Branford-Boase Longlist: Week 9

This week I am a bit late with my blog post, I’m blaming the clocks going forward! I am up to books seventeen and eighteen of the twenty-nine longlisted titles, and so far I’m still on schedule to read the whole lot before the shortlist is announced.
The two books this week have some common themes, which only became apparent after I’d read them because they were both completely new to me. Illness and family feature in both, along with emotional support and healing – although they take very different forms.
The Bone Dragon by Alexia Casale
The Bone Dragon
Evie’s shattered ribs have been a secret for the last four years. Now she has found the strength to tell her adoptive parents, and the physical traces of her past are fixed – the only remaining signs a scar on her side and a fragment of bone taken home from the hospital, which her uncle Ben helps her to carve into a dragon as a sign of her strength. Soon this ivory talisman begins to come to life at night, offering wisdom and encouragement in roaming dreams of smoke and moonlight that come to feel ever more real. As Evie grows stronger there remains one problem her new parents can’t fix for her: a revenge that must be taken. And it seems that the Dragon is the one to take it. This subtly unsettling novel is told from the viewpoint of a fourteen-year-old girl damaged by a past she can’t talk about, in a hypnotic narrative that, while giving increasing insight, also becomes increasingly unreliable. A blend of psychological thriller and fairytale, The Bone Dragon explores the fragile boundaries between real life and fantasy, and the darkest corners of the human mind.
 I loved The Bone Dragon. It is written in a style I found enchanting right from the start. I really didn’t know what to expect when I started it. I liked the title and the cover, but somehow I’d avoided knowing anything at all about the story – I hadn’t even seen the synopsis I’ve included below the picture. And that worked for me, to the point that I’m reluctant to say anything about in case I ruin some of that wonder for other readers!
I think I can safely reveal that The Bone Dragon blends real and magical elements together to tell a deeply traumatic tale. It offers hope and the chance for healing as well as tackling the ambiguity of wanting and taking revenge. Fantasy and reality become so intertwined it’s increasingly difficult to know where the boundaries are. It’s a book I’d like to spend more time thinking about and I think I’ll read it again. My feelings about the book have deepened in the few days since I read it and at the moment it’s creeping it’s way up amongst my favourites from the longlist.
There’s a review in the Guardian here. Alexia Casale has a very interesting blog here
An Anthem for Jackson Dawes by Celia Bryce
Anthem for Jackson Dawes
Megan Bright and Jackson Dawes are two teenagers who first meet each other on the hospital ward where they are both being treated for cancer. Megan is scared and worried about her illness, but Jackson seems to be an old hand, having been on the ward for ages. And everybody loves Jackson! He is a whirlwind of life and energy, warmth and sparkle. Megan will need to borrow some of Jackson’s extraordinary optimism to face her and Jackson’s future. A moving story of first love and a remarkably powerful debut novel.
Unfortunately An Anthem for Jackson Dawes didn’t have quite the same impact on me. Although it tackles a very difficult and moving subject I never connected emotionally with either of the main characters, so remained fairly detached from their plight. I also confess to finding Megan deeply annoying, which made it harder for me to appreciate her story.
I recognised the truth in Megan’s anger at how ill her treatment makes her, and her desire to keep things as normal as possible. I found it harder to relate to how intense the relationship between her and Jackson became, particularly as it happens so quickly. One moment she can’t stand him, the next he’s the love of her life. I especially did not understand how she would prefer to stay in hospital where he was rather than be home with her family.
Finding a character irritating and not understanding them does not mean a book isn’t good. In this case I didn’t get to know Jackson enough for me to understand Megan’s relationship with him, and I always felt somewhat removed from the heartache. I do think that a great deal of Megan’s experience of illness feels very realistic.
There’s a review at Books for Keeps here and another here at We Love This Book that are both very positive.
Next week’s books are Michaela Clark’s Tiger Thief and The Disappeared by C.J. Harper.

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