Book reviews: The 13th Horseman | Undone | Don’t Judge Me | Infinite Sky | In Waiting For Gonzo

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HUGE congratulations to Barry Hutchison who romped home with the Scottish Children’s Book Award in the Older Readers category earlier this month for his irreverent comedy fantasy The 13th Horseman (Harper Collins, £6.99).

The award is voted for by the readers themselves (nearly 32,000 this year) and it’s immediately obvious why Hutchison’s book turned out to be a winner for so many.

Drake is our hero, expelled from his previous school because of an incident involving exploding frogs and harassed by inept bullies at his new school, he’s more than a little surprised to find three Horseman of the Apocalypse playing Buckaroo in his garden shed. Even more surprising, they want him to join them and become Death. As Famine explains, there have been a few problems with Drake’s predecessors: “Mad, mad, suicide, mad, quit, mad, goldfish, suicide, mad.” And so the tone is set …

Of course there are comparisons to Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin, but Hutchison matches them laugh for laugh. It’s not easy getting a teenager to LOL, and in a market which is often condemned for it’s gloomy earnestness, Hutchison’s win is a breath of fresh entertainment.

One of the most engaging aspects of YA fiction is the way a skilled author can take issues rarely discussed in school or among families and make them accessible, fathomable, within the context of an absorbing narrative, yet still neither patronise the audience nor belittle the subject. Edinburgh-based Cat Clarke has attempted this tightrope act with her third novel, Undone (Quercus, £6.99).

Kai is gay, and when he’s outed thanks to a spiteful cyber-bullying attack, he takes his own life. Jem was his best friend, she loved him, and sets out on a horrendous quest for revenge. Clarke works hard to wrestle homophobia, grief, retribution, love, sex and suicide into a compelling story about decisions and consequences. For the most part she succeeds brilliantly, thanks to the reality of the characters and the depth of the emotion. Not an easy read but neither a relentlessly bleak one, Clarke has created a story of teen spirit in its rawest form.

Linda Strachan’s first book threw the reader into the world of joy-riding, her second dealt with knife crime. Both books felt like ruminations on the whys and wherefores of criminal behaviour. For her third book Strachan has enhanced the thriller elements in her writing and Don’t Judge Me (Strident, £6.99) is a tricksy whodunit.

The reader sees how the fire at the centre of the story is set, but not by whom, and over the following pages we follow four possible arsonists. Each has method and means, only one has true motive. The shifting viewpoints wrong-foot the reader and the red herrings are well concealed within the intricately structured plot. I admit I was completely surprised by the final reveal.

Details on the cover of CJ Flood’s debut novel Infinite Sky (Simon and Schuster, £9.99) set the scene. Swallows fly in a cloudless sky but the title is written in barbed-wire; a butterfly is trapped in a spider’s web. Iris’s mother has left home to drive around Tunisia in a van. She’s taken her midlife crisis with her but left Iris an aggressive brother who’s slipping off the rails and a father on a downward spiral of bitterness and booze. When a family of travellers set up home in the paddock over the road, divided loyalties and terrible conflict are inevitable.

As with the book’s cover, there’s plenty of drama in the details of Flood’s writing. The story treads some familiar ground but this is a remarkably assured debut, confidently crafted, eschewing histrionics for cleverly observed character and setting. The pace feels slow in the beginning, but it’s a ticking bomb counting down to an emotionally explosive denouement.

In Waiting For Gonzo (OUP, £6.99) Dave Cousins applies his subtle, humorous touch to big issues. Oz has found himself wrenched away from his beloved city-life to a middle-of-nowhere farmhouse. He needs to make his way at a new school and his mum knows him well enough to warn: “Don’t be cocky.” But Oz is Oz, and when a joke involving a badly drawn moustache backfires it’s downhill for everyone involved. The refreshing thing about Cousins’ book is its lack of exclamation and its apparent focus on relatively minor events. But don’t be fooled: if Gonzo ever arrives, they’ll all add up to life-changing consequences in this wonderfully fun yet poignant novel.