Roehampton Readers: After the Fire by Will Hill

Front Cover: After the Fire by Will Hill

Review: After the Fire by Will Hill

By Lesley Smith

After the Fire is a young adult novel which addresses the experience of belonging to an extreme religious cult.

It is loosely based on a real event – the siege of the cult known as the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas in 1993. Their leader claimed he was the Messiah figure prophesied in the Bible but government forces felt the cult was a threat as it was known that they were stockpiling firearms, hence the siege which lasted 51 days. Eventually, FBI agents stormed the cult’s compound and after the ensuing battle, 76 people (including 25 children) were found to have died. The government’s handling of the Waco siege (which played out in the national and international media) was heavily criticized.

Will Hill uses this catastrophe as a springboard to explore how and why people might become involved in such a community, and what the psychological effects might be.  He calls his fictional cult the Lord’s Legion and focuses on the experience of one particular individual, Moonbeam, a survivor of the destruction of the Legion’s base. She is described as “strong, vulnerable, complicated, sarcastic and brilliant” and the indoctrination to which she has been subjected is powerfully conveyed:

“Before my mom was Banished, I believed in him, and in the Legion, with all my heart, and part of me misses – will always miss – the certainty that came with that, the power and pride that came with being part of something that was right and True.” (p218)

Hill says his work is “not intended as an attack on anyone’s religious beliefs.” It is “a story about power and corruption, and how charismatic figures can twist faith to serve their own ends.” The leader of the cult in the novel, Father John, certainly wields a lot of power, though his methods of control are often cruel rather than charismatic and it can be hard to see why his followers love him. There is some ambiguity in the presentation of his character – for instance, does he really believe in his own creed?

The structure of the story is highly effective and scaffolds a thrilling and emotive drama. The protagonist is being cared for in a rehabilitation centre and she is interviewed daily by a psychiatrist, Dr Hernandez, who wants to help her and Agent Carlyle from the FBI who has been tasked with finding out what really happened inside the compound. The past, consequently, is filled in for the reader through flashbacks prompted by their questions. At first Moonbeam cannot trust them but her gradual opening up serves to show her beginning to come to terms with what has happened and suspense is created because the reader knows all along that there are terrible things she has not yet revealed. It takes time for her to be able to talk about the events and her feelings, and there are some things that she cannot even bear to think about. Guilt, loyalty and the remains of indoctrination limit her revelations. We can see the barriers in her mind. Some readers may find this a little heavy-handed at times – perhaps there are too many hints at dark secrets:

“But then I think about my mom and Nate and the boxes and the locked door in the basement of the Big House. I think about my Sisters running towards the Governments with rifles in their hands and the five gunshots and what I found and what I did.” (8 things here!)

However, the atmosphere of life in the compound is skilfully portrayed and the whole novel provides a truly immersive and thought-provoking experience. Hill portrays ordinary people and how they might behave in extraordinary circumstances. On p424, Agent Carlyle says of the members of the Legion: “I don’t think they were stupid or vicious or weak. I think they were misled, and I think what happened to them could happen to anybody, given the right set of circumstances.”A key theme is how we can know what is real and who to trust, but ultimately After the Fire is a powerful and superbly well-written story of survival.

Roehampton Readers: Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans

Review: Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans

By Julie Mills

Wed Wabbit is a fantasy story told with humour, exploring serious themes including grief, anger, dealing with emotions, change, fears, leadership. Positive play and imagination, co-operation and friendship are positive themes. “Know yourself” might be the motto for this is a moral tale.

wed wabit
Image via David Fickling Books

It is a super compulsive read, good for readers of the younger age group (9/10 or younger if read aloud, upwards). An adventure story with a great narrative, it uses mystery, puzzles and the journey quest as plot movers and includes a map of the land of the Wimblies. This is the land into which Fidge and her cousin Graham are hurled, following the near fatal accident to Fidge’s sister Minnie, whose favourite toy Wed Wabbit has recently taken over the idyllic, but stiflingly structured, land where the different coloured Wimblies live. This is a realisation and subversion of Minnie’s favourite story book The Wimbly Woos and a leap into the imaginative world of the pre-schooler.

