I read a lot, as you can imagine – astronomy, science reference and obviously a LOT of science fiction, too. Like any good SF reader I have my favourites, and am very loyal to Kim Stanley Robinson, Stephen Baxter and a handful of others, but I do try to stay open to new ideas, new genres and new authors. I also like a good YA novel too.
Hmmmm. “YA”… stands for “Young Adult”, obviously, but what do you think of when you see that term, in print, on a screen or on a bookshop shelf? In recent years the YA market has – I think – become saturated, and now the shelves in your local Waterstones, Borders or indie book shop will be groaning miserably under the weight of YA novels. Browse the covers and titles and you’ll probably come away with the idea that a lot of YA literature – and I do mean a LOT – is basically recycled versions of the “Twilight” or “Hunger Games” books; go take a look at the YA shelves in your local shop and marvel at the number of books written about lovesick teenagers pining for a werewolf, vampire, zombie or some other hunky, broody supernatural creature that hides a heart of gold beneath their soft fur/milk-white skin/disintegrating skin, which is itself hidden beneath a wardrobe of clothes One Direction would die to be photographed in. Personally I’m holding out for the story of a doomed love affair between a stroppy teenage girl and an undead unicorn prince, it can’t be long, surely…
And if a YA book isn’t about a doomed love affair between a mortal and an immortal, it is probably about a frustrated love affair between a boy and a girl living in a dystopian future where Adults Are Bad and only they can bring about a revolution. I came to “The Hunger Games” quite late, but read the whole series during a camping holiday, devouring each book like a hungry man let locked overnight in a chinese buffet, so thankfully I don’t have to read all the subsequent titles and series which were clearly “inspired” by those brilliant, brilliant books.
So, browsing the YA shelves can be a bit of a sigh-fest now, I think. Lots of the same.
But… every now and then you spot something on a shelf that looks… different, new, something shiny. And when you buy it, and read it, it’s so refreshing it’s like plunging your face into a bucket of cold water on a hot day. And that’s how I felt as I was reading “The Rain” by Virginia Bergin, after picking it up in a charity shop. I loved it so much I bought its sequel, “The Storm”, from my local Waterstones just two days after finishing it.
Without giving too much away – I HATE reviews which do that! – these two books are a post apocalypse tale, but with a unique and very, very clever twist. As the title of book 1 suggests, the end of the world isn’t brought about by plague, or nuclear war, but by something much more everyday and taken for granted – the rain. There’s something nasty in the rain, something very nasty, which causes the world to go to hell in an abandoned ALDI supermarket trolley.
And that is such a clever idea, worthy of Stephen Moffat himself. Think about it – what the hell are you supposed to do if the water falling from the sky is desperate to kill you? If your supply of water, which you’ve always taken for granted, is suddenly gone? The water in your kettle? Deadly. The water in your pipes? Death in liquid form. Those fluffy clouds starting to roll across the hills over there? Messengers of DEATH. What the hell do you do? You can fight zombies with well-placed head shots and kill a vampire (a proper vampire, not a Boy Band glitter-coated Cullenesque vampire). But how do you fight a shower?
And struggling to survive in that hell is a young girl, Ruby.
Now, let’s be honest, a lot of YA heroines are basically Katniss clones, kick-ass Mockingjay wannabes (and come on, there will only ever be one Katniss) who have almost superhuman powers, even if their hormone-soaked teenage hearts are just as fragile and confused as everyone else’s. Not our Ruby. Ruby is a real girl, and by that I mean a very believable, real person, with real faults, hang-ups and problems. I loved reading her and spending time with her. Virginia Bergin writes Ruby so sensitively, so accurately that she jumped off the page. And, refreshingly, Ruby speaks, and sounds, through her dialogue, like an actual teenager, not like an adult trying to fit in with kids.
You remember how all the “teenagers” in Dawson’s Creek (showing my age now, I know!) talked SO MUCH and used such clever, such oh so clever language that they could have been gifted interns in The West Wing instead of troubled kids in an achingly pretty American Town? Yeah, well Ruby is nothing like that. She’s a kid and talks like a kid, and acts like a kid too. She’s not always likeable – sometimes she really is that spoiled, moody, stroppy, hurtful, insensitive brat you see at a bus stop who seems destined to be on a Jeremy Kyle special one day – but then she makes you love her by doing something so nice, so sweet you feel guilty for being mad at/disappointed in her earlier.
Anyway, enough about Ruby, if I say much more I’ll spoil her for you, and I want you to have the joy of meeting her properly for yourself. The books are the story of Ruby’s journey through a post apocalypse world in search of her father, and her adventures along the way. Well, when I say her “adventures”, what I really mean is her long catalogue of encounters with people and situations which are so dire and so horrible by the end of “The Rain” I wanted to reach into the book, pull her out and sit her down in a quiet corner of MacDonalds, with a burger and a large Coke, just so she could have a bit of peace and quiet without anyone trying to kill or rip her off for half an hour.
In “The Rain” we follow Ruby’s journey immediately after The End of The World, as she travels through a deserted southern England looking for her father, and Bergin brings the landscapes vividly to life, painting a very realistic – and very, very British – picture of what’s left after civilisation collapses. In the sequel, “The Storm” , we follow Ruby as she is forced to confront some awful truths as civilisation, at least in England. attempts to recover from its Fall. Like most YA heroines she is forced to grow up, quickly, as agencies and individuals alike try to thwart her plans and/or kill her, and by the end of the sequel I was quite breathless, so much had happened to the poor girl. There are lots of shocks and surprises along the way, but it’s shame that the biggest revelation in the whole book, the pivotal point of the whole story, is absolutely RUINED by the artwork on the front cover! Which numptie editor agreed to that image being used? Seriously, River Song would have taken one look at that cover and blasted it, shouting “Spoilers!!!”
“The Rain” (which I should probably tell you is called “H20″ in the US… hmmm, brave move that… just sayin’…) and “The Storm” feature a lot of the YA staples – teen romance, annoying friends, adult hate figures – but they’re not just items included for the sake of it, to be shoe-horned into the plot and ticked off a Must Use checklist once used, they actually sit comfortably in the story and have a right to be there. And ok, so the ending of “The Storm” is rushed, and everything seemed to wrap up very suddenly, but maybe that was just because I was hoping there would be a third book in the series, and when I got to the end of “The Storm” I had to accept that there wouldn’t be…
Great read. “The Road” for this generation of stroppy, growing-up-too-quickly iPhone-owning teens, and a roller-coaster ride for those of us who occasionally like to forget how old we are and, putting aside our hard science fiction, dive into something different.