Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Review: Hollow Pike by James Dawson

When Lis London moves to Hollow Pike, she's looking forward to starting afresh in a new town, but when she sees the local forest she realizes that not everything here is new to her. She's seen the wood before - in a recurring nightmare where someone is trying to kill her! Lis tells herself there's nothing to her bad dreams, or to the legends of witchcraft and sinister rituals linked with Hollow Pike. She's settling in, making friends, and even falling in love - but then a girl is found murdered in the forest. Suddenly, Lis doesn't know who to trust anymore...

I first heard about Hollow Pike at a bloggers' event held by Indigo last year. At that event we were treated to an exclusive reveal of the cover to this book, and as someone who teaches design my attention was well and truly grabbed. Yes, I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but there were invisible waves of excitement about this title emanating from the members of the Indigo team who had read it, and pretty much every blogger who attended that event has been whittering on about it ever since. I tried to keep a lid on my excitement for fear of being disappointed when I finally got the chance to read it, but somehow I still ended up dropping everything the moment it fell through my letterbox.

The first couple of chapters certainly hit the spot, establishing a spooky undercurrent to the story right from the beginning. And then my heart sank as I started to read chapter three. Suddenly I felt I was entering Mean Girls territory, and my interest began to wane. Now I can't say I am an expert on the film Mean Girls as I have never seen it all the way through. However, I did once have the misfortune of being in the school library when it was being shown as part of an English lesson and that thirty minutes was pretty damn painful. It has been added to my 'films that I have never seen and never will see in their entirety' list. It is testament to the quality of James Dawson's writing that I decided to stick with it for a few more chapters, as if I hadn't already been captivated by his stunning prose it would have ended up on my 'not suitable for The Book Zone (For Boys)' pile. And then very quickly he had me completely, totally, 100% hooked.

I normally try to read the books I get sent to review without my teacher hat on. These books are after all written for readers who are significantly younger than I am, and so I try to put myself in their place. However, James Dawson has nailed his teen characters so perfectly that the teacher part of me was associating them with students I have taught (and currently teach in some cases). Everything about the way he has written them is perfect - their voices, the slang they use, their attitudes to each other, the disdain the 'beautiful people' show towards those who are seen as being 'different'. Man, does James Dawson know the minds of British teenagers.

Hollow Pike tells the story of Lis London, a teen girl who has been forced to move from Bangor to go to live with her sister's family in a small town in the Yorkshire Dales, in order to escape the bullying she was experiencing at school. Recent months have been a strain on her emotionally, and Lis has started to have a recurring nightmare where she is chased through a mysterious forest, until she falls into a stream and her head is forced under water by some unknown person. However, come the move Lis has got used to them - after all, they are only dreams...... until on the way to her sister's place she gets out of the car to shoo a magpie out of the road and finds herself in a place that looks very much like the location in her dreams. And so the strangeness begins!

As she starts school Lis somehow finds herself accepted into a clique, a group of students whose lives revolve around keeping their 'leader' happy - Laura Rigg, the 'It girl' of Fulton High School. However, Lis also feels herself drawn towards three other students; three young people who couldn't be more different from Laura and her gang of sycophantic bitches. As Laura's bullying behaviour begins to make Lis more and more uncomfortable, especially given her own experiences, the company of this alternative trio - Kitty Monroe, Delilah Bloom and Jack Denton - becomes even more of an attractive option for Lis. And then the nastiness really begins, both natural (from Laura and her crew) and supernatural.

A significant part of the story revolves around the social interaction of teens, and more specifically bullying, including cyber bullying. Again with my teacher hat on, another big plus about Hollow Pike was how James Dawson did not allow his story to become an anti-bullying morality tale. I really hate it when that happens in stories, and some authors seem to go out of their way to patronise their readers by trying to hide the life-lesson within the story and failing dismally. James Dawson is certainly not one of these authors, and in fact Hollow Pike is less about bullies getting their comeuppance, and more about it being ok, or even great, to be different. And the way he writes it is, despite the seriousness of the subject and the pants-wettingly spooky nature of the story, at times laugh out loud funny. 

This is not a fast paced action horror story. James Dawson deliberately keeps the pace relatively slow in the first half of the book as he introduces us to his characters, and draws us hypnotically into their lives. He also uses this part of the story to start scratching away at the part of the reader's consciousness that keeps fear and nervous tension safely locked away. The more the story slowly progresses, the more that barrier gets worn thinner and thinner, so that by the time the horror really begins to kick in our defences are low and we too get pulled into the nastiness. At this point the pace picks up and we are carried kicking and screaming on a frantic ride to the end of the story. And this leads me to my only criticism of the book - it all seems to be brought to a conclusion far too quickly for my liking. It really did feel like a book of two halves - both of them brilliant individually, but together in my opinion they just didn't gel completely perfectly. I can't really expand on this, as it would certainly create a spoiler or two.

Just the one small gripe, and perhaps I am being overly picky as a reaction to the hype this book has had. I have no doubt in my mind at all that James Dawson will become a best-selling author if his future works are as good as Hollow Pike, and in the future his name will be mentioned in the same breath as current masters of YA contemporary and dark fiction such as Marcus Sedgwick, Melvin Burgess and Robin Jarvis, and also that great master from the past, Christopher Pike. I wish this book had been around when I was younger - despite my early 'Mean Girls' misgivings Hollow Pike is the perfect book for teens who love spooky stories or just great literature, and especially those who, like I did at that age, feel like they don't quite fit in with the majority of their peers.

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