Fidge soon realises that there is something rotten in the state of Wimbly Woo: “the prettiness seemed painted on. Nasty things were happening here” (p57). She is driven by the need to return Wed Wabbit the toy to her dangerously ill sister, but in the process leads a motley team of life sized toys to liberate the land of Wimblies not only from the tyranny of Wed Wabbit but from previous weak leadership and stereotyped expectations of its citizens.

Continue reading “Roehampton Readers: Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans”

Roehampton Readers: Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

Review: Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

By Lorna Collins

Image of Geraldine McCaughrean via

Geraldine McCaughrean is a prolific author of children’s books, and has won several awards, including the Carnegie Medal nearly 30 years ago with A Pack of Lies[1]. She has been nominated for the Carnegie award a total of eight times, the last time was in 2015 for The Middle of Nowhere[2] which has also been reviewed by Roehampton Readers. The Middle of Nowhere and Where the World Ends are both concerned with survival in almost impossibly hostile environments.  However, the locations could not be more different; The Middle of Nowhere is set in the Australian outback and Where the World Ends is set on the small island of Hirta, part of the St Kilda archipelago of islands situated off the north western coast of Scotland.

Warrier Stac
Image of Warrior Stac by Anna White

McCaughrean’s inspiration came from a visit to St Kilda made by her daughter, who brought back an abundance of stories about the history of the islands, including one about a group of men and boys who were put ashore on Warrior Stac (Stac an Armin) in August 1727 to collect birds, eggs, feathers and oil to provide for the islanders over the winter.  This was an annual event and they should have been collected after two to three weeks at most, weather permitting. However, they were inexplicably abandoned leaving them marooned on the stac for nine months. Nothing more is known about how they survived or what they thought had happened to cause their predicament. McCaughrean states in an interview on the Carnegie website that this is the ideal scenario for an author to build on – a verifiable historical event, but with very little factual information, allowing the author to imagine the gaps.[3] She has used extensive research into life on St Kilda at the time to imagine how it might have felt to be marooned on the stac and her account of the types of birds harvested and how they were used exemplifies the depth of research undertaken (pp. 38-39).

Continue reading “Roehampton Readers: Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean”

Roehampton Readers: Thornhill by Pam Smy

Review: Thornhill by Pam Smy

By Clare Walters

Cover via


Thornhill is a ghost story that interweaves the stories of two girls. The first is Ella Clarke, who is alive and well in 2017, and the second is Mary Baines, who died in 1982. These girls are mirror images of each other, and Ella’s tale is told through the illustrations while Mary’s is told through her diary entries.

Ella, who has recently lost her mother, has just moved to a new house with her father. Mary has been – and still is in her 1982 diaries – incarcerated in a children’s home called Thornhill. By chance, Ella’s new bedroom window overlooks Thornhill, now boarded up and derelict.

In both girls there is an absence of a physical voice – actual on the part of Mary who is a selective mute, and virtual on the part of Ella, who simply has no one to talk to. This is linked to a lack of agency, as neither girl has control over her life.

There is a third girl in the story, too, another abandoned child in the children’s home, who is simply referred to as ‘She’. Described as a cruel teasing, tormenting, bully who makes life unbearable for her victim Mary, she assumes the role of villain. But because She never speaks for herself, she also lacks a voice. We discover her solely through Mary’s diary, so we are learning about her through the classic unreliable narrator. Are the diary descriptions true? Or could Mary be the actual villain? Continue reading “Roehampton Readers: Thornhill by Pam Smy”

Book Review: Code Name: Butterfly by Ahlam Bsharat

The NCRCL Book Review Series is written by  NCRCL students. The aim of this series is to reflect the diverse research areas of NCRCL’s students and open a dialogue about particular texts, themes, and traditions. 

Review of Code Name: Butterfly (2016) by Ahlam Bsharat, translated from Arabic by Nancy Roberts

By Rebecca Sutton

code-name-butterfly-cover-2Butterfly, whose ‘real’ name is never revealed, lives in occupied Palestine. We join her on the journey towards adulthood as she deals with common adolescent concerns such as periods, first crushes, friendships, identity and sexuality. Alongside these, and through the eyes of Butterfly, writer Ahlam Bsharat offers frank descriptions of less universal concerns, of the violence and conflict occurring in Palestine’s occupied territories. With graphic descriptions of a “massacre”, the death of Uncle Saleh who was shot “over and over” and the mine that caused Bakr to lose both his legs, this is no ordinary adolescent journey, but a seemingly commonplace one for teenagers in Palestine. The novel is clearly pro-Palestinian in its ideology with vivid first-hand experience from Bsharat woven in throughout.

