Branford-Boase Prize Longlist: Week 12

This is my penultimate blog post about the Branford-Boase Prize longlist, and I have three books to talk about today.
ACID by Emma Pass
2113. In Jenna Strong’s world, ACID – the most brutal, controlling police force in history – rule supreme. No throwaway comment or muttered dissent goes unnoticed – or unpunished. And it was ACID agents who locked Jenna away for life, for a bloody crime she struggles to remember. The only female inmate in a violent high-security prison, Jenna has learned to survive by any means necessary. And when a mysterious rebel group breaks her out, she must use her strength, speed and skill to stay one step ahead of ACID – and to uncover the truth about what really happened on that dark night two years ago.
First up is my favourite of this week’s books. ACID is a very exciting YA dystopian thriller. I’ve been meaning to read it since it came out last year so I was very pleased to see it on the longlist as it meant I would definitely schedule it into my reading. I loved the main character Jenna Strong, I found the story gripping, and the police state Pass depicts chilled my bones.
The ACID regime is determined to keep the country formerly known as the UK under complete control. There’s no freedom of thought or movement, and even people’s relationships and fertility is centrally managed. Contact with the rest of the world has been cut off; instead of the World Wide Web people are drip-fed propaganda and officially sanctioned literature. Creepy doesn’t even begin to cover it. Sanctions against those that transgress are harsh, as Jenna’s punishment testifies. Regardless of what she is alleged to have done putting a lone young woman in a male high security prison is despicable. Jenna has had to learn to defend herself against attack; she has to be fiercer, stronger and faster than them.
Fortunately, Jenna is not as alone as she thinks. Networks of underground resistance exist, and Jenna finds support in unlikely places. I enjoyed the gradual unpeeling of the truth about her life. I also thought the little extras that form part of the story, the news reports and communications, were great. ACID is definitely a book I’d recommend for anyone wanting an action-packed and satisfying thriller.
See the BookZone review for a hearty recommendation!
Winter Damage by Natasha Carthew
Winter Damage
On a frozen Cornish moor, a fourteen-year-old girl lives in a trailer with her dad and little brother. Ennor’s mother left years ago, when things started to go wrong – and gradually their world has fallen apart. Now her father’s gravely ill, school has closed, and Ennor knows they’re going to take her brother away if things don’t pick up soon. Days before Christmas, when the wind is cold and her dad’s health takes a turn for the worse, Ennor packs a blanket, a map, a saucepan and a gun into her rucksack, and sets off to find her mum and bring her home. Ennor thinks she knows where she’s going. But this journey will change her life for ever – it becomes a battle for survival, a heartbreaking story of love and friendship, and a fable about not finding what you were looking for, but finding something more important instead …
Winter Damage has a completely different style. The larger context is a society on the verge of economic and environmental collapse, with the story itself set in the specific landscape of Cornwall. In the midst of a harsh winter Ennor goes in search of her mother. Her home life is difficult; she’s had to leave school to care for her dad and brother and take on the running of what’s left of their farm. They have no money, barely any food, and not much hope for the future. Reading about Ennor’s efforts at keeping it all together were a little bit heart-breaking, especially as I fear they reflect the lot of many young carers in the here and now.
There is some beautiful writing in this book. Just one example is this phrase from the beginning of Ennor’s journey, which jumped out at me from the page: ‘The weight of her world was packed tight into pockets’. I also loved Ennor’s habit of numbering and counting things as a coping and soothing mechanism. I like numbers too; they are very useful for bringing a sense of order and control to the chaos of life. Ennor’s brother Trip is a sweetheart, as is her friend Butch. The first part of the story caught me in its charm completely.
I wasn’t so connected with the rest of the book. The perils Ennor faces and the people she comes into contact with just felt somehow less real than the initial section. Everyone she comes into contact with is a Character with a capital C, which seemed too stark a contrast with the very real people already met. It does also take quite a time to travel not very far, especially considering the urgency of Ennor’s quest. I was a little nonplussed by the ending; it’s possible to read it as hopeful but it’s also full of uncertainty and there is much more personal tragedy for Ennor than I think is acknowledged.
Winter Damage has divided opinion over on GoodReads.
East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Jackie Morris
From the moment she saw him, she knew the bear had come for her. How many times had she dreamt of the bear…. Now, here he was, as if spelled from her dreams.
“I will come with you, Bear,” she said.
It is the beginning of an extraordinary journey for the girl. First to the bear’s secret palace in faraway mountains, where she is treated so courteously, but where she experiences the bear’s unfathomable sadness, and a deep mystery…
As the bear’s secret unravels, another journey unfolds… a long and desperate journey, that takes the girl to the homes of the four Winds and beyond, to the castle east of the sun, west of the moon.
This is an absolutely beautiful looking book. The illustrations are gorgeous and accompany the text perfectly. It’s an updated retelling of a traditional northern fairy-tale. The updating struck me right away; the world it is set in before the magical journey begins is this one. Within the first few pages streets inhabited by prostitutes, drug dealers, and homeless children are passed through. This was my cue to realise that perhaps the book is aimed at an older audience than I first thought. I liked the detail that the family whose daughter is at the heart of the tale are political refugees, struggling with the mass of difficulties immigration procedures bring. It’s included matter-of-factly, but with a few words a whole world of experiences are suggested.
The white bear moving through the world seeking the mate of his soul is an imposing and yet gentle presence. The sadness in his eyes filled with diamond tears is so affecting. The girl he seeks has dreamed of him for years too, and she goes willingly with him to his castle. The writing is hypnotic, and I was carried away by the likes of ‘They moved through the city like a shimmer, like a whisper.’ I settled down to absorb the language and the story, and be lulled by the magic created.
And I did love how it’s told, and there are some messages about freedom of choice over destiny (there is a twisty bit that I have an opinion on but I don’t want to say more because it would be spoilery). But, I was distracted and troubled by certain elements of the story. I don’t know the traditional tale well but I suspect these have always been parts of the story but they do not sit well with contemporary sensibilities – and for good reason. In the story, once in the bear’s castle, an unknown visitor that she cannot see joins the girl every night in bed. This struck me as very creepy and I couldn’t put the feeling aside. Added to this is her feeling that she cannot ask the bear about her night-time visitor, and then the bear’s instruction to her that when she visits her family she must not spend any time alone with her mother. In the context of the tale all these things have a justification but I was still left uneasy by it all. 
I haven’t noticed this concern in the reviews I’ve read, so I’d love to know what other people think.
Next week I’ll have the last three books from the longlist of 29. Then I can mull them all over and pick my own personal shortlist. The final trio is Sorrowline by Neil Bushnell, Sheila Rance’s Sun Catcher, and The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse.

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