I’m a bad person. I know, you wouldn’t think it if you knew me, but honest I am a fair bit rubbish, & I’m going to tell you why. I am lucky enough to have met Phil Earle on two occasions, & let me tell you I will be hard pressed to find another person with such a ready, welcoming warm smile, & such powerful tenacity & passion for Children’s books. He’s friendly, genuine & always ready to make you feel more comfortable (or refill your wine). The first time I met him, he introduced me to another author… Who was it now…? OH YEAH NEIL GAIMAN!! So he’s ace for that. Why am I a bad person? Well, the second time I met Phil was at the announcement for Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2013, where he kindly gave a bunch of us a copy of his new upcoming book, Heroic. Having no bag on me at the time, I left it on a nearby table, sure that I’d pick it up before we left. Then there was FREE WINE. Lots of it. I’m not proud to say it, but I wandered off into the London streets without my generously free copy of Phil’s new novel… I’m sorry Phil. I got a new one though! So you can’t hate me! So there. He probably still hates me.
Heroic is a Young Adult drama novel examining the difficulties of life in poverty, coping with mental illness & ultimately of the love & support we can find in life if we try hard enough. The book follows the story of two brothers, both from below the breadline in a sprawling estate of tower blocks known affectionately as “The Ghost”. Sonny McGann, 16 years old, lives his day to day life with his mates on the estate, The Originals, stealing what he can to get by & support him & his mum. He’s a bright kid with a clever mouth on him, but him & his Originals live by a strict code of ethics: You don’t steal from your own. You don’t sell on your own patch. You don’t mess around with each other’s sister. These rules had been set down long before, by Sonny’s older brother: James “Jammy” McGann. Jammy, at 18, along with fellow Original Tommo, signed up with the army, & their perspective of the story is told from the dusty war-torn landscape of Afghanistan. Sonny misses his brother, but he also feels the pressure of being expected to keep the crew in line, the constant expectations to be like the brave, strong Jammy. When things start to develop between him & Tommo’s sister Cam, Sonny starts to break rules… Sick of being forced to be like his brother, he’s going to make his own world. But Jammy won’t be gone forever…
I’ve seen Phil joke on Twitter before (@philearle), that he is incapable of writing anything other than gritty, hard hitting YA. After his phenomenal & critically acclaimed Being Billy, I would’ve believed that, but after Heroic, I’m not sure I want him to. He has a great ability to capture the dark, harsh sides of life in such a way that it makes the brighter, more positive glimpses we see stand out so strongly.
Characters is where I normally like to start. Sonny took some getting used to for me, he’s unlike any character I’ve ever associated with before, but his honourable intentions & heart of gold helped me connect with him before long. His inner turmoil, his desire to be his own man, but still do the right thing, struck a chord with me. He wants to keep everything together, wants to make everyone he knows smile, & I can appreciate that. I can also appreciate the pressure it puts on him, & it makes him a noble, if conflicted character. He often acts & talks before his brain can catch up, & he’s got a serious attitude that sometimes bypasses his need to do good. All this adds up to a wonderfully flawed character who has the best of intentions, but struggles with his own teenage nature. Jammy… Now Jammy is a powerful, complex character. Returning from Afghanistan a changed man, having seen far too much for his just 18 years, Jammy is multiple layers of angst, conflicted personality & guilt. Phil does a fantastic job at examining the ravaging psychological effects of Post-Traumatic stress, demonstrating how sometimes the damage of combat on a young person’s fragile psychology is just as damaging as the gunshot wounds & shrapnel damage. Jammy’s flashbacks are haunting, pulling no punches on the horrors of war, the twitching unease that constantly surrounds soldiers in enemy territory. It’s this constant focus that often causes young soldiers to snap, & this book understands that, making a point to illustrate every darkened doorway & looming window in the tense fire fights that overwhelm the brains of many troops. His coping strategy on the return to the Ghost is painfully gripping & tense, & I found myself unable to put the book down after that point, horrified by what he might do next, but so invested in the character that I couldn’t stop reading. That’s the talent of Phil Earle, he can make you gripped by the suffering of others is such a compelling way. His supporting characters are great too, each fully fleshed out, different & clearly defined as individuals. Hitch was a favourite of mine… His confrontation outside the lift was tense, psychologically draining, & reminiscent of something from an Irvine Welsh novel, all dirty & taught with the threat of approaching chaos. Cam was a fantastic character too, a rare case of a strong female character who exists as more than just a romantic interest. She’s compassionate, level headed & her dialogue is always delightfully witty or painfully honest.
So, basically Heroic is great. It’s a tough read, with some incredibly hard hitting moments (Little Wayne in the marketplace, the confrontation on the rooftop, Hitch’s flat to name a few), but the compelling struggles of each character really pull you through these with wide, unblinking eyes. The themes of brotherhood, friendship & family are strong & uplifting, & it sends an amazingly positive message that sometimes it’s all right to not be OK, & that no one person has all the answers. We all need each other to get by in the world, & there’s no harm in leaning on someone from time to time.
Thanks, I need to read something funny now!