Tipping Point: The point at which a book goes from pretty good to intrinsically unstoppable, like falling off a chair, there’s a point at which gravity takes over, and not finishing the book is no longer an option. It could be three in the morning, with work/school tomorrow. It doesn’t matter. Normally, for me, this point arrives about two thirds to three quarters into a book, but with Solitaire, it crept up in the opening quarter, and from there it became part of my free time at any given chance. Published by Harpercollins, Durham Uni based Alice is quite frankly, terrifyingly talented for her Nineteen years. It makes me wish I could write with this much passion, humour and conviction, even in my mid twenties. I think Solitaire might be the best book I’ve read so far this year, and the most exciting debut I’ve read in a very long time.
Victoria “Tori” Spring is currently in Year 12 at the Harvey Green Grammar School, more commonly known as Higgs. While it’s an all girls school, in Sixth Form boys are allowed to transfer from the nearby all boys Grammar school, Truham, and whilst Tori’s friends are becoming hysterical at the male presence in their lives, she’s continuing her usual cycle of sleeping long, blogging and general cynicism towards the world, like nothing has ever changed. On her first day of term, she encounters an old friend from Primary School, Lucas, with whom she no longer has anything in common, highlighting her wilful disdain for social interaction. She also meets Michael Holden, an eclectic, borderline manic Year 13 boy, who has an infamous history at Truham for being disruptive, intelligent and downright insane. But Tori has no interest in boys, even if they have an interest in her. Which they shouldn’t, she’s a pessimistic, cynical, spiky and self-deprecating. Something else happens on the first day of term too – A blog crops up, the simple, empty Solitaire. Then, as school days pass, pranks start being pulled on the school, interrupting PA announcements using music from Star Wars and assemblies with photoshopped images of teachers. After each attack, a post appears on Solitaire, claiming responsibility and promising more subversive action. The pranks quickly turn sinister though, and students start to get hurt, but Solitaire shows no signs of stopping, promising a climactic finale that will dwarf everything they’ve done. Tori is dragged into the mystery by the eternally curious and unhinged Michael, but as she sees her friends turn away from her, she starts to realise that if they don’t stop Solitaire, then no-one else will. It’s time for Tori Spring to care about something again.
Holy Camoly. This book. I mean just… Guh. That’s what I have to describe it, guttural noises and excessive hand gestures. Tori Spring might be the closest I’ve come in recent years to finding someone whose bleak, cynical world view matches my own when I was a teenager (and without suitable caffeine levels, my own as an adult too). Her sense of humour is dry, and her narrative is melodramatic, but touched with brilliant, hateful jabs at the teen culture she sees around her. She’s unhappy with herself, but she’s unhappy with society as well, and all that builds to an angry, despondent and apathetic lead who I instantly clicked with. Her slow, developing character arc is realistic and believable, without her doing a full reversal of her personality, she manages to grow and to use her internal anger as a fuel for her later actions. Michael Holden is similarly a character I felt an awful lot of affinity with, outcast for his intense passion and labelled as insane for his dedication to his own world views, he’s intelligent, curious and bubbles with emotions at all times, never holding back, even when the spikiness of Tori’s attitude leaves him wounded and dejected. He bounces off the apathy of Tori beautifully, creating a really dynamic set of lead characters who connect so well, yet make the book so very different at times. Tori’s younger brother Charlie is a stand out as well, struggling with mental illness, which is touched upon so delicately and with such care and respect. It’s rare to see things like eating disorders and depression viewed with such gentleness, as well as not making it a central plot feature. Alice manages to weave a tragic backstory for the character without ever having to say too much – his illness is there to be seen, but there are layers of it that the reader can feel oozing out without having it explained to them in direct detail. All the supporting characters are brilliantly fleshed out, even in the simplest of terms (Becky, Ben, Nick and Lucas) are all real, tangible people, and despite us not really knowing too much about them, it feels like there are definitely lives behind them.
Alice Oseman writes in a fresh, witty style that crackles with energy and youth, using a myriad of pop culture reference that help give the story a real edge and bringing the world to life – from social media, tumblr and twitter, to Mario Kart and The Matrix, by way of Harry Potter fanfiction. The nods are dropped into the story often, not in a way that seems contrived or obvious, but naturally, in the way teenagers actually talk about things. They swear and they have idle chat, it’s the sort of natural dialogue skills that Tarantino is well known for – real life conversations that don’t purely serve the plot, but help to develop the characters into people we care about. It also allows the author to satirise and discuss modern teen culture with a critical, albeit tongue in cheek eye. As for plot building, Solitaire is a slow, meandering technological thriller, with a smouldering storyline that is constantly shifting, and ever present. It uses the darker side of the Anonymous/Hacktivist culture in a close to home setting to really show the strength and power the internet can have with such little responsibility, and the speed with which it builds from wacky fun to seriously sinister and dangerous is a shocking testament to just how powerful faceless online groups can grow to be. The story is never solid, constantly shifting the reader’s perspectives and never staying in one place. With so much going on, the interweaving plotlines counter each other superbly, never becoming too dependent on the characters or too heavily focused on the action.
Solitaire is unflinchingly harsh, as well as touchingly beautiful, a rollercoaster of emotions, driven by wholly brilliant, esoteric and absorbing characters. It’s a witty modern YA novel for Rainbow Rowell and John Green fans, and a darkly anarchic and twisted thriller to boot. Alice Oseman is far more talented than is fair, and this is one of the strongest debuts I’ve ever read. I fully expect to see great things from her.
P.P.S. I’m not going to shut up about this book for a very long time.