dredging up the things that shape a person into what he becomes, good or bad. Great stuff.

There are eleven Stainless Steel Rat books, of which this is the first. That total doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence. It feels like the old scenario that we’ve seen countless times with TV shows. When the producers know they’re onto a good thing, they just keep churning out more and more to fill an audience demand, regardless of how little steam there is left in the original vision. Nevertheless, I might jump into the Stainless Steel Rat universe again sometime. This one was worth reading.

The Lotus Caves by John Christopher

When John Christopher wrote The Tripods trilogy in the 1960s, it was a turning point for the author. As one who had written only for adults in the the earlier part of his career, he now wrote almost exclusively for children. The Lotus Caves is the children’s novel that immediately followed The Tripods.

This is a moon adventure, something that perhaps has limited appeal today, but would have been really exciting in the year of publication, 1969, the same year as the first manned moon landing. From a 60s perspective, the novel envisions a fairly gritty possible future, with a mining colony established on the moon and entire families living within a huge domed structure called The Bubble. Lives are a little colourless in comparison to Earth. Commodities are always in limited supply, so lifestyles of conservation are encouraged, where every little thing is important – in stark contrast to the affluence that’s possible on Earth. An artificial lake with its own fish is provided, to make the families feel more at home. But for some of the young, the moon has always been their home. Born there, and destined to remain until their parents have finished their contracts, the young nevertheless long to visit the blue world they’ve only ever seen in books and videos.

Marty is one such teenager. Bored with life in The Bubble, he ends up getting into a bit of mischief with his new friend Steve. Discovering a passkey accidentally left in the ignition of a lunar crawler, the boys take hold of a rare opportunity to travel far and wide across the lunar landscape. Their first destination is First Station, the now abandoned predecessor to The Bubble, where they discover the diary of a colonist who went missing under mysterious circumstances, telling stories of a vision of a strange impossible flower on the moon. Marty and Steve go in search of the mystery. From that point on in, we leave mundane science fiction behind and grasp the reins of fantasy. For under the surface of the moon is a bizarre plant-like entity who welcomes the boys and never wants them to leave.

When I was reading this novel, I couldn’t help but wonder if Christopher’s favourite theme of mind-manipulation would make an appearance, since I had already seen featured in The Tripods, The Guardians, The Prince in Waiting, and A Dusk of Demons. Yes, it’s here, too. Perhaps “social conditioning” is a better word to describe Christopher’s obsession. This time the conditioning comes not from a metal mesh embedded in the brain, but from an external force that obtains obedience by creating feelings of peace and happiness. It’s the human will versus the emotions in a battle for freedom.

A criticism purely on personal taste: I found the story a bit too wacky. I’m not a great fan of the fantasy genre, and The Lotus Caves ultimately abandoned its sci-fi beginnings in favour of something completely “out there.” That said, I found the novel to be an enjoyable worthwhile adventure.

Dosh by Robert Swindells

I’ve read several young adult novels by Robert Swindells and have never been disappointed, for one reason: he is uncompromising. The trials and tribulations of reality are never sugar-coated and no subject is taboo. This is never more true than in Dosh, where the topic of child pornography is under the spotlight.

The book introduces an ensemble cast of characters from the neighbourhood of Cottoncroft, many of whom are working kids – those with paper-rounds and such. It’s standard procedure in the neighbourhood that working kids pay a portion of their salaries to a local gang of older teens called “The Push.” The Push in turn pays Charles “Froggy” Flitcroft, the local Al Capone wannabe, from whom they receive a wage. The police have been after this guy for a long time, but evidence has always been hard to come by. And so, the unjust arrangement in Cottoncroft goes on – until the working kids decide to make a stand. They form a counter-gang called “The Pull” and they refuse to pay. Violence ensues, but the kids remain determined. Meanwhile, Charles Flitcroft comes across a new opportunity to make a tidy sum – recruiting local kids to attend “parties” and be paid £50 to be nice to the clientele. Little do the kids know that these parties have a sinister side to them.

Great novel. Reminded me of watching Grange Hill when I was in my teens, a series that occasionally tackled hard teenage issues. The story moves along at a cracking pace – almost too fast. Swindells doesn’t write in this “flash fiction” style in other novels of his that I’ve read. It works fine for the most part. My only criticism is that so many characters were being thrown at me in such a short space that I initially lost track of who was who until I got further into the book. The last quarter of the novel is a real page-turner.

Ultimately it’s too much of a thriller to be a novel that’s tackling any real issues with any hard advice. I was slightly apprehensive that the story would end up as some farcical kids-versus-adults tale that unconsciously encourages children to bite off more than they can chew in the real world, but to its credit the story shows all sides. Kids get hurt in Dosh, and badly – realistically.