However, the conflict in Israel/Palestine is not the main focus; it is Butterfly’s inquiring mind, the questions she asks and the place where she stores these questions that occupy the main space of the narrative. Like many adolescents, she feels unable to talk to her parents, her siblings or friends, and so stores her questions and dreams in an imaginary treasure chest, which she declares almost full to bursting point. Herein lies the sadness: her questions are neither asked nor answered and her dreams are never shared, but by the end of the novel she realizes that grown-ups do not have all the answers and maybe more importantly, that they themselves have many unanswered questions of their own.

Continue reading “Book Review: Code Name: Butterfly by Ahlam Bsharat”

Book Review Series: Toby Alone by Timothée de Fombelle

The NCRCL Book Review Series is a monthly series written by  NCRCL students and published on the first Wednesday of every month. The aim of this series is to reflect the diverse research areas of NCRCL’s students and open a dialogue about particular texts, themes, and traditions. 

Review of Toby Alone by Timothée de Fombelle, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone

By Eleanor Hamblen

Toby Alone

Tobie Lolness, the eponymous hero of Timothée de Fombelle’s Toby Alone, is just one and a half millimetres tall and on a mission to save his parents along with the tree in which they live. This thoroughly enjoyable debut novel is an action-packed adventure story with emotional depth and an ecological message at its core.

The narrative begins in medias res as Toby lies injured and hunted, a fugitive from the miniature community which populate the tree. This exhilarating opening anticipates the pace of the narrative, bounding from episode to episode and interspersed with flashbacks. We learn that Toby’s current predicament is the result of his father’s discovery of a process which harnesses the tree’s energy. Professor Sim Lolness refuses to share the secret of his findings for fear of their potentially devastating effect. This enrages Jo Mitch, the greedy industrialist and dictator, who first banishes the Lolness family to the lower branches and then imprisons them. Having escaped, Toby must act quickly to divert both personal and environmental catastrophe.

In his contribution to the well-established miniature tradition within children’s fantasy Fombelle creates an immersive alternative world which readjusts the reader’s perspective. The tree represents the entire universe of the characters and thus the weevil, previously nothing more than a minor pest in eyes of the reader, is transformed into a monstrous creature which is capable of large-scale environmental destruction. Toby inherits his father’s deep admiration for the tree and a desire to preserve its life-giving force at all costs. Fombelle’s ecological agenda is clear and yet his didactic intentions do not detract from the imaginative delight of the story. Toby Alone strikes a balance between suspenseful action, relieving humour and compelling characterisation. Admittedly some characters, particularly Toby’s enemies, are rather two-dimensional which simplifies Fombelle’s otherwise powerful message. The novel is littered with lyrical descriptions all of which are beautifully rendered in English by Sarah Ardizzone’s skilful translation. The text is accompanied by François Place’s pen and ink illustrations which reinforce the reader’s impression of Fombelle’s intricate world and his use of scale.

Toby Alone speaks not only of ecological awareness but also of love, friendship and courage. The miniature hero’s coming of age is accelerated as he is forced to take on considerable responsibility. The novel ends by reopening the adventure, leaving the reader impatient to turn to its sequel Toby and the Secrets of the Tree. Fombelle’s work has received several awards in France including the 2007 Prix Sorcières in the Romans Juniors category while Ardizzone’s translation was awarded the 2009 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation. One would hope that success stories such as this will help to encourage a higher level of translation in children’s publishing in the UK, thus giving young readers access to the literary output of other cultures.

Elle Hamblen Name: Eleanor Hamblen

Research area: My dissertation explores representations of nature, ecological messages and miniature communities in French and British children’s fantasy.

Path to Roehampton: BA in French. Extended essay on 17th century fairy tales. I never outgrew children’s books so was delighted to discover I could take an MA in them!

Favourite re-read: The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge – my favourite book as a child and it didn’t disappoint the second time round.

