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.

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.

The Thousand Eyes of Night by Robert Swindells

The more Robert Swindells novels I read, the more I realise that he has two modes of writing. When he’s writing for young adults, he writes like he’s talking to equals; he talks about the world the way it is; few, if any, subjects are taboo; and bad things can happen to good people, as can happen in the real world. When he writes like this, his fiction is gripping and, I would dare to say, important. Then comes the other mode, writing for children, where the realistic drama disappears and everything turns one-dimensional; the kiddies get safely wrapped in cotton wool.

I know there are some classic novels that are very “safe” books for children, such as Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. The characters in these novels are far from realistic, and yet I still enjoyed them. So what exactly is the point I’m trying to make? I can’t put my finger on it, but something vital is missing from Swindells’ novels, when writes for children. Everything just turns to cardboard.

Sadly, The Thousand Eyes of Night was written with kids in mind. It concerns an abandoned railway tunnel, within which killer mice reside. Actually, they’re not real mice; they’re tiny aliens from a doomed planet in orbit around Betelgeuse. I’ve got no problem spoiling that for you, because Swindells spoils it in the first paragraph of the novel. Yes, hiding that fact might have added a sinister air of mystery to the whole story, but Swindells puts all his cards on the table at the start of the game.

The story moves along at a fairly slow pace. Tan (short for Tristan) is the central character. The tunnel is the play area for he and his friends, and the discovery of a dead body with its flesh picked clean to the bone leads them on the trail of the weird mice. The story is padded out with parent troubles and a sub-plot about the local bully. Around page 175 we get to the final showdown, which is practically summarised in only ten pages. It seemed as if the author got bored and wanted things finished quickly.

A disappointing children’s novel from an author I’ve grown to respect a great deal for his contribution to literature for older readers.

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.

Room 13 by Robert Swindells

Robert Swindells rocks as an author of young adult novels. He writes fiction that is hard-hitting and realistic, filled with true-to-life characters, and endings which are not always happy. Room 13, however, is a childrens book, and unfortunately all those things that make his YA fiction so good disappear here.

OK, so I’m an adult, and that could be part of the problem. I don’t like stories that have a kind of feel to them where you know no one’s going to get seriously hurt or – God forbid – murdered – except maybe the inhuman bad guy. Kids can maybe tolerate that kind of thing. But I’m afraid my dislike of this book runs a bit deeper.

The storyline is unoriginal and predictable. It’s told from the perspective of Fliss, an eleven-year-old girl, who goes on a school trip with her classmates. In the hotel at which they stay, during the night, another girl sleepwalks into a strange room on the top floor, coming back with a bite mark on her neck. At one point, Swindells goes to great pains to describe a huge stick of rock candy, two inches thick, that a schoolboy has sucked and sucked into a point. Anyone out there who’s not already thinking “vampire” and “stake” is probably asleep right now. I suppose a vampire being staked with candy is a new concept, but I was always under the impression it had to be wood.

The drama is divided up with several scenes of the children doing “fun things” on their holiday. Might have been nice to be at those scenic locations, but it made pretty dull reading.

Now comes the part where I have to admit that this novel won the 1990 Children’s Book Award. Don’t ask me to speculate how. I didn’t much like the book, and I’ve tried to qualify that. If you have a place in your heart for ridiculous fiction (that which cares nothing for realism in plot or character), then read this book.

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.