Another top-notch teen thriller from Swindells.

Strontium Dog: Search/Destroy Agency Files 01 by John Wagner & Alan Grant

Strontium Dog was one of my favourite characters from the pages of the weekly British sci-fi comic 2000 A.D., which originated in the early 1980s and continues to flourish today. I read the comic erratically in my youth, so until now I’ve only been scratching the surface of the amount of Strontium Dog strips that have been published. In fact, you could say I’m still only scratching the surface, since this mammoth 330-page tome is merely one of four.

The comic is set in the 22nd century, some years after an atomic war on earth – a war that left many people mutated because of a radioactive isotope in the fallout called Strontium 90. Fear of mutants became the new racism among “norms.” Mutants lived in poverty, unable to get jobs. As a solution, the government offered one job to all mutants – a job that no norm would take: Search-Destroy Agent. SD Agents are bounty hunters, scouring the galaxy for the the worst of humanity – sometimes to arrest and sometimes to terminate. But the public don’t call the bounty hunters SD Agents; they call them Strontium Dogs.

Johnny Alpha is one. His mutation left him with the ability to see into men’s minds. He also carries an assortment of weaponry, including a blaster that can fire bullets through solid matter, set to detonate at a specific range, and a range of bombs that can manipulate time itself. Johnny works with a partner, Wulf, a viking warrior from the past.

The stories are wild and wacky, even going as far as sending Johnny on a mission to earth’s past, to bring back Hitler to pay for his crimes against humanity. The one thing I noticed, as an adult, reading this stuff, is how unafraid the writer was to wreak havoc. Often, the innocent are slaughtered along with the guilty, with reckless abandon. If memory serves, I think that’s something you would rarely see in 2000 A.D.‘s 1980s rival The Eagle. Heroes were also allowed to have a darker side, seen in Johnny’s willingness to fulfill a contract without asking too many questions about the target.

The writing credits in this volume go to T.B. Grover and Alan Grant (I’m assuming T.B. Grover is a pseudonym for John Wagner). Both writers are highly imaginative. Carlos Ezquerra quickly finds his feet as the principal artist. (I think this trio are also responsible for a lot of early Judge Dredd, too.) The only place the volume falters is with the inclusion of a few Strontium Dog strips that came from 2000 A.D. annuals of the period. These were written and illustrated by outsiders, and are amateur by comparison. But I guess they had to be included for the sake of completeness.

I wasn’t awed by Strontium Dog, but it was an entertaining and imaginative set of stories, worth reading.

Ultraviolet by Lesley Howarth

Any story that’s classed as post-apocalyptic will be get me interested. But if you really want to fascinate me, show me a post-apocalyptic world that is bizarre. And that’s just what attracted me to this young adult novel. Ultraviolet (not to be confused with the movie starring Milla Jovovich) is set in a near-future world where something has happened to the earth’s atmosphere causing the sun’s rays to be super-harmful for several months of the year. People are no longer permitted to go outdoors. Those who sneak out at their own risk are called “Leakers.” Homes are all connected by above-ground tunnels made of a protective plastic called BluScreen. BluScreen is more than just a covering; it allows the sun to penetrate in a non-harmful way, allowing gardens and such to grow underneath. BluScreen, unfortunately, is an extremely expensive material to purchase. Aside from the tunnels, only the rich can purchase the material for their own use.

The protagonist of the novel is Violet Niles, a gutsy teenager with attitude, daughter of a famous scientist responsible for the invention of BluScreen. When Violet learns that the lives of everyone could be transformed, if not for the greed of the powerful BluShield corportation, she decides to do something about it. It was hard to see where this novel was going until about halfway through, as the author indulged in a lot of world-building, rather than plot advancement. Normally, that would bore me, but I found Howarth’s world to be different and fascinating enough to sustain my interest until the real meat of the story came into play. As for characters, Violet Niles was wonderfully drawn – quite different from typical protagonists.

A note on the author’s style. One of the most common mistakes I find authors making is “the timid writer syndrome.” That’s where the author is afraid that the reader won’t understand him, so he throws in unnecessary extra words just to make sure. Oddly, this is the first book I’ve read where the author errs in the opposite direction. Howarth is a snappy writer, using an economy of words that is often skilful, but occasionally a bit irritating. Let’s say eighty percent of the time I admired the style of the book.

The novel also has a bit of a subtext. Howarth highlights the lack of freedom that young people today enjoy, as opposed to the author’s own childhood. Enforced indoor life and the inevitable obsession with videogames comes under the spotlight.

