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.