Unsung Picture Book: Patrick by Quentin Blake – so joyful! (Mister Magnolia is another favourite)

Unsung Young Adult Novel: William Nicholson’s Wind on Fire trilogy.


Series edited by Erica Gillingham.

Book Review Series: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code-Name-VerityThe NCRCL Book Review Series is a monthly series written by  NCRCL students and published on the first Wednesday of every month. The aim of this series is to reflect the diverse research areas of NCRCL’s students and open a dialogue about particular texts, themes, and traditions. 

Review of Code Name Verity (2012) by Elizabeth Wein

by Kay Waddilove

If you have seen the film The Sixth Sense, you may have been tempted at the end, as I was, to sit through the whole thing again in order (spoiler alert here!) to spot the many indications of the presence of dead. My reaction on reaching the last page of Elizabeth Wein’s award-winning novel took me back to that moment, as I flicked through the pages in reverse to unravel the author’s intricate construction of Verity’s account, and identify the multiple clues available to the reader of the true purpose of the eponymous heroine’s confession.

Code Name Verity has been variously described as “an exciting … female adventure story (Guardian), “a tale of espionage” (Times), “rich historical fiction” (Amazon), “a Young Adult title” (Daily Mail), “a novel entirely about female power and female friendship” (New York Times). It is all of those things, but is also a meticulously researched novel that deals unflinchingly with matters such as torture and sadism, once considered entirely unsuitable for a young readership, even those of the chronologically ill-defined YA genre. Most interestingly, in my view, it utilises a (not always successful) split narrative voice and subtle use of the unreliable narrator technique to both engage and stretch the implied reader.

As a Special Operations Executive agent, the multi-named Verity is captured by the Gestapo because she betrays her Britishness by looking in the wrong direction when crossing a French street; like so many other episodes in the book, this incident is based on a true event, and is indicative of the historicity that permeates the novel. Having been tortured, Verity agrees to write an account revealing everything she knows about the British war effort in exchange for slightly better conditions (the return of her clothes, for example), and a stay of execution for two weeks. Or so she tells her interrogators – and, of course, the reader. The first two-thirds of the book is Verity’s account, interspersed with the story of her friendship with Maddie, the Air Transport Auxiliary pilot who flew her into occupied France. Details of the treatment she has undergone, and that other Gestapo captives are still enduring, are briefly depicted, and, while not dwelt on at length, are unflinchingly described. The attitude of the other prisoners, who despise her as an odious collaborator, and of her two interrogators, who regard her as a traitorous, if useful, source of information, is convincingly portrayed. Yet from the opening paragraph, the text is imbued with subtle hints that Verity’s account may not be all it seems, and that in writing it, she may have motives other than her self-declared cowardice. Her over-arching motive only becomes apparent in the final third of the book during Maddie’s narrative and, as this is a book that really deserves to be read, I will not reveal it here. But skip to the last paragraph if you want a small hint…

As a historical novel Code Name Verity remains true in all essentials to the events it portrays, and Wein has taken care, as she explains in her postscript, to ensure historical accuracy as well as a good story, hoping that “where I fail in accuracy [to] make up for it in plausibility” (447). The book invites the reader into a thoughtful engagement with the text, which seeks, through the narrative strategies, convincing characterisation and careful plotting to present readers with the means to question the events and actions depicted; as with the best historical novels, it is not a fictionalised account, but an attempt to demonstrate that history is a question of perspective, ethics and social politics. The story becomes a way of closely observing human experience and relationships, rather than an adventure tale or an exploration of period and artefacts for their own sake (biro descriptions notwithstanding!). It is also informed by Wein’s ideological and socio-cultural concerns; loyalty and courage are foregrounded and the value of female friendship is emotively expressed: “It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.” (88).

Despite some structural faults, the sophisticated weaving of the plot and the rounded depiction of the main characters – even the SS interrogators are revealed as multi-faceted and self-questioning – earned Code Name Verity a place on the Carnegie shortlist in 2013. The Carnegie Medal is a prestigious award for a book of outstanding literary quality published annually for children and young people. While Code Name Verity did not win, it certainly meets the criteria of a work that “should provide pleasure, not merely from the surface enjoyment of a good read, but also the deeper subconscious satisfaction of having gone through a vicarious, but at the time of reading, a real experience that is retained afterwards.”[1] So I will give (almost) the last word to Theo, an 11-year old student then shadowing the Carnegie Medal at a London comprehensive school:

“I liked how this book was written, with that emotional touch that makes you feel everything that is written. It is almost as if it is your own life that is being tragically ruined so you cannot put the book down. Another thing I liked is how it changes point of view half way through. I found this good because it gives you a new perspective and lets you live through a gripping story again. Also the story was so absolutely moving because if you just think about how these things could have actually happened it just makes it all the more emotional.”