The ending was somewhat anticlimactic. Whilst I didn’t see it coming, it turned out to be a bit of a cliche. Nevertheless, as a whole, I had a good time with this novel and I consider it a worthwhile read.

Survival Op: The Fear in the Wilderness by Scott Allen

Author Scott Allen asked me to review his book and even went to the trouble of mailing it to me from the USA at his own expense. I usually say no to review requests, but the cover art and theme of the story appealed to me. My confidence that I was in for a good read was further bolstered by the many positive reviews of the book I found online and by the fact that Allen is an English teacher. Sadly, the novel didn’t live up to expectations. My problems with it began in the very first sentence:

It was the same type of dark, dreary night as when I was delivered here in this dreadful prison of the wilderness.

For authors, the opening line is your crucial moment to hook a reader’s attention. The last thing you want to do is blow it on a comment about the weather. In fact, starting a book with a line about the weather is generally regarded as a cardinal sin of writing fiction. However, I could forgive it here, if not for the dreadful grammatical error that made me read the sentence several times, to make sure I understood it before I moved on. It should read “I was delivered here to this dreadful prison,” not “in this dreadful prison.” To say that you were delivered in a wilderness really means that someone gave birth to you there!

Unfortunately, this grammatical misstep was not an exception, but the shape of things to come. However, I thought, “Okay, the book is far from polished, but let’s ignore that fact and hope the story is good.”

The protagonist is Marcus, a homeless thirteen-year-old boy who is kidnapped by a criminal organisation called Survival Op. Marcus is part of a scientific experiment to enchance the human body’s survival ability. As part of the research, the organisation implants a microchip in Marcus designed to monitor the chemical changes in the body during stress. Then they release him onto an island wilderness and begin to hunt him. Marcus is soon joined by a girl called Lynn, and together they learn to survive.

That all sounds okay as the basis for a story. But big problems arise in its execution. For instance, Marcus and Lynn start a fire just inside the entrance to a cave in order to burn out all the snakes that live there so that they can make it their home. The plans works. However, a couple of chapters later, the duo enters the cave, only to discover an S-bend leading to an expansive cavern at the back of which are several holes. So why didn’t the snakes simply move further into the cave? Okay, it could be argued they died from oxygen depletion, that is, until our heroes decide to build a fire at the back of the cave, under one of the holes. Lo and behold, the smoke escapes up this convenient air-hole (or should that be plot-hole?).

Marcus and Lynn’s relationship isn’t believable. One minute they’ll be sharing a joke, and the next minute Marcus is inexplicably angry. Furthermore, the dialogue is written as if two robots are communicating:

“I cannot believe they would die to rescue us,” Lynn said as she leaned her head back on the cave wall. “Who would die for someone they do not even know?”

“Ms. Wayne told me that it does not matter how special or awesome something is that a person does, it is the reason why that person does that thing,” I said.

The author sometimes uses inappropriate words. Marcus constantly calls Lynn “punk” (a term I’ve only ever heard referring to males). Fish swimming through the water are referred to as “figures” (a term I’ve only ever heard reffering to humans).

The story meanders through fairly predictable territory. The main surprises were those of incredulity. The reader is literally slapped across the face with Marcus’s instant transformation from ordinary boy into experienced survivalist and killing machine. He does survival tricks that no young teenager would know, instantly knows how to handle captured weapons, kills without mercy or conscience.

On a descriptive level, one of the most disappointing moments was when Marcus finally comes face-to-face with a fearsome beast that has been skulking in the wilderness. It is described as ten-feet-tall, black, with bright yellow eyes. That’s all the reader is given. We never know whether it’s hairy, scaly, whether it moves on two legs or four.

As a result of this review experience, I’ve actually changed my submission guidelines on the blog. I read for pleasure, and I would rather avoid having to read bad books altogether. But right now, my personal commitment to review everything I consume compels me to write this painful one.

Survival Op is just another title in a sea of poorly conceived, sloppily written, non-edited, novels that gives self-publishing a bad name. Sorry, Scott, I wanted it to be different, but I have to tell it like it is.

Stone Cold by Robert Swindells

Every once in a while – not very often – you read a book that changes the way you think. And this is one of those.

The tale is told from two distinct first-person perspectives – two diaries read concurrently, the perspective shifting with each chapter division. It works remarkably well, because the characters are far from ordinary people. The first is a homeless teenager, compelled to leave home because of an abusive step-father, now living rough on the streets of London. The second is a serial killer, prowling the streets of London on a mission to rid the city of “dossers,” as he calls them. It’s clear from the outset that the two are destined to cross paths, and the suspense is maintained throughout the novel.

