The Rules ~ Tracy Darnton

woman holding brown open notebookFirst, an admission: there is an unwritten law of the universe that, given that there are so few of us, if your surname is Darnton you and I are related. I’m not sure whether Tracy Darnton is aware of this, especially as we are only relatives through marriage, but nevertheless it is true, and it is also true that I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up had it not been for her surname. It is a long time since I was active in the world of children’s literature and I’ve rather lost touch with what’s now being published. The Rules makes me regret that reminding me, as it does, that the best of YA literature deals with complex and important issues.

Approaching eighteen, Amber Fitzpatrick finds herself, perhaps for the first time in her life, in an almost settled situation. Having worked her way through several foster placements, she is now at a boarding school and studying towards the qualification she hopes will give her a place at university. However, her fragile piece of mind is shattered when her social worker, Julie, tells her that they have received a letter from her father.

Amber’s father is a Prepper: that is somebody who prepares themselves for the disaster that they are certain is just around the corner. This could be anything from an alien invasion to nuclear warfare, perhaps an enormous natural disaster or even a pandemic. Such individuals stockpile not only food but also medical supplies, water purification tablets, lighting systems, the list could go on. They also, in many cases, have a list of draconian rules and, until she breaks free, it is the rules that her father has established that have controlled Amber’s life and destroyed that of her mother. Terrified that her father is about to lay claim to her again, Amber strikes out on her own and makes for a Northumberland holiday cottage owned by a couple who once fostered her. Here she runs into her complete antithesis, Josh, with whom she once shared a foster placement. If Josh has a rule in life it is to have no rules. All these rules in society we’re meant to follow, to know our place, I don’t have to do it any more, he claims. Together they set out to find Centurion  House, established as a survival outpost in case of whatever cataclysm might first strike. Here, Amber hopes to find supplies and money that will enable her to out run her father, whom she is sure will try and take her back into his custody.

The irony, of course, is that it is the very rules that her father has taught her and the skills that she has learnt in preparation for disaster that enable her not only to survive but also, for a considerable time, to outrun both him and social services. Indeed, it is in part because she ignores her own instincts and allows Josh to take her to hear her father speak, that she is eventually tracked down.

Had I read this novel a year ago I would now be discussing as the central theme the idea that we all live by rules of one sort or another. As Amber comments when the police and social services ultimately try to pick up the pieces, they’re following their procedures, their rules. What matters about any rules is the ultimate goal of those who devise and implement them and who, consequently, benefits as a result. However, it’s impossible now to read this book without doing so in the light of the current pandemic and I suspect that how readers react to it will to some extent be defined by their response to the rules laid out by governments around the world in their reaction to the Covid-19 crisis. What is more, any individual’s understanding of the novel might well change from day to day. What struck me most forcefully today was the distinction that Amber draws between the Preppers in England and those in America. However, I finished this book at the very beginning of May on a day when I both read about the general consensus in England that for the moment some form of lockdown needs to continue and listened to protesters in Michigan demanding the right to be allowed to go out and do precisely what they want now, this minute.  By the time you read this, and I’ll post it to coincide with the early July publication, there may well be other, more immediate parallels that I would want to draw because, if the novel makes clear anything, it is that we simply don’t know from one day to the next what we might be called upon to face and that there are times when, at the very least, being prepared for the unexpected is not a bad idea.

With thanks to Little Tiger Group and NetGalley for the review copy. 

Bet Your Life ~ Jane Casey

41Cthj4Rr3L._Bet Your Life is the second book in Jane Casey’s Jess Tennant series for the YA market.  Most readers of this blog will know Casey best for her Maeve Kerrigan novels and will therefore already respect her as an extremely good writer.  If you put aside any prejudices you might have about fiction aimed at teenagers and join Jess in her search for justice in the small West Country town of Port Sentinel you will find that the author’s storytelling skills and ability to draw deft and believable character portraits transfer extremely well into a new genre and in Jess herself discover a heroine every bit as feisty and determined as Maeve.

Jess and her mother, Molly, whom we first met in How to Fall, have come to live in Port Sentinel with Molly’s family after a disastrous divorce makes living in London impossible.  In the first novel Jess, who finds it hard to fit in with the high living and overly fashion conscious youth of the the sea-side community, digs away until she discovers what really happened to her cousin Freya, whose apparent suicide has left her family in disaray.  In so doing she lays bare a cyber bullying network that reveals the extent of the damage that can be done to those who are targeted by the cowards behind this insidious practice.

In this second novel it is the issues of date rape that features most strongly when Jess sets out to discover what has actually happened to Seb Dawson, who has been found with serious head injuries after most of the town’s young people have been attending a firework display.  The adults, especially Seb’s stepmother, seem content to put it down to a hit and run incident, but Jess is certain this isn’t the case.  Having no time for Seb himself, a blackmailing bully who thinks the world revolves around his needs, Jess would be happy to let the matter drop, but Seb’s half sister, Beth, begs her to find the truth.  In so doing she uncovers a network of youths who think they can take whatever they want and destroy as many other people’s lives as it takes in the process. Indeed, if there should be another theme lurking here it is that of the danger inherent in a certain type of man who thinks that his will is law and whatever it takes to get what he wants, justified.  Some of the males in this novel should have been put down at birth for the sake of the whole community.

This aspect of the book is picked up again in the appearance on the scene of Jess’s father intent on talking his ex-wife into coming back to him for the convenience of his latest money-making scheme.  If the novel has a weak point it is the way in which Christopher Tennant is allowed to abuse both his wife and daughter over a meal with the rest of Molly’s family.  I can’t imagine that the other adults present wouldn’t have at the least objected to his behaviour.  I would have quite simply have told him to leave.  But this is the difficulty of YA fiction.  If your heroes and heroines are going to be teenagers what do you do with the responsible adults who ought to be taking charge?  If you’re Enid Blyton, or if you’re writing anything with a whiff of fantasy about it, you kill them off.  Casey, whose depiction of teenage life is all too real, doesn’t have that option.  In fact, I think the writer deals better with this aspect of the world she has created in this book than she did in the last.  Molly is beginning to develop a bit of bite and the police inspector, who previously had seemed at best incompetent and at worst indifferent, is becoming a more rounded and easier to understand individual.  Nevertheless, I did come away from this novel wanting to take some of the so-called grown ups into a quiet corner and ask them just what they thought they were playing at.

But, and this is surely what matters, a teenage reader isn’t going to feel that way at all.  A teenage reader is going to be there cheering Jess on and at the same time, hopefully, taking note of the way in which she refuses to be caught up in the games that these youths play, even though at times she is still all too vulnerable to the consequences of their malignancy.

This series is amongst the best of current YA fiction and it is really good to see a writer such as Casey targeting her talents towards this market.  Not only does it mean that when her audience leaves the world of YA literature behind she is likely to retain them as readers of her own adult fiction but they are also likely to want to go further and explore other writers from the same and eventually different genres.

With thanks to Random House Children’s Publishers UK who made this book available for review.