And (if strong-minded, stop reading now) – in The Sixth Sense look for the scenes where there is red in the camera shot; in Code Name Verity watch out for the descriptions of buildings….

[1] Carnegie Medal criteria at

About the Reviewer:   
kay waddilove

Name: Kay Waddilove, currently researching for a PhD with NCRCL Roehampton

Research Area: Motherhood in populist children’s novels of the 20th century

Path to Roehampton in 195 (!) characters: BA in English Lit & History, MA in Information Science, followed by career in public and school librarianship. Epiphanic discovery that there was A Place to indulge my obsession with children’s books led to an MA at Roehampton in 2008.

Favourite (secret) re-read: I am David by Ann Holm. Still get misty-eyed at the – incredibly unlikely – ending.

Unsung Picture Book: Peace at Last by Jill Murphy. A great read-aloud.

Unsung Young Adult Novel: Dom and Va by John Christopher. An uncomfortable, but thought-provoking depiction of prehistoric human society.


Series edited by Erica Gillingham

Book Review Series: Lost Riders by Elizabeth Laird

The NCRCL Book Review Series is a monthly series written by  NCRCL students and published on the first Wednesday of every month. The aim of this series is to reflect the diverse research areas of NCRCL’s students and open a dialogue about particular texts, themes, and traditions. 

Review of Lost Riders by Elizabeth Laird 

by Karen Williams

Having recently moved to Dubai, I felt I couldn’t let the opportunity pass to review a children’s book that tackles some of the issues and complexities that exist in this now famous Emirate. Elizabeth Laird’s 2010 book, Lost Riders tells the emotional story of Rashid and his brother, Shari, two young Pakistani boys trafficked from their home country into a life of danger and abuse working as camel jockeys in the Gulf state. It is based on the real-life testimony of boys eventually repatriated to Pakistan after the UAE outlawed the use of child camel riders in 2002[1]. The result of Laird’s meticulous research is an emotional and hard-hitting story of abuse, exploitation and survival.

The third person narrative is focalised through the figure of Rashid, a young boy of around seven years old.   Laird uses his viewpoint to gradually awaken in the reader an understanding of how the boys’ family are duped into sending the children to Dubai with promises of a better life for them all.  As Rashid and Shari journey to the Gulf with their Uncle Bilal, it quickly becomes clear that promises of toy cars, or comfortable lives in large houses are false, and instead the brothers are taken to separate uzbas – or camel farms – way out in the desert, and their life of exploitation begins.

In this novel, Laird does not shy away from the terrible reality of the abuse and dangers suffered by these young children on the camel farms.  The reader is directly privy to Rashid being beaten by the ‘Masoul’ (head) of the uzba and again by Abu Nazir the camel trainer.  All the children are starved to keep their weight down and made to exercise the camels for hours at a time as well as negotiate the dangers of the camel races.  Laird however, projects the worst of the violence and abuse onto characters outside of Rashid’s direct view: the figure of Mujib who Rashid replaces in the uzba and who has been killed in a fall from a camel, is an ever-present spectre in the minds of all the children.  Amal too, who has broken his arm in a fall at the racetrack, is used to hint at the lasting psychological as well as physical damage suffered by the children.  However it is through the mistreatment of Shari that Laird shows the worst abuse. Close to death after a fall, it is only through the intervention of the spirited Rashid himself, and the kindness of the owner of Rashid’s uzba, that Shari is saved. Laird’s revelation of these experiences through Rashid or through insinuation in the narrative, allows the author to tread a successful line between revealing the true extent of the abuse suffered by these boys whilst allowing her principal character some leeway to become more than a victim of exploitation.  Rashid is a fully rounded character whose success at riding the camels allows for some reprieve from his desperate situation, but who is always aware that he, like his brother and the other boys, is only ever one beating or one fall away from serious injury or death.