This is no fairy tale. It’s a grim depiction of homelessness, and a sharp criticism of our apathy towards it. Swindells does not gloss over the subject. He makes it clear that everything is not OK with the world, and we need to wake up.

This is a short novel, only a hundred pages. It is marketed as a children’s book, and I admire Swindells for daring to open kids’ eyes like this instead of pulling the wool over them, like so many writers. And if you’re an adult, I can only urge you not to skip this one because of the packaging. This novel won’t make you feel good, but it will change you.

Unbeliever by Robert Swindells

Is religion a good thing or a bad thing? It’s a question I don’t feel comfortable answering, because it’s something I’ve kept changing my mind about over the course of my life. One thing I will say, though: It’s a dangerous thing. It can change your life; it can give you peace and happiness; it can torture your mind; it can give your life purpose; it can change your whole personality; it can revolutionise your lifestyle; it can make you throw your common sense to the wind. And those things are what this novel is all about.

Malcolm Henshaw becomes involved in a Christian sect known as “The Little Children”. Their beliefs are pretty outlandish in today’s scientific world, but Malcolm is convinced he has found God. He is on a quest to eliminate “wrong living” from his life, and more importantly, the lives of his wife and daughters. It’s religious fundamentalism. No fun, too much damn, and completely mental, as the saying goes. Malcolm’s teenage daughter Annabel comes off worst, with her natural interests in boys and pop music abruptly taken away by her father’s legalistic demands. It’s not long before the family is thrown into domestic chaos.

This story struck a real chord with me because I lived a lot of it. I’m the guy who once “got saved” and drove his mates round the bend, completely blind his own coldness and disloyalty. It took me a long time to work through that phase of my life, but at least I came out the other end reasonably sane (and a whole lot less gullible). Some people don’t.

The book touches on some very important issues: Is religion a means of controlling people? Is it about having a comforting crutch to lean on when life is dark? Can praying sometimes just be an excuse for cowardly inaction? Don’t get me wrong; this not an anti-God book. It’s not even an anti-religion book. All it’s trying to do is make young people cautious about believing everything they hear. I applaud Swindells for daring to write honestly and brutally about a taboo subject. I urge every young person to read it. It’s an eye-opener.

Abomination by Robert Swindells

“Abomination” makes this novel sound like a trashy monster yarn. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a heart-warming story about a twelve-year-old girl called Martha doing her best to fit in at school when cruel circumstances force her to be very different from her peers. No, she hasn’t got some horrible deformity to deal with (if you’re still thinking along the “monster” line); it’s her parents. They are religious nutcases. Belonging to a vaguely Christian cult known as “The Righteous”, they force Martha to eat plain food and wear home-made clothes. Most importantly of all, Martha must never, ever, bring a friend home. And as a result, she has no friends. Enter Scott, the new kid at school. A moment of absentminded kindness to Martha causes him to be branded as much an outcast as she is. And so, they find comfort in each other. But what will happen to their friendship when Scott wants to visit her house? She can never let that happen, for her family has a dreadful secret.

Swindells has a knack for short, snappy chapter divisions that keep you reading. It’s that syndrome where you turn ahead and think, “Ah, the next one’s only three pages. I’ll read on.” And before you know it, you’ve got half the novel read. I had this one finished in two days flat. The main credit must, of course, go to the engaging storyline.

Some great themes going on: childhood cruelty to one’s peers; coping with being different; how religion can warp the mind; smearing over evil by calling it good. Real life never gets romanticised with Swindells. And that’s why his books are so good.

Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells

In stories which start with the end of the world, the protagonist is usually a person who escapes the cataclysm by some unusual twist of fate. However, this novel dares to break the pattern – teenage boy Danny Lodge, around whom this story is centred, is forced to live in the direct aftermath of a nuclear war, with a band of fellow survivors from his town, right in the middle of the devastation … and the radiation.

The book packs plenty of punches. We read about the loss of loved ones, ever-increasing hunger, radiation sickness leading to death, man’s inhumanity to man in the fight to survive, and worst of all, fears about mutation – whether mankind will be able to give birth to normal human beings again.

On the brighter side, there’s a love story that runs through the book. Also, an interesting sub-plot involving a second surviving community, one dressed in anti-radiation suits and carrying guns.

Swindell succeeds in painting a very gloomy picture, and I found myself wondering how this book was going to come up with an ending that would make the telling of the story worthwhile. It does manage to, but only just. Make no mistake, this is bleak stuff, almost disturbing stuff, and I don’t think I’ll ever read it twice. However, I am glad I read it once, and Swindells is to be admired for daring to write something of such depth for a teenage audience.