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Monday 25 August 2008

Before I Die

by Jenny Downham

I rarely read books twice. I know I will read this again, and again. I also know I will cry each time and that once more I will be affected by it long after I put it down.
The title (and indeed the cover picture of the edition I read) give a fairly big clue as to how the book might end. But the journey towards what becomes clearly inevitable is so beautifully written that it is impossible not to want to accompany the central character, sixteen year old Tessa, every step of the way, no matter how sad. It is written in her teenage voice and I think that is part of the magic of the book. Because you see, feel, hear even smell the situation through her eyes it is impossible to step back. The book doesn't patronise; it is uncompromising and unrelenting in facing up to her terminal illness and yet it is more about life and living than it is about dying. It is also filled with much humour which makes it feel all the more poignant

Tessa has a list. The list includes most of the things that teenagers feel they have all the time in the world to do. She wants to do everything on the list before she dies but the prognosis is bleak. She may not have much time. She asks her best friend Zoe to help her. Zoe agrees but refuses to allow Tessa's illness to redefine their friendship, and refuses to feel sorry for Tessa. Their friendship is not cute and girly it is gritty and real. It is what Tessa clings to as she watches the fear in her parents' eyes increase, as the doctors run out of the right things to say. And then Tessa meets Adam, the boy next door. With time of the essence their relationship takes on an intensity few of us may ever experience.

I won't give away any more. You must read it. Even thinking about it as I write this review is giving me goosebumps. It is extraordinary, poetic and perfectly heartbreaking.

reviewed by Lynne McAllister

Tuesday 5 August 2008

Not the End of the World

by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson has entitled this collection of short stories ‘Not the End of the World’. It is ironic then, that in the first story in this collection it evidently is the end of the world.

‘Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping’ is a story which makes full use of Atkinson’s deeply sensual and evocative language. It is full of visions, tastes, and sounds which explode onto the page and echo the bombs and sirens that are hidden behind the vivid tapestry that she has woven.

Like every good collection of short stories, this book has contrasting light and shade: from the deep sadness of ‘Tunnel of Fish’ to the rage of ‘Dissonance’ via the intrigue of ‘Transparent Fiction’.

One of my favourites in this collection is ‘Sheer Big Waste Of Love’. In this story we get to hear about the experiences of Addison, whose family give a whole new meaning to the word dysfunctional. In Addison, the author has created a subtly sympathetic character that we see through his own eyes as both child and adult.

Atkinson is arguably at her best in ‘The Cat Lover’, a truly astonishing tale with a startling premise and an ending that is both shocking and inevitable. This story also shows her at the height of her descriptive powers as she creates a world with elements of the real and the normal counterpointed with fantasy. She has also created some of her most beautiful imagery. ‘The queen of the north country visited the city … ice-crystals trembled like diamonds on her furs and when she shook out her cloak she left a storm of snowflakes in her wake.’

My only reservation about this volume is that the worlds that Kate Atkinson creates in her fiction can be so complex that they really need a whole novel in which to be explored. Some of them seem to burst the seams of the format of the short story. Anything that promotes the cause of the short story has to be a good thing though, and here we have a master of the art of fiction showing how it should be done.

reviewed by Helen M Hunt