However, Laird’s novel is not just about the children she portrays in the novel.  A careful reading of the text also reveals the ultimate underpinning of child trafficking by a complex interplay of relationships that extend well beyond the borders of the UAE.   Her characters are often drawn to raise larger questions about issues such as poverty, morality and criminality that cross into grey areas that have no simple resolution. The head of Rashid’s uzba, for example, is an ambiguous figure, making a better life for his own children in Pakistan from his involvement in camel racing but also complicit in the abuse of the boys. Likewise, some of the parents of the juvenile riders are desperate for their children to return, whilst others are shown by Laird to be willing participants in this trade of children: Iqbal’s father, for example has been “trafficking children too” (270).  Driven by poverty, driven by greed, lacking humanity, showing compassion, by writing such complexity into her characters, Laird produces an absorbing and thought-provoking read whilst balancing the relative optimism of Rashid and Shari’s repatriation with a wider plea to finally eradicate the continuing world-wide trade in children[2].

[1] For further information see article in the Khaleej Times  (May 2005), accessed 13/3/2014

[2] Laird, in fact, dedicates this book to: “the increasing numbers of children throughout the world who are trafficked away from their homes and families to work in far countries, including the UK, in many forms of slavery” (Introduction to Lost Riders).

About the Reviewer:

Karen Williams

Name: Karen Williams
Research area: Humour in early nineteenth-century children’s literature
Path to Roehampton in 140 characters: Undergrad in Eng. Lit at Oxford then many years working in marketing before returning to my first love through MA and PhD in Children’s Lit at Roehampton….
Favourite re-read: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse – I always take out something new when I re-read this verse novel.
Unsung Picture Book: The ‘Mungo’ books by Timothy Knapman and Adam Stower – brilliant fun for children and adults alike
Unsung Young Adult Novel: Feed by M.T. Anderson  – seems scarily prophetic to me!


– Series edited by Erica Gillingham

Book Review Series: Boyfriends with Girlfriends

The NCRCL Book Review Series is a monthly series written by a NCRCL student published on the first Wednesday of every month. The aim of this series is to reflect the diverse research areas of NCRCL’s students and open a dialogue about particular texts, themes, and traditions. 

Review of Boyfriends with Girlfriends by Alex Sanchez

by Erica Gillingham

Alex Sanchez is best known for his Rainbow Boys trilogy, published in the US between 2001-2005.  In the trilogy, the reader hears from three gay male teens as they come out, fall in love, finish high school and road trip across the US. In one of his more recent novels, Boyfriends with Girlfriends (2011), Sanchez creates another cast of characters whose lives become intertwined in friendship and romance, but this time the variety of voices is broadened across the spectrum of sexuality.

Lance is openly gay and his straight best friend, Allie, is his number one supporter. Sergio is openly bisexual and his right-hand woman is lesbian Kimiko. When Lance and Sergio meet up for a date, they bring Allie and Kimiko along with them for back up. While the boys had hoped for fireworks, they didn’t expect sparks between the girls as well.

Set in the contemporary United States, Boyfriends with Girlfriends is more of a ‘problem novel’ about the compatibility of people in relationships rather than a novel about struggling to come to terms with one’s sexuality. In the text, three of the four characters are already out at school, online and to their friends.  For Allie, who has a boyfriend for the first half of the novel, her consideration of her bisexuality is un-dramatic and focuses more on falling for Kimiko as a person with whom she has a profound connection.

Boyfriends with Girlfriends adds to the small number of well-rounded bisexual characters in LGBT YA by writing two more into the field (alongside characters like Reese in Adaptation by Malinda Lo and Rowie in Sister Mischief by Laura Goode). However, while Sergio and Allie are written with integrity, Lance’s ‘issue’ with and multiple questioning of Sergio’s bisexuality is didactic and repetitive in its delivery. While biphobia exists in the LGBT community, Sanchez’s the ‘issue’ of bisexuality takes away from overall enjoyment of these well-written characters.

Overall, Sanchez delivers a teen romance novel with bumps and twists and happy endings. With that, Boyfriends with Girlfriends offers a window into the lives of its LGB teenage characters, with all their feelings and flaws, something greatly needed within in the field of young adult literature.

