Tuesday, 20 October 2009


I've just finished reading another book by Graham Joyce, who you may remember I was heaping praise on in an earlier post.

As well as writing for adults, he's been quietly writing the kind of children's/teen books that make me whoop with joy. The kind of children's books that I think rank up there with David Almond. But Joyce is darker.

TWOC and DO THE CREEPY THING were urban tales of supernatural happenings, while THREE WAYS TO SNOG AN ALIEN took on the eternal mystery that are Girls. Read this book and remember just how fascinating and strange these creatures seemed to your teenage eyes (and quietly admit that nothing has changed since - they still don't make any sense, even when you live with them, but by god they make out lives interesting! ;-P)

Joyce's most recent book for children is another supernatural tale, THE DEVIL'S LADDER. This one dealing with Sophie and James, two fourteen year olds from different schools (one posh public school the other a local comprehensive) who are both 'savants'. They can see things other people can't. They have weird dreams, that aren't quite dreams, Sophie calls them 'shimmers', and they have direct meaning in the real world. And they can see demons. Hanging around people. Sapping the life from them.

Now, I could go into the plot here, but I'm not going to. In part because, it's actually quite slim and I don't want to give it away. It's delicate, and like much of Joyce's writing, so much of the joy is in the surprises. In finding things out for yourself. Finding things out about the characters that you don't expect, being caught off guard.

And you will be. I've no doubt. I was. In a scene I should have seen coming. But didn't.

What's wonderful about Graham Joyce is how he keeps turning the characters and situations. Just when you think you've got it nailed, he twists the knife. Reveals something new. His characters are constantly surprising.

And his writing is so deceptively simple. You almost don't notice it's there. There's nothing in his style to get in the way or draw attention to itself. You almost don't notice that you're reading. You're just listening to a voice inside your head, telling you a story - or more likley SHOWING you a story. Because, at the top of his game, you're right inside there. Right inside the action, right inside the characters, feeling what they feel, seeing what they see... it's incredibly immersive.

By the end of THE DEVIL'S LADDER I was itching for more. And indeed it sets up the posibility of this becoming a series, leaves the possibility that we will see more from Sophie and James. I really hope we do.

By the end of this book it's like Joyce has set up the possibility of a series that is - in many ways - John Silence/Thomas Carnaki for kids. If you don't know those two names, put them into google, because you're missing out. Let us simply say that in their particular supernatural sub-genre, they are THE MEN to beat.

A couple of minor quibbles. Firstly, Faber should really think about re-doing the cover art. It's lacklustre at best, cliched and a little dull at worst. C'mon Faber, you're better than this. A good cover reallly makes the difference. It's the doorway to the book within (see earlier posts for more of my thinking). It grabs your attentiona and it sets the tone. This current cover isn't doing much of either.

Secondly, I had a weird time with the first few pages. Maybe even the first chapter or so - it felt a little underwritten. And having said you don't notice Joyces style (which is it's brilliance, it's deceptive simplicity - indeed the reason that the emotion of the writing hits so very close to home, I did notice a little here at first. Maybe it's me, maybe I need to take another look at it, but it almost felt like I was reading a detailed outline at first, that the story took a little while to settle in and find it's voice. I could be wrong there, it's just a feeling... and to be fair, by the end of chapter 2, I was hooked. If it took a little longer to get it's claws sunk deep in me - well, I'll forgive it that. Because when it's claws came out, they sank deep, gave me a tangible shiver, and wouldn't let me look away until the end.

All in all, THE DEVIL'S LADDER is good strong stuff. Genuinely unsettling. Genuinely dark, with a genuine edge of danger. Not for the faint of heart. Give it to kids with gumption.

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