The other week, you may (or may not – I don’t think people read this on a regular basis, but I could be wrong) have seen my post about my trip to London for the Harpercollins Children’s Road Show, & how whilst I was there I had a healthy debate with Spoken Word Poet & Debut YA author Steven Camden about the fact the Gingernut Biscuits are obviously rubbish & custard creams are far superior. He did not agree, & signed my book accordingly:
His genuine passion, down to Earth sense of humour, & above all his passion for music & storytelling made me resolve to move his first book, Tape, to the immediate top of my reading list (interrupting my re-read of Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy). What I subsequently read was a beautiful& creatively written book that I found making me smile, laugh, gasp & choke up with a full spectrum of emotions… Most of them while on the 7:30am commuter train to Durham. My review will contain some minor spoilers, because I can’t think of how to write it without them… YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Ryan lives with his Dad, his Stepmother & Stepbrother, in the house he grew up in with his Mum, who passed away a few years prior to the start of the book. It’s a rocky relationship, especially between him & his brash, outgoing stepbrother Nathan, but Ryan manages to make his way through the days with the help of his best friend Liam, & their shared passion for music, mix-tapes & a general shared outlook on the world. Ameliah live with her Nan, her parents both having died in the last few years. She plans on spending the upcoming Summer Holidays sorting through the spare room full of her parents old stuff, which leads her to a discovery of an old boom box & a shoe box filled with cassette tapes, some of them mix tapes made by her Mum & Dad when they where first dating. Through a lonely discovery of old music, she manages to cope with the days spent with a group of teen girls who she has very little in common with anymore. However, her world is turned upside-down when an old friend of her Dad shows up on the doorstep, the shaggy haired, unkempt Joe. Ameliah recognises his face from her childhood, & the memories are far from happy: raised voices & angry, flushed faces; but she can’t place when she’s met him before. Determined to uncover the truth, she takes to stalking Joe to work try & jog her memory, & it’s through this that we start to unravel a twisted tale of love, loss & betrayal that stretches back over two decades. Meanwhile, Ryan develops an obsession with an Irish girl he meets in the park during the first days of the holidays, a friend of Liam’s sister. Determined to discover more about her, but too shy to make a direct move, he starts to piece together as much about her as he can, gradually falling in love as he does.
Right, from that blurb, it seems like Ryan & Ameliah will inevitably cross paths & through a mutual sense of parental loss & passion for music, form a bond… But this book is much smarter than that. See, this is the minor spoiler that gets revealed quite early on, Ryan is Ameliah’s deceased Dad, & his story is being told twenty years in the past to hers – The story of how he met Eve, Ameliah’s mother, at the tender age of thirteen, & his gradual & touchingly shy determination to get to know her. Ryan is character I immediately could get on board with, a quiet, sensitive teen with few friends & a strong passion for music (I used to make endless mix CD’s for my friends at age thirteen too, stealing from my older brother’s music collection to make me seem worldly & cool), he’s an instantly likable lead character because he lacks any sense of pretension. He’s hesitant, thoughtful & kind hearted, which makes him sweet, & a good standpoint to his boorish, aggressive Stepbrother, Nathan. He stands out in a harsh, cold & bleak landscape, & that made me connect with him pretty much in the first few pages. His relationship with best friend Liam also made me smile, reminding me so much of one of my own friendships at that age, the two of them frequently joking & insulting each other, but not above some deep, emotional talk thrown in. Both are passionate teenagers in a place that seems too small for them, & the way they riff off one another with jabs & improvised free-style rhymes makes the dialogue between them flow with humour & energy. Ameliah is a quietly stubborn young girl, & her distancing from her circle of friends is another heartbreaking angle on the coming of age style of Tape’s story. Losing her parents has forced her to grow up fast, & it’s given her an outlook on life that quickly jars with the make-up & shopping focus of the other girls her age. Her sections often feel bleak, but crackle with an underlying anger, & often question the fairness of her fate, & of the cosmic dice roll that took her parents away from her. The introduction of Joe gives her purpose though, & draws energy out of her that she lacks in the early chapters, as the darker past of her family’s history is hinted at through her memories.
Outside of writing relatable & wholly real feeling characters, I think Steven’s biggest triumph with Tape is his general writing style – His background as a Spoken Word Poet oozes into the narrative, which flows with such a poetic feel it’s practically singsong. He uses analogies, pop-culture references & humour to lend the words a real sharp energy & give them a dynamic feel while you read them. I frequently found myself sliding through paragraphs with a sense of rhythm behind them that made it a sheer delight to read. I frequently chuckled along with the light-hearted interplay between characters! Steven does obviously touch on a very sensitive subject throughout Tape; the loss of a parent. I don’t know if it’s something he’s experienced himself, but he writes it with such a soft & emotionally articulate style, highlighting the right balance of sadness, anger & fond memories that are so often missed by writers dealing with loss. He blends the stages of grief instead of picking out one & running into the ground. Some of Ameliah’s inner thoughts were genuinely heartbreaking, & made me put the book down to just to process the very ideas that she was going through. Also, the back story of the characters & how they’re interlinked is brilliant fun to piece together, drip fed to the reader like a trail of breadcrumbs throughout the book in a way that isn’t too obvious, but still lets the twists & falls be anticipated ahead of time, which personally I found thrilling when my suspicions were confirmed in the chapter after I’d tried puzzling something out.
In writing Tape, Steven doesn’t use quotation marks when writing dialogue, but that is not as complex to get into as it sounds. Character’s dialogue is instead indicated by a hyphen before the text, & your brain accepts this in the first few pages, so it’s second nature by the end of chapter one. The book itself is a thing of beauty too, using alternating font types for Ryan & Ameliah, & separating their passages using a very clever “Pause” symbol to indicate the change of timeframe, before ending with a great old fashioned STOP. Visually fun, lyrical writing style & emotionally investing, Tape is a book I begged for more out of right until the last page. I can’t wait to see where this combination of music & literature goes next.
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