About the Reviewer:

Name: Erica Gillingham, current MPhil/PhD student with NCRCL, Roehampton
Research Area: Love and Romance in LGBTQ Young Adults Novels
Path to Roehampton in 140 characters: Montessori preschool teacher had an MA in Children’s Literature. Moved to London for love + NCRCL MA programme. Now a PhD’er!
Favourite (secret) re-read: The Giver by Lois Lowry
Unsung Picture Book: Queen Munch and Queen Nibble by Carol Ann Duffy and Lydia Monks
Unsung Young Adult Novel: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Series edited by Erica Gillingham

Book Review Series: The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean

The NCRCL Book Review Series is a monthly series written by a NCRCL student published on the first Wednesday of every month. The aim of this series is to reflect the diverse research areas of NCRCL’s students and open a dialogue about particular texts, themes, and traditions. 

Review of The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean (2013)

by Sinead Moriarty

Comity Pinny’s mother is dead, her life is falling apart and she is effectively alone in the vast wilderness of the Australian Outback. But, just like many of McCaughrean’s other young female protagonists, Comity is independent, courageous and determined to persevere. Comity’s father, Herbert Pinny, is Stationmaster at Kinkindele Telegraph Repeater Station Number Four, and it is for love of him that her mother left her home to move to one of ‘the loneliest, most god-forsaken patches of nowhere on the whole continent of Australia.’ But he cannot cope with the loss of his wife, or the grief of his daughter and so instead he uses his job as a telegrapher – a communicator – to totally isolate himself. McCaughrean examines communication and human connections in many ways throughout the novel, through Herbert Pinny’s job, in the inventive letters that Comity sends to her cousins, and through the oral tales and bible stories which become entwined and transformed through telling and retelling.

Through Comity’s friendship with Fred, a young local Aboriginal boy, we see the power of words, of stories and of communication – to change people’s perception of people and places. Comity begins to see the beauty that Fred has always seen in the surrounding landscape. What Comity always understood as wilderness, is, to Fred, refuge, safety and home. He shows her the places steeped in local legends, and shows her how to see these stories as part of the landscape. Fred is, in many ways, Comity’s salvation. However their friendship is complicated by the simmering racial tension that grows throughout the novel which is exacerbated by the new station assistant Quartz Hogg.

Despite Comity’s courage, as the pressures builds the weight of the burden which Comity carries sometimes becomes too much. Comity’s grief bubbles throughout the novel, boiling over at times, “Like a dust storm grief spun in through the myrtle trees and smashed Comity in the face, choking, stinging, blinding. She stood on the verandah and wailed and screamed and sobbed for the loss of her mother.” McCaughrean does not shrink from portraying the real grief of loss. At one point in the novel the narration shifts to the viewpoint of another stationmaster Mr Boyce who arrives at Kinkindele to find Comity alone and Herbert Pinny virtually comatose. The switch in the narration is indicative of Comity’s inability to cope. In interview, McCaughrean says that she did deliberate about the switch, and about showing Comity as an overwhelmed child questioning “was that an adult thing to have done? Should I have made Comity strong enough and clever enough not to need adult intervention? But it didn’t feel honest or plausible. So I couldn’t.” (1) Because in the end Comity is a child, struggling to cope in extreme circumstances and her eventual collapse is simply human fallibility. The Middle of Nowhere is a beautifully written, complex book from an author who is adept at interweaving fiction, history and myth, and does so once again to great effect.


About the Reviewer:

Name: Sinead Moriarty, current PhD student in Children’s Literature at Roehampton.
Research Area: Wilderness and Wild landscapes in British and Irish Children’s Literature.
Path to Roehampton in 140 characters: B.A. in English and Film Studies at Trinity College, Dublin. M.A. in Children’s Literature at Roehampton. A year of working, and missing Children’s Literature, before I returned (joyfully) to start a PhD in Jan 2013.
Favourite (secret) re-read: The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle! I buy it for every neice/nehew/cousin I know and read it again before handing it over.
Unsung Picture Book: This Is Not My Hat by Jon Kassen
Unsung Young Adult Novel: The Island by Eilis Dillon

Series edited by Erica Gillingham