IT’S THE run-up to Christmas in New York and Dash is browsing the shelves of the Strand bookshop when he comes across an out-of-place red notebook.
“I’ve left some clues for you. If you want them, turn the page. If you don’t, put the book back on the shelf, please,” is the message. Of course, Dash turns the page, setting off on a bookish romantic adventure across New York.
Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares (Mira Ink, £7.99) by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan is teen geek-chic stuffed full of witty one-liners, literary name-dropping and warm-hearted existentialism. It’s Lily’s notebook Dash has stumbled upon and they use it to communicate with each other, setting devilish but never spiteful “dares” as they chase the notebook throughout the city. Maybe you can guess the end, but getting there is genuinely worth the ride. Even if does verge on the sentimental at times, the writing’s too good to ever feel manipulative. And it’s Christmas. Even teenagers are allowed to get dewy-eyed at this time of year.
My Brother Simple (Bloomsbury, £6.99) by Marie-Aude Murail was originally published in France in 2004 and has been scooping up so many plaudits and awards throughout the rest of Europe that it makes you wonder why it took so long to be published over here. Kleber is 17, he has dreams of women and aspirations for university, but he also has an older brother with learning difficulties. Barnaby was institutionalised after their mother died and their father started a new relationship. Kleber decides to take on the responsibility of looking after Barnaby and finds a flat-share for them in Paris. Their housemates react in different ways to Barnaby’s presence and the changes in their dynamic, both subtle and overt, raise uncomfortable questions about how we view ourselves and judge others. Yes, there are echoes of Rainman and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but that doesn’t negate the pleasure in a good story well-told or of the joy in a happy ending. Well worth the wait.
As with Theresa Breslin’s previous historical novels Spy For The Queen of Scots (Doubleday, £12.99) is a richly researched, beautifully composed fiction. The titular spy is Mary’s lady-in-waiting and childhood friend Jenny. It’s through her eyes we see the plotting and the treason, the romance and the adventure. The pace gallops along and the politics of the age may seem a touch complex as Mary doesn’t know exactly where the next treachery is hiding or who she can trust. The careful reader, however, will be rewarded with a layered, flawed, yet forever sympathetic heroine and fascinating conjecture on a much debated time in history.
Two of the best novels published earlier in the year are both fantasies, both distinctly dark in nature, yet of decidedly different ilk. In Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon (Hot Key, £10.99) the Motherland feel destined to be the first nation to the moon. They’ll get there by fair means or foul – even by falsehood. Gardner imagines an alternate history and although a faked moon landing sounds absurd, this is a disturbingly brutal state.
Standish is our hero, searching for his missing friend, Hector. Along the way he’s going to confront the oppressive regime that already disappeared his parents and are now closing in on his grandfather.
Unfortunately Standish isn’t bright, so he tells us. He can’t read or write because he’s dyslexic. But he can talk, and his use of language because of (not despite of) his dyslexia is idiosyncratic poetry, full of fizzing wordplay and deadpan humour. Gardner’s novels have always been interesting, thought-provoking but she flexes her writing muscles here and Standish is an utterly unique creation, impossible not to love.
The Brides of Rollrock Island (David Fickling Books, £12.99) by Margo Lanegan is based on legends of the selkies – creatures who live as seals in the sea but can take human form on land. Rollrock Island is home to a tiny community of fishermen and their families, and to the witch Misskaella Prout. As a child she was mocked, even shunned, by many of the other children for being ugly, awkward, different. But in adolescence she discovers the magical ability to bring forth beautiful women from inside the bodies of seals. These “sea-wives” are so enchanting yet so compliant that every man on Rollrock is willing to forsake his money, his family, his integrity to have one for himself – making it a long, cold revenge Misskaella is enacting on those around her.
Lovers of Lanegan’s previous masterpiece Tender Morsels will know exactly what they’re letting themselves in for and this is a disturbingly mesmeric story, as darkly beguiling as Misskaella herself, and quite unlike anything else you’ll have read all year.